overly Dramatic portrait of a walkby Jillian Elisabetta Ciaccia
The corner at West 10th Street and Sixth Avenue slopes at an obtuse angle. The City lamp post, built to illuminate, arrogantly points a long green finger—a standard street sign—uptown, informing those who are interested enough, or those who merely happen to take notice, that this is the Avenue of the Americas. Thanks to the curb’s incline, it is exceptionally easy for feet to make the transition from the panicked asphalt of oncoming traffic to the panicked concrete of oncoming pedestrians. Ascending the curb, one finds choice upon choice, a forestry of pleasure to be taken advantage of, a string of opportunity in the form of businesses and commerce. The storefronts capitalize on wandering eyes; their posters and words are brief, summing what a customer can do or have done to them right here, right now at a reduced cost when compared to the leading competitor.
The words are read, a fantasy is enticed, one imagines eating or drinking or touching this priced-reduced item, imagines this goodie in their lives, home, body. Thyroids expand just a bit in excitement, cheeks rouge as the fantasy begins, middles, and ends as quickly as the print on storefront advertisements is read. This cycle continues shop after shop.
The fluorescent light of Ansonia’s Pharmacy wedges between storefront signs and highlights a broken parking meter outside its door. The goods inside, however, all aim to secure or restore some bodily function. Windows of Ansonia’s Rx (as written on the marquee in an antique font exaggerating the shop’s actual age) were freshly squeegeed providing a clear, nearly pornographic view of labels of bottles—glass and plastic—said to target dysfunction on cellular, gastric, neurological, or mental levels. Pills and powders in ounces, liters, strengths indicated by color spectrums, all in one Greek chorus narrate if you have it, get rid of it; if you need it, get it here—right here.
Wandering eyes are pulled to each aggressive hue and sales pitch in tailored packages suiting up the hundreds of little salesmen hoping the body will follow. The body instead continues its walk, but has—in one or two steps forward—been triggered to perform a subconscious inventory of itself: palm and oat oil intake, caloric intake, greens intake, alpha and gamma-tocopherol intake, intake of vitamins in both consonant and vowel category, acidophilus levels, enzyme levels, EFA levels, glucose levels, stomach acid levels. There is a concern about cavities, memory loss, cramping, and tightening, and loosening in several areas—yet the thoughts are incomplete since the body is driven forward, occupied by travel and destination. The view into Ansonia is failing to entice, failing to cause enough concern with labels alone.
The storefront, she then calls with tunes of opulent savings. Large font of posters thrust against the glass in hopes that minor concern plus Unbeatable Savings! turn a pedestrian into a consumer. All transactions are kept private and go swiftly, as noted on the door: We now accept these three popular credit cards! followed by one, two, three little icons. But it is the lure of having both hands full which may clinch the deal: Natural Health Vitamin Sale! Buy One Get One Free! Stock Up & Save! The capitalization and punctuation are little red tassels attempting to accentuate what is in reality quite common, a sale—so this, too, may not convert the passerby. More must be given. More. A sensuous shock, right here: With developing: Free Film or Free 2nd Set of Prints! This has no direct link to one’s health, but one can record the dramatic results of Ansonia’s products bought during this once a week (Hurry In!) promotion. One cannot spell humanity without vanity.
The bombardment of bottles in the shop, the whispers of the storefront, the ecstasy and indulgence of sale does not always succeed. The sidewalk’s undercurrent is much too powerful; this instinct to drive on declines any provocative offers. Yet this is the first of many tests—the Rx(xx) is one of six stations to cross on this block. In fact, by the time Ansonia is rejected there is a noticeable smell, a potent burn in the nostrils. It makes its way to the back of the throat, blotting the tongue dry; abdominal muscles squeeze out a cough although there is no physical thing to rid—it is only the scent of cleanliness. Rubbing against Ansonia’s is Gerry’s. Gerry’s Cleaners. Somehow, between the sealant and storefront glass, the odor of freshly pressed clothing finds escape. This flawed design is quite possibly the cleaner’s best self-promotion: a mind may well believe that the stronger the stink, the more sanitary the clothing.
This thought process is tremendously simpler than the stages to make such a stink, to remove anonymous stains. The casual walker may take this scent as a whole, believing it is merely one chemical or, at most, two slapped together. But the fictitious Gerry of Gerry’s Cleaners (the name sounded so welcoming, so neighborly, it had to be put on the marquee), this fictitious Gerry prides itself in owning and selectively using a rather plump number of thinners: retarder, epoxy, ammonia, melamine, acrylic, and silk screen (there are so many others, but Gerry likes to keep some mystery). When thinners are paired with old fashion sodas and bleaches…well, the breed of cleaning agent produced is high powered while retaining classic effects. Through the time honored tradition of Try and Try Again, Gerry successfully balanced measurements to create the reek which knocks at our chests and demands attention. Startled, a walker turns to Gerry’s window—the source of this sudden outburst—where a pleasant letter is duct-taped: announced in Romanesque fashion, To Our Valued Customers, Friends, Neighbors: To better serve you we have installed a state-of-the-art dry cleaning system. If one was to ask Gerry what is that system is exactly, the answer would surely be honest: just one of trial and error. But then again, Gerry doesn’t exist.
The eyebrow-raising strength and stench of the chemicals, the scandalously “modern methods” (shhh) used by these cleaners are quite charming. To the walker, the entire establishment seems to revolve around its customers and their stains. No matter how many others enter through that front door, knocking it into the jingle bell (an item once placed in shops during a less violent era. Gerry’s idea), your clothing would receive the utmost attention: Same Day Wash Dry Fold for Suede Leather Carpet—boy scout’s honor. The lack of punctuation shows the staff’s prepubescent excitement and need to please; it’s the hurried, jittery speech of a buddy who would do anything for a friend, to gain a friend. For a moment, in the midst of the panicked surge of pedestrians one feels a tad bit special, wanted. Beyond the purposely misshapen storefront (shhh) there is someone to wrap their arm around your neck in an informal manner, while serving you in a formal manner. For a moment, one imagines Gerry unlocking the storefront gates during the hour of sunrise, thinking of nothing but rubbing out stains spilled onto a favorite shirt during a celebratory meal. One imagines Gerry going through the motions of applying some soapish goo, scrubbing a brush with long blonde bristles clockwise, then pausing to examine the shirt, the stain. O! The letter, same day service, the toil—such courtesy!
But then again, Gerry doesn’t exist (shhh). The unwitting pedestrian is flattered, the ego, like every delicate silk blouse, is gently massaged. The heart tries to override the mind and instinct to carry on—the heart demands to feel exclusive, not excluded. No more alienation, no more forced anonymity! No more! As feet heed the desperate call and turn to Gerry, a possible source of compassion, the mind recalls seeing these signs and appeasements before. Indeed, the last block and the one before that all housed a cleaner who promised to scour and scour only for you. The mind tells the heart such promises are recycled, turned over and over, tumbled, hung in storefront after storefront until, eventually, their meanings are worn thin. It is merely price which separates cleaner from cleaner; there is no friendship here, no real love—only competitive jargon: $2.99 a shirt! Can’t beat that! Best Deal Around! Silently, in enlightenment, the heart bleeds into the lungs, broken, and eyes become heavy with disappointment. Damn you Gerry.
The gloss of the pavement outside Art Gallery Frame Shop is unusually pleasant. The seventeen lighting tracks stapled to the shop’s ceiling have overexposed the flaws of this city street, making the weathered cracks and dried chewed spit nearly undetectable; remaining is an edible yellow to mend and comfort those undoubtedly shaken by the neighbor (who shall remain nameless). This light engorges the storefront, creating a soft haven for perfect reproductions of Western art. We Ship Around the World. Seven Days a Week. Laser Prints. This is not an art gallery, nor is it a frame shop—it is an art galley frame shop committed to spreading the doctrine of symmetrical beauty to homes in every time zone. Imitations of genius are fitted in wooden frames to compliment—not shadow—the pearly face of a cherub or buoyancy of a head of curls. In the storefront, unfurled like a bored debutant, are several examples of the shop’s handy work laid left to right. Each reproduces the reproduction of an artist’s interpretation regarding a countryside, stream, haystack, vase, and so forth. None of them, however, capture the eye like the centered piece—the reproduced ass of the Rokeby Venus. Reality surrounding a walker ceases to exist when the gaze of Venus crosses the gaze of a passerby.
A gentle index card below the copy denotes: Painting #222: Nude Woman on a couch painted from behind, leaning on her right arm, looking into a mirror held by a child. From the hand of Velazquez, 1648. This body on black sheets, this body enclosed in a room of Spanish drapes is our sudden reality. With a left foot forward and one right foot behind, we have ignorantly walked into the quarters of Venus. In the mirror, blurred, incomplete strokes assembled as a face hold a pair of definitive eyes that have caught us looking at her, her sinuous form, the small of her back, hips, hips submerging into crisp cheeks. For a moment, the face of God is the ass of Venus. We have disturbed her self-admiration and now she stares at us staring at her, each in one weighty second considering what to do next. Buy now and Save! 30% Off!
Off what exactly? Venus is already nude. We see her body; her skin was the fusion of lead white and blue pigment centuries ago. We see a clear obsession of the artist in the distinct lines forming the buttocks, the sheen at the height of their curves, in the lack of concern for any foreign parts such as claves, hands, the nose—all inconsequential swift strokes made just to complete her form. We see how the frame in the child’s hand was more of a nuisance than necessity—its varied complexion suggests any combination of brown sufficed; the child itself is sexless, the smear of a phantom, and merely a prop for a prop. The only interest was this generous ass. Prices Reduced, Highest Quality!
So it is the prices which are reduced, by more than a quarter. But what is of highest quality? This ass? Indeed, from the sweat of laser printers all nudity and nakedness is duplicated onto convenient, modestly sized—yet handsomely framed—printing paper to take home. There, the awkward and innocent experience of the first eye contact can be lived and relived, copy begetting copy. Her flesh, pale, blends with any carpet, furniture pattern, bed sheet, or nightstand; where she is placed will never conflict with her beauty. One can imagine spiking a small metal nail into a deserted part of the home—unlike this Venus, a hideous nude—lifting the frame’s hookwire in a pinch, feeling the weight transfer from hand to nail and the wave of relief, release afterwards as the reproduced goddess is safely stored away. Satisfaction Guaranteed.
Some weak voice from some distant part of the mind wonders about this Venus; her past; the series of coincidences leading her to that couch, being told to undress, to lie down, and—under the eyes of the artist—told to simply exist. Who was this Venus, this average woman? Now, with a right foot forward and one left foot behind, the mind pulls out stereotypes and basic fragmented facts of the 17th century learned from expired books: was she a ballerina? Actress? Prostitute? Who would lend their image to eternity and what amount did she agree to? What did she decide was her monetary value?
The squirt of an ink cartridge is an unintelligible sound, and no stretch of the imagination can convert it into an answer. Even if her past could be reproduced, would it? Would the shop let the public see it? Her past, most likely filled with imperfections, is too disfigured for the shop’s quest of alignment. The heart tells the mind it would not sell, it would barely gain the faintest attention; compared to the physical beauty sprawled in the storefront, a past is not as engaging, alluring. A past needs to be absorbed, conversed over a drink, queried, written into a book whose covers are too far apart—during a brief walk from here to there, there is simply no time for history, even depth. For the brisk second it takes to pass Art Gallery Frame Shop, the skin in the window is enough to capture one’s eye; but the heart remains, yet again, without substance. Free Delivery with First Purchase.
Moving forward, looking forward, the cement outside Wines & Liquors of The Village has been hosed down. The shop’s sidewalk hardened years ago (Est. 1935, written on the marquee in a most fashionable font for its age) and numerous washings left it coarse and dim. There is a dull chill rising from the surface and, with it, the scent of a stubborn bourbon. A bottle had been dropped, and either by a tidy broom or water pressure, shards lay cripple and swept to the curb. Before this, the mishap of a klutz or alcoholic—but a walker, too, nonetheless—had released organic layers of amber, oak, and vanilla—each fragrance stands independently, mingles with the other aquatically, in the air, about the nose and face. The scent weighs on the skin, traveling through pores and cavities, reaching the mind, convincing it this is the smell of earth without avenues and glass. Such a romantic notion, and it can experienced in sips. Nothing is needed to promote alcohol but itself; the storefront is a thin sheet of unobstructed windows; there are no popular phrases or stupendous discounts.
The walls are infested with merlots, pinots, rosés from both hemispheres. Bottles stand shoulder to shoulder, their labels speak of countries seemingly crafted by some divine creature just for the purpose of milling wine. A country’s latitude and longitude, soil and language could be liquefied and corked, then sent off to be purchased and swallowed. The consumer can dream of coastlines in Provence, or shorelines in Australia, or of beach rocks in Italy—all by stepping inside Wines & Liquors, pointing a finger into the symmetrical hive of bottles and paying for it.
Pinching a bottle by the neck and turning it a full 180 degrees, there is a label offering further inspection of the land where its grapes are farmed. The small print is exceptionally blunt and not very modest. In three inches of space, nineteen adjectives praise a merlot from the Murray River Basin in Aussie country. This is the script for a thirsty dreamer lacking the courage, funds, or luck to travel there physically. The mind reads hyphenated words, co-exist, well-balanced, and sun-drenched picturing a calm liberty; the mind reads crushed, soft, and ripe imagining perfection; the mind reads typical, essence, and embodied figuring this is life on the everyday. Or, at least, it should be the everyday.
There are even ways to slip this fantasy into one’s food, drawing out the experience, teasing the mind by allowing tastes only in random bursts. That merlot can deglaze a roasting pan, lifting the fat and grease which perspired from a loin cut. Simmering in the wine, they begin to thin and separate, becoming indistinguishable bits. A sauce is born; a velvet curtain to be placed over the loin. It finds its way into the meat through small tears and sits, waiting, until a mouth and tongue reveal everything. The potency of the wine is dampened slightly by the meat, but the countryside, soil, native language—all of it is there if we concentrate as we chew. Indeed, one has to search for and anticipate the next hit of pleasure. It could be in the next bite. Such is hinted on the back label of every bottle, in fewer words, discreet: can be enjoyed with any meat dish. The idea to cook with this merlot has been planted and, as with grapes, will envelop every thought regarding dinner, lunch, and perhaps even breakfast.
It is frighteningly convenient that Jefferson is only several steps away. Thirty years after the wine shop sold its first bottle, Jefferson Market sold its first package of cheese. Extraordinary coincidence or divine gluttonous intervention was the cause of their being neighbors. Nothing goes better with a fine liquid than a fine solid, and the market is fully bloated. Its refrigerated counters are stocked with an absurd number of cheeses, all pumped from six different hoofed animals. The market’s cheese compulsion is no secret, as most of the space in its windows is dedicated to informing the greater public in red bubbly ink that We have 652 cheeses on demand! From 42 countries! The market’s employees, from bakers to butchers donned in white doctorial gowns, are more than willing to assist in one’s cheese-making decision.
They begin with one’s favorite farm animal. Cows, sheep, goats, buffalo, camels, and yaks—If it can be milked, you’ll find it here! They even take into account the sensitivity of one’s gums and teeth: Your favorite cheese hard, semi-hard, semi-soft, or soft! It can come completely virgin or smoked, stuffed with herbs of one’s liking, spiced, or aged—texture and taste exist on separate and interlocking spectrums whose ranges are indicated by colors and pictures on labels. Dipping a nose into one of the market’s well-lit counters, you may find, for example, blue + goat + ocean. This equates to a mild goat cheese shipped from the Mediterranean. Using an index and middle finger, one can give a good poke at the plastic wrap to ensure how fragile or tough the cheese may be when put into the mouth.
With the potential product in hand—about to be taken home—how can we care for something that so much effort, heritage, and time went into? One overcame the panic of choice; now enters the panic of treatment. Standing there in dazed wonder, eyes question the package before them; hands grip a bit tighter. The market’s employees, however, have prepared answers to this silence. Peppered about the countertops, held down by scotch tape or in little metal napkin holders, are tidbits of cheese intelligence. As eyes lift from the package in search of rescue, right before the moment when panic obstructs breathing, there is a sign, and another, and another. Adjacent the basket of French brie: Wrap blue cheeses all over as mould spores spread to everything near. To the right of the mozzarella: Let cold cheese warm up for about a half hour before eating, letting flavors develop. Next to the Jarlsberg: Do not store cheese with other strong-smelling foods, it will absorb other aromas. Inhale, exhale.
Although wine labels beckon for meat, it is best to stop here at the cheese counter, especially upon the first visit. Choice is debilitating; one must be exposed to it drip by drip. To wander into the meat section shortly after being introduced to the cheese counter—it may cause hysteria. The storefront’s silence regarding the market’s meat produce in no way reflects its quality—or quantity for that matter. One may be taken aback. Snuggly secure behind glass partitions are diced marbled sirloins, hanger steaks, skirts steaks, and oxtails whose marrow produces its own sauté. They sit in refrigeration, in quaint amounts of blood and small bushy garnishes of green herbs for a spot of color—breaking the various tones of red.
Their preparations—ranging from roasting to boiling to grilling to searing—cannot be narrowed to pocket-sized bits of advice on signs. Inquiry must be made by the customer. Research! Time and effort! Love for the process and consumption! Indeed, there is a certain amount of investment needed on one’s behalf. If it is lacking there is, of course, still hope. On the Avenue of the Americas, one does not have to slice or chop to eat to their heart’s content. There is no need to make multiple decisions when only one can be made. Why torture one’s self with measurements and mixing? The lure of French Roast is its leisure, its faux European air.
The self-described Maison de Café is open twenty-four hours. It tugs at the sleeves of the weary, those too fatigued to assemble their own meals. The windows, several metres high and wide, purposely show cushioned booths under sleepy wattage. There is nothing exceptional about the menu; a majority of the dishes are not even French. Propped by the door, atop an anorexic metal stand, tonight’s specials are unfurled, highlighting twelve dollar burgers and six dollar coffees. The excessive cost pays for the atmosphere; napkins are contorted into fleurs; ice will not be found in water glasses, nor any bread on tables; the waitstaff avoids eye contact as patrons come deliberately to vanish. They pay for relaxation, for elbow room, for the muted trumpet jazzing through a sound system in the walls and ceiling.
Patrons mumble their orders. Patrons mumble their conversations. Through the storefront lips can be read, slowly forming vowels and quips. The past and future always seem to be of topic, although the lighting is fixed and breakfast, lunch, dinner (brunch aussi!) is prepared no matter the hour. As one dines on pancakes, another dines on buttered peas. The restaurant is a transitive world, a place away from the panicked asphalt of oncoming traffic and the panicked concrete of oncoming pedestrians, away from burdensome choice. The portion sizes are small, so bites can be small, allowing easy swallows. One can swiftly return to conversation or blank stares looking onto the street from which they have escaped. Walkers pass. Taxis and bicycle delivery services pass. The M6 passes, on its way to a bridge named after a founding father. Time passes. Yet inside there is no time, only a check; a check with tax and tip included, to be paid and left behind in small bills and coins whose façade is adorned with the face of a founding father. If one can afford it, this liberty is accessible. Remember, however, the walk continues. There is yet another block on this Avenue of the Americas.
About the Author
Jillian Elisabetta Ciaccia has been making the mundane profound since 1982.