by Jonah Raskin
(Swans - February 24, 2014) Snow covered the train tracks on the way from JFK into Manhattan. It probably covered a lot more than that, but I could only see what was right in front of me, illuminated by the lights of the train. At 5:30 in the morning night still blanketed the city, the streets were barely awake, and the riders on the train looked like they would have been happy to go back home to a warm bed. The woman sitting opposite me with pierced lips and a pierced nose slept soundly as the train clattered, banged, and screeched at station after station as the car filled up with commuters going to work, going somewhere in the darkness before the dawn.
New York's old Mayor, Michael Bloomberg, was already history. New York's new mayor, Bill De Blasio, was hoping to write history of his own. I'm told that mayors have changed the landscape of the city, but New York looks to me like the same rickety financial capital of the world that it has always been, a place of slum and skyscraper, penthouse and hovel, with hungry people eating scraps in the street and the gentry dining at restaurants with white linen tablecloths. I had lunch at the bar of the Gramercy Tavern and enjoyed a spirited conversation with a woman of a certain age who had just moved back to New York after living in Marfa, Texas, for six years.
"A friend of mine, an artist, opened a restaurant there because the food was so bad," she explained in-between bites of Alaskan char. She wanted to talk, wasn't the least bit shy, and suggested that I might want to have lunch another day at the Union Square Café that boasted the same owners. She suffered from arthritis, she told me. She was debating whether or not to use marijuana to relieve her pain, but she had never smoked a joint or a cigarette her whole life, and she wasn't sure about staring to smoke now.
I walked up Lexington Avenue to Kalustyan's and bought Indian spices and herbs of the sort that can't be purchased in Marfa, Texas, or Santa Rosa, California. I went to the Strand Bookstore, bought a copy of Barry Gifford's complete short stories, and asked a clerk about his best-known novel, Wild at Heart, which David Lynch made into a popular movie. It was out-of-print and unavailable. I bought a few postcards, reluctantly, disappointed with the slim selection. The pictures were all of the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen, and yes one of Marilyn Monroe. There was no Greta Garbo, no James Dean, and no Marlon Brandon. At the checkout counter they were featuring a new reprint of a small book about old New York that someone, somewhere at a publishing company decided had to be reissued. The old survived and even thrived, at least some of it did, while another vast territory of the old vanished, perhaps never to be seen again.
At the post office, I mailed my cards and then shopped for yams and carrots at the Whole Foods Market on Union Square, a mad house of consumption, with fresh organic vegetables from California, and strawberries and blueberries from Mexico and Chile. Then I walked east through the old snow that was piled up on sidewalks, dirty snow now, stained, blackened, and littered, waiting for the new snow that weather forecasters predicted would bury the old city. For a moment or two after the blizzard, the streets would glisten, the parks would look pristine, and the filth would be covered over.
I turned the key in the lock of the door where I was staying and wondered if I might ever move back to New York, which had been my home from 1959 to 1964, when I was a student, and then again from 1967 to 1974, when I was a teacher and a writer and an editor. Yes, I might move back if someone, somewhere, in the snow-white fairy tale world of publishing offered me the job of reading and reissuing out-of-print books in smart new editions guaranteed to nourish the human need for nostalgia.
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About the Author
Jonah Raskin is a professor emeritus in communication studies at Sonoma State University in California and is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine, The Mythology of Imperialism: A revolutionary Critique of British Literature and Society in the Modern Age, For the Hell of It: the Life and Times of Abbie Hoffman, and American Scream: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and the Making of the Beat Generation. He lived and taught in Belgium in the 1980s. He is the editor of The Radical Jack London: Writings on War and Revolution. He also worked in Hollywood in the 1980s and wrote the story for the movie Homegrown. To learn more about Jonah, please read his entry on Wikipedia. (back)