Friday, April 19, 2013

Used Book Evocations

Last week I was grocery shopping on 37th Avenue. Occasionally, there will be a guy with a thick European accent selling used books outside the Met supermarket. His stock is usually crap, spread out over several tables. Pulpy romances, self-help lessons, forgotten lowest-common-denominator best-sellers of decades ago, coloring books, action-oriented sci-fi. He only charges $1 or 50 cents, but even at those cheap prices, there’s never anything I want. This time I actually found something interesting—Alan Furst’s Kingdom of Shadows, a spy novel set in 1938 Paris. The hero, Nicky Morath, a former cavalry officer with the Hungarian army, undergoes numerous adventures smuggling refugees out of Nazi-occupied countries, obtaining fake passports, raising covert funds for the resistance, providing mistresses for German officers (everything has a price in Paris). 

Other than the storyline—I had not read this type of material in a long while and felt like a change after the childhood fantasies of three Oz books on the Kindle—what drew me to the $1 purchase was something written on the first blank page. Underneath an indecipherable scrawl was the following scratched in pencil: “With Kelley in Halifax. Rain and sunshine. Chiropractor. Lots of sleep. Happy to be in a slower city where I can lie on the pavement as Kelley smokes, stroking her purring cat.” As I stood at the stall next to a mother and little daughter in veils, I tried to picture this person with back problems lying on a Halifax street while his wife or girlfriend named Kelley smoked a cigarette and petted a cat on a park bench. Did they bring the cat along on a leash with them? Or was it a stray Kelley happened to pick up as the writer stretched out to relive his pain. It was a little piece of real life filtered through the wartime espionage of the novel.

The book-seller also had a box of playscripts he must gotten from an actor or director cleaning out his or her shelves. These were only 50 cents each. I had read or seen almost all of them, but picked up Joe Pintauro’s Beside Herself which played at the beloved Circle Repertory Theater in the ’80s. I had seen and reviewed many of their shows and even ushered for some including Talley and Son and Balm in Gilead, but not this one (Angels Fall was one of the first plays I had seen in New York). After the four founders of the company left (Tanya Berezin, Lanford Wilson--author of all three of those plays mentioned, Rob Thirkfeld, Marshall Mason), there was an attempt to keep it going with Austin Pendleton as artistic director. But they had lost their tiny theater on Seventh Avenue South in the Village and their soul. It sputtered out after a few years. I often go past the site of the theater which is now a bar and restaurant. Companies like Circle Rep where playwrights like Wilson wrote roles for specific actors who stayed with the group for years don’t exist anymore. They have tread the path to oblivion print newspapers and magazine are now following. 

No comments:

Post a Comment