Carl Spitzweg, Kunst und Wissenschaft (detail), ca. 1880.
One of the few remaining bastions of character on New York’s Upper West Side is its smattering of sidewalk booksellers. Up and down Broadway—displaying wares by American Apparel, blasting Bach, and hawking signed Roth novels in front of Zabar’s, dressed in velvet by the Eighty-Sixth Street Uptown 1—these are the folks who keep the neighborhood alive.
Over the weekend, I was perusing the stall of a certain bookseller when another customer—a “character” in a many-pocketed fishing-tackle vest—strode up and began barraging the mild-mannered proprietor with questions.
“Are you always here?”
“How’d you meet your wife?”
“What did you teach?”
“Do you have kids?”
“I bet you’re a good grandfather. Are you?”
“Can I take your picture?”
Don’t get me wrong, none of the questions were rude, or even particularly intrusive—and the bookseller answered each one readily enough—but the rapid-fire delivery was peculiar. After the customer had departed (having indeed taken a photograph), I complimented the owner on his equanimity.
“That was quite the interrogation,” I said, as I paged through a volume of collected Yeats.
“Oh, well, you meet all sorts of people in this job,” he shrugged. “It’s usually easier just to smile and nod.”
“You meet some weirdos, I’ll bet,” I said.
“It takes all kinds,” he said, disappointingly. Then, “If you like poetry, you should look at this table—I have a whole bunch, some good ones.” I didn’t really want to buy any poetry, but I politely followed him over to the next table and looked over the books he handed me, making approving noises.
“Do you like Ogden Nash?” he said. “This is a really nice Modern Library edition. You’d get a lot of doggerel, there.”
“ ‘Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker,’ ” I said.
“Oh, I don’t think that was Ogden Nash.”
“I think it was.”
“No, that was Dorothy Parker.”
“I’m pretty sure it was Ogden Nash.”
“Dorothy Parker was the one who wrote about drinking, though.”
“Well, she’s the one who said that a hangover is ‘the wrath of grapes.’ And that ‘I like to have a martini, / Two at the very most. / After three I’m under the table, / after four I’m under my host.’ And she had a drinking problem. But she didn’t say ‘Candy is Dandy.’ ”
“Well, it sounds like you know what you’re talking about,” he said. “You’re probably right.”
“I mean, I’m pretty sure it was Ogden Nash. In Hard Lines. From ‘Reflections on Ice-Breaking.’ I mean, I think.”
“I’m sure you’re right!” he smiled at me politely and turned away to deal with some old crank.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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