I flirted with a loft recently. It had wood floors and windows as big as a drive-in movie screen. It had views of the downtown skyline you could tear out of your mind’s eye and tape to the refrigerator. I felt like I was hanging over the city in a pretty birdcage.
I could not live here. I would be too close to Her.
Ever since I was a boy, I have held a soft spot for a street, the way some men hold onto a first love. Mark Twain had the Mississippi River; I had West 25th Street.
I grew up at its headwaters, in Old Brooklyn, swaddled in aluminum siding, a blue collar and a parochial school uniform. At the other end of the world were the downtown towers, where my mother took me to buy school shoes or whisper Christmas wishes to a department-store Santa.
In between, West 25th flowed. I fancied it was a secret passage into my city’s heart. I imagined its cross-streets were tributaries and the neighborhoods lining its curbs were river towns. I squinted, and the city buses became paddle-wheelers.
I could not have been mistaken for Huck Finn in a dark room. But while my classmates read about safaris or flew rocket ships to the moon in their imaginations, I went exploring on the 20B bus.
On West 25th, the exotic and the everyday mixed like cream in coffee. I remember peeking around my grandmother’s skirts in a butcher shop that sold live chickens. I should have felt sad — it was just Alcatraz for poultry — but mostly I figured that was everyday life, like everyone bought dinner on the wing.
The street was not paved with gold, but stories. I recall a sad-faced little barber with one glass eye and suspect sight in the other. It did not matter: He gave everyone the same haircut. Anything else, I suppose, he considered vanity.
The garment mills clattered all day and the foundries glowed through graveyard shifts. This is where the jobs were, so people came — from Europe and the old Spanish ports of the Caribbean and the played-out coalfields of Kentucky. They dropped their bags and walked into a city that swallowed them whole.
It took, mostly. They put down roots, although most did not own enough dirt to plant a decent garden.
You could eat well for pocket change at lunch counters whose names I have long forgotten. The food was Greek or Middle Eastern or grits, but it might just as well been Martian — the only thing on the menu I recognized was Royal Crown Cola. I do recall Favorito’s Pizzeria, whose sole mission was to supply a glorious red sauce to the Free World. If you could not find a good meal on West 25th, you would starve locked in a bakery.
I remember that people always ate in crowds. If you cooked up a mess of something, I guessed, you wanted to share it with a whole mess of people.
The Forest City Foundries clanged and blazed like someone had left the back door to Hades open. I spent an afternoon in the parking lot, just marveling.
The Lion Knitting Mill on Meyer Avenue looked like a penitentiary and belched steam like an erupting volcano. I worked summers there through high school, pushing handcarts of dismembered cardigans from the pattern cutters to the sewing line, popping salt tablets to keep from going goofy in the heat. I read Shakespeare on my 15-minute breaks, and fell in and out of love with Puerto Rican girls with long names and short tempers. Their hair, I remember, always smelled like lemons.
I decided it was time to learn about vice.
The jukebox at the Comet Bar poured Patsy Cline over bourbon and beer chasers, and one honky-tonk angel could undo in a single night everything the nuns had taught you. Standing on the sidewalk at 2 a.m., I was Stagger Lee. I remember thinking that a life of sin — while not long — would surely be sweet.
Sunday mornings, women in white dresses and men in funeral suits marched to worship, toting dog-eared mail-order Bibles. In winter, a slushy gray line marked the path to Redemption.
I took a college girl to hear the devil’s music at the Smiling Dog Saloon. A blizzard raged outside, so the blues band outnumbered the audience. Muddy Waters sat in a chair in the empty club and sang to us.
A racketeer named Shondor Birns died one dark, dark night outside the Jack and Jill Lounge, after an adverse reaction to some dynamite. I watched from the Royal Castle across the street as the law pulled down the crime scene tape.
I counted the bridges over the Cuyahoga, so many iron bracelets on a skinny brown arm.
All my life, the street and its people had fed me, tolerated me, schooled me. And when they weren’t looking, I borrowed their lives to sweeten my own.
That blacktop has mixed with every drop of ink I’ve ever spilled, writing. I nodded when a restaurateur told me how, as a tiny girl, she’d escaped the Russian Army by walking across the frozen Baltic Sea. Her mother had made evading the spotter planes into a game. (Mothers, I knew, did that to calm a child, when they were running scared themselves. I’d seen that on West 25th.)
I climbed grim, three-story walk-ups to meet murder victims’ kin, and functioned, somehow. Stretch any pain far enough and it becomes a canvas; you can paint on it. I’d learned that, too. I remember tracking a man I was sure had killed, and would surely kill again, for the same reason a mad dog bites — because he liked it. I should have been afraid — I saw the pistol tucked into his waistband — but I just grinned: He wore the worst haircut I’d ever seen, and inside I remembered a one-eyed barber. No one harms a crazy man.
“When I find a well-drawn character,” Mark Twain said, “I generally take a warm personal interest in him for the reason I have met him before — met him on the river.”
Sam Clemens was a smart old man.
I could not live on the Street. It would be like moving your new bride across the street from your first love.
I still visit. I am a boy again, peeking under the circus tent.
You can hear a dozen languages in the two blocks around the Dollar Store, and there are not enough Crayolas in the box to color all the faces you pass. You can eat yellow rice and cellophane noodles fixed by people who learned to cook at their momma’s elbow, not at a franchise seminar.
Smart folks say we are becoming homogenized. But sip Cuban coffee while browsing the Balinese movie posters at City Buddha and you’ll know we are still a pretty spicy stew
Sometimes, just walking, I smell lemons.