Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday Memories: Dead Shoes Walking

The 12th street corner is now just one big nail salon filled with many women and a few men taking their manicures very seriously.

But once upon a time, a long long time ago, it was two stores.  There was the laundry mat run by the Chinese family who had lived in the neighborhood since the 1840s.  And next to that, in a sliver of a space, was the tiny, narrow, dusty, chaotic Second Avenue Shoe Repair shop.

The shoemaker was an old man in his 50s, originally from Turkey. He had a Russian refugee who worked as his assistant.  Every Friday night the shoemaker would close up the shop at 5 p.m., send the assistant home early and put out a little feast for a couple of us tenants who lived upstairs.

There was the cat-like set designer who, the minute it turned 1980, moved to Hollywood.  (Rumor had it she became famous).

There was the bigger-than-life 60 year-old booming voice character actor from the second floor who lived with his nephew (which made everyone laugh but I think that guy really was his nephew because I kept running into both of them with women who looked like they were being paid to be there).

And then there was me, recently kicked out into a new life and wearing heels for miles thinking it made me a woman.

We would crowd into the shop, pull the gates half-way down and drag out all the old chairs along the ancient wooden counter.  The shoemaker would then pull out an old violin more beat-up than his counter and play the only thing he knew - The Beggar from Istanbul. Over and over and over again.

We would nod along, laugh, eat all the olives, nibble at the salami and cheese and finish off the bottle of red wine.  The more he played the more we drank the better he sounded the more he played.  And soon a second bottle would be dusted off and opened.

It was the 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 Dunhill cigarettes, sipping wine and hoping no one noticed I was eating most of the free salami and cheese because it was a great meal I couldn’t afford.

The 1980's came. Schneller sold the laundry mat and the shoe repair spaces to a richer tenant.  Like most young people, I didn't quite understand the profundity of end-over-dead-it’s-never-coming-back-again.  I didn’t get the irreversibility of so-called progress. I still thought one day it would stay-the-same-not-erase-familiar-home. I thought there was still time left to reclaim things lost.

Me and the Russian refugee assistant both went down the street to the competition - Mr. Fontana's across the street from St. Marks Church.

With a shop much bigger than the Second Avenue Shoe Repair, but equally dusty and chaotic, Mr. Fontana was much more selective. The old Turkish 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.  I scored two pairs of ankle boots made of Italian leather, worth hundreds and sold to me for weekly grocery money. I also scored two Armani wing-tips for the man I loved for $50. (When he wore them he took my breath away and when he left me unexpectedly I was so angry and devastated I threw them away in a commercial mob-run garbage truck).

Then the 1990s and the naughts unfolded, and like a car crash in sudden slow-motion, the neighborhood became exclusive, filled with rich people dressing like how we dressed in the 1970's when we were broke, only their clothes were much better quality and cost much much more than the black wool overcoat I bought off of Henry in 1977 when his neighbor the old man died and they found 13 of those overcoats and Henry pulled them out of the trash and sold them to everyone at the bar for $5.

Watching versions of my old $5 coat being worn by young people who never seemed to have to go to work, I would step  into Mr. Fontana's shop and feel for a brief moment stay-the-same-not-erase-familiar-home.  I now understood the profundity of end-over-dead-it’s/he/she/they are-never-coming-back-again.   Listening to the deafening noise of the machines, nodding to the Russian assistant, I’d pray the shop would last longer then I did so that I could grow old and face my own mortality in some familiar setting.

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

And shortly after that, Mr. Fontana got an eviction notice - 90 days to get out.

And shortly after that, a coffee shop moved in so that coffee aficionados wearing expensive black overcoats and black boots from the 1980s could enjoy their $5 cup of java.