Celia felt justified in her decision to leave Graham. She said she and Graham no longer wanted the same lives. Celia had come to New York to pursue a life of art and painting. This was something she had envisioned for herself going back to the age of twelve. Graham had not been so sure in the first place about moving to New York and had often talked of returning home. He preferred life in the South, which accommodated his need for books and studying. Celia had encouraged him to live how he must, but even she had recognized that in New York a life of erudition was hard to pull off. They could barely afford rent. Graham couldn’t sit around and read Spenser and Milton all day, he had to work. And he had, three part-time jobs, menial labor that would leave him disgruntled. What she desired in her husband was a true partner-in-crime, a co-conspirator. Simply put, Graham was not that and I was.
We couldn’t have looked more unlike. Graham, with his straight long brown hair and blue eyes, a clear British ancestry about him and me with my Jewish lineage apparent in my dark curly hair, dark eyebrows, etcetera. Though we were both just over six feet tall and slim, Graham wore vintage suits with kerchiefs neatly folded in the breast pockets and suspenders and on occasion a deerstalker hat, the same as Sherlock Holmes. Graham also took twice as long as Celia to dress. She would be late to a dinner because Graham couldn’t decide on which pair of socks went best with an outfit. She would tell me how relieving it was to be with a man now who wore jeans and a T-shirt and could throw on his clothes and leave the apartment in under five minutes. More to the point, I was a born and raised New Yorker with a strong sense of impatience about me. I wrote a popular magazine column about New York City, corner by corner. And Celia was in New York now. There was no time to wait around. She had places to be.
A Note to Readers on the Two-Year Anniversary of the Cursed Corner Column
Over the past many years in New York City, we have witnessed closures of stores, restaurants, movie theaters—businesses of all kinds—on a scale that most have not seen in their lifetime. The identity of the city is shifting quickly, dramatically, and the empty storefronts piling up on nearly every block throughout the five boroughs is very much at the center of this change. A crisis of this magnitude requires our immediate attention. By considering the phenomenon of the cursed corner—those corner commercial spaces that cycle through one tenant after another and often spend long periods vacant—this column has always aspired to open eyes and awaken minds to the very factors at the forefront of the city’s empty commercial spaces. At the heart of this column is a deep love of New York as well as a fear that we must act at once to get our storefronts occupied or else suffer great, perhaps irreversible consequences to our neighborhoods.
Now here’s a throwback to the corner that started it all. Enjoy.
THE CURSED CORNERS OF NEW YORK CITY
THE BREUER BUILDING
People often write into the magazine and ask me, “Paul, what circumstances create a cursed corner?” Well, in almost all cases, an original tenant has vacated a location and a new tenant has attempted to insert itself — and its vision or perhaps lack of one — into that very space.
Now say hello to one of New York City’s newest cursed corners. Some would say it has always been cursed. But when the Whitney Museum vacated its longtime home and moved downtown, it left behind a building with a very difficult premise. In just a blip the Met Breuer is on its way out and the Frick is temporarily storing its collection there during a renovation. And then what? You can already sense what is a growing identity crisis for a building that dares any new tenant to try and occupy it. Curse, you are so cruel.
Since the beginning, Celia and I were always voracious in our sexual appetites for one another. At home and out of the home, everywhere, anywhere we could find a little bit of privacy—and then once with hardly any at all behind a standing plant in the entryway of the Ukrainian National Home on 2nd Avenue, chased off eventually by the superintendent—as well as on beaches, in restaurant bathrooms, in cars. We couldn’t control ourselves. In truth, I had never known attraction like this. Celia was extraordinarily beautiful. Meeting me at a bar one night, she announced upon her arrival that two taxis had crashed into each other trying to pick her up. This came as no surprise—Celia had collision-causing beauty. Over time no less than a hundred people would pull me aside and ask if Celia didn’t like them. The insecurity she brought out in people was due to her eyes: she could keep people at a great distance with those brown eyes. Not me, however—I saw nothing but warmth and compassion behind them, a kind of harmony that extended all the way through her. I would often kiss every part of her body, focus on her every inch, hungry to consume and have the total knowledge of her physical form, vagina, breasts, buttocks, thighs and then back up to her neck where I would spend much time, in love, as I was, with her every inch.
Just as there appeared to be no limit to our sexual needs for one another, Celia and I could talk to one another forever. Whole mornings, afternoons and evenings would pass in conversation. Where had the time gone? What had we even done? Sat in the same place? Speaking to one another? It seemed impossible.
And yet, I knew it that it wasn’t all being said, for Celia never spoke a word to me about Graham and the guilt and sadness she lived with on a daily basis because of the divorce. She was so skilled at concealing these feelings. Meanwhile, Celia and I lived in the apartment she had shared with Graham and he was often coming by to pick up clothes or a book or a shaving kit or a pair of shoes or a mechanical pencil or a post-it note he had left inside the kitchen cabinet regarding a certain recipe. Celia wouldn’t force him to collect all his things. Graham had moved nearby into an old warehouse on Driggs in Williamsburg, a sprawling industrial space that he shared with friends. Offered a bedroom there, he opted for a large closet, slept on a wooden plank, used a two-by-four in place of a pillow. Denying himself these basic comforts was, in Graham’s estimations, a nod to the order of the monks who he so greatly admired. It had nothing to do with Celia having torn out his heart. Had she done that? Perhaps she might ask him. Instead, to ease her guilt and show her devotion to Graham, Celia kept his last name: Andrews. She promised Graham never to change it. I believe she would have been doing him a favor if she had: change her name and set him free.
“Celia, do you ever imagine that you’ll see less of Graham?” I asked her one day.
We were lying in the very bed that Celia and Graham had bought after moving to New York. Quite possibly Graham was sleeping on a wooden board now because the mattress he had paid for was here in his old bedroom supporting the body weight of his ex-wife and her lover-turned-boyfriend.
“Maybe he wants to go back to Knoxville. His family is there, after all.”
“His life is here.”
“Well, maybe you could help him by putting some real space between the two of you.”
“He would never accept it. He feels that our relationship is eternal, holy.”
“And it could be those things,” I said, “and still the best thing for him would be to put space between you. You have to make him see it. Right now, this arrangement is crippling him.”
“You think it is?”
“I’m sure of it.”
“Okay. I’ll talk to him. Let’s just go to sleep.”
But she never did speak to Graham. She might have cut out all the favors she asked of him. This would have been a decent place for Celia to start. But it was as if she had no control over herself. And Graham, with his penchant for obliging her every request, had no defense for it, either. There was no limit to what she would ask of him: stretch her canvases, paint her studio walls, install a bookcase. He was handy, Graham. He worked for a furniture-maker doing carpentry and had the company’s truck at his disposal. Anytime Celia sold a large painting, Graham would transport the piece from her studio to the buyer. It made Graham appear susceptible to manipulation, and like a dog. But with Celia it was worse: she came off as heartless and every bit willing to take advantage of her ex-husband and his overly generous nature.
“What about this apartment?” I said.
“What about it?”
“I worry that we shouldn’t be here, that it’s not good for us.”
I had known right away after moving in here that I’d made a mistake. Celia and I both would have been well-served with a fresh start. The classic Bushwick Avenue railroad was cheap, though, and neither of us could afford a better place. Graham’s influence, his flourishes, and still, his things, were everywhere. He had built an enormous bookcase in the living room, an attractive floor to ceiling unit. A dark green sofa Celia and Graham had been given as a wedding gift sat directly across from it. The shoe rack, the coat stand, the two-person bench at the front door—Graham had built all of these pieces, fashioned them with his two hands, with his mind and heart on his future with Celia. She had offered most of it to Graham when he’d moved out, but he had refused to take even a single piece. He didn’t have the room, and he didn’t want it, besides. But then it wasn’t as if Celia and I were going to get all new kitchenware, either, just because every time I used a pot or pan or a fork or knife, I would think of how Celia and Graham had acquired these things in the process of building a life together. I didn’t mention this to Celia, but I also felt that it wouldn’t be fair to. After all, no matter what measures you took, you couldn’t do away with a person’s past. Inevitably it followed. New bookcases wouldn’t change this fact. I was better off being realistic and acting rationally. Perhaps what concerned me most was that Celia claimed not to feel the slightest bit troubled by living around all these vestiges of her marriage. And yet she was very sentimental about objects. She didn’t throw anything away. She had a whole shelf of old photo albums. She kept clothes she hadn’t worn since she was in elementary school. She held onto every letter dating back to her childhood. Everything had some special meaning to it: a metal picture frame had been handed down to her by some relative, the alarm clock was the very one she had used since the fifth grade, a pillow was the same one she had slept with when staying at her great-grandmother’s. All of this, but nothing about the things she and Graham had accrued over the years causing any emotional disturbances.
Graham had made a promise to Celia to do some work around the apartment before the child was born, attend to some of the long-standing problems around the apartment that she had been begging him to fix, like the broken bathroom window, a doorknob that continued to fall off, a shim-job on an off-balanced bookcase, a leak under the kitchen sink, a lamp that had to be rewired and a chair leg that needed reinforcement. But on a weekend shortly before her due date, Celia and I left the apartment for a couple of hours to see a movie and have dinner in a restaurant and when we returned we discovered not only a fixed bathroom window and doorknob, shimmed bookcase and kitchen sink, lamp and chair leg, but an entire nursery custom-built by Graham. Celia and I drew our hands up and down the new pieces of furniture, in a state of utter disbelief. Graham had said nothing to prepare us for this, not a word. It was a gift for our unborn child. There was a card in which Graham explained how excited he was for the birth of our child and how this nursery was an expression of those feelings.
“This is insane,” I said.
“I know, the crib, it’s fit for a prince,” said Celia. “Look, he even bought the mattress.”
“Oh God, he did.”
The crib was exquisite, made of a cocoa-colored wood. Next to the crib were cubbies, twelve-squares, four across and three levels high, a handsome piece of furniture on which Graham had placed a brand new light up globe. There was a changing table with a built-in drawer, the knob of which was inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Who knew how many hours of work he had put into building these pieces—ten, fifteen, maybe twenty hours?
“Do you think we should say something, Celia?”
“Like, seek help.”
“That’s not funny, Paul.”
“I agree. None of this is funny, Celia. You have to talk to him.”
“And tell him what?”
“I’m sure you can figure out something. But this isn’t good for him or you or me.”
“I feel great about it all,” she said. “Look at what Graham’s made. It’s great work.”
Celia insisted on having Graham over the following night so that we could toast to his efforts with a few rounds of Fernet, his favorite spirit. Graham arrived and went on for more than forty minutes about the inspiration for the nursery, which just happened to be the furniture in a monastery that he and Celia had visited while in Tuscany together in their early-20s. He spent another twenty minutes discussing how he had driven to a special lumber yard four hours away in Pennsylvania where a particular strain of mahogany could be had and not for cheap. And then there was at least another twenty minutes of Graham talking about the two all-nighters he had pulled so that he could sneak into a friend’s workshop in the off-hours and use its high-end machinery (saws, sanders). We hadn’t even gotten around to the Fernet, nor eaten any of the hors d’oeuvres Celia had picked up earlier in the day. I was fading. I would have to excuse myself.
“I’m sorry, everyone,” I said. “I have to go lie down.”
Graham was in the middle of a sentence—he’d been describing how monks in medieval times would have kept their prayer books on a piece that almost exactly resembled the new changing table. His head lifted, a gentle smile forming, he said, “I’m sorry, Paul. I’ve been talking so much, haven’t I?”
“No, no, I’m sorry. You two carry on. Don’t let me stop you.”
I went to lie in the bed. However, I couldn’t get comfortable. The bed wouldn’t allow for it. Why should it? It had been their bed. Well, enough of this bed and enough of this place. Celia and I had to start over in a place without a history with a new bed that had no sexual past pertaining to ex-husbands and lovers and new furniture and new everything. I had to be more forthcoming about these needs. But then I was also well-aware that we couldn’t afford to move, that unless Celia and I began to earn a lot more money that we would have to stay here. Of course, New York was so expensive, you lived where you could. That was the deal the city made with nearly all its citizens. It was very likely we would never be able to leave this apartment then, and Graham would be present in the details of our home—his home—forever. I could not bear the possibility of this. But what could I do about it? Anything at all? To fall asleep, though, I knew I would need to have more peaceful thoughts. Happier ones. And so, I did what I always did in times like these and began to take a mental walking tour of all the cursed corners I could think of.
THE JARMULOWSKY BANK BUILDING
Wrapped in scaffolding for the past eight years, the Jarmulowsky Bank Building at the corner of Canal and Orchard has been something of a foreboding presence. After being bought up by a developer, DLJ, it has undergone major renovations, including expansion down Orchard into an adjacent building. After some uncertainty as to the future purpose of 9 Orchard, as the address is known, the developers eventually settled on opening a boutique hotel, reminding us, in the process, that the term boutique hotel no longer holds any real meaning. This column has never tried to be a predictive voice, but it must be pointed out that if the hotel does find itself attracting the numbers of people it appears to be seeking, with three large restaurants and additional event spaces along with one hundred-and-sixteen hotel rooms, this small triangle of restaurants and bars where the LES and Chinatown meet and shake hands will not be able to accommodate the flow of foot traffic and we can expect a clusterfuck of humans. But who knows if these doors will ever open, for the curse seems to be upon us, pushing back day after day on a ribbon cutting ceremony.