Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Memories: Dead Shoes Walking

The corner is now just one big nail salon filled with many women and a few men taking their manicures very seriously.

But then - the long long time ago then - it was two stores - a laundry mat with the guy who did everything with his right hand, the left never leaving his pocket, and next door the tiny, narrow, dusty, chaotic shoemaker shop.

The 2nd Avenue Shoemaker was maybe in his 50s, from Turkey and every Friday night he closed the shop and put out a little feast for several of us tenants - the cat-like set designer who moved to Hollywood soon after and rumor had it became famous, the biggish 50 or 60-ish booming voice character actor from the second floor who lived with his nephew (which made everyone laugh but I think he was actually his nephew), and me, recently kicked out into a new life, wearing heels for miles thinking it made me a woman.

Behind the half closed gate we would crowd in and listen to the shoemaker, on a violin more beat-up than his wooden counter, play the only thing he knew - The Beggar from Istanbul. Over and over and over again and we would nod along, laugh, eat all his olives, maybe some salami or cheese, drink all his wine and get tipsy. A perfect way to end the week of my first of many low-paying clerical jobs. I'd sit like a 1940's movie star in my high heels, smoking my Dunhills, sipping wine and hoping no one noticed I was eating most of the salami because it was a great meal I could afford. Tolerance of bad violin playing for free food and booze.

The late 80's came and with it the end of the laundry mat and the Shoemaker. Like most young people, I didn't quite understand the profundity of end, over, death and it's never coming back again - the irreversibility of things. I still thought one day it would get better be better stay the same not erase familiar home. I thought there was time and the reclaiming of things lost still a possibility.

Me and the Russian refugee assistant who worked for the 12th Street Shoemaker both went down the street to the competition - Mr. Fontana's across the street from the St. Marks church.

With a shop much bigger than 12th Street, but equally dusty and chaotic, Mr. Fontana was much more selective. The 2nd Avenue Shoemaker would fix anything for a couple of bucks, but Mr. Fontana didn't hesitate to fling the item back at you and say, "No. Too cheap. I don't do that." Or something like that because his accent was a mix of New Jersey, Queens and Italy and with the machines running all I could understand was if I wanted his repairs I'd need to upgrade the quality of my footwear.

If you didn't pick up your shoes in time Mr. Fontana would wait a while - like a year or a couple of months and then he'd sell them. I went in there regularly asking if anyone in my size had been negligent. After two pairs of ankle boots made of Italian leather, worth hundreds and sold to me for weekly grocery money, it was a necessity to ensure my upgrades were affordable. The best purchase: two Armani wing-tips for the man I loved for a total of $50 or $75. Down from $700. Great deal. When the man I loved wore them he took my breath away.

Then the neighborhood, like a car crash in sudden slow-motion, became exclusive, filled with rich people dressing like how we dressed in the 70's when we were poor, only their clothes were much better quality and cost much much more than the $2 overcoat I bought off of Henry in 1977 when his neighbor the old man died and they found 13 black overcoats and were just going to throw them out until Henry took them and sold them to everyone in the bar.

Watching versions of my old coat now selling for hundreds of dollars and being worn by young people who never seem to have to go to a job I would look at Mr. Fontana's shop and feel for a brief moment nothing erased, something still not lost, and now heartbreakingly understanding the profundity of death and dying, I'd stand there and hope the shop would last longer then I did so that I could age and face my own mortality in some familiar setting.

The one time I got up enough nerve and asked to take a picture in Mr. Fontana's shop, the batteries died after the second snap.

Last week, Mr. Fontana's closed.

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