Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Washington Irving's Birthday

I had a bad day on Sunday, one of those days when nothing went right. I rushed out of the house in the morning, deciding I would check out the Palm Sunday procession at the local Episcopal church, and somehow I was handed a program and a palm frond and before I knew it I was part of a small congregation, marching around the park behind a tall young man very enthusiastically swinging a censor (him, not me) and a band (accordion, cornet, French horn) and a woman minister in red with neat gray hair. They were singing an Episcopalian hymn, which mercifully has left my head by now, and I even tried to sing—I like to sing—but I was too moved to use my voice. Moved, I might add, by my own sense of alienation. Then I met someone I know slightly, which at first seemed like a good thing, but turned out to be bad, because she was a lighthearted believer and I was a shabby apostate. Or something. Anyway, when they processed into church, I slunk off in the opposite direction, to move my car.

Passover and Holy Week together open wide the gates of Heaven to the alternate-side parker. I had taken the first spot I found when I got home on Saturday night, on the Monday-Thursday side of the street, hoping that these would both be alternate-side-suspended days but no: I had not done my homework. Passover didn’t start till sundown on Monday, so Tuesday was the holy day; the Christians chipped in Holy Thursday and Good Friday. In order to be free of car duty all week, I needed a Tuesday-Friday spot. The car was on the block where there is a car-rental agency, which is obviously not good because of the multiple parking needs of the brethren.

Under the influence of Shoupism, I had vowed to keep track of my cruising time. The night before, I had driven four blocks before I found a space, two of them big blocks; let’s say a quarter mile, or two minutes. On Sunday at eleven-thirty, prime time for parking spaces, there was a spot across the street and about thirty-five feet behind me. Double-parked SUVs were idling in front of the car-rental agency, but there was room for me to back up and get into the spot—on the third try. I don’t park well with an audience, and I still had this cloud of irreligion hanging over my head. It took maybe five minutes and cost me some small agony. But once I was in there, nice and tight to the curb, I saw that it was good. Furthermore, it will be good for almost two weeks.

Later in the day, I went out to go on a gargoyle walking tour and was disappointed by the price (five dollars more than advertised) and the quality (we didn’t look up at all for the first twenty minutes), so I excused myself from that exercise as well, not very gracefully. (It had started to drizzle, and I acted as if I’d melt in the rain.) The truth is I’d left all but five dollars of my pocket money in yesterday’s pants, so I couldn’t have paid the guy anyway. But I gave him the five dollars, and I learned that gargoyles in New York are strictly decorative (they don’t spew rainwater) and also that they’re on commercial and residential buildings but not on churches.

I made yet another foray before the day was over: my own little walking tour/shopping trip/movie-if-the-timing-was-right (it wasn’t)/literary pilgrimage. I had been wanting for some time to see the Washington Irving house. I glossed over Washington Irving in my enthusiasm for the Alhambra, but it is largely because of him that the Alhambra is there today to be enthusiastic about. Irving had a diplomatic post in Spain in 1828, when he visited the Alhambra and was enchanted by it and arranged to stay there. The book that came out of his visit, “Tales of the Alhambra,” made the place into a tourist attraction and saved it from neglect and ruin. Thank you, Washington Irving.

At home, I looked for a copy of “Tales of the Alhambra.” Irving is a New York writer, of course (“A Knickerbocker History of New York”), and you would think that he’d be featured in New York bookstores, or at least I hoped he would be, but I should have bought a copy in Granada. There were multiple volumes of John Irving on the shelves, and even a few novels by Robert Irwin, who wrote about Washington Irving in the little book about the Alhambra that I had carried to Spain, but in between there was precious little Washington Irving. I found a Library of America volume for thirty-five dollars, which also had “Bracebridge Hall” and “Tales of a Traveller,” but that only served to remind me that I was reading for pleasure—I’ve never liked those scholarly editions of multiple books in one volume. So I tried the children’s section, but it had only “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” I know I could have just ordered it from Amazon, but I like to heft a book before I buy it, and even sniff its spine. Finally I called the Strand, which had one used paperback copy of “Tales of the Alhambra,” and I went down and bought it. It’s a nice little book, with engravings of the Alhambra, printed in Spain.

The Washington Irving House is on Irving Place at East Seventeenth Street. I first came across it years ago, when I was looking for an apartment. I had ridden my bicycle up from the financial district along the East River—ridden it, in fact, accidentally onto the F.D.R. Drive, which I exited at the first opportunity, into a maze of well-kept buildings and green lawns and a fountain and black squirrels and playgrounds and flowers . . . Where was I? Stuyvesant Town. I was dazzled. Heading west, I came to this charming run-down two-story brick house with a wooden portico and a plaque on the side saying that Washington Irving had lived there. I wanted to live there, too, but it was not clear at that point that it was habitable, or, if it was, that I could afford the rent.

Over the years, that building has been renovated, and there is now a sushi restaurant in the basement. Across Irving Place is Washington Irving High School, with a big bust of Washington Irving, and across Seventeenth Street from the high school, where there should be a charming independent bookstore with copies of all Irving’s works, there is a restaurant called Cafe Mono, with a Spanish menu and an intricately patterned mosaic tile floor. I went inside to get a closer look—the floor is made of triangular sections of smaller geometric patterns based on squares, in red and black and green and blue—and the receptionist spotted me for a malingerer. I said I’d come in to see the floor and would come back someday for a drink. “Actually, we’re dining only,” she said. “Our bar is around the corner.” “Oh. Then I’ll come back to eat,” I said. “I love this floor. Do you know anything about it?” “We inherited it,” she said, herding me out the door.

Hmmph. I turned my sights on the Washington Irving house, diagonally across the street, at 49 Irving Place. No gargolyes there, only some scaffolding obscuring half of the building and, on the stoop under the scaffolding, out of the drizzle, a bearded homeless man with a dog, a weimeraner, wearing a nice snug quilted dog coat. The dog was happy, standing behind the man on the stairs, licking the man’s neck, making the man laugh. I wasn’t sure at first that the man was homeless—maybe he lived there—but at the foot of the stairs I saw his stuff, in a shopping cart covered with a dark-blue blanket. Some homeless people are so attached to their belongings that they trundle bundles the size of Volkswagens around with them, loaded down with plastic bags containing God knows what. This guy seemed to have a manageable load.

I skulked around out of his line of vision, and went about my business, then circled back from the other direction. My natural tendency when I see scaffolding is to cross the street, but this time I stayed on Washington Irving’s side of the street. Now the man had company: a long-haired younger man was talking to him, and a woman as well; she was talking loud, and had a hairdo that made me kind of avert my eyes. I didn’t want to stare, and I wasn’t prepared to introduce myself. In passing, I noticed that the old man was examining a piece of electronic equipment that the younger man seemed to have handed him. It had colored sockets on one end, like something you’d plug into a stereo speaker. Beside the man was a bag of dog food. The dog still looked happy.

Very Rip Van Winkle, no? I don’t know what else to say about it. I went home and started the task that all my activities of the day had been designed to stave off: going through my papers to do my taxes, a job that I hate with a passion. I always save it till Holy Week, when you’re supposed to suffer. And when it’s done you feel shriven.

(Note the name of the hotel in the background.)


MBR said...

Here's a bizarre thing--the Catholic Church does not allow anyone other than Jesus Christ to be buried with full ceremonial catholic ritual in Holy Week. My great aunt died today (Holy Tuesday) and if she's not interred by Thursday this week, we have to wait until after Easter to have a mass said for her. She will be buried straight from the funeral home following what is called a "Eucharistic Memorial." This for a woman who attended mass on at least, if not more than, weekly basis for 85 years, which I estimate to be 4,400+ masses. So much for the 'faithful.'

Michelle said...

I'm sorry to say that Washington Irving never lived in that 17th Street house, despite the shiny plaque to the contrary.

However, "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and other tales were written at his home in Greenwich Village at 11 Commerce Street.

MJN/NYC said...

Thanks, Michelle. I'll make a pilgrimage to Commerce St. Of course this means that ALL my activities on Sunday were a bust--except the parking spot.

mbr: requiescat in pacem.

lucette said...

I was singing religiously on Easter, too! I sang The Old Rugged Cross, among other things, at a Freewill Baptist Church.