I did not go look at the water, although that was the important thing, I didn’t. He is the one who desires sea. I walked around and around one building in the last block at the end of “the island of the Manhattoes,” and I thought someone must be wondering if I was up to no good, finally I found the bust and the plaque to mark Melville’s birthplace.
It is in a sliver of a building that says, “New York Unearthed,” which sounds magnificent, but is an empty space that used to be an always ill-funded and ill-managed museum that could have taught people about the amazing tiny and broken things found in the soil when they dug out for yet new buildings.
The wind was blowing and I had to wear a hat, which was good, who would want to see history, or downtown, with sun. Narrow streets guard you against it, anyway.
I had decided I had to do the tour because I felt awful. I hadn’t cried myself to sleep only because how do you do that? My nose gets too stuffed up, I always have to pull myself up and blow and blow and sniff for a while.
I followed this printout of a walking tour, saw where Melville’s dad showed him the last few wooden Dutch homes. That area is now Queen Elizabeth II’s September 11th Memorial Rose Garden. With nary a mention of the Dutch. I saw a street that was the edge of the water, before they started dumping land further out, the street that is still named what it was when Melville mentioned it in Moby Dick: Coenties Alley.
Also the addresses where his brother’s various law offices were. A building his father worked in, which is still there.
I found the corner where Melville used to shop for books. He bought Anatomy of Melancholy. Hard to believe our boy Herman would have been drawn to such a title.
The owner of that bookshop began selling books in Manhattan in 1829. His name was William Gowans.
I changed neighborhoods to hear my friend read from his novel. It was in the Village, and I didn’t even get lost.
I had one glass of wine and everyone was delightful, I guess mostly because I knew 40% of the audience, and the reading was of this cramped and pretty playful writings we do, and the walls of the bar were red, red, red, and I had a dream I would have a great birthday and be perfectly happy and make love and the walls of that restaurant would be red, red, red a lot like this bar.
I walked to the subway to go home to Brooklyn, quite pleased with myself and thinking about the noodles I was going to cook for dinner and someone called out to me, We have an extra ticket, would you like to go?
- I should sit on the steps next to them instead of standing
- I said, Joseph Papp, as it seemed important to explain that I appreciated being in his (sort of) theater, this means I know also Eva Le Gallienne, which is what I wish my name was
- I got a story about playing a murderer on a bad TV show
- I learned that one of these three friends hates ketchup so much the others give shit about it
- I asked what arancini was, which made me feel provincial indeed, but not so much that I didn’t ask
The performer came out and sang some songs and there was a pianist accompanying him. I had wine and arancini. I felt a little under a spell.
The singer’s dad came out, I had heard this would happen, the guy who offered the ticket yelled to the singer who had said, huh, where’s my dad, in his patter, that the dad was probably backstage, because he and the singer were childhood friends. I was at the table with the friends of the singer, you see, I had gone from being completely outside to completely inside.
Here is the other thing: the pianist achieved all this and that, was famous, and then got a disease that crippled his right hand.
He continued to play with his left hand.
It’s a longer story which I will leave to you.
I was within that beautiful room, if there is something of New York that surprised me, it is that instead of becoming inured to its beauties, I am more nourished and grateful all the time, so surrounded by beauties, both of the fancy theater type and the peeling subway paint and wet tracks kinds and the faces of the tired kind.
The father played, the son sang, I was in this place, at this table, the lights, the backlit photographs in boxes on the wall, the people who were all the sorts of people who were the Public on a Tuesday night, either with money and lots of time, or who wanted badly to be there, I thought of a lot of things I wanted to say, and ask, of the people I hardly knew, none of whose names I remember except the woman, Abby.
I had forgotten what it was like to have completely accomplished, completely assured and assuring hands make the music so that you could completely lie in it and have the hands of the music laid on you. How that’s different from music in your ears, perfect as it is in its recorded form, without worry as it is. This pianist had not a whiff of worry or need in him, he was all offering.
The show ended, the encores ended, and I realized I was sitting with people who wanted to talk with each other without me, our novelty had worn off, so I thanked them, and I said good night.
As I left, the pianist with hand problems was standing there, and I was steaming the happiness I’d had, so I reached out my hand to shake his, to thank him, only. A bunch of people were standing in a circle, and maybe some of them were a big deal, this is a New York thing, always wondering if some of the people around you are powerful, are a big deal, the really big deal ones you wouldn’t recognize, right.
It wasn’t until I was on the train I thought, should I have tried to shake his hand? Maybe that was terrible. As if I didn’t know he had problems with his right hand? Wasn’t that just what people did? I wanted to touch him, and thank him, thanks are one of our only genuine human interactions, maybe our best, maybe better than I love you, I’m not sure.
I wrote a novel about a woman whose hands are burned, the book is about her hands healing to be able to touch things and do thing again. A friend said she wanted to send it to an agent she knew, but the agent had a disfigured hand.
So I am a little weird about hands.
Or because I communicate through my hands. That is, I feel what I want to say in how my fingers would or do move on a keyboard, and I don’t know how I would write if I had to dictate, writing is a physical thing.
Back downtown: William Gowans was able to open his bookstore because a man named Blatchley loaned him $25. Because Blatchley loaned Gowans $25, Herman Melville (and Edgar Allan Poe, by the way) bought books at Gowan’s, including the book of Melville’s own father which he bought. Herman didn’t even notice it was his father’s until four years after he had bought it, and his brother Allan, named after their father, had it off the shelf and open in his hand and noticed inside it, in pencil: A. Melvill. Years after his father had declared bankruptcy and died, Anatomy of a Melancholy came home.
Notes: The singer was Julian Fleisher; he has a new show on WNYC. The pianist was Leon Fleisher. The bookseller is William Gowans, see pg. 130. The Melville walking tour.
And one other note: These kind strangers insisted on treating me to not just the show but dinner and drinks, which was ridiculous, and let me say thanks again.