Last Night at Nikos

09/07/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
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It was a beautiful morning in New York, quite hot, a lovely breeze. I took my new book, my selected poems, One Class, out for a walk. I've had copies for only a week, and the book's publication date is nine days away. I have been exhausted, because being a poet since 1960 in the America of the military-industrial complex is heavy going. And though the book is 120 pages, it has only 15 poems with titles like "Life During the Coup" and "The Coming of Fascism to America". I like to write long poems.

"I Am Astro Place" I wrote in the 1980s as a screenplay, "Astro Place," about some cultural and political people living near Astor Place in the East Village in the fraught years 1984 to 2001. In April 2007, Bob Holman at the Bowery Poetry Club suggested I make it an "I Am" poem for a collection of poems about New York where the poet assumes the character of the place. So one fevered April night, a screenplay became a 22-page poem. It is a poem à clef, with characters drawn from real life. Thus there is a Judith Malina character who is also part Madonna, and a Susan Sontag character. You can take the poem on a walking tour of the sites in it.

I had written the screenplay impelled by two ideas of cultural parents: Allen Ginsberg, who during the worst of the Reagan years, said, "Write your own self-fulfilling prophecies," and Sontag, who spoke of "the Republic of the Serious." For "I Am Astro Place," my political self-fulfilling prophecy, sketched out in the 1980s, was a bit off: in my 2001, a black lesbian socialist was inaugurated president.

Then I went to the local farmers market on Union Square, the Green Market, and bought strawberries from Franca and blueberries from Lisa and tomatoes, purple potatoes, and a cuke from Keith and corn from a former CNN cameraman.

The Green Market is a little traumatic to me these days because Tom Disch, a major science fiction innovator, novelist, playwright, and poet, who lived in a rent-stabilized apartment on Union Square, recently committed suicide. His lover had died a few years ago, his apartment had been devastated by fire, then his upstate house was flooded, and finally his Union Square landlord was evicting him. So he shot himself.

When I moved downtown in 1988, Tom was one of the people I'd hoped to become friends with, but it didn't really happen. He was on the board of a little magazine that had just published two of my best poems. I was always grateful to him. Dana Gioia called Tom one of the few geniuses he had ever met.

At home, I put the fruits and vegetables away, but it was so beautiful I went out again and heard my neighbor Eric play guitar in the Jefferson Market Library Garden. He is Native American but he was playing ragas. It reminded me of the wonderful new film playing a block away, The Fall, by Tarsem. A stunt actor in the silent films is injured, and recuperating in the hospital he tells a cowboys and Indians adventure to a fellow patient, a Romanian child who imagines the tale in fabulous Arabian nights settings, which we then see, and the "Indians" of the cowboy narrative become people from India.

Then I had dinner out (Miguel was still at work) with two neighbors, a woman who has lived in our rental apartment building since 1947, Regina, and our upstairs neighbor, Alexandra. We ate at the local continental restaurant, Gene's on the street, circa 1930s, and a friend of Regina's joined us.

Our block has many delightful structures, from the 1830s to 1930s, and one from the 1970s, that replaced a brownstone that blew up when the Weather Underground were making a bomb. Dustin Hoffman was living next door and came running out in his underwear.

I lived uptown at the time but was working three blocks away from the explosion at a publishing company on the tenth floor, and looked out the window to see the sky fill with black smoke. I called the fire department, which misinterpreted my agitated message and sent a crew up to our office. So we all, literati and firemen, looked out the window at the vast smoke clouds. (The office, by the way, was on the site of the building where Herman Melville wrote "Bartleby the Scrivener.")

This evening we finished our dinner at Gene's, and came home. Soon Alexandra called and said that the local news store on the corner, Nikos Magazine and Smoke Shop, was closing. Tonight was the last night.

It was a narrow store packed with every good and great magazine. The owner, Nikos, had fled the Greece of the colonels in 1977 and set up the store in Greenwich Village, the American center of free and eccentric thought. From Nikos I had bought my first issue of LOOT: Lies of the Times, which regularly put The New York Times through a Chomskometer, a term I coined and later used in a poem I wrote the day the first Bush started the first Gulf war. This night, this last night at Nikos, I went down with a copy of One Class to show him what I had been doing all these years and let him have that poem.

Nikos's wife, Fay, said he refused to sell Lotto tickets, and always allowed any magazine to be sold. It was a question of free speech. They had a great collection of literary magazines, and no porn, though images were allowed like the cover photo of the biker garbed only in cap, leather vest and boots and perched on his Harley for the "Polysexuality" issue of Semiotext(e).

Recently Nikos had put a print of Raphael's mural, The School of Athens, with all the classical philosophers, in one of the windows. He thought of himself in that tradition, rightly so. I inscribed his copy of One Class: "To Nikos, School of Socrates on 6th Avenue."

I used to visit the store quite a bit, but as the New York Times and New Yorker went on-line I decided to read them that way, saving time and trees. And the literary world was increasingly occurring on line, not in print.

Fewer customers, the crisis of the newspaper, much higher rents. Finally Nikos had to close.

All day people had been coming in. Some brought champagne.

This last night, Nikos thanked me for my patronage, and I thanked him for his great work. I said that I wished I could have bought more, but he brushed that aside.

Fay said, "Now I'll get a real job with health insurance. We have to pay a thousand a month for the two of us."

The store was about empty of magazines and people. I bought $80 worth of magazines for $4.

I was the last customer of the last night.

I left, as Fay and Nikos closed up one last night after 31 years of closing up.