In response to my last blog post about the closing of Lascoff’s Drugstore, I received the following email from my father recounting his own memories of Lascoff’s:
“I never did tell you about my memories re L. During my teen years I spent many hours in my father’s drug store which was located in the poorest section of Phoenix. Grandpa was a pharmacist and subscribed to the most popular of the pharmacy trade journals. During the hot summer days when we had no customers in the store I would read his trade journal. Each issue had a column written by a distinguished New York pharmacist who was a leader in the field. The comparison between New York which seemed so amazingly exciting to me and Phoenix in those summer days with no air conditioning was just incomprehensible. The New York pharmacist owned one of the most outstanding drug stores in the country. The column was always bordered by a large picture of his store with its huge sign, you guessed it. It said Lascoff’s.”
Reading this prompted me to look for some old photographs I have of my grandfather’s drugstore, which was called Norman’s Pharmacy. I know I have them in a light blue envelope. I’ve been meaning to get them framed for years. They are beautiful black-and- white snapshots of the exterior of the store, which had an old time diner feeling to it. The black in the photographs is inky and elegant. The edges of the small photos are scalloped. I have spent much of this morning looking for that blue envelope. I can’t find it anywhere.
On my search, however, I did come across something else I’ve been looking for for years: an issue of Alfred Stieglitz’s photographic quarterly Camera Work. I found it at the 6th Avenue flea market a long time ago. It is called a Special Issue because it is devoted to the work of Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, with accompanying articles by Miss Gertrude Stein, “an American resident in Paris”. It is dated August, 1912.
In his editorial note, Stieglitz says that while this issue contains fourteen reproductions of representative paintings and sculptures by Picasso and Matisse, it is the two articles by Stein that are the “true raison d’etre of this special issue”. Here is a picture of the beginning of Stein’s article on Matisse:
Her “article” is a representation in words of Matisse’s work. It is a Matisse, by Stein. As Stieglitz notes: ”These articles … will doubtless be regarded by many as no less absurd, unintelligible, radical or revolutionary than the so-called vagaries of the painters whom they seek to interpret.” And so they were.
Here is a passage from her piece:
“Very many were not listening again and again to this one telling about being one being living. Some were listening again and again to this one telling about this one being one being in living.”
Overall, an interesting morning. From a 1940s pharmacy in Phoenix, Arizona to Paris and New York in 1912. The past is the past is the past.
A friend’s comment on my last blog post — that she remembered from our high school days how much I loved John Ashbery’s work — sent me back to the lines of his I quoted on my yearbook page. I still think it’s such a beautiful passage. It’s from a poem with a great, funny, wise title: The Wrong Kind of Insurance:
Yes, friends, these clouds pulled along on invisible ropes
Are, as you have guessed, merely stage machinery,
And the funny thing is it knows we know
About it and still wants us to go on believing
In what it so unskillfully imitates, and wants
To be loved not for that but for itself:
The murky atmosphere of a park, tattered
Foliage, wise old treetrunks, rainbow tissue-paper wadded
Clouds down near where the perspective
Intersects the sunset, so we may know
We too are somehow impossible, formed of so many different things,
Too many to make sense to anybody.
The revisiting of my high school days via this poem coincided with my noticing that a New York City landmark, Lascoff Drugstore, is closing. My memories of it pre-date high school– we lived near the pharmacy when I was very young. I used to pass by it all the time on my way to Central Park, where I would play in the “murky atmosphere” Ashbery describes, among the “tattered foliage, wise old treetrunks”. So Lascoff’s is connected in my mind to the playground, those childhood strolls, erranding, observing the “rainbow tissue-paper wadded/ Clouds down near where the perspective/ Intersects the sunset”.
Lascoff was a cathedral of a drug store, with huge arched windows filled with large glass containers of jewel-colored bath balls that I loved to stare at from the street. Inside, the ceilings were dizzyingly high and the atmosphere was hushed. Pharmacists in their white coats did solemn work among the Mason Pearson hairbrushes. I was probably feverish half the time we went there, waiting for a prescription for an antibiotic, and that may account in part for my heightened, vivid memories of the place.
Here is a photograph of it today:
I realize that this closing of an old drug store is merely the stage set of New York City being shifted around, but it feels “impossible”. Too much to make sense to anybody.
Twenty-one years ago I received a letter from a writer I admire deeply: the poet John Ashbery. Yes, a letter. I had published a review of his work in The Voice Literary Supplement and his response to me was a defining moment in my life as a writer. At the time, I was just starting out, writing fiction for no-one and writing book reviews to pay the rent (first in New Haven, later in Hoboken). His communication gave me some confidence that I was not completely wasting my time. Of course, he was talking about my criticism, not my fiction. Still, we were having a conversation, of sorts, and it was about writing. This seemed promising.
A later encounter with him helped me on the fiction front too. I wrote to him thanking him for the letter and he suggested that we meet for lunch. He lived, I think may still live some of the time, in a white brick building in Chelsea. I remember walking down the block toward the building with intense anticipation. We went to a restaurant called Man Ray. It doesn’t exist anymore. I was very nervous. He talked about his recent medical problems. I had no idea how to talk to him about about writing. Mainly, I was tongue-tied. But I did speak to him a little bit about my attempts at fiction since finishing college, and how I felt that all of the criticism I had studied at school was getting in my way, distracting me from feeling free enough to find my voice. (I had gone to college in the 80s, so I was steeped in Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, and also the work of many brilliant non-deconstructionist, non-semiotician professors too, but critics nonetheless.) I said: “I guess I have to try to forget all of that stuff.”
He looked at me very gently and said, “Maybe not forget, just ‘put aside’.” That change of phrase and perspective enabled me to do precisely that, to put aside what I had learned, and to write a book in a voice that I felt was my own.
I think by now I have forgotten much of the literary criticism I studied in college. I remember the lunch with Ashbery.
The jungle is a labyrinth of immense, muscular, twisted talks in the midst of which rats make their hairy nests, spiders spin enormous webbed cathedrals, and gargantuan coconut crabs remain motionless for days.
TIGHAR exploring the island, click here.
IWAE p. 65, 66
Photo is from flyawaystimulation, click here.