I'd like to start of the week by telling you about how I fell for the love of my life. It's not a man I'm talking about--and not a woman either (hot as those nekkid pictures of Milla Jovovich might make me)--but, rather, a city.
Though I've been to San Francisco plenty of times--not to mention Paris, London, Berlin, Venice, Boston, Austin and a jillion other destinations--I've never left my heart any place but here. New York is the object of my affections. And I started to truly fall for it one night in a small West Village jazz club called Smalls.* Before then, I'd heard all the stories--about the mystery, the brilliance, the vast depths--and I certainly had a crush on this place I now call home. But it was through Smalls that my real intimacy with New York began.
I wrote about the Smalls' phase of my life for a groovy little web site called Mr. Beller's Neighborhood; now that story has been re-published in a brand new anthology, Lost and Found: Stories from New York (which also has pieces by some amazing literary writers like Meghan Daum, Jonathan Ames, Charles D'Ambrosio and Sam Lipsyte).
The first section of my story--which recounts how I was first taken to Smalls by an architect I was dating--is below ...
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from Smalls, or The Place Where All the Ladders Start
If you asked me to choose a single event to mark the beginning of my long love affair with the city, it would be my first night at Smalls--the tiny West Village speak-easy where the jam sessions kept going past dawn, where some of the musicians lived in the back rooms when they had no place else to go, and where the city's jazz kids developed into giants.
A new year had just begun and I was living in DC--doing some writing for The Washington Post, doing more working at a coffee shop in Dupont Circle--when I took a trip to Manhattan to spend a long weekend with a guy I'd just met.
James was his name. A scrawny architect, a friend of a friend, he lived in a studio on West Tenth, just down the street from Three Lives Bookstore. We'd sit on his fire escape to smoke, wear each other's jeans, and sleep together in his bed under an old map of the city, with calligraphic letters and fraying edges. He took me to all his favorite spots in his neighborhood. Of those, Smalls was best.
As we approached the club late that baptismal Friday night, a guy was sitting off to the side of an otherwise unremarkable door. He had the slow, wise eyes of a lizard and a head so bald it seemed hair had never dared grow there. Other than a crocheted hippie beret, his clothes were unremarkable. He appeared to be both older than me-I was young enough then that everyone did-and ageless. In his lap, a well-worn book was open like a hymnal, and he would glance at it occasionally, although he seemed less concerned with reading it than with watching the streets, waiting for someone to arrive.
But who? Godot? The Man? Us, as it turned out. Or customers, at least. He was the Charon for that underworld, collecting the entrance fee, as well as Smalls' owner. Mitch.
I was already tipsy by then, thanks not only to wine but also to the boy with good cheekbones by my side and the spell of New York. So when I saw that what Mitch had was a collection by Yeats, I interpreted it as one more omen that I was finally where I belonged. I couldn't help saying playfully: "Are we about to go down into the foul rag and bone shop of the heart?"
Mitch came right back with: "Isn't that where you have to begin? Where all the ladders start?" It was his quote from the poem I'd alluded to, "The Circus Animals' Desertion." Mitch was, as it turned out, an eccentric who seemed to plant a riddle, a deeper meaning, in every sentence. And by uttering that Yeatsian shibboleth, I'd joined his game before he'd even invited me in.
Once James and I descended, we pushed through a velvet curtain to a small, smoky room. It was packed with people listening to the slew of musicians crowded onto a wooden stage: saxophonists-and saxophones-of every size; a couple of trumpeters; a pianist; a bassist; a drummer; even a man pulling a slide trombone. They played underneath a sepia-toned photograph of a beaming young man, outfitted in culottes and argyle socks pulled up to his knees, his arms resting on his folded legs, who seemed to be guarding and godding the place, like a crucifix over an altar. But he hadn't died for anyone's sins--not Louis Armstrong.
In that shrine to jazz, the other pictures covering the walls were of Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Nina Simone, Sidney Bechet. There were wooden icons of men blowing horns. There was the burning of a certain pungent holy weed by a few devotees in a far corner. There was the congregation in their seats, bobbing and swaying like they were swooning or praying.
We seemed to have been transported to back in time. I couldn't believe a place like that existed outside of the past or my dreams. It was exactly where I'd wanted to be every other night in my life that I'd gone out-full of beautiful music and odd characters, where a new improvisational drama was always being performed-but I had never seen anything like it before.
Hours later, near dawn, full of pale ale and heavy jazz, James and I made our way out. We found Mitch at the bottom of the stairwell this time, and effused to him about what a time we'd had before sauntering back to the apartment, across Seventh Avenue, across Waverly. The sky was just starting to ripen into the gold of morning, and the only other people around were the dog-walkers and the grocery-delivery men. They seemed like extras on the scene.
At that moment, I could have sworn that New York belonged entirely to James and me.
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PS: The CD Jazz Underground: Live at Small's will give you a little taste of the music I used to hear there.
PPS: Arlo Pumpernickel says hello.