A Zito and Sons, 2003
Yesterday afternoon I listened to a reading of Colson Whitehead's essay "Lost and Found" on the Selected Shorts podcast—you can hear it here—in which Whitehead notes that one becomes a New Yorker the first time you find yourself looking at a storefront and remembering what was there before the current business.
''You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.”
I'm not a New Yorker. But my impressions of the city are shaped by many places and references that have indeed changed in the city.
Practically from the time I was old enough to have memories, there were New Yorkers who were regular visitors in our home. They were, for the most part, artists, writers, musicians and other creatively inclined individuals and couples. Most were Depression Era babies who came along before what in the 1950s were called "beatniks" and in the 1960s "hippies." They weren’t at all like those later groups anyway. They were classically trained artists, having studied with some of the best-known American artists of the early Twentieth Century. A few were self-sufficient as artists. Others had day jobs to pay the bills. Nell, for example, was a painter who had a day job illustrating sewing patterns books. Her husband Don was a sculptor who had a day job sculpting hood ornaments for Jaguar automobiles. Shane illustrated and painted cartoon cels for Casper the Friendly Ghost films.
The New York I knew as a child was the New York of their stories. It was a tough city, hot in the summer and cold in the winter and noisy and crowded with people, but also a fertile crossroads for all kinds of people. To a kid living a sheltered life hard by the ocean in a little beach town, it sounded pretty glamorous.
I didn't see New York for myself until I was about ten years old. My father took me there for a day or two. On our way into the city we got lost in and drove around Harlem. We stayed at the Manger Vanderbilt Hotel at Park Avenue and 34th Street. We went to the Empire State Building and the Central Park Zoo. The highlight of the trip, though, was getting to sit in the window of a restaurant near Times Square and watch the people go by.
I returned to New York a couple of summers later for an overnight stay at Nell and Don's fourth floor walk-up on Sixth Avenue in the Village. (People still called it Sixth Avenue then.) I loved every minute of prowling the used bookstores downstairs, feeling the subway rumble underfoot and watching the people pass up and down the avenue.
Needless to say, many aspects of the New York of 1962 were far different from the New York of today. I'm not a New Yorker, but just like Colson Whitehead says, when I walk down Sixth Avenue at Bleecker Street I still look up at the building where Nell and Don's apartment was and proudly point put out to whoever's with me that the chain drugstore on the corner used to be a terrific used bookstore.
I took the above picture of the A. Zito and Sons bakery in Greenwich Village in the fall of 2003. I was out walking with my daughter and was intrigued by the shapes of the different kinds of bread in the window. Not long after I posted the picture on Fotolog I was contacted by current and former Village residents telling me how much they'd enjoyed the Zito bakery through the years and how sad they were that it had closed not too long after I took the picture.
I didn’t have a history with the Zito bakery, but thanks to this picture and those sentimental New Yorkers, it’s yet another place in New York where, if you happen to be there with me, I'll say, "You know, that used to be....."