I had in mind I’d visit the fortune-teller on Myrtle Avenue.
The fortune-teller didn’t have a storefront; she ran her operation from the second story of a brick apartment building above a corner bodega near my house. The only way you could tell she was open for business—or that she even existed—was the red neon hand that hung from her window. That glowing hand was the Dr. T.J. Eckleburg of Myrtle Avenue. I admired the economy and mystery of that shingle.
When I resolved to visit the fortune-teller, I wasn’t in town. I was in California, one of many trips A. and I took that year to spend more time with our aging parents. I jotted a note to check for a name or a phone number on the street-level intercom of the fortune-teller’s building when I got home. I daydreamed about what I’d find when I finally made it up those stairs: Would there be a flat-screen TV and coupons on the refrigerator? Stuffed toys that revealed the presence of small children? Would the smell of stale cooking oil or incense hang in the air? Or would it be staged as a proper fortune-teller’s lair, with dim lighting, heavy drapes, and a dusty Turkish rug on the floor?
For ten days, the red hand glowed in my mind. When I got home, the sign was gone.
The city dweller’s days are measured by the covers of tabloid newspapers (Luc Sante). The headlines peer out at us from news kiosks. We read them in a subway car, held open by a fellow straphanger. We skim them waiting in line at the bodega for Tylenol, cigarettes. We read a discarded copy at a steam table buffet in midtown, hunched over our weighted-by-the-pound plastic clamshell lunch.
Movie posters measure the week. Storefronts measure a year. Sante said all this at a talk he gave on the tabloid in East Williamsburg in a low-ceilinged room usually reserved to screen documentary films. The talk, like Brooklyn, was really about time.
I wasn’t sure about the storefronts, not at first. I thought he meant a year was the typical lifespan of a small business. But his meaning became clearer that year we were leaving, returning, leaving, returning. This pattern attenuated us to the rhythms and changes on Myrtle Avenue. The year is the unit of measure for the transition from one storefront to another: the abrupt shuttering; the banging and sawing at odd hours; the grand opening when the paper is finally torn off the windows. To simplify: The year is the measure of a gentrifying neighborhood.
In Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil , an unseen narrator reads aloud from a friend’s letters. We witness a montage of images of his travels shot by this friend, a cinematographer,. His camera lingers on sleepers on a ferry leaving the island of Hokkaido; a busy marketplace in Guinea Bissau. His point of view becomes our point of view, that of a visitor stepping in and out of the stream of life. Recollection is suspect, fleeting; history, which does not officially exist, even more so. The letters are like listening to the radio alone in darkest night.
Ritual repairs the violence embedded in time, and the cinematographer’s camera is keen to capture these practices. At a busy intersection in Tokyo, he pauses to remark on a seasonal phenomenon, breaking open in all its fragile loveliness like a time lapse of a flower, blossoming: What gives the street its color in January, what makes it suddenly different, is the appearance of kimono.
On our little corner in Brooklyn, the arrival of seasons is marked by the rotation of products in Aisle 6 at Walgreens. In October, the shelves are stacked with mass-produced costumes, witch hats, bunny ears, Devil’s horns. A plastic skeleton wearing overalls tickles a banjo. You can buy a hat the shape of a pumpkin for your dog. In April, the aisle turns into an infant’s room, all pale blue, pink, and yellow. A shelf dedicated to floppy stuffed bunnies, their heads drooping over their paunches, appears and vanishes just as quickly, replaced by Playmate coolers.
I’m standing in line at Walgreens. At the register, an older, heavyset woman leaning on a cane is clarifying the discounts she is entitled to in the coupon circular.
Is it a two-for-one? Well, I don’t need two.
The coupons are done with, but now there is the matter of counting exact change from her coin purse.
Behind her, the faces in the queue harden. Too polite to sigh loudly, we signal our aggravation with our eyes, shift our impatience from one leg to the other. The young mother hugs her bundle of diapers. Behind her, a man taps his package of double-A batteries against thigh. We all have more money than Coupon Lady and less time to spend waiting in line because we have had to spend most of the day making money. It’s the very poor and very rich who have the most free time, not that it costs the same.
The clerks at Walgreens are nearly all young; no one comes close to breaking thirty. The girls with their impeccably painted nails, the boys and their stylish fades. Sometimes they are required to recite a script. Would you be interested in adding M&Ms or Snickers to your purchase today? For a spell they all said, Be well in parting as they handed us our receipts.
As I set my items down at the register, the girl behind the counter complains to a co-worker of a headache. She thinks she got it from a customer who skunked of cologne. He chuckles. He smell like my Haitian uncle . These workers change with the seasons. The pay isn’t enough to keep them there for long.
The cinematographer in Sans Soleil travels the world, but he returns to Tokyo, always. He cements his reunion with the city in ritual. He writes that he is like a cat that has come home from vacation. (What kind of cat goes on vacation?) Once let out of its basket, the cat immediately sets upon inspecting its familiar places, just as the cinematographer visits his favorite touchstones: the Ginza owl; the Shimbashi locomotive; the fox temple at the top of the Mitsukoshi department store.
After a long trip, I don’t really feel at home until I’ve walked the length of Myrtle Avenue. I admire the new window display at the Tibetan crafts store, the women in their gele and matching wraps emerging from the Nigerian mosque across from Walgreens. I note the progress on the storefront under construction, because there is always a store under construction, and try to peek through the paper over the door.
Myrtle Avenue was once known as Murder Avenue. A reminder of those times: One side of the liquor store on the corner of Myrtle and Vanderbilt is a mural of a local man, Benjamin O’Garro. He’s on a wall, which means he’s dead. Even though the portrait is from the chest up, he looks indomitable: a blocker’s broad neck and a forehead that could smash through kung fu boards. Teasing his upper lip, a thin, elegant mustache.
Behind him lined up like dominos, the brown bricks of the Walt Whitman projects where he came up, an alleged drug dealer who, the story goes, once shielded himself in a gun battle with a four-year-old snatched off a playground. He did time upstate and came back to the neighborhood where he was killed by a spray of bullets as he stood inside a phone booth. This was in August 1995.
Many people walk by the mural paying no mind to Ben O’Garro and his life and times. But the mural is doing what it was meant to do. The people who remember still remember. Someone still cares enough to pay for touch ups, including a graffiti incident last year that blasted out his eyes with white spray paint. Like a modern-day street Ozymandias, its subject remains visible, standing. On that wall is all the information you need, if you’re curious, to learn more. There are only four walk-in phone booths left in New York City.
I had in mind I would take a photograph of every business on our stretch of Myrtle Avenue, in the spirit of Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip . Not for art’s sake so much as an aid for memory. This idea occurs to me every time A. and I can’t remember what used to be there.
Cardiff Giant (bar) was once Splitty’s (bar) was once Rope (bar). Where the yoga and Pilates studio stands now was, for over a decade, what folks used to call a “health food store” with shelves of teas and vitamins. Spice & Grill, the Nepalese-Indian restaurant on the corner of Clinton Avenue, was once Mark’s Gourmet Burgers, and before that, an antiseptic-looking Polish restaurant. Home & U, a 4,800 square-foot 99-cent store where we used to get our winter hats and gloves, was empty for more than a year before reemerging as a Starbucks and Chipotle.
We’re supposed to be against chain stores, but on Myrtle, Starbucks is the intergalactic cantina. Not everyone walks through its doors, of course. At minimum you have to be willing to pay $2.12 for a small coffee. Here are the white women with their yoga mats slung behind their shoulders. Teenagers let out of school. Cops rolling out of their squad cars. Art students from China. An Erykah Badu mystic draped in Batik, her felt hat stuck with feathers and beads. Contractors conversing in Russian, meaty hands chopping the air. Nannies and their charges. Something about the corporate uniformity of the place makes everyone feel equally welcome. A (Black) friend once explained why he avoids indie coffee shops. He dislikes the club mentality, the uneasy feeling that he is being appraised. No one ever gives me attitude at Starbucks, he said.
What used to be there?
Once we came home from one of our trips and Huey’s Chuey’s was gone.
Huey’s was a sweets shop that sold ice cream, fudge, candied apples. They kept hard candy in big wooden barrels and, by the register, massive, hallucinatory lollipops. Huey’s was old-timey in spirit, but it was never a neighborhood institution because it didn’t last very long. Turns out kids would rather spend the change in their pockets on brand-name candies at the corner bodega. The store owner’s originating concept, already a nostalgia, prefigured its own death.
The store on Myrtle I mourn the most was Images for Life, just around the corner from our house. A husband and wife ran the business, which featured a café in front and not much in the way of seating except three stools that were too tall for the built-in counter.
Other indicators of imminent doom: In the back was a photography studio. Surely in the age of digital cameras and smartphones, people still wanted professional portraits to mark special occasions? That was their gamble. Also for sale: natural beauty products, oils, body butters, fragrances. And hats, which took up a great deal of counter space.
We used to drop in for the occasional coffee and cookie. The husband was middle-aged, cheerful; a little frayed and bohemian, like a cast member on Sesame Street .
How’s business? we’d ask the husband.
Can’t complain, can’t complain. Got a little slow there in the winter, but we’re coming back up!
He permitted no cracks in the veneer. He didn’t want pity. He wanted business. They tried rallying with a big promotion of a new offering: homemade cakes and pie. It wasn’t enough to make a difference. One winter—their only winter?—they hired a Santa Claus to busk in front of the store.
Then one day they were gone. No warning, no Everything Must Go . The business clung on for a while online, selling the wife’s line of beauty products. I know; I looked. After a while, that vanished, too. Their storefront on Myrtle became a French bakery. Now it’s a pet store.
Twenty, even ten years ago, a store like Images for Life, with its aberrantly syncopated vision, probably would have have suffered the same prognosis. But an affordable lease might have extended its life expectancy so it could go out with grace. Maybe enterprises like these haunt us because they resemble too closely our own small business ideas, grounded too deeply in what we love instead of what other people want.
I know this accounting is of limited interest to you, just like your remembrances of what used to be on your block won’t really interest me. We are not talking monuments here, nothing deserving of broader renown. Just local spots that are recalled only by a coterie of local people. If you remember that place, then I know you were there the same time I was. If you weren’t there, then these reminiscences probably stupefy you, like listening to someone else describe their dreams. We don’t care—not really—unless the dreamer is the person we’re in love with.
When A. and I wring our hands over our inability to remember what used to be there, we are building our forgetfulness together like a crumbling memory palace.
When we’re really stuck on what used to be there, we sometimes make note of the address and consult Google Street View, which feels a little like a cheat. Oh, right. That’s how we figured out the new pan-Latin eatery used to be Yummy Yummy, an irredeemable Chinese take-out joint.
Ruscha was Google Street View before Google Street View. He strung Sunset Strip together by mounting a Nikon camera on the back of his Ford pickup truck. Every few years he’d go back to that same one and half mile stretch of boulevard to take photographs. The evolution of landscape upset him. In a 2005 interview, he characterized the change as cancerous and ultimately fatal .
Soon they will be doing plenty of Rambo-Vegas style projects that will span Sunset Boulevard with skywalk bridges and mirror escalator malls that will be cruel to the eyes , he lamented. I wish time would stand still.
I wish time would stand still. Ruscha was sixty-eight when he said that. When you’re that old, you can reveal feelings without shame because people expect you to be retrograde. Four years after Sunset Strip , Ruscha made another book of pictures. This time his subject was straight-up speculative: vacant lots in and around Los Angeles titled Real Estate Opportunities . Visit the lots now and you’ll find the strip malls, gas stations, dingbat apartment buildings, and Christian centers of Los Angeles playing itself .
The sensation of time passing is not inside us, but outside of us (Annie Ernaux). Time passes when we see children growing up, neighbors leaving, other people getting old. The crab boil joint now sells falafel. The White Castle drive-in is flipping to luxury condos. Across the street, the Associated shut down for two years and re-emerged as Key Food, with a bigger deli section and more expensive brands. The street is the unit of measure of our slow, nearly imperceptible shamble toward extinction; no wonder we can scarcely keep track of it.
I had it in mind I would visit the fortune-teller on Myrtle Avenue. I wanted to write about the avenue; the fortune-teller was supposed to be my hook. I might have asked, Instead of reading my fortune, can you tell me the future of the street? I didn’t realize the future would become the past so soon, like time itself foreclosed.
I am on subway platform at Lafayette waiting for the C train. It must be the new season for television shows. Nearly every billboard is taken up by teenage vampires, workplace dramas, undercover spies. There’s a new show about a woman who wakes up after a night of partying infected with the zombie virus. To satisfy her sordid hunger without having to kill people, she finds work at the local morgue. The show whirs to life when she feeds on human brains: memories of the newly dead flash in her mind.
With this knowledge, she begins to solve crimes.