The Phoenix

The paper in the window of Vern’s Barbershop went up with little fanfare.  The lazy snip of scissors has gone silent.  Across the window paper, scrawled in dozens of hands, are the thanks and best wishes of family, friends and faithful customers – a community born of proximity, routine and good coffee.  After 50 years, Vern has retired.

Across town, at a corner grocery, the last sack of groceries has been bagged, Mrs. Schnooer helped to her car for the final time.  For over 30 years, my family has made daily pilgrimages to Jerry’s Mission Highlands Market to pick up a gallon of milk or to ponder over the best cut or the Sunday roast.  As my parents shopped, I’d browse the magazine carrell, reading the new Spy v. Spy in the pages of the new issue of Mad, furtively sneaking inaugural peaks at the bra adds of Seventeen.  

Just last week, the bulldozers came to scrape away all but its memory.  I hear that they are going to put up a bank.

I occasionally run into Jerry.  Nearing eighty, he now slops a the chain grocery with the rest of us – the families who, in exchange for familiar faces and neighborhood gossip, were willing to pay the extra pennies he had charged. The new mega store is bright and clean, almost like a hospital.  The prices are noticeably cheaper, and there are more varieties of produce, larger selections of cereal and tv dinners than one can readily name.

Jerry is always willing to stop for a moment to catch up, but his gait is slowing.  

These days, when the Smith family is a little short on cash, I doubt the manager of this box-store is willing to scrawl their name on the back of the register receipt and slip it beneath the cash drawer,  saying: Catch me next week.   I know it’s not personal; it’s just against company policy.  The corporation offers no wiggle-room for families who must juggle sending kids to school as well as feeding them.

Two bookstores joined the year’s exodus of familiar places: Bloomsday and Billie Miller.  There’s something about the loss of a bookstore — almost as if a flicker of the eternal flame has been blown out by a cold, soulless blast from the idiot box.  How many afternoons have I taken refuge among their nooks and crannies? How many times have I searched their shelves in search of the right book — something to help a teenager already dreaming of elsewheres exhaust and evening.  How many times did I stumble across just the right poem with which to woo a young lady currently capturing my fancy?

And then there’s George’s.  Georges’s Cheese & Sausage shop was a hole-in-the-wall bistro hinting of things European.  George’s harbored some of the best conversation I’ve ever known.  There, I learned of opera – spending my hard-won Saturdays absorbing Live At the Met … of Russian Ballet.  There I met Monty Python’s Graham Chapman and caught glimpses of the wicked beat poet William S. Burroughs.  There I read poetry, drank brown-bag wine and congregated with friends.  For over a decade, I sipped my soup, nibbled my lamb lava as I listened as George fretted about landlords pricing him out of business.  

Well, they finally did it – the fucking bastards!  I spoke with George just last week.  He called to let me know that he had suffered a heart attack, but that he was doing alright.

Ever present, I carry the acute realization that the one sure cause of death is the very act of being born.  Same goes for businesses as it does for people.  Yet, we now have the multi-national conglomerates, the publicly traded, investment fund managed roll-ups — ghouls, artificially prolonging existence by ingesting the lives nurtured by others.  They frighten me more than any specter of Anne Rice or Stephen King.

It has been a year of good-byes.  With each passing, I bid my adieus to the familiar faces of friends and the places of my youth.  I am saddened that my niece, the newest Leathem, will never know firsthand these people or locales.  They have meant much to me.

There will never be another George’s Cheese & Sausage nor Vern’s Barber Shop nor a Jerry’s Market.  But there will be other people and places worth knowing.  One of the great gifts of life is this wonder born anew.   Each new day carrying with it new experiences from which to imbibe.

Just the other day, I heard news of a new bookstore,  Prospero’s Books it’s called.  (psst, it is my own bookstore) It opened its doors on an uneventful Thursday in November.  The date, it just so happened, marking the anniversary of the opening of another bookseller, an unassuming oasis situated amidst Paris’s left bank, called Shakespeare & Company.

On a given night, one could find seated in those chairs belonging to Sylvia Beach, the likes of Picasso, Hemingway, Joyce, Gide.  Gertrude Stein provided them with the appellation the lost generation.  Yet, just what had they lost?  I say that within the conversations and friendships forged there they found the stuff of humanity in such great quantities and with such life force that they were forever altered by the experience.  Their work speaks for itself.  It has exerted an unparalleled influence upon the painting, writing and art of an entire century.

At Prospero’s there is always a crowd, drawn by more than the books for sale.  Last Saturday, one could have heard K— for a throng  of three, bow to life the sad gypsy strains of her violin.  Sunday, L— dropped by with his new canvas, glowing with the fire of creation an searching for an audience.  The other night, R—, J—, B— and T— spurred on by what may very well have been too much wine, indulged themselves in an impromptu poetry fiesta – some original, some from the finest vintage of western wordsmiths. 

The names at Prospero’s are all unfamiliar — so far,.  Yet, I have a strange feeling that if there are to be new Byrons or Brontes, Chagalls or Django Reinhardts that they will not be found in the sterile aisles of Half Priced Books nor among the cyber checkouts of Amazon .com.  No.  Instead, they will be found lounging and drinking and carrying on, rising from the ashes of the little one-of-a-kind places like Prospero’s.