Sunday, December 30, 2012

December 30, 2012

     It was 1957 I was manager of Eighth Street Bookshop. I was 20, a senior at Columbia, living in Spanish Harlem. I'd take the # 5 Fifth Avenue Bus; it had a serpentine route, began at Washington Square in Greenwich Village and went to Columbia on 116th Street & Broadway. So it passed by where I lived, and it took me a long ways to college,then it took me all the way downtown to the Village, where I'd sit in coffeeshops and browse at Eighth Street Bookshop. I was sure lucky to get the job there. The year before I had become manager of Gotham Book Mart, so the Wilentz Brothers, who owned Eighth Street (it had a lending library in those days), were impressed with me. Especially as I got along really well with Frances Steloff, whom everyone adored . . . but3 from afar, because she was such a harradan. Mellowed out as she approached 100, but in '56, '57, she was still the tough old Frances.
     I was getting pretty fed up with Columbia. But I had a fascinating course at Barnard called "The Art of India Asia." And The Bollingen Series had just brought out a two-volume boxed set, edited by Heinrich Zimmer, called "Art of India Asia." I've never coveted a book so bad. But it cost $100, a fortune in those pre-Vietnam War non-inflationary days. The Wilentz Brothers were nice enough to set it aside for me, and I'd pay ten bucks on it every week. So we got to know each other. And when I finally quit Columbia (with two months to go to graduate), they hired me as manager of the most popular bookshop in New York! Boy I learned a lot (which wasn't happening in college). After all, the year before Miss Steloff had enticed me into G.B.M. by saying, "You'll learn more in this bookshop in 6 months then you'd learn in Columbia in 6 years." True.
     Oh, I was a serious young fellow in those days. Today I'm a happy-go-lucky 77 year-old. In those days, my nickname was "Red Head," because my face was always red in anger and effort. I was so ambitious. Should I be the greatest artist who ever lived or the greatest poet? I had already been publishing since '53, my freshman year in college. And my best friend was in high school, Robert Smithson, who would become the most influential artist in American history in a very short time (Spiral Jetty, etc.). In '56 I had brought out another "little mag" with Smithson, and we published Leonard Cohen's first poems (he was a freshman at McGill) and Daryl Hine and James Wright and the first poems Samuel Menashe ever had in print, and Tim Reynolds and Michael Benedikt, a huge anthology of contemporary Canadian Poetry. Smithson and I also began a Park Avenue Art Gallery, and I gave Bob his first one-man show. I was still a teenager! Bob was a junior in high school (Clifton, N.J.), coming into the city to go to The Art Students League twice a week. So, although 20, I was really like a man twice that age. Twelve months later, I married a woman who was 50.

     This morning, the covenant fellowship to which I belong (I'm on the Board of Directors), we're Unitarian Universalists, is providing a free breakfast for the Glenwood neighborhood. We used to do this at the day care center for people who are homeless, but the city closed them down on the weekends. So we began offering our free breakfast–it's no big deal, only once a month–here at Glenwood Coffee & Books. Because we hold our Worship Service here, do you see. Attendance at the breakfast has been growing slowly, as this poor neighborhood learns to trust us. Individuals have begun bringing their families. We're up to about 40 breakfasts served. The United Methodist Church on the corner used to serve one breakfast a week, but they stopped last year. I asked Rev. Jolly, their minister about that. He said the Methodists were hoping some of the free breakfasteers would join their church, but no one ever did–one meal a week for four years. So they stopped serving. Well, that ain't the Unitarian spirit; we're not looking for people to join necessarily. It's hard times as we all know, depression going on for five years now. Greensboro, I read, is the fourth worse off city in the U. S. We lost all our denim and cotton mills in the 1990s and, this decade came the banking Wall Street deep recession (for everyone except bankers and stock brokers). Yeah, how about that? Those buggers caused this whole thing, and they're the only ones still employed and makin' hay! As the Occupiers like to chant, "They got bailed out, we got sold out."
     It's 7 a.m., and my fellow congregants will start arriving at 9:30 or 10:00. Breakfast is at 10:30 a.m. in case you're hungry. Pancakes and I make the turkey sausage–that's my job–and coffee and fruit cocktail, corn syrup, butter. All you can eat. Yummy. I'm on food stamps, so the Unitarians usually leave the leftover pancakes and sausage and butter and stuff . . . for me!!!

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