Romy Ashby writes the blog Walkers in the City, which you should know about if you don't already. She has just published a novel called Stink. The book tells the story of a young person who flees to a mysterious New York-like city for a series of occult adventures. I asked Romy some questions--about dreams, books, farts, and gentrification.
JM: Your book starts with a dream. Do you remember your dreams? Do you write them down?
RA: Usually I don't dream and/or don't remember. I never write them down. I had a wonderful series of dreams once over several years about a beautiful cast-iron train. I'd see it in the distance and marvel, and whenever I would have a new dream about the train, I'd think, oh, it's this dream! Then I finally had a dream of a funeral procession with old men in uniforms carrying a large framed portrait through the streets. I asked what the procession was, and one of the old men said: “This was the conductor of the train you always dreamed about.” And after that, nothing.
JM: You don't remember your dreams and yet the whole of Stink feels dreamlike, vaguely unreal. Did you set out to create a dream city of sorts?
RA: No, I didn't set out to make it so. Writing it felt more like decorating an old department store window. And I should add that life to me always feels vaguely unreal. Sometimes not so vaguely.
JM: What does it feel like to decorate an old department store window?
RA: You have the empty window, framed from the street, and you can do anything you want with it. I put in all the things I found interesting from the nabe and whatever else I knew and liked. And then the window looked like a funny junk shop, I suppose.
JM: Like Ad Astra in the book. What was your inspiration for the occult shop?
RA: There were two actual occult shops that inspired it in part. One was the Magickal Childe on West 19th Street, and the other was the original Enchantments on East 9th Street. Both sold books and other odds and ends, and I would go in now and then and buy something. The vibe of the places would linger for the rest of the day. And Enchantments had a big kitty who wore a pentagram. He was the inspiration for my occult shop kitty, Aleister.
JM: How much of New York is in the unnamed city of Stink?
RA: Oh, lots. The diner was modeled after diners in general, but particularly on the doughnut shop that sat on 8th Avenue and 23rd Street. That's where the "real" Violet Rae character would stand by the register and complain. The "amusement park" was definitely inspired by Coney Island in all its ruined splendor, the wharf was largely based on the stinky fish market and seaport and the old winding streets of Lower Manhattan at the bottom of the island in the 1980s. Also, the waitress and counterman in my story are modeled after Charlie and Regina, who had their portraits recently in EV Grieve's blog.
JM: It certainly feels like a vanished urban atmosphere. The people, too, feel like the sorts of characters you don't run into much anymore. Or do you?
RA: No, you don't run into many like them, at least not as often as you used to. There were many more distinctive characters to be seen on the streets of New York twenty years ago than there are today. Most of the old ones have died out. I sort of cast the playwright and actor Harry Koutoukas, of Ridiculous Theatrical Company fame, as Harry the owner of the Occult shop in Stink. Harry Koutoukas died a few years ago, but I can remember so well how the mere sight of him walking along Christopher Street with his colorful scarves blowing behind him had a way of making the whole city feel more magical and interesting. Also, I should add that in Chinatown and Little Italy, and elsewhere, too, there still really were funny little shops that sold things like rubber gaskets.
JM: Did you buy a lot of rubber gaskets?
JM: To what end?
RA: For my stovetop espresso maker. When a gasket wears out the coffee tastes yuck.
JM: Of course. Tell me the story about farting in the bookshop.
RA: Years ago I worked at Three Lives bookshop, which is on West 10th Street. It's still exactly the same as it was 25 years ago, which is miraculous. Anyway, people used to come in and go to the back of the shop, the far rear corner where the literature ends and the travel books begin, and fart. I remember the two bosses complaining about how often this happened. And, they said, it was always men. It was never women doing the farting.
JM: I ask this, of course, because it happens in Stink. A lot of stinky things happen in Stink.
RA: Yes. It is a stinky story.
JM: So, because this interview is for Vanishing New York, how do you see Stink speaking to that--to the vanished city?
RA: What comes to mind first is the fact that I wrote Stink 20 years ago, and most of what I took as inspiration for it is gone now. The two big Sixth Avenue flea markets, every single bookshop in Chelsea, every junk shop, the doughnut shop on 8th Avenue, most of the diners I frequented, the fish market, the Magickal Childe, CBGBs, Jackie 60, Don Hill's, much of Coney Island that was there when I wrote Stink—including the old luncheonette in the subway station and the beautiful ruined Thunderbolt rollercoaster that had become a bird sanctuary—has all vanished.
JM: I'm going to ask you the question that people like to ask me, and that always irks me. Maybe you can answer it better than I can. New York is always changing. So how is this any different?
RA: I agree that New York is always changing, and a lot of the change is sad but natural, such as shops closing when someone retires or dies. And there are have been terrible instances of forced change in decades past. Just look at Robert Moses. But the change that has been happening in the last decade or so, as I've noticed it, has been different in that everything seems to be being razed for one replacement, which is “luxury residential.” And some of it defies logic, such as the demolishing of the huge St. Vincent’s Hospital, for yet more "luxury" residences, leaving a huge part of the city without a hospital. Twenty years ago if I had been asked whether or not such a thing could happen I would have said no.
I remember first hearing about gentrification in the 1980s, and it was definitely happening then, but not in earnest the way it is now. And to me, that word, gentrify, always meant what it means, which is literally "Make way for the gentry." It doesn't mean “improve for all,” the way some people seem to want to imply.
JM: Aren't you just being nostalgic? Don't you know that no one goes to doughnut shops anymore? (I’m being facetious.)
RA: Well, apparently people actually love doughnut shops because there are Dunkin Donuts stores all over town. But at the old doughnut shop on 8th Avenue you could also get all kinds of other things--it was a real diner as most doughnut shops actually were, and the best part of those places in my opinion (along with the friendly, funny regulars) was that I could afford it.
I also don't think it's nostalgic to miss the laundromat I liked to use or the corner grocery that I shopped in, because what I like about them is that I could wash my clothes and buy milk conveniently. Those things are getting harder to do. The new luxury buildings have laundry rooms for the people who live there, but at the rate things are going I'll be doing my laundry in the bathtub the way I used to do it in the 80s when I lived surrounded by ruins down in the Alphabets. I didn't like doing my laundry that way then, and I don't think I'll like doing it that way again. So, you tell me, is that nostalgia?
I will confess, though. Sometimes I get a pleasant nostalgic feeling when I listen to a nice record by Jack Teagarden. The words to “A Hundred Years from Today” can be a good reminder for how to prioritize one's ideas.
JM: What's on your record player right now?
RA: Well, just before you called I was listening to Trummy Young and Louis Armstrong.
JM: And what's on your current book pile?
RA: Currently I've been laughing my way through Mary Norris's wonderful book called Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (she's been copy editor at the New Yorker forever, and she's the sister of the marvelous musician Baby Dee). Simultaneously, I'm reading February House by Sherill Tippins, the stories in White Girls by Hilton Als, and The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto. That's what's piled by the bed. Also Ask Dr. Mueller: The Writings of Cookie Mueller. And in my subway-riding bag is A Superintendent’s Eyes by Steve Dalachinksy and a wonderful book of poems by Yuko Otomo called Study. I never tire of Yuko’s poems, no matter how many times I read them.
You can find Stink at St. Marks Bookshop, or buy it through Romy’s website. The book launch is tomorrow night, Friday, June 26, 6:30 p.m. At 292 Gallery, 292 E. 3rd.
More Romy on JVNY:
At La Taza de Oro
A story about Debbie Harry on the High Line
On Joey Arias
On Kasoundra Kasoundra