Popularly synonymous with the German quarter, Yorkville in reality is a much more inclusive section. The names on the newsstands, shop windows, restaurants, bars, and many travel bureaus indicate that Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, and Irish also live in this locality……The village is centered around the old Boston Post Road (Third Avenue) between what is now Eighty-third and Eighty-ninth Streets…….First avenue is the most central route through Yorkville.
–WPA Guide to New York City, 1939, p.243
there were days in yorkville when springtime brought the scent of paprika, of sugar and cinnamon, of warmth and spicy sweetness…then steamy summer rolled in slowly and gently, moist like sauerkraut hot dogs and papaya drinks, throbbing like the rising warm air mirages from the blistering blacktop…then fall clogged drains with yellow leaves and baseball statistics, unceasing gutter rivers where floating popsicle sticks raced against popsicle wrappers on their way to the uncertainty of the sewers…and then winter appeared suddenly one morning, instant snow crowned mountaintops of garbage bags, the chains of the 2nd avenue bus wheels ching-changle ching-changle ching-changling on the gray slush.
there were moments in yorkville when the forgotten detritus of ancestors was discovered in broom closets or under carpets, and nostalgia for oma or opa sent one back into a sepia tone photograph. there were animated conversations between shop owners on the hungarian streets…magyar hentes and the soccer supply store, red shops near saint stephen’s school. german restaurants, windows filled with tiered cakes and steins taller than children…white names like heidelberg, wagner, or schaller placed on dark signs proudly displayed within a wooden tudor motif above a busy beer hall…and the deutsche kirk that rested its weathered structure in a recessed nookstreet, its floors still stained by the souls of the bund whose feet graced its marble before. there were times when the streets became a patch of green and red, faces like ripening tomatoes in st.patrick’s parade grounds…a healthy day of commerce and fisticuffs, mcsherry’s, reif’s, o’reilly’s…the one day when crowds spill out from these tiny bars to revel in the streets, while faux-nationalistic police look the other way, shamrock pins gleaming on their lapels. there were mom and pop things a plenty, bakeries with a history lineage of teenage girls behind the counter…girls who had wondered if they’d be lucky enough to be chosen to pack its famous cakes into white cardboard boxes, tying them off with peppermint striped string from a tarnished wire spool above…bars with kitchens in back, tended by the elderly, their wrinkled skin as sweltering pink as the corned beef they stirred…delicatessens that catered to the goyim, slicing machines and 9-fingered counter clerks writing grease pencil prices on wrapped sandwiches. there were bus stops on every street, primarily the much heralded silk route heading north and south where once stood an elevated train track, a block east its parallel replacement, an unfinished subterranean hollow under the avenue, filled only with the empty promises of politicos and cunning contractors. hidden on side streets were the buses that took passengers east and west, river to river routes that were almost shameful to use…guilty passengers sneaking to the other side…through the gray of yorkville and into the western lands, the brownstoneville place where the academic and the artistic lived but didn’t work. the west side had the centers of ballet, invented by the ancestors of yorkville, halls of music, perfected by the ancestors of yorkville, museums of art, influenced by the ancestors of yorkville, wealthy art patrons of whom yorkville was jealous…yorkville’s forgotten ancestry had created the culture of the west side…its ancestry no longer taking credit for it. on the surface, yorkville held little in the way of native, indigenous artistic achievement…yet in the silent, imaginal bomb factories, hidden away above blind family residential apartments, an underbelly of painters and writers and musicians prepared their weapons…waiting for the unreachable moment when they would become cultural warriors, marching forth in front of the masses rushing to keep up. the artists gathered together at night, with secret knocks and handshakes, with arcane rites bordering on the sexual…violin players who sneered as they resin’d their bows, thinking of when they would strike…sanitation men writing poetry in long verse on the back of trash-picked notepads, capturing the scents of garbage and transforming them into magick words, stockpiling their armaments for the day of reckoning. the secret dance behind the walls a viennese waltz to a hungarian rhapsody, sung by an irish tenor, oompah’d accordianingly polka-like, gypsified and slow, slovakian…the answer to the brazen arts of the west side would be to transform the east side arts into a mystery cult, complete with processions along ritual pathways…through shops and over sidewalks…onto the steps of brownstones and into the forgotten shelves of the yorkville public library…this machine of perpetual anti-ism remained yorkville’s esoteric invisible college. the secret handshakes and nods of recognition kept an arcadian stream below the surface. these mystic artists maintained yorkville’s spirt while it had it guts ripped apart by americana.
in an act that signified both pride and the shame of failure, the denizens turned yorkville into the only american place in which they will have lived, which any of their family will have ever lived. the immigrants, products of millions of years of evolution, traveled across oceans on logs and rolled onto the east end shoreline, ragged and tattered, almost naked, hollow-eyed and high. they were under-equipped to handle the mansions that faced the cliffs of gracie. so, to survive, they developed surliness and swarthiness and a resolution that there would be things not worth seeing, and they do their best not to see them…a willed ignorance of the customs that had been there previously. these new cro magnon of yorkville displaced many of the previous incarnations of the yorkville species…some intermingle, living in rent-controlled old-money townhouses with their neander valley spouses, not afraid to pull out the mousterian china and their grandparent’s olduwan silverware when company came by to sit by the piano and twirl their fingers through the thin crochet doilies under the candelabra, or pick with pokesticks at the fire that blazed in the hearth. yorkville apartment houses were stratified, layer-like constructions that followed the riis proclamations by the letter, but not the spirit…dumbbell apartments with minimal ventilation, but light on both sides and absent pits where the fecal garbage privvies lay at the bottom of hexagonal shafts…trash evolved quicker than culture, being picked up weekly from the dented garbage cans that loitered in front of buildings.
the yorkville rat patrol, a band of neighborhood newsies and snoops, smoke signaling and slit gonging at the first sign of trouble, kept a network of polyglot informants and plants and moles stationed in bars, restaurants, movie houses, basements, grammar schools, church vestibules, neighbor’s closets, dresser drawers, and water closets…the tentacles stretched thin as they reached the perimeter. there was great vulnerability on the fringe, especially to the north.
the boy genius could see the vulnerable tip of the tentacle from his window, in a nestled corner of the ignored nowhere that led east to the entrance of the river’s edgeway, bordered on the north by the unspoken imagineauxry line of not-belongitude overlooking the gas station on 96th street. he turned from the gray window view, sat on the floor of his bedroom and resumed playing the g.i. joe book and record that he’d been immersed in for hours…the secret mission to spy island, a record with savages and remote controlled jeeps blaring rock music. he yearned for something more and so he replaced the spy island record with the secret of the mummy’s tomb…amtoltec was leaving an echo curse in a british voice to a pyramidally trapped g.i.joe. his mother tells him to turn the record off. he switched the wrong switch and the record speeds up to 78rpms. he laughed and shut it off. without the stimulus of the stylus on his kid grooves, he became bored. his skinny arms waved wacky and wiry as he sat there in active silence, holding his breath and letting it come out in comical noisy spits, his eyes looking off to nowhere.
-c’mon. we’re go’na wooworths, ya fahtha needs socks.
they left the apartment holding hands in the dark hallway. the floorboards, creaky and covered in flimsy linoleum, sunk in spots and warped in others…each step on the steep stairway slanted to varying degrees of oblique or obtuse angles. it was hard to walk down the stairs without stumbling at least once, the gap where his front teeth once occupied was proof.
his mother headed directly south, without even glancing towards the north…where the other world squinted from behind the dividing line. this was the edge of their world, where the rat patrol recons dared not tread, where an invisible barrier offered little protection from raiding parties. what kept yorkville safe was the magick energy of division, conjured by local shamans…the unspoken curse about crossing the line and never returning home again.
the one person that could pass between the worlds with impunity was the M15 bus driver, lukie…the smartest man in the neighborhood, the buyer of drinks, the purveyor of silks and spices from the northern caravans, the trader of culture, the swift wheeled messenger and distributor of rumor. lukie drove from the south to the north and back again many times each day, heading north on first avenue, looping west on 125th street to second avenue, then back southward again…he circled the two worlds, making it two interlinked parts of one larger creation. lukie became the master of its syntheses, nomadic and untouchable…a king among men.
the boy genius watched the first avenue bus whizzing by, smoke spewing up from its tailpipe, careening north forcefully. lukie’s wild hair, the only visible sign of life on board, streamed backwards against the rush of air…the faint sound of rock music came from the bus…”we come from the land of the ice and snow, from the midnight sun where the hot springs blow. the hammer of the gods will drive our ships to new lands…”
his mother is walking fast, but slowed down as she got closer to 86th street…the hub of yorkville, it’s agora. people representing yorkville’s tribes plied their wares from first avenue to lexington avenue…to the quiet west of the bustle, the exclusive shops of yorkville’s nobility. but to the east, a hive of working class activities…tool makers, potters, hunters, gatherers, mystics and oracles. they sold their goods in caves recessed at the base of mountainous residential edifices, fluorescent torchlights above, obsidian windows repelling the sun, pebbly carpeting below. this was where the habilenes became the ergasters…craft was language, making possible communication in different tongues. babel was not the tower that reached to god, it was the flint blade that the swede traded with the greek, the adze that the czech traded with the austrian…craft made secrets, and secrets made cultures of secrecy…distinct, unique, different…in need of secret languages to unite them. 86th street was where the craftsmen came with their goods, careful not to betray the secrets of their skill.
on third avenue, up the hill past the small orange enclave run by the berger king, sat woolworth’s…once the five and dime, now a low-tech department store. woolworth’s was where you shopped if you can’t afford the gimbels sitting up west between lexington and park. people who shopped at woolworth’s were angry people…there was no joy in having to shop there, crowds of poor folk buying shoddy goods at low prices. to the proud, woolworth’s was the antithesis of craft, the hallmark of the serf. its bags were the mark of shame, the heraldry of the peasant…it’s clothing was offensive and dangerous to wear. many a child had been beaten by schoolmates for having the misfortune to be wearing woolworth’s sneakers or sport a pair of woolworth’s pants. at woolworth’s, the boy genius prayed that his mother wouldn’t buy him anything. he held his breath until they paid for the socks and left the store…his prayers had been answered, and the danger of conspicuous consumption was once more overpowered by the safe inadequacy of poverty.
outside…above the splattered crowds on 86th street…the red letters of woolworth’s flickered at random. the boy genius and his mother walked briskly out of woolworths and, rather than retrace their steps east on 86th, took a quick right and headed up third avenue. they stopped at papaya king…a place where cheap, tasty, but unsanitary…and very unhealthy hot dogs were sold along with its oddly chosen partner…healthy papaya drinks. his mother would drink the papaya drinks to help her stomach safely digest the hot dog with sauerkraut that she just wolfed down, and sometimes to ease the pain of the unrecognized ulcer that was slowly gestating in her stomach. the boy genius…skinny and hungry constantly…devoured whatever his mother could afford. hurriedly, they rushed out of papaya king because she saw it was getting close to the time when her husband would be home from work.
as they shuffled up third avenue with great haste, the boy genius paid attention to anything but the path in front of his feet…stumbling along, holding his mother’s hand, he tilted his head up and down and squinted his eyes through the stringy black bangs that covered them…he was trying to find the angle which will let him see the cavemen who lived in the streets. teacher had just finished telling him that the people in his neighborhood were like the cavemen…they came from the same place and did the same things, only these cavemen lived in newer caves…and you could see that about everyone, if you just looked at things differently. so he tried and and tried but he didn’t see cavemen…though every so often he saw the paintings they left on the walls…glowing in new neon, spray-painted, wheat-pasted…the temporarily permanent cultural legacies of yorkville, to be excavated and analyzed in the future. they whooshed by and he hummed a song and thought nothing of that future…only about how funny things looked sideways and how he wanted to be a caveman himself.