A City Potter: The Haunted Storefronts, Dark Musings, Heartbreaking Reality

No, the title is not the name of a Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mystery book with an existential twist, though there is more than a touch of the mysterious. Rather, it is my dark journey to La Mano Pottery complete with a metal construction tunnel that, upon entering, I leave the safety and predictability of my apartment life in the past. I call it the "Vertigo Tunnel" after the scene in Hitchcock's "Vertigo" when Jimmy Stewart tries to climb the tower stairs yet is compelled to look down caught between going up or staying put frozen in a dizzying terror-hence "Vertigo."

It is perfect for the disorientation I sometimes feel during this pre-dawn walk. It is my version of Alice's rabbit hole and it seems an appropriate symbol for the musings of my brain and the city in the darkness of early morning. It is a walk reminiscent of a dreamy underwater world, a world where things don't quite seem real and take on a strange quality, a world that exists along side the day-to-day one of grocery shopping and other mundane chores. It is a world of haunted storefronts with disembodied heads and bridal party mannequins, a world where storefronts take on a whole new aura amidst the sleeping and wandering bodies of the homeless.

My storefront denizens! I have passed them so much there is an uneasy comfort in seeing them. I know where each one lives and anticipate our inevitable greetings. I remember reading a story once where all the mannequins in a department store came alive after hours and took on different roles only to come back to "reality" once the store opens the next morning. However, I am privy to the roles they don at night before the sun comes up in NYC and the 9-5ers burst forth from the subways and buses, running into each other in their haste to get their morning coffee before the start of another day in their offices and cubicles; a dark world alien to these rush hour commuters.

There is a constant flip between the haunted storefront figures and the homeless, mostly African American men (though not all by any means), a jolt of reality as they approach me or just try to blend in under the cover of darkness or find a bench to hunker down for the remaining night and imminent daybreak. I start to think how these people must live with a feeling of perpetual unreality, for who as a small child could (or should) ever envision a life on the streets with no protection, a state one can never really get used to.

Some of these fellow human beings clearly have a tenuous hold on what we call reality, something I can deeply identify with having been diagnosed with bipolar disorder years ago. Being unable to hold down a job at times I was fortunate enough not to be out on the streets. But not everyone has a dear friend named Judith or family who makes sure that doesn't happen or can afford medication that helps them to function. Yet some of the men I have had brief exchanges with have shown no sign of bitterness, only deep gratitude for what little I can give to them. A dollar is like a million. NYC is full of these heartbreaking encounters even during the day. In the dark, like the storefronts, they stand out much more starkly.

"Ah, the floating head!"  I remember the 1st time I saw her. I didn't quite get her head-on so to speak, but out of the corner of my eye-a disembodied head floating in the air next to a body from which it appeared to have been once attached. I wondered what her life might have been like when her head was on her body. Was she one of these tedious women who should come with a warning the way cigarette packages do? Was she the life of the party with her black lips perpetually puckered for the next kiss? Was she bald by choice as a fashion statement or did she have alopecia? A bloodless ghost of Christmas past?

Just before her I had encountered the "hanging luminescent cloud-brains" with "Buy Me Online" stenciled across the storefront window.    I couldn't for the life of me picture who would buy them online or what purpose they would serve. They reminded me of discarded props once used in that Star Trek episode. Is it possible some Trekkie would stumble by and have a flashback and just need to "Buy Me Online"? I assume the "Online" enticement couldn't refer to the cloud-brains, (or could it in this surreal pre-dawn world?), but the juxtaposition of words with such a bizarre visual was too irresistible not to ponder.

After I passed the "floating head" another homeless man, toothless and ragged, asks me for money. My own financial position keeps me from helping much, but there is something about him that I find so lovely and open, a miracle to me given the hard life he is clearly living. Yet his spirit compelled me to stop and dig out a dollar at which time he took my hand in such gratitude that he started saying a prayer for me all the while clasping my hand. I felt he gave me so much and I had given him so little. We were standing in front of the "Scarlet O'Hara window." Suddenly, I found myself at Tara with Scarlet's haughty tilt of the head toward the heavens and her ultra strange freakish pet-half anteater half dog of some kind. On the one hand the daughter of a  plantation owner and on the other a homeless man. All of these crazy worlds colliding inside my brain, a kaleidoscope of shifting images. It is hard to sift out reality-it is all reality I think. But yet there is a nightmare quality about everything. I never tried LSD yet this can't be far off.

As I turn onto 6th Avenue from West 23rd Street I run into a series of the most bizarre storefront windows back to back to back: the "Mitosis Window", the "Hells Angels Skull Window", and the "Eerie Bridal Mannequins Window". The "Mitosis Window"    I have passed a 1000 times and have yet to remember what it is for. All I can think is that cell division is for sale, and since I have plenty of that, I walk by to encounter again the "Hells Angels Skull Window." I wonder if they have met Yorick or are these actually 3 rejected Yoricks from some Off Broadway production of Hamlet? A trio of hip Yoricks?


"Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!"

And with this scene playing in my head I walk stage right toward the "Eerie Bridal Mannequins"...

the "Imprisoned Bride"...


the "Bridal Uprising"... 

The "Discounted Bridesmaid-Always 2nd Fiddle"...


They all remind me of the dolls in a fish tank or mock living room that Laurie Simmons used to photograph, mesmerizing and creepy, but on a larger scale-imprisoned souls trying to break free of the suffocating confines of a bridal shop.  It is right after this that another homeless man asks me to buy him breakfast, a luxury I don't have but I offer what I can. A small dream, outside of supporting Judith and me by the work that I love doing, is to be able not to have to think about how much I can afford to give when someone needs food.

I have in a 20 minute walk gone from world to world-in and out back and forth betwixt and between! This is a world where unreality hits stark reality in a cruel fashion, so cruel that is seems unreal in itself.

In the end I arrive just as I do each morning that I go to the pottery studio. I arrive always altered thinking about my life and my values and all that I have at the moment. I arrive with deep gratitude and not just a little numb. I've arrived yet it has hardly been an uneventful journey. I have visited worlds within worlds and to quote Mr. Gumby from Monty Python, "My brain hurts." Or even more emphatically, "My brain hurts A LOT" from the David Bowie song " Five Years". And guess what? I get to do it all over again tomorrow!

Share this post

Leave a comment