R.I.P. Gem Spa.
The layout will play merry hell with my linebreaks in the first couple of stanzas. Holler if you want to see how it really looks on the page.
Here when I arrived 34 years ago
at the corner of St. Marks and Second—
the walk over from the edge of the Village at
Cooper Square was a bazaar and gantlet of books
and comics and records and platform shoes and head shop
paraphernalia and cheap Mexican silver jewelry and sunglasses
and that crazy crack house that masqueraded as a community center
and tattoo parlors and vegetarian restaurants before they were cool and night
markets of stolen goods recycling through the neighborhood and all-the-time markets
of smoke-smoke and other recreations, holes in the wall with music and poetry and a wall
of sound from open doors and the bars closing at 4 a.m. and pizza parlors open all night, and
the egg creams with neither egg nor cream but all of New York inside a fizzing chocolate glass
from Gem Spa—
the Punks and Rockers and immigrants and college kids, the lost tourists, the runaway misfit souls
who found home, Lou and Allen and Patti, and their audiences and acolytes, and us, and later, the off-
spring of those Punks and Rockers and immigrants and misfits, stealing sodas and smokes and porn mags, buying a lotto ticket and an egg cream to make up for it.
Neighborhood icon and landmark,
neither crack nor heroin could kill it,
nor AIDS nor NYU,
though lord knows the banks tried
(what a valuable piece of property,
saved once from oblivion, and now
Little places are dying out, and the ordinary people
who make a neighborhood. It’s the opposite
of the asteroid hitting the earth
and wiping out the lumbering behemoths
(though some of them are keeling over too,
already old and sickened by the Internet)
leaving the scampering proto-monkeys
to hunker down in the ash and cold
and wait for the climate to warm up again,
all the while growing the brains and brawn
for survival in a new world.
After this is over,
will we hand over all the empty storefronts
suffocated by the tourniquet applied to our streets
to the people who don’t live here
who will rent them out to boardrooms in Kansas
who think they know just what New Yorkers need?
I’m afraid of what the City will be like
on the other side of this,
that I won’t know it anymore,
and worse, won’t like it.
Times Square was just a start,
the erasure of poetry
on the marquees of the peep show houses
a harbinger of the death of whimsy
to make way for Disney.
No neighborhood is safe
from tourists, but any place safe for them
is not worth living in.
There should be real dirt, the sharp edges
of real life,
not Naked Cowboys and Elmo grifting for Chrissakes,
to keep them from moving in.
Still, Gem Spa looked on slyly
while the East Village devoured alive
that Gap store across from their corner,
and up the street Trash and Vaudeville laughed
and flipped them the finger, then soldiered on
in their steel-toed Doc Martens
after the ashes of Downtown
settled like fallout and the waters of the East River
rose to wash them away.
We can do this.
Swallow hard. Hunker down. Wait.
let us sing Patti and Fred’s winter’s tale
of vagrant hearts prevailing.
Seize the air rights of sky
until the behemoths are
and it’s just us monkeys.
‒May 10, 2020, Brooklyn
©Lee Kottner, 2020