On the Last Day of October
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There’s a book store on Greene Street just around the corner from Washington Square. People who live in the neighborhood pass it by, tourists ignore it. Nobody gives a damn about it one way or the other.
Why did John Reade choose this tree lined side street in Greenwich Village to open his “Praxis” book shop in the first place?
It’s cheap and there are two rooms in back big enough for a retired high school English teacher with modest means to live the little left of his life surrounded by books, even if they’re not his.
The odor of age is the first thing you notice if you open the front door. Close it gently – if you let it slam behind you dust drifts down from the ceiling and the lights flicker. You get the uneasy feeling that if you breathe you will choke on it.
Faded books are scattered haphazardly in the show window, they were dumped there years ago. The few passersby who might glance in at the titles quickly lose interest and their eyes drift from the books to the coils of fly paper hanging above them.
In the beginning Mr. Reade made an attempt to organize the books in coherent sections. Fiction on the left, non-fiction on the right, children’s in the back and so on. He eventually threw up his hands and stacked them anywhere he found room on an empty shelf. Consequently, a browser might find Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Higgins Clark in intimate proximity on a shelf labeled “Bible Studies.” Nobody cared, least of all John Reade.
The “Praxis” is a place to live and work, but living comes first. A visitor might find a forgotten cup of coffee or a half eaten sandwich abandoned on a stack of books if the phone at the cash register interrupted his lunch.
Mr. Reade held a letter from his landlord in his hand. It troubled him and it would undoubtedly trouble the three tenants living above him. Mr. Reade is the major tenant and he realized the letter concerned their future as well as his. He would have to tell them in the morning.
There are three small apartments above the Praxis book store. They’re occupied by extraordinary people – the kind of people you expect to see in Greenwich Village and nowhere else. The Village is an ‘omphalos’, a hub of strange and exotic castaways, want-to-be’s, used-to-be’s and pretend-to-be’s.
On the second floor there’s a tattoo parlor run by an ex-school principal named Amadeo Russo. Mr. Russo, in his younger days, was a teacher in the city’s vocational public schools. But unlike Mr. Reade, he moved on up to be the school’s principal, and eventually became an official in the New York Board of Education. Amadeo's father, Bruno Russo, was a common sailor in the Merchant Marine. His body was tattooed from head to foot by experts in Marseilles, Shanghai and Alexandria. His elaborately illustrated body fascinated the younger Amadeo and when he eventually retired from the Board of Education he moved downtown with his family to Greene Street. His lifelong dream of an exclusive tattoo parlor in Greenwich Village gradually took shape above John Reade’s book store.
Everyone was getting tattooed those days. Hippies, rock stars and uptown ladies in their fifties and sixties looking for ‘tramp stamps’ came down to get erotic symbols tattooed on the parts of their bodies only their most intimate friends would ever see. Recently a woman arriving by chauffeured limousine endured four painful three hour sessions to have a lion tattooed on her chest.
The elderly Mr. Holiday lives on the third floor – one floor above Mr. Russo. He is ninety-six years old and chain smokes cigars. His doctor (now deceased) told him more than thirty years ago to give up smoking or he would die of emphysema. Mr. Holiday sits at his living room window in the morning and watches the girls walk by on their way to New York University. To get a better view of them he often leans out precariously with both hands on the window sill, his neck craned out as far as it will go.
His lunch and dinner are brought to him daily by an enormous black lady from Meals on Wheels. It is one of the high points of his day. As she stores the food in his refrigerator, he will stare down into the bottomless chasm of her cleavage and try to engage her in bawdy conversation. When she leaves, Mr. Holiday will consume all the food immediately, light a fresh cigar from the gas burner on the stove and resume his vigil at the living room window.
If the weather is mild, Mr. Holiday will get into his lumberjack’s shirt and hobble down the three flights of stairs to the street. He’ll walk to Washington Square Park and watch the girls who sit in small conversational groups. How attractive they are! How appealing when they’re unaware of the lust in men’s eyes!
On his return to Greene street he’ll stop at the show window of “Erotique” and gaze longingly at the wide array of stimulating sexual paraphernalia. Mr. Holiday enjoys a fuller sex life than men half his age.
Mrs. Riordan lives above Mr. Holiday. She is a grass widow, and has lived in the Village all her life. She met her husband Timothy in a parking garage next to the Bottom Line Strip Club shortly after the war. In those golden days Mr. Riordan was an Irish poet who carried a small framed diploma in his shirt pocket proving he had a PHD in English literature from Harvard University. He read his poems on the street with the likes of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Bob Dylan. His golden voice and honeyed words quickly melted the heart of the future Mrs. Riordan, and before the month was out the two love birds were living in an abandoned Ford Biscayne under the West Side Highway.
The union lasted all of three years, until Mr. Riordan suddenly found steady employment as a card dealer on a cruise ship that shuttled between the Greek islands.
Sad to say, Mrs. Riordan has tended towards the bottle of late – not heavily, but steadily. A beer for breakfast, a mid-morning snack with a bourbon chaser, a martini for lunch and a few highballs in the corner saloon in the afternoon.
Therefore, as our story begins, it was not unusual that Mr. Reade found Mrs. Riordan wandering aimlessly through the Halloween festivities in Washington Square Park on the last day of October.
Mr. Reade saw her walking alone and without purpose through the park and talking to herself. He graciously volunteered to see her home from the Halloween festivities. Had he not done so, Mrs. Riordan would have undoubtedly spent the night on a bench.
“I don’t normally allow myself to be picked up in the park,” she remarked primly to Mr. Reade as he took her arm and steered her back to Greene Street.
“Did you know I am still married, Mr. Reade? Yes. after all these years. The little bastard walked out on me thirty years ago, bad cess and good riddance to him.”
Were it not for Mr. Reade, Mrs. Riordan’s rubbery knees would have given way on the walk back to Greene Street. He had a difficult job keeping her in a straight line despite his steady hand. “He was an uncouth bugger,” she went on. “Do you think he would put the toilet seat down? Oh no! Oh no, not Timothy Riordan. ‘I need it up’ he would say. ‘You don’t hear me complain when you leave it down, do you’ he would say.”
They stopped in the street outside the vestibule to the apartment and Mrs. Riordan stared at the building she had lived in for fifty years. “Why are we stopping here, Mr. Reade.”
“You live here, Mrs. Riordan.” Mr. Reade regretted seeing Mrs. Riordan in the park. He could be reading in bed by now if it wasn’t for this absurd woman – now it appeared he would have to help her up three flights to her door.
They made their way awkwardly up the three flights to her apartment, Mrs. Riordan in front and Mr. Reade pushing her from behind. When they reached her door he asked her for her key. “My key, why?” she asked, "what on earth would you want with my key?”
“So I can open the door to your apartment Mrs. Riordan.”
“You must think I’m incapbubble of... “ She considered the possibility of letting herself in, then unslung her shoulder bag and handed it to Mr. Reade, who fished through tissues, both clean and used, combs, nail files, bills and match book folders from every bar in Greenwich Village until he found her key. “A woman in my position can’t be too careful Mr. Reade. Only last month a friend of mine on Houston Street had her snatch pursed in Bloomingdales.”
She leaned against the wall while Mr. Reade unlocked her door. “Did you know I was a prominent vocalist in my day? The critics said I had a pure, almost angelic voice.” She smiled in remembrance of a happier day. "On a good evening I could stretch three octaves.” She belched loudly. “I’ll have you know I auditioned for Massanet’s “Le Cid” and Gounod’s “Faust.” She leaned back against the wall and slid her entire body down to a sitting position on the floor with her knees spread wide as Mr. Reade got the door open.
Alone at last in the Praxis book store, Mr. Reade picked up the letter the landlord left that afternoon. He looked out at the dark street through his fly specked show window. The word “Praxis” stared back at him in mirror image – a life’s dream come true. To live and work, to sleep and eat in the close companionship of the world’s best literature! Well, maybe not the best – the best was, and would always be, a matter of critical opinion.
But they were all good books, every last one of them. The feel of them, the smell of the paper and ink, the binding and glue that held them all together. The sound of the pages when you riffled them with your thumb. Even the amazing concept of the last word on a page carrying over to the first word of a new page to keep the reader going on and on endlessly into the night.
He placed his hand on the cover of “Moby Dick,” removed it and placed it on the cover of “For Whom the Bell Tolls.” He could feel the different worlds inside them. The blind fanaticism and the impartial hand of fate. The acts of courage and cowardice, sacrifice and greed. Each and every book held a universe of its own, living within its own laws – its own space and time.
Then he read the letter again.
Dear Mr. Reade;
I am writing to you as the prime lessee of 422 Greene St. to inform you of my intention to sell the entire premises to Werner Gottlieb & Sons, agent for the Greater Greenwich Development Co.
The 422 Greene St. tenement will become part of a larger parcel devoted entirely to commercial properties. The building must be vacated no later than December 31st of this year.
As the major tenant and superintendent of this building I am notifying you a month in advance of the others.
Very truly yours,
Byron Frazier, Esq.
He switched on the fluorescent lights in the ceiling above the haphazardly arranged book racks and absent-mindedly began to re-arrange them. “I should have done this months ago,” he mumbled to himself. “It shows a lack of respect, “Leopold Bloom doesn’t belong there. He should be over here with the crew of the Pequod.”
What would happen to his beloved books he wondered, when he was put out in the street? Would they be safe? “Yes,” he assured himself, “of course they will. They are immortal! They will make their way to a distribution warehouse somewhere” Yes, his books were immortal – but people were not. Queeg, Captain Ahab, Lorna Doone – nothing could happen to these people. Age would not wither them, they would stay just as the author left them years ago. Ever green. Ever young. The author will shrivel and die, the reader will fade away, but the heroes and heroines are immortal. Every time a person picked up a book they will live again.
“Ah! But the Russos,” he reminded himself. “Mr. Holiday and Mrs. Riordan. What about them? And what about you, John Reade? We wax and we wane. We finally expire, and like sour milk and cheese we must be taken off the shelf lest we contaminate the rest of the produce.”
“Good night my friends, sleep well up there. I will share the news with you tomorrow."
The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.