July 27, 2009
If you live in New York, there are, theoretically, an infinite number of reasons to vary your route home from work. Dozens of neighborhoods, hundreds of shops, thousands of bars can be explored with only the slightest detour from your particular beaten path. So why do I rarely, if ever, take the opportunity? Call it inertia, or lack of imagination, or, more realistically, the result of nine hours of staring at a computer and circling a mouse around. After that, whatever path gets me to my apartment and into a drink the fastest is the one I’m going to follow. More than once I’ve convinced myself to make a post-work side trip to, say, a book store in Union Square, only to emerge from a daydream and find myself walking up the steps at my normal stop in Brooklyn anyway. The best-laid plans are powerless in the face of the daily habits of the 9-to-5er. The upshot, sadly, is that the city where I work is seldom the city where I explore—it’s not the city where I see.
My office is in Murray Hill and I live in Cobble Hill in Brooklyn, which makes my best commuting option the 6 train to 14th St., and then the 4 to Borough Hall, a wobblingly reliable 20-minute express shot down the east side. Late in the evening, though, the 4 can be exasperatingly slow, so slow that on some nights I’m compelled to throw routine to the wind and take the 6 two more stops, to the Bleecker St. station, where I can catch the F to Brooklyn.
Bleecker is less a proper station than a decaying, half-finished interstice that serves as a connector between the subway’s formerly competing systems, the IRT (i.e., the numbered trains) and the BMT (the lettered trains). It’s the only stop in the city where you can transfer between lines on one side—downtown—and not the other, a flaw that’s currently costing the MTA $134 million to rectify. The space’s most notable landmarks are two large, blue mosaics that date from the system’s proud opening in 1904. “Bleecker Street” is carved out at their centers with a beaming, capitalized pride that mocks the dilapidated state of the station today.
Jarring as they may be, those mosaics weren’t what caught my eye one recent evening after work.
I was walking a few feet behind a woman whom I could only assume was a European tourist—she sported the hip walking shoes, half-sneaker, half-moccasin, whose labels are a mystery to American shoe shoppers like me. Even more of a giveaway was the fact that she had pulled out a digital camera and was using it to take a close-up snapshot of the signage on one of the station’s dingy white-tiled pillars. The sign read, in black sans-serif type, BL’KER. As charming as the mid-word apostrophe was, I thought that only a tourist would bother to commemorate its existence. To a New York native, the subway is a dead zone, a reminder of daily obligations, something we must get past to start our days, something to block out of our minds.
The woman stopped, zeroed in on BL’KER, and snapped. By the time she was finished, I was about a foot behind her. She held the camera up to her eyes to preview her shot; from behind her head, I could see it at close range as well. I was stunned. Inside that tiny rectangular frame, BL’KER was beautiful. No, not beautiful, exactly, but it was the found-art equivalent of beautiful: It existed for me. I could see, to my surprise, that it had been designed rather than just mindlessly slapped in the same spot on pillar after pillar to let subway riders know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, where they were. Behind the letters there had been a thought. This may seem obvious—everything is designed in a city—but it had never occurred to me. The tourist’s eye, or her camera, had aestheticized the little broken word. It was a heady feeling, but it wasn’t the first time I’d experienced it.
Two years earlier, I’d visited a Dan Flavin show in Paris. The exhibit itself, at a contemporary art museum, had been pretty dreary. Flavin’s usual configurations of fluorescent tubes was dwarfed by the space, which was colossal and featureless. His works were robbed of the warm luminous ambient quality they can acquire in closer confines. After a hasty tour, I was happy to make my way back outside and into the afternoon sun—Paris itself was the better show. But when I walked down into a metro station a few minutes later, I found that my eyes were drawn to the fluorescent tubes that lined its ceilings. I had never consciously looked at them before, in Paris or anywhere else, but now I could see that they were everywhere. Along the train tracks, the tubes were placed end-to-end; in other places they were housed in individual boxes. Having internalized Flavin’s preoccupation with them, these seemingly stale objects now struck me as thin, buzzing, manmade suns. They were ubiquitous and at the same time virtually invisible. They were—again, a fact both obvious and totally surprising to me—the reason we could see underground.
A few days later I took the 6 to Bleecker again. This time, now that I could recognize their existence, the BL’KER signs triggered a memory, a sensation from a forgotten and very different time in my life in New York.
Growing up in the middle of Pennsylvania, four hours from New York, I’d been obsessed with the city. In high school and college, I extended that into a passion for the city’s downtown music scene, its bands, its characters, its choniclers. It had been the reason I’d moved to the city in the first place.
What fed my obsession through the pre-Internet ’80s were the tattered copies of the Village Voice that appeared, wrapped around a stick in the periodical section, each Wednesday at the musty public library in my hometown. The Voice was always untouched when picked it up after school on the day it arrived. Williamsport, Pa., wasn’t a No Wave kind of place; it was barely a New Wave kind of place. The four or five quasi-Deadheads who edited my high school’s literary journal were what passed for hip, misunderstood youth in the area. The Voice’s inky pages and hyper-serious music criticism let me escape for half an hour and map out a grimy, glamorous landscape of the East Village in my head. I opened the paper as fast as I could to the table of contents: Would this week’s issue bring that great, geeky, infinitely convoluted gift to rock and roll obsessives everywhere, a Consumer Guide from Robert Christgau?
Christgau, the most reliable of the top-tier rock critics, gave me the aesthetic parameters for thinking about music. But it was the more passionate scribbling of his colleague Lester Bangs that made me want to move to New York City and write about rock and roll myself. I had discovered the Voice too late to read his famously freewheeling work there—Bangs died of a drug overdose in 1982. But his first posthumous collection, Psychotic Reactions and Carburator Dung, came out during my senior year in high school. I bought it at a Waldenbooks at the county mall; the groovy, shimmering yellow cover looked out of place under the too-bright lights there, as if it were waiting for me to come along and give it a proper, darker home. I finished the book in a day, which isn’t surprising considering that I was 25 pages into it before I even brought it to the counter. It would be years before I would stop reading it.
Bangs chronicled the late-70s CBs scene from a personal vantage point. He placed himself and his relationships with musicians like Richard Hell and the Dead Boys at the center of his essays. One of the haunts that he mentioned regularly was a record store called Bleecker Bob’s. From what I could tell, this was where the latest punk singles from England would arrive first in New York. In the Voice, Christgau also reminisced about this briefly glorious period, “when every 45 that Bleecker Bob put on sounded better than the last one.”
The store became a mythic location in my mind. One day, looking at an atlas of my father’s, I discovered that there was a Bleecker St. in lower Manhattan. Presumably this was the home of Bob’s. The street took on mythic properties as well, especially when I traced its endpoint to an even more evocative New York word, the Bowery. While watching TV, I would haul out the atlas and stare at the street grid of lower Manhattan. This densely crosshatched triangle, where the numbered grid of avenues ended and a seeming free-for-all of legendary neighborhoods began—Chinatown, Little Italy, the East Village all bled into each other—became the focal point of all my vague aspirations. Could I really survive there?
I made my first foray into this edgy fantasia after graduating from college in 1992. Somehow I’d lined up an internship at Rolling Stone magazine that fall, but I drove in a few weeks beforehand to visit a friend. Bumping my way uptown from the Holland Tunnel early on a quiet Sunday morning, I caught a glimpse of a green street sign—“Bleecker St.” I pulled over, sat in the driver’s seat, and stared down a modest, tree-lined block. This was it, my version of the Great White Way. The letters on the sign were just as mesmerizing as they had been in the atlas.
I moved to the Village two months later, into a shared apartment with a cranky old Chinese man who lived there for free while I paid the entire stabilized rent. I quickly found out that Bleecker Bob was an equally cranky man, and that his store was long past its prime as a tastemaker’s haven. The pricing made no sense, either; I got the feeling that the numbers that the clerks stamped on the stickers were part of an elaborate, ironic inside joke at the customers’ expense. This was only moderately disillusioning, however. I knew New York was a hard place, and a brick wall career-wise, and all I could do was chip away at it—like a lot of other people, I didn’t become the next Lester Bangs (but you already knew that). As for the downtown scene I’d mythologized, I discovered that it was forever looking backward to better times. When I got there in ’92, the kids in the East Village were mourning the wild, skuzzy days of the late-’80s, when squatters in Tompkins Square Park faced off against NYC’s riot police. Reading Bangs’ stories from the ’70s on my back porch in PA, I had unwittingly been doing the same thing as those kids.
Thinking back 17 years later, my memory working overtime on the F train ride home, I knew that I hadn’t been disillusioned. Something quieter, more subtle, more inevitable, but I suppose equally regrettable had happened over the years. Living in the city, walking up, down, and across the real Bleecker St. thousands of times, I had lost the dreaming, wide-eyed sensation of discovery I’d had in Pennsylvania when those two tiny words appeared to me on a map of Manhattan.
Last week I got off again at the Bleecker St. stop. I noticed that the MTA’s construction crews had begun to strip the stained tiles off the station’s pillars. Already half of the old, black, block BL’KER signs are gone, and I can only assume the rest will go soon—New York has never been known for hanging onto the past. Which makes a sad kind of sense: Just when you learn to see something in the city where you live, it’s gone
Steve Tignor is the executive editor of Tennis Magazine.
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