Monday, June 8, 2009

A Walk with Bock

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


Mykola Dementiuk said...

That picture of the old building towered by the new one makes me cry :(((

Carol Gardens said...

Nathaniel West managed the Kenmore hotel. It was a notorious drug spot when I was at SVA in the 80s. The feds took it over and now it is a residence for the formerly homeless. Lex between 23-34 was like Times Square South: hookers, drugs, SROs, friends of Bellevue, etc. Too bad you didn't have a black and white cookie at La Delice. They are unique and fabulous. Baruch also knocked down a bunch of amazing horse stables, as mentioned on a previous Carlton Arms discussion:

(I lived in neighborhood for almost a decade, over Buy Rite.)

Barbara L. Hanson said...

I used to hang out in those Irish pubs, many of which featured live music. The clientele was at least half Irish-born. Faux they most definitely were not!

Anonymous said...

I adore Bock's Beautiful Children - I read it a few weeks ago and recommend it to everyone I know. So glad to see him here in VNY - I would have loved to be a fly on the wall for this conversation. I would have loved to have heard even more pawn shop observations. This is also inspiring me to pick up that Rick Moody book and check it out. - BN

Bowery Boogie said...

mothbally personality - that's a great description!

Jeremiah Moss said...

Bock's book is a must-read--check it out.

Mykola Dementiuk said...

On the corner of 23rd & 3rd Avenue was a store selling newspapers and magazines. Next the that was 'Gloca Mora', an Irish pub, which had live Irish music on Friday and Saturday (I suppose a sister pub to the 'Molly Maguires' across the street). Next to that a tiny dress shop standing next to another bar whose patrons always seemed to be old timers, man and women, never did it attract to young crowd. Followed by those check cashing money order places. The pawn shop was on the corner and thankfully the stubborn owner will remain. My hats off to him...He looks better already.

hntrnyc said...

pity this wasn't video taped, would have been quality television.

infamouse said...

I work in that zone now. Being an actual native (yeah, I know, it's rare) I can honestly say that the whole Gramercy/Flatiron area is....weird.

I remember when the area between Lex and Park was a huge prostitution and drug track (they migrated from the West 20's when the police cracked down), but... I also remember Gramercy Park itself even back then being a status symbol for the ultra-privileged.
(Go listen to that Deadsy song that name-checks it. It's the local musical equivalent to that Rick Moody piece Bock gives ups to). Indian Row? C'mon. That's the main reason to visit the area. Some of those restaurants have been there sonce the early 90's at least.

That's all. This blog is fantastic. Keep up the good work.