I Remember I Forget, And Why

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02/18/2015

Neighborhood: West Village

I Remember I Forget, And Why
Photo by Moon Lee

I’ve lived in the neighborhood practically forever, but to my girlfriend it’s all new. She’s always making some new discovery. Once she came home with a small box of Japanese chocolate wrapped inside a perfect silver bag and with a sleek packet of dry ice. I asked her where it came from and she told me, “right around the corner—it’s the new store.”

“Where?” I asked her.

“You don’t know?” she answered.

“You mean where the Korean vegetable market used to be?”

“I don’t know. How come you don’t know? You live here.”

Things have kept changing on my little strip of Bleecker Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues. They’ve changed so much that I’ve realized that a store I used to go to all the time now has no name inside my memory whatsoever. For example, the deli where Ottomanelli’s is now. What was that called? I don’t remember. What I do remember is that the guys in there were nasty. Back then all the shop keepers were nasty. Everyone on Bleecker Street had a mouth.

When I went into that deli, oh I remember this perfectly, I had some dollars and I had some change in my pocket. When the deli-guy told me I owed him $4.85 or something, I asked him if he needed change.

He just sneered at me and snapped, “What you’re asking is will I take your change for you.”

When I tried to explain no, I was just asking, he mocked my voice, “bababa,” and he shrugged his shoulders and sneered in my face. I gave him bills. Now, all these years later, I can’t remember the name of that deli. But, I ask, why should I? I didn’t tell my girlfriend this, something that happened years ago. She wouldn’t understand.

And I also failed to mention to her that I hadn’t had to go far to find more of the same kind of abuse. Across the street, at the diner, the skinny old guy pouring sweat behind the grill never got his orders quite right: he’d give you a hamburger that, when you bit into it, was just slushy raw or if I ordered eggs over-easy he’d managed to break the yolks when he flipped them on the grill. When I dared point it out to him, he’d get mad at me. He’d slap the grill with his spatula and sputter out something from his drooping lips. At that point someone sitting next to me would always say it was all because the guy was sad ever since his wife died. The two of them used to do up the diner’s front windows—refrigerator windows—for Christmas. He never got over it. That’s just how it was.

In those days every shopkeeper had a reason to be unpleasant. An angry young divorced lady opened a bicycle shop right on the corner—was that where Ottomanelli’s moved the first time? or was that where Murray’s was after they moved across the street from the place where the sushi shop is now? I remember the first time I saw her, I thought she was a certain kind of good looking if you liked them with a pert Mid-West hairstyle, and she had a daughter who was evolving into something young and cute and nubile—you could sort of tell already—but one was too old for me and the other was just a kid, so all I was interested in were the bikes. Well, I would see the two of them from the windows of my building when they came and went, and they were mad at men. That’s how it seemed as I watched them down there glaring at people, so I put off getting a new bicycle. I’d cross the street if I had the chance, just so I wouldn’t see the two of them staring out the display window at me. So how in the world would I ever remember the name of their store?

How would I explain to my girlfriend how nastiness was just everyone’s business style back then. Some people must still remember the television show “Sesame Street.” (I hated it, but my little brother loved it.) Even that deli-guy was always snapping at everyone. He’d shout, “Hooper! My name is Hooper!” right in everyone’s face. Even on TV! Shop keepers were supposed to be nasty. But who said that had to be so? That’s what I’d never understood. I’d just come in to buy something. They didn’t have to start up with the old dog-eat-dog-school-of-hard-knocks routine on my account, but they always seemed to. I never cared for it. Who would?

That’s why I wasn’t too broken up when a little while ago I saw that the old magazine and cigarette shop closed down next to where the old vegetable store used to be and the other side of the old pizza shop before it was replaced by the fancy ice-cream shop that is called something like “Grung.” The lady who ran the magazine shop was hostile even if you just walked past the place. The sidewalk was hers. Forget about going inside. This is what my girlfriend doesn’t get, when she sees one place close and another one appear. How can I be expected to remember all this stuff? I’m trying to forget.

Wayne Conti lives in New York City, where he is the proprietor of Mercer Street Books. His prior publishing credits include Open City, Brooklyn Rail, Pindeldyboz and Anderbo.

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