Recent Work By Amy Shearn

I don’t think of myself as superstitious, I guess, but what with the whole bathrobe situation I’m having to rethink that theory.

Lately I have been eying my ratty old bathrobe with disdain. It is red fleece and very cozy, but pilling all over and going a bit black at the cuffs, and I’m afraid the insides of the pockets have not fared well from years of used kleenexes being stuffed inside of them. So when recently my mother-in-law, who is a ninja of birthday gift-giving, bestowed upon my lucky self a Gap gift certificate, I happily counted among my purchases a new bathrobe.

As far as I can tell every writer has a book reading war story or two, wherein one travels 10 hours through blizzards or cross-country on a full-fare plane ticket in order to read to a snoozing hobo and a handful of bookstore employees. Perhaps this is what my publishers had in mind when I asked about giving readings in support of my first novel and they responded, “Eh, we don’t really do that so much.” For nobodies like me, is what they meant. I happen to know that in the weeks before my book came out my publicist was absolutely slammed with managing Pat Buchanan’s book tour. What does Pat Buchanan have that I don’t? This is not the first time I’ve asked myself this question.

Corner Store Wars

By Amy Shearn


When I am describing (or defending, depending on the attitude of questioner) my choice to live in the yuppie stronghold of Park Slope, I often list chief among its charms convenience, “since after all,” I add, hoping to be contradicted, “I am extremely lazy.”

I guess I can forgive people for not contradicting me. It’s pretty true, at least in terms of food preparation. When my husband and I “cook” it involves things like applying heat to a pan of refried beans. We rarely conjure the organization or gumption for a big grocery shop. Instead, we are spectacularly undiscplined, considering what to eat for dinner approximately ten minutes before we plan to be actually eating it. But it’s not our fault.  Our neighborhood has lulled us into this state. It’s just too convenient.

In fact, on our block alone there are two decent restaurants, one bar, a Chinese takeout place, a bakery, and three –yes, three– corner stores.

While the three corner stores are certainly a boon, the situation does have its pitfalls. There have been plenty of nights when I’ve strolled blithely out of the more-ghetto-but-ever-so-slightly-closer store, bag of Utz in my hot little hand, straight into the disappointed glare of the corner store proprietor across the street. And I deserve this from Bassam, the kind-hearted, hard-working Palestinian father of four who runs Junior’s, who knows everyone’s name, who always has a word of wisdom and an unnervingly positive attitude. On a sweltering summer day when his store tops out at 150 degrees, he’ll answer a “Hot enough for you” with a smiling, “It’s summer! This is beautiful!” During Ramadan he toasts our bagels with a  haunted gaze, telling us how delicious the day-long fast makes dinner. In a perfect world, we would always support Bassam.

But then there’s the other store, which recently reopened as a slightly overpriced gourmet market. As much as I love Bassam, he doesn’t offer organic avocados or local hormone-free milk at 11pm. So okay, in a perfect perfect world, I guess I’d go to the organic market for emergency veg runs, and then Bassam for your everyday average sparkling water situation.

But then there’s that first, more ghetto store, which actually also has a rather charming employee –- a larger-than-life fellow called Rolls, who recently found out I wrote a book and who now greets me at the top of his lungs, “Hey, Jane Austen!” Now, I think most writers would probably travel across town to encourage a nickname like this. Lately he’s been mixing it up, too, including other literary luminaries. Who, I ask, could resist this?

So I compromise. Some days, I admit that I end up visiting all three. And in the end, there is enough of divergence in each shop’s stock that I’ve come to feel that three corner stores is really just barely enough. Each is as necessary and beloved as, say, one of three children. Parents can’t pick one favorite! Why should I?! Honestly, when I face the thought of someday leaving our neighborhood (as will likely have to happen at some point as rents go up and we continue to not hit the jackpot on the Lotto tickets we always buy from Bassam) I shudder to think of a life with fewer corner stores. In the meantime, I stop at the ghetto store on my way home from work, greeted by Rolls’ exuberant “Why the long face, Willa Cather?”

To which I respond, a bit accusingly, “You don’t have Pirate Booty!” — slinking to the next corner store in search of the elusive puffs.

Working in Manhattan can be an exciting, thrilling experience, but it doesn’t have to be. For the first year of my legitimate-office-job-having life, I worked in a building entrenched in a cozy block of 7th Avenue, spitting distance from two of the most impressively banal landmarks in this city: Times Square and Macy’s. Now, things can get pretty hectic in busy digital media what with the constant barrage of emails, IMs, phone calls, and that woman from accounting shrilly dictating lists of numbers into her speaker phone. I soon learned, therefore, how valuable it was for the mental health of any office worker to unwinch one’s shoulders from their hunched slump, peer away from the computer screen, and make one’s way out into the city.

I highly recommend an afternoon stroll through the western gutter of Midtown Manhattan to anyone who complains that the city has gotten too gentrified, or fancy, or clean, or pleasant. Nothing quite lifts the spirits like battling one’s way down a narrow sidewalk shrouded in complete darkness at 3 pm on a summer afternoon. I took a walk like this during my lunch break on my last day at my job, and maybe this was why everything seemed already tinged with nostalgia, why the dim streets seemed particularly elegiac. How I would miss spending my days here!

People are friendly in this neighborhood – from the delivery men saying “hello” by tapping gently at your legs with their overloaded dollies or bolts of fabric, nudging you like cordial goats, to the slow-moving herds of tourists who envelop you in their fanny-packed midst, sweeping you inexorably towards the luminescent glow of the Applebee’s in Times Square. Seven-foot-tall teenagers stalk by with modeling portfolios tucked under their arms, directing their doe-eyed gaze at you in what might be welcoming greeting, but also could just be hunger. Every time you exit your building or turn a corner, rest assured you will run smack dab into someone, perhaps even someone (as happened to me on this particular day) who will take hold of your arm and forcibly shove you out of the way (of danger, I assume). Plus, there is a cornucopia of interesting lunchtime options, representative of the breadth of New York’s international cuisine: from salads and sandwiches to sandwiches and salads. The brave of heart may choose to venture down Board-of-Health-defying alleyways marked with handmade signs promising cheap tamales or glatt kosher falafel; the iron of stomach can graze on the urine-yellow halal meat offered up by the street vendors.

Meander a little further west, preferably down 40th street, flanked by the Port Authority bus terminal on one side and the local parole board office on the other, towards the peep shows, and keep your eyes peeled for the authentically “gritty” characters this city still has to offer. There – a stumbling fellow with a face like gristle leers openly, calls out in a nonsense language something I can only assume means, Hullo, friend! There – a man peeing in a doorway looks up and grins, waggling his flaccid member in cheerful greeting. Hullo!

I came to find that after my lunchtime strolls it was largely a relief to make my way back towards the office building. What a relief to sink back into that office chair, though it seems to be ergonomically designed to make me slouch – how tranquil the office seems after the chaos of the street. The soothing hum of phones ringing, the quiet clatter of web copy being typed into ancient computers, the mellifluous singsong of the woman from accounting dictating numbers into her speaker phone. And yet, there’s something wonderful, I mean really wonderful, about such a dose of chaos.

Now I work in the Conde Nast building, where the hallways seethe with the seamy lights of Times Square. I don’t get back to the old neighborhood much anymore. It sounds nutty, but I actually really do miss it in all its filth and bustle. Maybe one of these days I should make the 5-block trek down to the Garment District and watch someone peeing in an alley just for old time’s sake. After all, I don’t want to become one of those office drones who only leaves the building to go to Starbucks, with that baleful cry, “Anyone want anything from the outside world?” Because you know what? I do want something from the outside world. And it’s not a latte.

Well, not just a latte, anyway.