A book from St. Marks Bookshop and a catalogue shoot from those same days for French Closet, makeup by Gil Aldrin, hair by Patrick at Zoog Salon, photograph by Cedric E.
In 2008, it was my ex-boyfriend's turn to find an apartment. I'd found the last two places we'd lived in together in Virginia and then Jersey City. It was his turn in Manhattan. Plus, I had to work late that day at a catalogue shoot in the grimy garment district. Before I could even see the place, he signed the lease for a tiny hole-in-the-wall on the top floor of one of those creaky tenements leftover from the 19th century immigrant boom that are still, albeit barely, standing in the East Village. When I tripped up five flights of broken stairs to see our new place for the first time, the door didn't meet flush with the floor. Once it was closed, more or less, I could have reached out and touched both walls without straining an inch. I guffawed in much the way everyone who walked in after that would. He was offended as I would grow to be.
"I guess he wants us to break up," I thought, looking at a sink so small it couldn't fit an entire plate. "This place would be perfect for one person."
Soon after, we did, and it was.
That tiny apartment, too small to fit even a couch-- we left our couch on the street in Jersey City, which is where I found it in the first place--would be the last place we'd live together, and my chance to witness firsthand the last paradisiacal days of the East Village. I am not making this up, but each day really closed with a saxophonist playing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" in Tompkins Square Park, and that's where I felt I'd landed: over the rainbow in my very own space, behind my very own (semi-closed) door, which was everything Virginia Woolf promised it would be. But it didn't last long. I couldn't really afford the rent on my own. So, soon after that, when I met my husband, I moved in with him a year later to a place in Soho, which I didn't like nearly as much. "It's five blocks away!" he'd protest, not getting it. Over the years, we've moved even farther away to Brooklyn and then Philly; I've tried to cajole him into moving back to the East Village, but, never having lived there, he has a more clear-eyed view of the neighborhood.
"It's all rich lawyers and bankers now. The East Village you're talking about doesn't exist anymore," he talks me down when I begin to float too high above reality into the world of dreams. That's where my East Village exists now, in the memories of those who were lucky enough to live there in its hey day.
My East Village is Edgar Oliver, handmade zines, and the Public Theater. It's Monk's Thrift Store and punk kids lining up to beg change off St. Marks Place. It's eating apple strudel at De Robertis and pretending you're an extra in Guys and Dolls. It's everyone in the neighborhood knowing who you are from the florist at the bodega to the counter guy always knowing my order at the world's sweatiest, tiniest Chinese restaurant on the corner of 9th and 1st.
All the punk places are closing on St. Marks. De Robertis is gone. I bet that Chinese restaurant, if it's still there, has changed ownership. But nothing symbolizes the end of an era so much to me as the closing of the St. Marks Bookshop, just down the block from my hobbit hole, or more like a hobbit nest, high up in those tall maples, overlooking 9th street. Every time I got off the subway at Astor Place, I'd pass the shop, located in a Cooper Union dorm on the corner of 3rd and 9th. Even if I only had a few dollars in my pocket, I'd head in to read weird fashion magazines in a corner by the poetry chapbooks or check out the sales table in the back of the store. That's where I picked up Carol.
I picked it up, because I liked Patricia Highsmith just fine. I enjoyed The Talented Mr. Ripley Trilogy, but this book seemed different. Not a thriller. Those were still the days when I needed books to tell me a conventionally thrilling story. I mean, I still love a good story, but I have more patience now. Still, I picked it up anyway, because that sales table wasn't like other sale tables. It felt curated, not simply filled with bargain books but very special bargain books: the selections were always excellent, more like a staff rec table from the world's savviest staff. The guy at the counter wanted me to go back and pick a copy that didn't have the sales price on it. But I was tired and cranky from the long walk in high heels, and I argued him into submission. I'm glad now I did. I didn't realize it would be a souvenir of a bygone era.
That tiny, affordable apartment I semi-starved in like a proper semi-starving artist is now, according to a friend who's become a real estate agent, astronomically priced. No longer starving and on my second kid, I never wear high heels and can't fit into most of the clothes from those days. The bookshop is gone, too. But I have that little tag to remind me where I bought one of the most incredible books I've ever read.
Last week, I tried to watch the movie based on the book. It was perfectly cast, but the story wasn't working its magic. I couldn't feel Terry's longing for Carol or how Carol made all the color come into the world for Terry, because a. I kept thinking, wow, I really like Rooney Mara's bangs! And, damn, Cate Blanchett looks great with her hair waved like that. And b. no matter how beautifully cast a film is, I don't think films can tell the inner story of a character's mind. I think we need novels for that. I'm sure there are some movies that have managed to do it, but the best movies, in my opinion, either tell a thrilling story or feature thrillingly good dialogue. Not a lot happens in Vivre Sa Vie, but it's one of my favorite movies mostly because of this conversation in a cafe between an old philosopher and a prostitute. Granted, The Talented Mr. Ripley with its more conventional plot isn't much better a movie than Carol either, but maybe that's Patricia Highsmith's fault. You can almost eat her words, her descriptions are as sumptuous as that vanished apple strudel from De Robertis's and the point of view of her characters so powerful and incisive that the camera acts as a scalpel, cutting away all the texture of her knotty, witchy language and leaving behind only an impression of smooth colors and excellent hairstyles.
Maybe we are going to lose all our bookstores. Maybe that's what's coming. But I don't think I could bear to live in the smooth, poreless world we'll all being living in without books.
Another story I wrote about the East Village was anthologized in the Best of Black Heart Magazine and is available for purchase at Amazon as an e-book. You can also read it here.
I'm a busy mommy of two and a writer who loves fashion. I also want to teach myself and my children to care for and love the environment! I don't have the energy or time to be as 100% perfect as I'd like to be about my carbon footprint, but I'm trying to do the best I can. For example, I switched to a vegetarian diet (with a little bit of fish thrown in for now-- ah I cannot live without fish tacos!--), walk when I don't have to drive, wear as many sustainably made or secondhand clothes as I can, and recycle in other ways, too. Follow me as I try (at least 50% of the time) to strike a balance between the two-- mothering and writing, shopping and sustainability. You can also follow me on Twitter or Instagram @IsabellaMDavid.