The Street Where I Lived

When did it become so charming, so European,
so expensive? I spot the stone building
whose studio with hotplate and minifridge
I could scarcely afford in the seventies. We pause,
while the older me silently confronts my wild, lonely past,
trying to confer on whoever I once was
one of those hopeful moods
that used to illumine me—and still does.
The past is a foreign land we return to,
walking down stone-brick streets of the West Village,
which refused to conform
to the City grid, passing old haunts
—lights still lace through trees in the courtyard bistro—
we approach a building, shaped like a piece of cake.
I’d forgotten the details: crouched carved characters
holding up fourteen stories in this otherwise low-rise zone;
looking cloudward, the medievalish figures—knightly or religious;
not to mention the engraving of a sea creature over the entrance
to the bar that once was the bookstore
where we worked the nightshift.

Sometimes the bookstore was like a cocktail party
attended by poets, artists, scholars, neighbors,
our stint often highlighted by beloved eccentrics. “Look!”
you’d exclaim, “It’s Rollerena” (who worked the stock
market by daylight), skating in, through, and out
the wedge-shaped roomful of books,
wearing pointy rhinestone glasses and tutu—
vanishing our cares with the wave of a wand.
Or I’d whisper, “Here comes Marguerite,”
with her drawn face and long dowdy dirndl skirt,
flanked by a coterie of young men.
A fiction writer, time and again, she advised me
to marry an Irish prince, live in a castle,
finally, one time, adding: “and invite me to visit.”
Sometimes in summer, when the door was open,
Cecil would grab ahold of a parking meter like a mike
and belt out a creditable imitation of Diane Ross.
I’d love to go back to one of the jubilant nights,
or one of the quiet nights when we browsed books like customers and talked.
A gentlemanly poet we couldn’t peg would comment on how high
his pile of books was, and tenderly neaten it.
(Decades later he’d win the Neglected Master’s Award.)

I remember when you told me you saw black-and-white print in color,
~like Rimbaud’s “U green . . . divine shudderings of viridian seas”~
and I wondered what it was like to be you.
Other times, I was depressed—my boss said I could improve
the poetry section, then he never ordered the books.
More distressing, we were both obsessed
with impossible men. How unspeakable life might have been
if I hadn’t met you—anchor, friend—though
back then after-hours we’d swim or sink
into mixed metaphors and drinks,
trying to sort out our lives at a restaurant’s dimly lit table.
There, unknowingly, we were painted by a stranger—
though it wasn’t our vision (he’d painted
a trace of a frown on my face, didn’t capture your luster). We didn’t buy it,
but later, seeing it for sale on the wall near the bar,
you took a picture that, decades later, you photocopied and sent as a card.
In the wee hours, before heading home, sometimes
we’d resort to the neon lights
of fortune-tellers in tiny, dark rooms—who knew
you’d become accomplished, yet hold on
to your quirky charm? If we went through enough,
might one get it right?

Laura Glenn