On a rainy day I took a walk through Gramercy with Charles Bock, author of the beautiful novel Beautiful Children. We talked about the neighborhood, the hyper-gentrification of the city, the fate of the New York novel, and the ruination of cupcakes.
Bock came to the city in 1993 and bounced around before settling near 23rd and 3rd. I asked him about the personality of this part of town and how it’s changed over the years. Under the looming glass box of an NYU dorm, he said, “There was nothing here then, and now there’s a less interesting nothing. It used to have an old mothbally personality. Now it’s just completely undefined. There’s absolutely nothing distinctive about it.”
That’s the sense you get when you walk through Gramercy. It feels like a nowhere place, filled with anonymous bodegas and cookie-cutter faux-Irish pubs. But here and there, you find a few touches of character. There's the Carlton Arms Hotel. And the dilapidated Gramercy Pawnbrokers that refused to move when that condo developer took over their block. Bock grew up in a pawnshop in Las Vegas, so I asked him to give me his impression of the windows.
“Well, first off, they need to polish this stuff,” he said, looking in at the tarnished wedding bands and depressing #1 Dad pendants. He recalled being a kid, emptying the windows of wares when it was time to shut the shop for the day. “I have an intimate familiarity with these velvet ring cases.”
La Delice, a pastry shop on the corner of 27th and 3rd, has been here for years. Bock lifted the pant leg on the baker statue out front to show me a rare pair of Spud Webb sneakers. Webb was a 5’6” basketball star known for his miraculous dunk. His sneakers never reached the popularity of Jordans, but they’ve become a collector’s item. Said Bock, “If these were in good shape, they'd be worth ass-loads of money on the vintage sneaker market.”
Inside La Delice, Bock briefly contemplated buying a cupcake, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. “I can’t buy a fucking cupcake,” he said, “Sex and the City ruined cupcakes for me. Think about this. The same year the Ramones put out their last album, that Sex and the City column showed up. It was the end of one type of New York and the beginning of another. There was a huge shift of mindset and aesthetic... There used to be room to be a freak.”
We passed up the cupcakes, forever spoiled by Carrie Bradshaw, and headed back out into the rain, talking about New York novels and if they still exist. Bock recommended Emily Barton’s Brookland and John Wray’s Lowboy. But Rick Moody’s Ring of Brightest Angels Around Heaven tops the list. Bock said, “It is New York, late 80s, East Village. There will never be anything better written about the certain way that world was. He gets a lot of criticism, but read that fucking novella and then come talk to me.”
At 24th Street, where Baruch College demolished a block once filled with fleabag hotels and men huddled around trashcan fires, Bock recalled, “This used to be a little Bowery. Nathanael West once managed a hotel on 23rd Street.” It might have been there, among the miserable people, that West found inspiration for his novella Miss Lonelyhearts.
Does today’s New York still have what it takes to inspire literature? I asked Bock if the city was less inspiring to him today than it used to be. With an infectious optimism, he told me, “The thing about New York is that anything can happen. There’s a sense of possibility that’s such a deep part of this city. Ideally, that’s not connected with cash or status. But even if it is, the moral questioning of that is interesting and makes for good substance.”
Even the vanishing city can be a source of inspiration.
“Because it pisses you off,” Bock said, “You see what’s happening and you want to get in there. You want to get in the fight.”
Visit Charles Bock's website