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Soho bestowed E.B. White's gift of loneliness on me during the summer of 1980, and I am still grateful. From March through the end of August of that year, I lived on Crosby Street in New York City's Soho, one of the least transformed streets in this strange artistic-industrial area. I was getting over a broken relationship, a five year co-habitation that was, essentially, a marriage. Soho is where I went to sort out my heart and mind and to experience the many small and large devastations that come with a broken love affair.
Soho had great charm then, and, despite the colossal changes that have taken place there, it does still. I found that many of its unique characteristics served me well in my period of convalescence. The first of these was, simply, that not many people lived there twenty years ago. When the long lines of trucks left the sides of the streets in the afternoon, and the art speculators and tourists fled with them, not many personalities were left. For such a large area--even speaking of so many years ago, I am excluding weekends--it was sparsely populated. So that often I could be quite alone with my loneliness, free to roam from street to street in near or even complete solitude, feeling my melancholy nurtured by silence and space. Hearing my own footsteps clack and clomp in loud singularity during an evening stroll was often antidote enough for some feeling of wrack that suddenly overtook me. And it helped, at times, to feel my hurt was the only hurt around, and Soho let me feel that easily.
In particular, this was true of my street, Crosby Street, with its empty longitudinal expanse and its rough cobblestones. At times, there was literally no one walking or driving down this street for close to an hour. I would stand outside
my building and communicate with this emptiness. I could sigh deeply, as the heartsick are wont to do, and Crosby Street, with great beneficence, ingested my woe, accepted it, seemed to request more. It was constant in its willingness, a big loyal mute friend that was always there when I came home alone. I felt especially tender toward the cobblestones. They seemed to me, even in their density, a sort of delicate and vulnerable touch within the context of all this cast iron strength. There were not a few days when I spoke mentally to these cobblestones which had so obviously been planted by human hands, and I felt very protective toward them.
Soho's sparseness also had the simple but startling effect of granting a lot more attention to individuals. This was an incomparable gift. It was not unusual, for example, to see a single person walking on the opposite side of the street, making it just you and him or her, strolling for minutes along together on opposite sides, the only humans around in all this real estate. I never saw people more clearly, more distinctly than in Soho. That meant much to me. It was a form of human contact that was almost intimate--it was certainly private in one respect--and if I didn't actually meet the person walking toward me and then by me, I did feel there was an exchange nevertheless. I can still remember faces and nods and hellos and unabashed eye contact. This contact was my first tentative reaching out for closeness again.
Because there were so few people in Soho then, each person, as I said, became dramatically unique in your eyes. This was particularly wonderful with women. Soho had--has, still, if you are observant--beautiful women, healthy, energetic and alluring. There were times when I was more grateful for that than for anything else. Women I saw were often dramatically highlighted as they passed by stark industrial facades and closed diners and empty street corners. I could gaze at them for minutes instead of seconds as is the case uptown, follow them and their colors and clothes coming toward me, and even begin a smile
almost a block away. It's hard to imagine that occurring in Soho today. And they were generous with their smiles! I can remember a pair of eyes, the way a dress clung to a stomach, lovely legs, the way a woman turned a corner and was off. I had four months of this display, and though at times it made me ache with wanting, it also made me feel vibrant and cheery and full of awe. Those were feelings I sorely needed after leaving a relationship that had left me numb and cold.
Another of Soho's particularities that helped me gently through the spring was its weather. Because Soho is a separate commonwealth of sorts--I think its architecture has a great deal to do with this--it seems to have its own weather. This is singularly true of rain. A rainstorm in Soho can have as much significance and drama as it does on an island. During that particular spring there were three or four very violent rainstorms, and experiencing them in Soho was restorative. A rain in Soho always brought out a childlike feeling in me. As the water came washing down with pulsing force, I sat in my small loft, huddled with my yellow lamps in the cool humid obscurity, enjoying every noisy minute of it. I would leave the windows open and thrill to the loud rain and occasional spritzing I got as the wind blew some of the storm into my room. The thunder crashed and rumbled, and I felt an exquisite blanket of innocence and youth and openheartedness as it rained and rained and rained.
There were other attractions. Like playing basketball at Spring and Thompson on the small court where local Italian-American kids took up sides. They still do. Or the adjacent playground where I used to come after work and watch children play. And the gigantic R & K Bakery on Prince near West Broadway, defunct now, which was one of the biggest--if not the biggest in the city. "One day you're the biggest, the next day someone else is," a worker once told me. By necessity, it was a nocturnal operation. I remember going out walking at 2 am and coming upon four or five men in wrinkled whites sitting on a stoop taking a breather as the building heaved out its concentrated essences of fresh bread. That sugared wind snapped my olfactory senses wide awake.
There were a few special shops and stands, a favorite bar or two, perhaps, and book stores. Bu though I liked these very much, every neighborhood can usually claim the same. It was in the end this superb gift of loneliness, couched in so restful, poetic and accepting a manner, that made living in Soho then so good, and made it so difficult to leave. Soho had been with me in my time of need. For four brief months I shared with it everything I had, and it said, yes, all right, that's good. This kindness had its effect. Because when I finally did leave, I felt patched together not in some haphazard fashion, but that the job had been done well, smooth, strong and seamless.
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