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From Brooklyn Crime Novel, which will be published this month by Ecco.

Say a guy, a former Dean Street boy, now resident of an apartment above a bar on Columbia Street, the far side of the BQE—say that guy has been visiting his aging mom in her apartment near the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Say it’s a cooling mid-October Friday evening and he wants to walk that distance across his homeland—now, which street should he choose?

On Flatbush or Fulton or Schermerhorn, he’ll be dodging the sidewalk hawkers. To walk Dean or Bergen or Pacific, that prospect is another thing entirely. Should he opt for the row-house blocks, he’ll surely be flinching at hallucinatory Spaldeen ghosts, as if he might have to stick up his hand at any second if someone yells, “Catch, man.” So he walks Atlantic Avenue instead. Less chance of confusion there. 

Just past the bail bonds joint, at the mouth of Smith Street, the former Dean Street boy’s head is turned by a vendor with a table loaded with books. Dude is grizzled and possibly drunk, seems a little wobbly on his pins, and wearing sunglasses though the evening has begun. The merchandise is surprisingly interesting, though, some beautiful older editions, a few wrapped in plastic like in a real shop. Presumably the guy has set up here to take advantage of the new hipster traffic on Smith, en route to the French restaurant, the new bars, this weird boomlet that’s pushing the Puerto Ricans out after so long.

In no hurry, the former Dean Street boy peruses the tables, lifts up a curiosity, a pocket-size paperback of Melville’s Redburn with an evocative sketch of a sailor.

“I just collected on a wager with myself that you’d go for that one.” The street vendor’s voice confirms all guesses: a drinker’s mutter, prematurely aged by cigarettes, then stretched to a drawl with defensive irony. “Now I owe myself a dollar. Double or nothing says you’ll set it down when you see the price.”

Booksellers who loathe their clientele: a known type. Taking the bait, the former Dean Street boy flips to the first page. The crabbed pencil markings read $10. More than he could have guessed. Is he a fool for being the one person who stopped to browse. 

But he shuts the cover on the price and keeps the book in his hand. “I like the drawing.”

“Sure you do. Edward Gorey. He’s no Gil Kane or Frank Frazetta, but he’s got something.”

Is the vendor crazy or just mistaken? Then, a closer look: it does look like an Edward Gorey. Score one for the vendor. “I had no idea he drew book covers!”

“There’s more where that came from.”

“Must have been early work, from the look of it.” Now they’re making small talk. This threatens to become a pleasant encounter.

“Yeaaaaaah. Before he did his own thing, or designed the sets for Dracula, or gift store coffee mugs, Gorey was a humble commercial hack.”

That archly strangled locution, the ceaseless scorn: the vendor’s voice nags at the former Dean Street boy. It calls him out, as though from some well of ancient authority. So he reaches into his pocket to prove the crank wrong. Mercifully, he’s got a ten-spot. He pushes it across the table.

“That’s all you want? Not a glance at the rest?”

“I’ve, uhhhhhh, got to go.”

“Melville’s all you care for? Or are you still cultivating that childish fondness for Vonnegut?”


“You don’t recognize me, you dolt, do you?” The vendor picks up the ten-dollar bill.

The former Dean Street boy gapes. Soon the grizzled features resolve into something pitiable and arresting, a bleak mirror. They’re the same age, of course. This means the Dean Street boy may be, unknown to himself, also a ruined child. The street book vendor is his old schoolmate. The antiquarian kid.

“It’s you.”

“Only approximately.”

With relief, the former Dean Street boy is now able to retranslate the vendor’s ambient hostility as the sad devolution of a familiar personality. It’s personal, in other words, but nothing to take personally.

Time has not been kind. Was it a decade ago? More?—when, having wandered into Emporium Books, he’d last seen him? Good lord.

“I always thought you’d have a shop of your own someday.” This is out of the former Dean Street boy’s mouth before he sees how cruel it sounds. Needling begets needling, it’s like they’re instantly back in the I.S. 293 gym, in a contest for who’ll be picked dead last for punchball.

“You’re looking at it,” seethes the vendor. “I keep my seashell collection scattered on the beaches of the earth.”


“The whole world’s my oyster, not to be eaten in months containing the letter r.”

“I think I get it.”

“I’m just saying, this is my bookstore. We own the city, you and I, by dint of seniority. You’re free to use the restroom, even without a purchase.”

A hobbit once, he’s Gollum now. He appears dust-poisoned, corrupted by the toxin of his interests, much like one of those do-it-yourself renovators who vanished into the lathe and plaster, and emerged ten years later to a world that no longer considered him young.

“You’ve been doing this, uh, selling on the street, a while?” The former Dean Street boy works to soften his tone. Not all who dish it out can take it.

“I usually work the Village. Sixth, across from the Waverly. Fucking Giuliani gestapo have started chasing me off, so I thought I’d see what the new Left Bank had going for it. But these cryptobohemians don’t read, they just eat and fuck. They rarely even hesitate long enough for me to bum a cigarette.”

“What’s that trendy restaurant? Patois?”

“Patois.” They both savor the dorky syllables, the jokes that make themselves.

Now the former Dean Street boy assesses the folding wheeled cart, the bungee cords, the plastic milk crates shoved beneath the table. The whole economical and squalid enterprise, just this side of a derelict’s bindle.

There’s only one way to salvage this encounter, short of running shamefully for cover. “Probably got a pretty fair wine list.”

“I’d like to shove it up their ass.”

“How long does it take you to pack this kit up?”

“Not more than a minute or two. Just watch.”

“You think they’ll seat us at the bar? My treat.”

“Now you’re talking,” grins the antiquarian kid. Or whatever we should call him now. 

Antiquarianism, a mask that eats into the face.

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October 2009

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