I remember thinking I could live in St. Peter's Basilica. I was eighteen, and I wasn't delusional. The ancient-crypt light was perfect the way it sliced in from the open door or somewhere, crossed the floor and illuminated the tiny particles of dust floating in the holy dark. I would use Bernini's hideous Baldacchino, with its wrinkled elephant legs, as a bed. I'd move it to the center of the floor and thrive in stony space.
Logistically, I couldn't see securing sole rights to real estate in the Vatican, or affording a whole cathedral if I could. I just felt somehow right there, despite my atheism, and if someone had told me I had to stay forever, I would not have minded. At times, sometimes the most inappropriate ones, I am overcome with the sense that I could live wherever I happen to be. It is not something I feel for whole cities, nor usually for standard living spaces. Suddenly, a fort, a beach, a street, becomes my home in my head.
I want to live on Ludlow Street. There's a bar in particular I could call my home, but I'd be just as happy wandering the length of it, a vagrant who vacations on Essex or Delancey. When I was younger, we'd come to the Lower East Side for pickles. My step-grandfather, a Connecticut farmer-cum-engineer who second-married into a family of displaced Hungarian Jewry, and eventually into dementia and accusations of traded silver, would take me to the Lower East Side to pick up his glasses at Sol Moscot. (If there were hipsters then—which I'm rather sure there weren't, since they would have been something like nine at the time—I didn't see them.)
We'd take the Williamsburg Bridge and pray for parking. Walk the stairs to the second floor shop and wait. The façade so conveyed a sense of grainy depression, I'd always be surprised by ads for Calvin Klein frames in the showroom. I felt like the inside should have retained the look of prewar Europe's backroom workshops; I wanted bad light, wooden workbenches, old men with beards and stooped walks. My grandpa wanted his glasses, and after twenty minutes of my mentally placing facial hair and a three-piece suit on the pleasant Hispanic woman behind the counter, he'd have them.
Once he could fashionably see, we'd make the Jewish food circuit. First, it was Gus's pickles, the barrels set out to draw us in, the smell of vinegar and darkness. If he were coming alone, it would be a plastic container of sours for him and another for my parents, the payment for which he'd always exact from them. He has never been one to treat, even for three or four dollars, unless it's for my sister or me. When I was seventeen, he bought me a car. At Gus's, he'd let me look and sniff and ask and waste my time in briny bliss. One of his favorite stories of my childhood centers around his break from work and me in a bassinet, barely toothed, begging a pickle out of stranger's hand at a diner. He can't refuse me sour since.
I'd pick out some pickled green tomatoes or giant olives, things people see in the supermarket and wonder "Who eats that?"—the foods my suitemates would try to throw out the moment I get them into the refrigerator. Next came bialys and onion flatbreads. The bakery looked exactly as I wished it would, unlike the disappointing optician's. The floor was floured. The back was filled with imposing ovens, the front with wooden paddles and racks of cooling bread. The proprietress wore a wig and closed shop on Saturdays. We'd get brown paper bags of doughy, crusty rounds and bring half to my mother, to be paid in full.
I can feel my aging through Orchard Street. The first time I went back without a yen for pickles and, thankfully without my grandfather, was for a shopping trip of my own.
I had played pseudo-Goth roughly since the sixth grade. I wore black lipstick, but only when my friends would wear it with me; I'd wanted to be different, but not so different as to go it alone. In the following years, I alternately fostered and hid my commercial strangeness. My freshman year of college, a socially awkward but decidedly un-nerdy engineer friend took me to a Goth club on 30th street. I wore a short black skirt and fishnet stockings and danced to bands like VNV Nation and Icon of Coil, bands whose members would never get laid if black nail polish and vinyl pants didn't mask the fact that they were probably once computer programmers. Though I dressed as I wished in the day, on Friday nights I'd put on my nonconformist uniform and stomp around with sad, pierced women and black-clad men I found inexplicably attractive.
Before long, the black I culled from my own quotidian wardrobe was not enough. I needed something that spoke to my morbid fascination, something that would advertise it even when my eardrums weren't vibrating and my boots were not steel-toed. I needed a corset. I had to do things my way, though. To shop a mall-based alternative clothing depot would negate the entire experience. It had to be gothic like the music the fliers advertised, but it had to be me. I took the subway to Orchard.
These were indistinguishable cramped storefronts, narrow and cluttered and staffed by gruff, mannish women I was reluctant to associate with underthings for fear of emotional damage. Shelves buckled with designer fishnets and bridal negligees stacked alongside Bettie Page girdles the '50s forgot, all in marker-labeled white cardboard boxes. The sheer volume of the stock was overwhelming. When one doesn't need hangers, racks, and aesthetics—when the product sells itself—there is apparently no need for respectful space between bras. People know what they want, it is pulled from the box, and it becomes theirs and unique, rescued from the facelessness of wholesale.
I found Orchard Corsets. A woman older than my grandmother, or worse for wear, sat on a fold-up chair to my right, just inside the door, and spoke quavering Hungarian into a substantial cordless phone. Her own stocking, a thick taupe relic ostensibly held up by an unglamorous garter, had come loose and hovered gaping around her calf. Behind the counter stood a jolly Santa of a red-bearded Orthodox man. I felt awkward. I needed a corset. He asked for specifics, I supplied. He didn't bat an eyelash throwing around what seemed to me intimate terms. I nearly died.
Under-bust or over?
Strapped or Strapless?
Um, I'm not sure.
Do you want more support?
I guess. Well, it's probably a good idea.
Go with straps, then. Hook and eye or zipper?
Whichever laces in the back.
They both do.
Hook and eye, then.
He called a solitary saleswoman out from the back. He gave a description of what she was to find. Unabashed, he eyed my ribcage and barked out a size. She found the white box and liberated the corset. It was too big. It fit comfortably, leaving no room for cinching. The Orthodox man had overestimated. I felt enormous, heartbroken that I looked bigger than I was. The woman re-searched, re-liberated, and I had my corset. I talked about my coming trip to New Orleans in October for a Halloween concert festival and Vampire ball, a trip that never happened, washed away with the flooding of Katrina. She pulled laces, adjusted straps, made sure I could breathe. It's not difficult to feel close to the people who tie you into your clothing. I tried on a satin zippered strapless for fun, but it was improperly spacious. I took my corset to the counter.
The man in line before me purchased a one-piece leotard with a snapped crotch and bra cups. He said it fit him fine. In my head, I placed him on Broadway. It may have been for recreational use, or for an altogether different kind of performance. I wanted to ask, but held back. I felt less awkward about the Orthodox man having assessed my rack. I paid for my corset and made for the door. On the way out, I stopped to talk to the old woman. In Hungarian, I told her that I was sorry, but that I had heard her speaking on the phone and wanted to say hello. In Hungarian, she said hello, and asked me where I was from. In Hungarian, I told her that I was born in New York but that my father was born in Budapest and my mother in Israel to Hungarian parents. In Hungarian, she replied, "But you don't speak Hungarian, do you?" I must have looked sideswiped, but I hid my bewilderment and told her that, in fact, I did. I also told her it was lovely speaking to her, wished her a good day, and walked out. I wish I'd given her a hug. I luxuriated in shame then. I hug strangers now, if they say it's alright.
I drink in a bar on Ludlow Street. Everything is Illuminated, a story centered on journey, led me to this place. The novel's cinematic adaptation features a man named Eugene Hutz, a Ukranian Jew with a prominent nose and a moustache like my father's. Eugene's band played the songs that ran during the credits, a fact I discovered when I hurried home to find out who played the songs that ran during the credits. I also learned that Eugene DJ'd every Thursday at Mehanata, the Bulgarian culture club in Chinatown. The bar had just been closed down, and the man had just left on a tour of Europe.
Every time I tried to see him play, I would miss him. He was in New York while I was in Florence; he played Budapest once I had come home, two wisdom teeth lighter. Last December, we intersected in New York. My best friend and I bought tickets and went and danced and sweated and screamed and loved our lives for two solid hours. Eugene stood on a bass drum and extolled the plight of the Roma. He flew their flag and told us to start wearing purple. To think locally, fuck globally. I bought a tote bag.
After the concert, he said, there would be an afterparty at the newly-reopened Mehanata. Ears ringing, Amy and I hopped into a taxi and surged to the club's new location on Ludlow. She was craving crepes. Gazing around a neighborhood I remembered so differently and only during the day, I found a lone menu for a creperie woven into a wrought iron gate. It was a block from our destination. A girl with an accent made us a chocolate crepe to share. I asked her where she was from. She was Czech. I know only one word in Czech, and it turned out to be relevant. It is zmrzlina. It means ice cream.
We finished our crepe and walked to the bar, entering what looked like a ski lodge outfitted for Christmas. There was exposed woodwork, a long bar, and people in turtlenecks. We found a staircase and took it, entered a room packed with bodies. I had been standing by the door for all of a minute when a tall, blonde man eyed me and descended. Privet, he shouted into my ear. Hello, in Russian. I replied in kind, which set him off on a stream of something he later admitted had been obscene. I told him that I was sorry, but the only things I knew how to say in Russian were hello and give me your watch, from when, as my father tells it, the "liberating" (he makes finger quotes here) Russian armies came into Hungary to end World War II.
Thoughts of trespasses past subsided when Eugene arrived. My heart overflowed. I had seen him spin once before, at Club Midway on Avenue B. Nothing compared to this. Countless languages, countless beats, countless arms and legs hopping and flailing and fingers snapping everywhere. Folkish gypsy dances with graceless kicks; caricaturish ethnic Greek circling, arms in the air; the Modena City Ramblers and Bella Ciao. Too tired to stay on my feet, the crowd carried me, kicking and singing.
I go back almost every Thursday. Sometimes Eugene is there. Sometimes he isn't. I know because when he is, they charge me ten dollars. Even when the bar is empty, when Eugene isn't there and hardly anyone comes, I could live there. I would curl up on the dance floor and sleep with the colored lights still on, green and purple and blue and illuminating my dreams.
Alexandra Reisner graduated from Columbia College in 2007 with a degree in English. She is always late.