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Off the Square


Harry Buschman

Greene Street is only a block from Washington Square and it's the last place a man would pick to open a retail book store. Out of town visitors don't know it's there and even if they did, it's so run down they wouldn't bother to patronize it. Shoppers from out of town don't waste time in book stores anyway and people with a mission in life don't have the time.

So why did John Bachelor pick this quiet side street to open his "Praxis" book shop? The rent was cheap for one thing and there were two rooms in back quite big enough for a retired bachelor to live what's left of his life in pensive reflection.

The smell of dust was the first thing you noticed when you opened the front door; it drifted down from the ceiling. You had the uneasy feeling that if you breathed too deeply you would choke on it.

The books, most of them faded, were scattered haphazardly in the show window.  Passersby would glance in at them and lose interest, then their eyes would drift to the speckled coils of fly paper hanging above them. Mr. Bachelor chose the books for their colorful appearance, not their content. He believed most people purchased books by judging how they might harmonize with their room decor -- secondly by their authors -- and last of all for what was inside them.

Although he made a half-hearted attempt in the beginning to organize the books into coherent sections, fiction on the left, non-fiction on the right, children's in the back -- Mr. Bachelor soon found himself buried under the avalanche of new books he found delivered to his doorstep every morning. He soon threw up his hands and stacked them anywhere he found an empty shelf.  Consequently, a browser might find Robert Louis Stevenson and Mary Higgins Clark in intimate contact on a shelf labeled "Bible Studies." Nobody cared, least of all John Bachelor.

In fact Mr. Bachelor treated his sales floor as though it was the living room of his apartment. A customer might find a long forgotten cup of coffee or even a half eaten sandwich left hurriedly on a stack of books when the phone at the cash register interrupted his lunch.

Above John's store was Russo's tattoo parlor. Mr. Russo, in his younger days, was a teacher in the city public schools, then a principal, and finally an official on the Board of Education. His father, Bruno Russo, was a sailor in the Merchant Marine. Bruno had been tattooed by experts in Marseille, Shanghai and Alexandria. His elaborately illustrated body fascinated the younger Russo and whenever Bruno made the lady on his pectorals undulate seductively, the child could barely contain himself.

Soon after he retired from the Board of Education Russo and his wife moved downtown to Greene Street. His lifelong dream of a tattoo parlor gradually took shape above John Bachelor's book store. Everyone was getting tattooed in those days. Hippies, rock stars and even East Side ladies from the fifties and sixties came down to have butterflies and obscure erotic symbols tattooed on their butts. One woman arriving by chauffeur driven limousine endured four three hour sessions to have a lion tattooed on her chest only a week ago.

Mr. Holiday lived on the third floor -- one floor above the Russo's. He was 96 years old and chain smoked cigars. His doctor told him more than thirty years ago to give up smoking or he would die of emphysema. He sat at his living room window and watched the coeds walk by on their way to NYU. To get a better view he often leaned out precariously, both hands on the window sill with his neck craned out like an elderly giraffe. His lunch and dinner were brought to him by an enormous lady volunteer from the Meals on Wheels organization. It was one of the high points of his day. As she stacked the food in his refrigerator, he would stare down into the bottomless chasm of her cleavage while trying to think of something to say. When she left, Mr. Holiday would consume both meals immediately, light a fresh cigar and resume his vigil at the living room window.

If the weather was sunny and mild, Mr. Holiday would struggle into his lumberman's shirt and hobble down the three flights of stairs to the street. He would walk to Washington Square Park and watch the girls as they sat in small feminine groups. How attractive they were! How appealing when they were unaware of men's eyes! On his return to Greene street he would stop at the show window of "Erotique" and gaze lovingly at the wide array of stimulating sexual paraphernalia. Mr. Holiday enjoyed a fuller life than many men half his age.

Mrs. Riordan lived above Mr. Holiday. She was a grass widow, and lived in the  Village all her life. She met Timothy Riordan in a parking garage near the Bottom Line Club. Mr. Riordan was an Irish poet who carried a framed diploma with him proving he had an PHD in literature from Harvard University. He read his poems on the street in the company of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Bob Dylan. His golden voice and honeyed words quickly melted the heart of the future Mrs. Riordan, and before the month was out the two love birds were living in an abandoned Ford Biscayne under the West Side Highway. The union lasted all of three years, until Mr. Riordan found steady employment as a card dealer on a cruise ship that shuttled between Baltimore and the Bahamas.

Sad to say she has tended toward the bottle in her later years -- not heavily, but steadily. A beer for breakfast, a midmorning snack with a bourbon chaser, a martini for lunch and a few highballs in the corner saloon during the afternoon. Therefore it was not surprising to find Mrs. Riordan at the Halloween festivities in Washington Square Park on the last day of October.

Mr. Bachelor spotted her talking to herself and wandering aimlessly through the Park; he graciously volunteered to see her home from the Halloween party. Had he not done so, Mrs. Riordan would have undoubtedly spent the night on a bench.

"I don't normally allow myself to be picked up in the park," she remarked primly to Mr. Bachelor as he took her arm and steered her back to Greene Street. "Did you know I am still married, Mr. Bachelor? Yes. after all these years. The little bastard walked out on me 30 years ago, bad cess and good riddance to him."

Were it not for Mr. Bachelor, Mrs. Riordan's knees would have given way more than once on the walk back to Greene Street; as it was, he had a difficult job keeping her going in a straight line.

"He was an uncouth man," she went on. "Do you think he would put the toilet seat down? Oh no! Oh no, not  Timothy Riordan. "˜I need it up' he would say. "˜You don't hear me complaining when you leave it down' he would say." They stopped in the street outside the vestibule to her apartment and Mrs. Riordan stared at the  building she had lived in for three decades. "Why are we stopping here, Mr.  Bachelor."

"You live upstairs, Mrs. Riordan." Mr. Bachelor regretted seeing Mrs. Riordan in the park. He could be reading in bed by now if it wasn't for this absurd woman -- now it appeared he would have to see her to her door.

They made their way awkwardly up the three flights of stairs, Mrs. Riordan in front and Mr. Bachelor pushing her from behind. When they reached her door she exclaimed, "My key, why? What on earth would you want with my key?"

"So I can let you into your apartment Mrs. Riordan."

"You must think I'm incapbubble of .... " She considered the possibility of letting herself in, then unslung her shoulder bag and handed it to Mr. Bachelor. He fished through tissues, both clean and used, combs, nail files, bills and match book folders from every bar in Greenwich Village until he found her key.

"A woman in my position can't be too careful Mr. Bachelor. Only last month a friend of mine on Houston Street had her snatch pursed in Bloomingdales." She leaned against the wall while Mr. Bachelor fiddled with the key. "Did you know I was a prominent vocalist in my day? A pure almost angelic voice, Mr. Bachelor," She smiled in remembrance of a happier day. " ... on a good evening I could stretch three octaves." She belched loudly. "I'll have you know I auditioned for Massanet's "Le Cid" and Gounod's "Faust." She leaned back against the wall and slid herself down to a sitting position with her knees spread wide before Mr. Bachelor got the door open.

Alone at last in his book store, Mr. Bachelor picked up the letter the landlord left that afternoon. He looked out at the dark street through the fly specked show window. The word "Praxis" stared back at him in mirror image -- a life's dream come true. To live and work, to sleep and eat, in the close companionship of the world's best literature! Well, maybe not the best, the best was, and would always be, a matter of opinion.

But they were good books, every one of them. The feel of them, the smell of  paper, ink, binding and glue, the sound of the pages when you riffled them, even the amazing concept of the last word on a page carrying over to the next word on the next page. It kept the reader going on and on long into the night.

He placed his hand on the cover of "Moby Dick," removed it and then placed it on the cover of "For Whom the Bell Tolls." He could almost feel the different worlds inside. The acts of courage and sacrifice. The dogged fanaticism and the impartial hand of fate. Each and every book was a universe of its own.

He read the letter again ...

Dear Mr. Bachelor;

I am writing to you as the prime lessee of 422 Greene St. to inform you of my intention to sell these premises to Werner Gottlieb & Sons, agent for the Greater Greenwich Development Co.

The 422 Greene St. tenement will become part of a larger parcel devoted entirely to commercial properties. The building must be vacated no later than November 30th of this year.

As the major tenant of this building I am notifying you a month in advance of the others.

Very truly yours,

Byron Frazier, Esq.

He switched on the fluorescent lamps in the ceiling above the haphazardly arranged book racks and absent-mindedly began to re-arrange them. "Should  have done this months ago, "he mumbled to himself. "It shows a lack of respect, "Leopold Bloom doesn't belong there ... he should be over here with the crew of the Pequod."

What would happen to his beloved books, he wondered, when he was put out in  the street? Would they be safe? "Yes," he assured himself, "of course they would. They were immortal! They would make their way to a distribution warehouse somewhere and find their way back to the racks of Barnes & Noble or Amazon." Yes, books were immortal -- but people were not. Queeg, Captain Ahab, Lorna Doone, nothing could happen to them. Age would not wither them, they would be just as the author left them years ago. Ever young. The author would shrivel and die, the reader would fade away, but the heroes and heroines were immortal. Every time a person picked up a book they would be resurrected and live again.

"Ah! But the Russos," he reminded himself. "Mr. Holiday and poor Mrs. Riordan. What about them? And what about you, John Bachelor? We wax and we wane. We expire, and like sour milk and cheese we must be removed from the shelf ... good night my friends"

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