The Biggest Department Store
in the World
First of all—the land itself. A land flowing with milk and honey. People with money left and right. Beggars use two hands. They rake it in. And there’s so much business there, it makes you dizzy. You do whatever you please. Want a factory—it’s a factory. Want to open a store—fine. Want to push a pushcart, that’s permitted too. Or you can become a pedlar, even work in a shop! It’s a free country. You can be bloated with hunger, die in the street—no one will bother you; no one will say a word. —Sholom Aleichem, “On America”
Alice’s apartment was a cell in a concrete honeycomb on East Eighteenth Street between Gramercy Park and Union Square. I had never met Alice; I knew someone who knew her and arranged to sublet her apartment, sight unseen, for two months while she was working abroad. This deal was a technical breach of the regulations of the building, so I had been told to present myself to the doormen and the super as Alice’s cousin, or at least her intimate friend. So far as the handicaps of sex and voice allowed, I had to be as nearly Alice herself as I could manage.
I let myself into a neat but rather gloomy cabin, barely half the size of Officer B’s—the fully furnished life of someone small, slender and dainty in their movements. Alice must once had trained in ballet and gymnastics in order to negotiate the doll’s house routes and spaces of her apartment without breaking
HUNTING MISTER HEARTBREAK 45
something every time she yawned. Everything was little: little table, little chairs, little couch, little bureau, a very little upright piano with its lid open and a piece of Schumann’s on the stand. Only the bed was big, it reigned over the rest of the room from its alcove, where it was surrounded by books, angle lamps, card index files, and apparently served a dual function as Alice’s head office. A patchwork mammal was crouched on top of the pillows. It probably had a name like Merriwether or Smudge.
With blundering caution I sniffed and snooped, trying to get the measure of this rented new life. I studied the grainy framed photographs on the walls, each one inscribed “For Alice With Love” by its photographer; a winter landscape, a woman in bed (could this be Alice herself?), a timber barn somewhere in the Far West. Alice had a serious library of modern poetry, photographic books, some stuff on Egyptology and the ancient world. No history, no politics, no obvious bestsellers. There was something fierce and exclusive in her taste for Robert Lowell, Alfred Stieglitz and the pharaohs, as if her apartment was too small to admit entry to the eccentric strangers who manage to worm their way onto most people’s bookshelves.
Her kitchen—a narrow tiled slot, like a shower stall—revealed a preference for herbal teas and decaffeinated coffee as well as a reassuring weakness for vodka and white wine. The bathroom cabinet gave nothing much away; she was prone to headaches and occasional trouble with her sinuses. I liked the smell of her shampoo.
There was a useful find on the bureau—along with a stack of snapshots, a brittle clipping from a local newspaper in Mississippi, circa 1954. It showed a family of small children restraining an exploding huddle of Labrador pups, under the headline COON-HUNTERS OF TOMORROW? The caption identified the child in the middle as Alice. So Smudge—or Merriwether—had survived from a rural childhood in the deepest South into a north-facing single life in New York City. The clipping, with its cozy-cute headline, was rich in tantalizing suggestions. It conjured a great white Greco-Roman Baptist church, a segregated school where Alice would have been the clever one in the second row back, a landscape of flat cotton fields and stands of cypress and bog oak.
46 JONATHAN RABAN
There awash a dusty, back-country road … Alice swinging her school bag … the lazy, grown-up talk of dogs and guns … It was all further away from New York than New York could possibly imagine—a lonely distance for anyone to travel on their own.
I ousted Smudge, or Merriwether, from the bed and tried out what it might feel like to be Alice. The last things she’d been reading were Joseph Bosky’s essays, an advanced French grammar (she still did her homework, evidently), and the October issue of Vanity Fair. I switched on the TV. She’d been tuned to the Cable News Network.
“Preserve your heritage of freedoms—join the National Rifle Association,” then the picture changed to shots of Michael Dukakis and George Bush on the presidential stump. Alice would be rooting for Dukakis, but rooting reluctantly, I guessed. She’d wince at the too-new suede jacket and too-stiff checkered leisure shirt in which he was now cajoling an audience of Iowa farmers. He kept on blinking, as if at the glare of footlights, a big-city actor trying, unsuccessfully, to pass himself off as a down-home country boy. Bush, by contrast, also somewhere out in the sticks, looked as if he’d just strolled off the golf course; his clothes were clearly his own, and he seemed worryingly at home with the people he was talking to.
Half attending to the garble of the candidates at my back, I lay propped on one elbow looking out through the window at Alice’s view. The rain had stopped, and on the roof of the building across the street a potbellied man was pegging out his laundry on a line. A rowan tree, rooted far down in someone’s yard, was still in full leaf, its fernlike greenery straggling up through a jungle-gym of pipes and fire escapes. High above the street, a squirrel was making an intrepid passage from house to house, down a drainpipe, up a tree branch, along a fire escape, up another drainpipe … an urban aerialist, sprinting and jumping through the neighborhood, as footsure as a purse-snatcher.
The view was dominated by a single building: a distended Florentine palazzo, clad in bright red brick, encrusted with ornament, which grew, story by fantasticated story, to a huge water tank masquerading as a campabile. This good-humored, elderly monster loomed protectively over Alice’s small quarter of New
HUNTING MISTER HEARTBREAK 47
York, with its nineteenth-century houses, its bar, its rowan tree, its rim of foliage showing over the tops of the roofs from Gramercy Park. Beyond the loony palazzo, the gray cliffs of midtown Manhattan began—a mountaineer’s territory of ribbed outcrops on the seventh floor of East Eighteenth; it was a gentle village in the foothills, a place that anyone might choose to set off from in order to climb the dangerous peaks of the city.
Yet even in this relatively quiet corner, one could feel New York trembling under one’s feet. The building shook with the wet sea-surge of the traffic as it bulleted away from the stoplight on East Eighteenth and Third Avenue. In place of birdsong there was the continuous angry warble of ambulances, patrol cars, fire trucks. It was the sound of heart attacks and heartbreak. Of car crashes, hold-ups, fire-raisings, hit-and-run, flight and pursuit, sudden death: the sound of a city in a round-the-clock state of emergency.
The squirrel attained the guttering of Pete’s Tavern. The man opposite, his mouth full of clothespins, was taking a last anxious look at the sky before disappearing down the hatch on his roof. If you were going to learn to live here, you’d have to go deaf to the sound of New York and set up house in the silent bubble of your own preoccupations. Therefore never send to know for whom the siren wails; it does not wail for thee.
Alice must have schooled herself to abide by this breezy motto. For me the New York air was full of robbery and murder; for her, it would be inaudible white noise. She would be placidly sitting at her piano practicing scales and waiting for the kettle to come to a boil for her cup of camomile tea, snug in her cell, with uniformed guards standing watch down in the lobby. I resolved to try and learn to be like Alice.
Her name, and the shoebox scale on which she lived, made her belong to Lewis Carroll and the Tenniel illustrations to Through the looking Glass. Her shoulder-length hair was fastened back with a snood; she wore a pinafore and striped knee socks. More importantly, she had the other Alice’s sturdy bourgeois sense of normality. Alice was the touchstone of what was right and proper, a pillar of common sense in a world turned inside out.
48 JONATHAN RABAN
Keeping one’s footing in new York would need just the Alice-like gumption required by life on the chessboard at Looking-Glass House.
(Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Jonathan Raban, pages 44-48)