Bartleby on Carmine Streetby Raphael Rubinstein
“Bartleby, when confronted by failure, conceded magnificently, he did not commit suicide or become interminably bitter, he simply ate ginger-nuts.”
When I started renting movies from Evergreen Video it occupied the second story of a dilapidated building on West Houston Street. On the ground floor was Martin’s Bar and Grill, a tenebrous and seedy drinking establishment that seemed like a relic of some earlier version of downtown Manhattan, even thought at the time—the early 1990s—there were still many such survivals: Italian bakeries, Irish bars, Portuguese groceries, Puerto Rican bodegas, second-hand bookstores run by ash-sprinkled Jewish men who often reminded me of my father, miniscule record stores dedicated to particular genres or eras, boutiques whose stocks of clothes hadn’t been updated since the early 1970s.
Even though the tide of upscaling, which would only achieve tsunami proportions after 9/11, had already begun to transform the downtown neighborhoods I had been frequenting since I arrived in New York City in 1979—so much so that I was having to sidestep unwanted nostalgia more and more often as I walked past places that were no longer there, addresses where friends no longer living no longer lived—the survivals still outnumbered the newcomers. Thus, behind-in-their-rent artists, taxi-cab-driving writers, musicians and luftmenschen of all kinds held their own, at least for the moment, against ravenous young professionals, while the patchwork mom-and-pop infrastructure still claimed more physical and social space than the designer showrooms and noisy, artfully-lit restaurants that were popping up, mostly in SoHo, like beautiful, succulent, poisonous mushrooms.
As I write the first few sentences of this text I’m sitting in one of the last remnants of that now nearly extinct New York: Rocco’s Pastry Shop and Café on Bleecker Street, just west of Carmine. I remember Rocco’s from my first summer in the city, loud and crowded on a Saturday night, ablaze with mirrored walls and ceiling, which were replaced a decade ago by fake stucco and kitschy paintings of Venice (probably from a Chinese painting factory). I glance up for a moment from my notebook to look through the glass door of Rocco’s at the entrance of Our Lady of Pompeii School (another relic) directly across the street and notice a detail in the signage on the door (which takes me a second to decipher since I am reading it backwards) that tells me Rocco’s is not nearly as old as I thought. Rather than dating, as I imagined, to some mythical postwar New York of the late ‘40s or 1950s, it was, if I am to believe the sign, “est. 1974.” This means it was still a fairly recent addition to the neighborhood when I first entered it. What did it replace? What no longer viable business occupied this site prior to 1974? I’d like to know, but not at the expense of having to postpone any further tackling my intended subject: Evergreen Video or, rather, the guy who worked nights there from when I first became a customer, to almost its last days: Paul Nelson, though I never knew his name until it was too late to do anything with it.
At its Houston Street location Evergreen was at the top of a flight of dimly lit stairs. Not much brighter, its premises were a large, raw loft space with racks for videos, a few film posters and a counter on one side where a skinny middle-aged man conducted business. He had long, lank hair and a toothbrush moustache, wore an old-fashioned cloth cap, and smoked thin cigars. I can remember the first time I stepped into Evergreen but I can’t remember how I discovered it. Maybe walking past one day I glanced up and noticed a sign in the window and went upstairs to investigate. I lived further south, just below Canal, though often excursions north or east would take me along that block of Houston. Maybe a friend told me about it. Possibly, now that I think about it, Jacqueline Humphries, an artist then living and painting on one floor of a townhouse a couple of blocks away on King Street.
Jacqueline’s next-door neighbor, I recall, was Susan Sontag, who made her presence felt by complaining about Jacqueline’s parties. Was Sontag an Evergreen customer? Her love of film would suggest that she was. But didn’t she also insist that watching videos at home was no substitute for seeing films in a movie theater, and that the rise of home videos had brought an end to the cinephilia that had marked so many intellectuals and artists of her generation? In any case, I never saw her riffling through videos in that gloomy second-floor space. Another painter-friend who might have told me about Evergreen was Richard Kalina, who also lived in the neighborhood. In fact, I remember Richard once remarking to me: “Have you ever talked to that old guy at Evergreen? He has an amazing knowledge of movies. He knows everything!” He meant Paul Nelson, of course, who performed the functions of a video-store clerk but always seemed to have a quasi-proprietary relationship to the store.
Also living near Evergreen—practically across the street—and thus someone else who might have told me about the place, was Guillaume Gallozzi, a French art dealer whose interest had recently shifted from experimental graffiti writers like Rammellzee to British “war artists” and Aeropittura, a branch of Italian Futurism devoted to depicting views of the world seen from airplanes. Guillaume operated out of a Houston Street townhouse once owned by Barney Rossett of Grove Press fame. One of his most memorable exhibitions was “Metamorphose,” a 1992 group show largely devoted to British Neo-Romantic artists of the 1940s. The introduction to the catalogue, which also includes an essay by art critic David Ebony, begins on a confessional note: “The idea and desire to mount the present exhibition came to me as I lay in a Paris hospital, two years ago exactly, where I was being treated for a deadly brain tumor. Metamorphosis came to represent Life—all that could take place outside those rooms, everything that I remembered and imagined it to be.” Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of the catalogue are Gallozzi’s lyrical descriptions of each work in the show. Here he is on a small colored-ink drawing from 1946 by Steven Sykes: “This is the densest of all the works on show, literally swarming with lively organic forms disposed around a central motif, a small funeral pile on top of which a hybrid creature has crawled to live out its last moments. Around it looms a hungry conglomerate of densely interwoven flora and fauna. Despite what could be perceived as rather macabre subject matter, the scene, featuring an intense pyre, glows of bright crimson and orange, its appearance more one of celebration than mourning.” Despite the reprieve that inspired “Metamorphose,” Gallozzi was ultimately not able to beat his malady; he died in Paris in December 1995 at the age of 37.
I’ve recently learned that my friend Yvette Georges babysat Barney and Christina Rosset’s children in the townhouse on West Houston Street where Guillaume Gallozzi later lived and worked. Yvette has drawn my attention to the similarity between the name Evergreen Video and several of Rosset’s well-known creations: the Evergreen Review and Evergreen Films. It would be nice to think that Evergreen Video had been named in tribute to its erstwhile neighbor, but in fact it carried the same name at its original uptown location where it had operated mostly by mail order. The Rossett-Gallozzi townhouse is and was next door to Film Forum. I wonder, was it the presence of Film Forum made this stretch of West Houston attractive to the owner of Evergreen Video?
Sooner or later all of Evergreen’s patrons, who didn’t amount to very many in those days, came to appreciate Paul Nelson’s huge store of cinema knowledge. What almost none of us knew was his legendary past, a history that I would only begin to learn about in 2005 as my wife and I were watching a PBS documentary one evening. By then, Evergreen had long since moved from Houston Street to a street-level location on Carmine Street a couple of blocks away, and around the corner from Rocco’s. The new Evergreen had much less square footage and many more customers than the old location. It was not only more crowded but also much cleaner and brighter. Visiting the store no longer felt vaguely illicit.
But one thing hadn’t changed. Paul Nelson, whose name I still didn’t know, was still there, sometimes perched behind the counter with a thin, bemused smile on his face, but more often, it seemed, sitting on the bench outside smoking one of his thin cigars (Nat Shermans, I just learned from Ken Avery’s Everything is an Afterthought: the Life and Writings of Paul Nelson, a heart-breaking book, but also a fascinating one, especially for anyone who ever crossed paths with its subject). Apart from occasionally sharing with a customer his opinion about a movie in a nasal drawl, he rarely seemed to do any actual work, which was left to the other employees who were generally about 40 years younger than him. He reminded me of those ancient men and women you used to see sitting silently in the corners of butcher shops and bakeries in Little Italy, too old to work behind the counter, but too residually vigorous to stay at home. Their presence seemed purely ritualistic; they were household gods, living talismans with the power to bring prosperity and deflect misfortune.
The PBS documentary was No Direction Home, Martin Scorsese’s film about Bob Dylan’s life up to 1966. One section was devoted to Dylan’s time in Minneapolis. After dropping out of the University of Minnesota, Dylan hung around Dinkytown, Minneapolis’s bohemian neighborhood, for a year or two. It was there that he first connected with American folk music traditions, including, crucially, the music of Woody Guthrie. One famous Dylan legend is that his early repertoire, the songs that he would soon take to New York, was learned from a stack of records he stole from a Dinkytown friend. Amazingly, Scorsese had tracked down one of the owners of the record collection Dylan had pilfered. As my wife and I were listening to him recount this mythic episode (“He came along and he took twenty or thirty of them [LPs], and he had impeccable taste. He took the best. I saw his notebooks, and he would go through one record and he would always pick the right song from that record to cover…), I suddenly exclaimed, “It’s the guy from Evergreen!” My wife and I looked more intently at the small screen. “You’re right. It’s him!” she confirmed after a moment.
As wildly improbable as it seemed, there could be no doubt: the thin man in the cloth cap reminiscing for Scorcese’s camera about “Bobby Zimmerman” could be no one else than the longtime clerk at Evergreen Video. My first thought was not “How did this key figure in the history of American music end up as a video store clerk?” (at that point I didn’t know just how important Nelson had been to music in the 1960s and ‘70s) but something like “New York really is the most fantastic city in the world—where else could the guy at the video store turn out to have been the person who introduced Bob Dylan to the music of Woody Guthrie?”
I wondered about my next visit to Evergreen. Would there be a crowd of people around Nelson, whose name I now finally knew, hoping to hear more details about his fateful encounter with Bob Dylan? I didn’t think that I would say anything to him—there was probably some not-so-happy story behind his ending up at Evergreen—but I looked forward to somehow confirming this discovery. In the meantime, from the Web I learned more about Nelson: he had published an important folk music magazine in the early 1960s, been an influential rock critic, an editor at Rolling Stone, and, during a stint at Mercury Records, had been the person who signed the New York Dolls to a recording contract.
Strangely, he wasn’t at Evergreen Video the next time I went there, or the next, or the next. Was he laying low because of the Scorsese film? Maybe it had brought some new opportunities. Maybe he was writing a book. Maybe Dylan had sent him a big check. Actually, as I thought about it, I hadn’t seen him at Evergreen for several months prior to the broadcast of No Direction Home. Could it be that in anticipation of his outing he’d already quit, or at least taken some time off? In any case, his absence at Evergreen continued. As months went by, the coincidence of public reemergence and abrupt disappearance felt stranger and stranger; it made the entire tale seem apocryphal, unreal. But the next news I had of him was all too real. One day a sign appeared without explanation in the window of Evergreen: “Paul Nelson 1936-2006.”
Kevin Avery devotes a section of his book to Nelson’s tenure at Evergreen. His old friends from the music business had different opinions. Veteran critic Anthony DeCurtis didn’t think that there was anything wrong with working in a video store or taking other kinds of retail jobs “except if” like Nelson, “you happen to be one of the best writers in the country.” But for Bill Flanagan, who believed that Nelson was “probably the best music writer of his generation, going to ground at Evergreen was “kind of like a more comfortable working retirement for him-to sit around watching French films and Clint Eastwood movies and talking with the cats at the video store and going out and listening to Chet Baker records—I don’t see why that’s any different from somebody who spends their life working as a brain surgeon and then takes the time and plays golf.” Perhaps because he is a writer himself, DeCurtis has a more tragic view of what he calls Nelson’s “Bartleby-like withdrawal,” wishing that Nelson had found a way to continue to write: “I think he would’ve been happier if he’d been able to do it.” Jann Wenner, who employed Nelson at Rolling Stone, believed that Nelson was “at the end of the road,” that he was “exhausted.”
Some of his friends, like writer Michael Azerrad, did all they could to help him. Azerrad told Avery that visiting Evergreen he “felt an incredible, humbling sense of gratitude. Paul had helped set up a system in which I could make a pretty decent living doing exactly what I do. What I want to do. I now worked at a place where I could find people like Paul work, and I offered him some work writing about his last musical love, which was bluegrass. And he declined. He really needed the money—we were paying really well—and he just said no. I asked him why. I was very frustrated and let down. He said he simply couldn’t do it justice.”
A few years before Nelson died, Greil Marcus made a similar observation, recalling how “Paul was a maddeningly slow writer. He suffered writer’s block. I think this is because he respected his subjects so much he was terrified of getting anything wrong.” When asked by an interviewer (Steven Ward) about Marcus’s judgment, Nelson disagreed: “It was not that, I just wanted to get the story the way I wanted it. And if it did not get there–where I wanted it to go–I did not turn it in. I didn’t hack it out. If I didn’t like it, I did not want it published. I wrote them for me.”
In his exemplary book Bartleby & Co., Enrique Vila-Matas traces the appearance through the centuries of what he calls “writers of the No.” Well into the book, Vila-Matas writes about Herman Melville, inventor of Bartleby, whom he links to “something Maurice Blanchot said about all those who knew, at the right time, how to reject the pleasant appearance of a flat, almost always empty, communication, which, it may be said, is so in vogue among today’s literati: ‘The act of rejecting is difficult and rare, though identical in each of us from the moment we have grasped it. Why difficult? Because you have to reject not only the worst, but also a reasonable appearance, an outcome that some would call happy.’” As well as tracing the rise and fall of the rock critic, the history of Nelson’s struggles with magazine and book editors–culminating in what he felt was Rolling Stone’s failure to do justice to his lengthy profile of Warren Zevon–is the chronicle of a writer who couldn’t accept outcomes that were merely happy.
Vila-Matas notes the similarities between Melville and his fictional creation, and how “during the final years of his life, Melville, like Bartleby . . . worked as a clerk in an untidy office in New York City.” As any reader of Melville’s story knows, the office where Bartleby is employed is on Wall Street, but the “untidy office” where Melville worked as a Customs Inspector was actually much further uptown, on the western edge of Greenwich Village at 470 West Street, which is less than a mile from Evergreen’s Carmine Street location. On the time/space continuum Melville-Bartleby and Nelson-Bartleby worked some 10 minutes and 106 years apart from each other—Melville retired from his Customs job in 1885; Nelson started at Evergreen in 1991. (On the subject of fictional connections: the character Perkus Tooth in Jonathan Lethem’s 2009 novel Chronic City is based on Nelson, who had been a mentor to Lethem. As he told a Slate interviewer in 2009: “I kind of fell into Paul’s sphere for a little while and he gave me this instant education in his version of American vernacular culture. Ross Macdonald, Orson Welles, Howard Hawks, Chet Baker. And it was this flood of references for me to sort out and absorb and he became very important. A lot of the things that Paul taught me to value are still really the center of my sensibility.”)
There are various plausible explanations for why Paul Nelson gave up his career as a music critic, and also let lapse his ambitions to write screenplays and film criticism (among his many unachieved projects was a book about Clint Eastwood). Clearly he was a fucked-up individual (as Ken Avery’s book amply demonstrates), but what writer isn’t? And it’s also clear that his stance of rejection, which involved walking away from every opportunity and every helping hand he got, is something that can never be understood, and that will gnaw at anyone who tries to figure it out. It’s no more explicable than why Guillaume Gallozzi died from a brain tumor at the age of 37 or why Robert Zimmerman found his way from Minneapolis to worldwide fame. And yet, the image of rejection, il gran rifiuto, remains somehow more mysterious, more intriguing, than any tale of raw misfortune or glittering glory. As Blanchot says, rejection is “difficult and rare.” Nelson was not a failed writer, but rather a successful writer, “the best writer in the country” according to his friend Anthony DeCurtis, who gradually, irrevocably, inexplicably, withdrew into a small video store in Greenwich Village. An ethical decision or a psychological breakdown? Strength of character or lack thereof? Arrival at a point where he just couldn’t deal with other human beings, even through the cruel, queer filter of the written word? I don’t know, and I’m detained by this uncertainty. It’s like one of those movies you watch again and again even though you know exactly how it’s going to end.
I learn from Kevin Avery’s book that it was on July 4, 2006, that the NYPD discovered Nelson’s body in his apartment at 400 East 74th Street. His death was variously attributed to heart failure and starvation; during the preceding year he was exhibiting symptoms of dementia. Evergreen Video, which was owned by a fellow ex-Minneapolisite, Steve Feltes, closed in June 2007, a year after Nelson’s death. It was the last video store I ever visited.
Raphael Rubinstein is the author of The Miraculous (Paper Monument, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). He is currently writing a book about the Jewish-Egyptian writer Edmond Jabès. A Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art, he divides his time between Houston and New York.