Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Old Friends

   On May 10, 2014, Larry McMurtry wrote a bittersweet but not sentimental New York Times, Sunday Review article about a visit he made to New York City back in 1965.  He had traveled from Houston to buy books for a bookstore he worked at and visited many of the famous bookstores that then existed, but, sadly, now don't.  It was fun to remember some of those overstuffed bookstores, books piled on books, signs pointing to narrow dark stairways to the basement where thousands of additional books waited to be visited.  But I smiled at the black and white photograph that took up most of the page on the print version of the paper I was reading.
   It was a beautiful photo of Scribners Bookstore from 1984 that was taken from across the street, the sidewalk bustling with people, the streets busy with cars.  It made me recall the very first time I saw Scribners.
   It was back in 1959 or 1960 when I was around thirteen.  My friends and I gathered at around 7 AM one day to talk over what we would do that day.  Baseball over in the Meadowlands?  Penny poker on Philip's porch?  Then one kid (I think it was Bobby who was quiet with a wild streak) suggested we take the train to New York City.  So we did.
   No one asked their parents for permission (it really was a different time) and we all had enough money (according to Bobby) to get to the City, take the subway uptown, then wander around before heading home.
   I don't recall all of the travel details.  We caught the train, got onto a subway, maybe two, and ended up somewhere between 120th and 130th Street on the West Side.  All fifteen of us.  Yes, we traveled in a pack, a bit noisy and goofy.  No one, not even Bobby, really knew where we were.  But we were on an adventure, so location wasn't a priority.
   Someone, probably Bobby, suggested that we find 5th Avenue and stroll downtown.  We asked some kind folks for directions and eventually found it.  First, were the people who crowded the sidewalk -- all colors, all sorts of fashions, some very exotic hairstyles.  I noticed after a few blocks that people would see our group and move to get out of our way.  Fifteen annoyingly active boys can take up a lot of space.  And some people looked nervous.  This made me chuckle.  Here's what an intimidating bunch we were.  At one point a very elegant woman was coming toward us wearing a long, mink coat.  One kid at the front of our group pointed at her, jumped up into another kid's arms (I'm not kidding) and said, "Eeek, a bear!"  The woman was nice enough to laugh, while the rest of us apologized with "Don't mind him.  He's a jerk" or "He hit his head last week and hasn't been the same since."
   Next came the smells, of food (delicious and changing from block to block.  Though we didn't stop to eat since we hand limited resources and were saving our dimes for a big, salted pretzal) and the less savory odor of the streets. 
   Down we came, past giant churches, apartment buildings with doormen who we said hello to one after another, Central Park, St. Patrick's Cathedral (where a wedding was going on) and stores of all kinds.  The highlight for some of my friends was going round and round in the revolving door of a department store.  But for me it was Scribners.
   The moment I saw it, took in the beautiful pillors, the intricate grillwork, the neatly displayed books lined up like soldiers, the golden glow coming from the other side of the giant windows, I wanted to stop and visit.  No such luck.
   The rest of the guys were marching on and I didn't have a clue on how to get home.  I started to follow, stopped to look back, and saw something I remember to this day very clearly.  An elderly man in an impeccable seersucker suit was leaning over studying the books in the window.  Behind his back he held a spiffy straw hat with the fingers of both hands.  Norman Rockwell could not have painted anything so enchanting.  Yes, I said enchanting.  I was just beginning to love reading at this time and I was amazed at how carefully that man was looking at the books and how refined he seemed.  I wanted to know what he saw in them and only later realized the only way I'd find out was by reading them.
   On we went, buying our pretzals and catching a bus back to dear old Kearny.  We were back by around 6 PM and as far as I know none of our parents ever found out about our day's journey.  But my Mom knew something had happened that day that was unusual.  I told her that I'd seen this book in a bookstorre window and wondered if she could get it for me.  She looked at me, said "a bookstore?" and I said yes.  You see, there were no bookstores in Kearny.  The nearest ones were in Newark.  But since getting me to read was a mission of hers, she didn't question me at all.  And I still have my illustrated copy of The Old Man and The Sea she managed to get me the following week.  And the price is old-time and somehow comforting: $5.00.  And I can still she that elderly gentleman leaning in to study the illustration on the cover.          


Unknown said...

Lovely post, Jim. An example of nonfiction at its best.

Marfe Ferguson Delano said...

Jim, thanks for this great post. It took me down memory lane. My first job out of college, back in 1980, was as an editorial assistant at Scribner's Children's Books. The editorial offices were in the building above the bookstore, and I spent many a lunch hour exploring the treasures in the store. It was a magical place.

Gretchen Woelfle said...

Some things don't change. Walking the streets of New York is still one of best adventures out there!

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Highly entertaining post, Jim. I'll miss reading these stories. (And I wonder what ever became of Bobby.)

Unknown said...

Thank you all for reading my post and commenting. I'll miss reading everyone's blog posts, too, but I'm sure we'll keep bumping into each other along the way. As for Bobby, his parents were both officers in the Salvation Army (and had very spiffy uniforms to prove it), so I'd guess he followed in their footsteps. Happy summer!

Cheryl Harness said...

Thank you, Jim Murphy. Good it has been, getting to know you, blog-wise and book-wise. And for reminding me of my first walkabout in NYC, in the spring of 1985, when my hopes were high.