Saturday in New York (Not the Fourth of July)

Down at St. Michael’s, the Russian Catholic (they might say Russian Orthodox in union with Rome) Church in SoHo, they don’t give up “Alleluia” for Lent—at least during vespers.

After the service ended, I headed a couple blocks down and across Mulberry Street to McNally Jackson Books, an independent bookstore, where I bought three books and left resolving (pace Walker Percy) to go to the movies less frequently to make up for the extravagance. I’ve gotten better at going to the library, but am not any better at returning the books on time. The price advantage over buying books slips away with my impressive ability to rack up late fees. (I’m so good at racking up that I could get a job as a set dresser on The Hustler.)

But returning to the checkout counter at McNally Jackson: the clerk ventured that I had made three fine choices. Flattery will get you everywhere, sir! Truly, I’ve lost his exact words, but they left the impression that it was more than just a case of “The customer is always right.”

It helped though that two of the three were from their recommended picks table, though in one case that was just a coincidence. They were recommending the collected poems of Elizabeth Bishop, which I was coincidentally seeking out. The latest New Criterion reviews an exhibit of the poet’s paintings at James S. Jaffe Rare Books, so I was looking to refamilarize myself before heading up to see them, maybe this weekend.

We read through Geography III in high school. Poems, as the collected works is called, fell open to one of the verses originally collected in Geography III:

In the Waiting Room
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited and read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.

I love this poem, because it recalls for me so strongly an experience that was part of my childhood, the early darkness of winter afternoons in New England.

The clerk wanted me to know that Poems is part of a publishing project from FSG that also includes a Elizabeth Bishop and The New Yorker: The Complete Correspondence—the power of the independent bookstore with clerks who are encouraged to be knowledgeable about books and urged to sell them intelligently., actually suggests the same thing, but a visit to a brick and mortar Barnes and Noble wouldn’t have.  That book is going on the long-term reading list, the scales tipped for the reason the clerk suggested, insight into the editorial workings of the New Yorker during the years Bishop published there.

Not from the recommendation table was another copy of Noli Me Tangere. I’m on about page eighty and my copy disappeared a week ago into the maw of the LIRR. I’d previously tried to replace it at the Strand, but, if you go to the Strand looking for something in particular, you’re not all that likely to find it, though you may go home with three or four other unrelated things.

But I haven’t made any more progress through Noli, because I’ve been distracted by the other book I bought from the recommendation table: The Long Ships by Frans G. Bengtsson.  Michael Chabon’s charming introduction was also published in The Paris Review. Their staff picks pushes a metaphor way to hard in describing the book. I can go with calling it a Viking Hustle and Flow, but Peter Conroy sums up, “After all, it’s hard out here for a thane.” Ouch.  The new paperback edition from New York Review Books Classics.

After my book binge, I had dinner at Two Boots, something I’ve somehow managed to miss in my (wow, as of last month, now six years) living in New York City.  Their pizza has a cornmeal dusted crust, which I actually like, but they’re much too fond of putting chicken on pizza, something I find entirely inexplicable.  In fact, that and their “funky” decor were probably the two reasons I hadn’t eaten at one of their branches already.  But, they manage to serve tasty pizza by the slice that is actually hot, a common failing, so I expect I’ll be back again.

The books over movies resolution lasted only slightly more than 24 hours, as a forthcoming post about Sunday will recount.

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