Patchin Place, 2013
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In New York City near the intersection of West 10th Street and 6th Avenue (aka Avenue of the Americas) are two little glimpses into mid-19th Century life. Milligan Place, entered through a narrow gap between two buildings on 6th Avenue, and Patchin Place, which runs off West 10th Street, are both small gated residential enclaves. They’re extremely desirable and expensive addresses in today’s real estate market because of their location, quietness and quaintness.
But it wasn’t always that way. Milligan Place and Patchin Place were both built around 1850 to house servants—mostly Basque immigrants—working at a nearby hotel.
Throughout much of the 1900s, Greenwich Village was a hive of creative and bohemian life. The apartments at Patchin Place were popular with artists and writers, including Theodore Dreiser, Djuna Barnes and John Reed. (Today, Patchin Place is famous for the number of psychotherapists who live there.)
A close family friend of my parents when I was growing up, the painter, illustrator and author Shane Miller, lived for many years with his wife at Patchin Place. Shane Miller was an easy-going self-described elf of an Irishman. In his lifetime, Shane pursued many spiritual paths, and along the way also illustrated cartoons for Warner Brothers (where composer Hoagy Carmichael was his creative partner), painted portraits and wrote and illustrated books about the history of New York City, Rome and Athens. Shane was serious when it came to his work. But as a friend he had a wonderful humor and a smile that warmed all who knew him.
Everyone, that is, except for his Patchin Place neighbor, the poet e.e.cummings, with whom Shane and his wife shared a fire escape that was also the passageway used to take their garbage down to the street.
For most of us, e.e. cummings is best known as a poet whose work is immediately identifiable by its exclusive use of lower case letters. As a neighbor in Patchin Place during the 1940s and 1950s, though, cummings was best known for his hard drinking and general crankiness, which is saying something considering that just about everyone living at Patchin Place in those days was known for his or her excessive and idiosyncratic behavior.
e.e. cummings didn’t have much to do with his neighbors at Patchin Place. He and Shane never shared a social drink, a nibble of food, a war story or complained about publishers.
The only time cummings ever spoke to Shane occurred late one night when the two men found themselves taking out the trash at the same time. Shane greeted his neighbor on the way down the fire escape, but got no response. On the way back up, cummings paused only long enough to touch Shane’s shoulder and tell him, “Your wife’s sure got a big ass.”