22 Julho 2012 | 03h00
My dentist's office is in Manhattan and I got there about an hour early, thanks to the inconvient train schedule. I decided to walk until it was time for the appointment. The day was beautiful, and although it was blazing hot-you realize in the summer that New York is on the same latitude as Naples-I enjoyed the heat. The sweat on the back of my neck, the swelling loudness of the traffic in the late morning, the bright gauzy river light, even the vaguely cheesy smell of rotting garbage brought me back to my first summer in New York, 31 years ago. When you are young, the stink of a great city is an aphrodisiac, and I was swept back in time.
After a modest odyssey of indecision and wandering, I had transferred from the state college where I started to Columbia University, on Manhattan's Upper West Side. For the first year, I lived in a tiny room on West 113th St, in a tall gray building that had been converted into a dormitory from an SRO-a single-room occupancy residence that had once been the home of mental patients discharged from the city's hospitals, who needed subsidized housing to survive. In a controversial move, the city had suddenly reversed its policy and turned all these people out into the street. Homelessness swelled, violence increased-one young woman walking down Broadway in full daylight was stabbed in the back with a kitchen knife by a psychotic man and killed.
The streets on the Upper West Side were dangerous and even heartbreaking, but being young and feeling invincible, I was thrilled to walk them, of course. I arrived in August, weeks before school started, at a time in late summer when the city is like an abandoned ship, undulating dreamily in alien waters where anything could happen.
I spent days browsing the bookstores. I had breakfast at one on Broadway that offered coffee, croissant and the New York Times for a $1.50. Then I moved on to another store called Papyrus, a few blocks away, that sold mostly new books, rows upon rows of Penquin Classics with their black and white spines: a warm, embracing formality. From there, I strolled east, to Amsterdam Avenue, across Columbia's grand campus. There I entered a used bookstore that was like something out of Grimm's Fairy tales,composed of rambling rooms packed with dusty books on every subject. I would spend hours reading my way through that place-I probably earned two doctorates there. A father and son owned it, an odd, eccentric pair, who sometimes sold their books on long tables on the street, sweating and smiling and talking animatedly with people who stopped to browse. The son was mentally limited, somehow, and the father kept him working by his side.
In the evenings, I traveled a little further down Broadway to a movie theater called the Thalia (you can see it in Woody Allen's "Annie Hall") that played art films. Sometimes the owners showed silent films and hired a pianist to accompany them on an old upright piano positioned just under the screen. It was cool in there, and between the blissful climate and the enchanted screen, you could lose your ambition to make your way in the hot, stinking world outside its doors.
Some days, I would abandon books for music and spend the day at a store called Tower Records near the Lincoln Center that I had watched being built as a small boy, taken there by my Uncle Jack, who was married to an Austrian opera singer named Fritzi, and who had the distinction of writing the first pulp novel about interracial sex. Jack had fought in the Second World War and once took me back to his apartment, where he won my undying admiration by showing me a Beretta that he said he had taken off a dead Italian soldier.
At Tower Records, I made my way through classical music and opera and earned a third doctorate in music history by reading the album liner notes for just about every piece of serious music that had ever been composed. Since my father and two of my uncles were pianists, I memorized the names of all the great pianists: I recited the names to myself as I emerged onto Broadway once again: Moiseiwitsch, Hofmann, Schnabel, Horowitz, Rubinstein, Richter, Brendel, Lipatti, Gilels, Ashkenazy… By the time I arrived home, I was drunk on the phantom companionship of these figures, who also must have supplied a secret bond to my father.
A great city is always a revelation of time's merciless nature. A modern latet-capitalist city is a magic kindom of possibilities and a charnel house of old affinities, all at once. All these places and people were now gone, all the bookstores, the Thalia, Tower Records. My father was gone, and Jack and Fritzi, and heaven knows what happened to that man and his son who stood next to each other and sold books from their long tables through the years.
And that, I realized as I settled into the dentist's chair, is why they call it a wisdom tooth. Sooner or later, it always has to be pulled; sooner or later, as close as it has been to you, it has to go away. "Would you like some gas?" the dentist asked me. "It will relax you." I declined. Why ruin the lesson?
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