“What draws me back [to New York], again and again, is safety. Nowhere else am I safe from the question: why here?”
—Jonathan Franzen

Just before I left London seven years ago, my sister gave me a Stephen Pearce lamp as a wedding present. Rather than work out how to rewire it, I tracked down a store that sold European lightbulbs, the kind that are held in place by two small notches rather than screwed in. The lamp lacked a harp, so I balanced a shade on the bulb, singeing a small brown circle and risking fire. It has traveled with me through five apartments and spent two winters in a storage locker. Now it sits next to the sofa, its naked, emigré bulb a reproach to my slapdash ways. Yesterday I decided to fix it.

I walked down to Fifth Avenue, to the nameless hardware store next to Felix’s bike shop. Now that the rest of the country buys its tools in concrete boxes, this kind of store hardly exists outside Brooklyn, though there are several within ten blocks of me. It is dusty, higgledy-piggledy, and stacked high. The aisles are narrow canyons into which rolls of masking tape or paint brushes or garden hoses might topple at any moment. There are three possible entrances, but only one door opens. Inside, the staff was gathered around a 14-inch TV set, canted high in the corner. It’s the kind of place where you get helped, whether you like it or not.

I told them I needed lamp fixtures. The assistant who led me to the back was a dwarf on the large side. He wore a black beanie cap, a black shirt, and a studded belt that barely held up his jeans.
    “It’s Andrea Bocelli’s last night in New York,” he said. “They’re showing his concert. He won’t be back for at least two years. It’s so beautiful.”

He pointed out a few lamp things. Hardware stores make me feel foreign: even when I can name something, I’m not sure I have the right version of English. Is it a rawl plug, or a wall anchor? We worked by pointing and eliminating. Larger than that, but smaller than that other one. I came up with functional descriptions for the missing pieces:
    “I need a piece of metal that attaches to the base and supports a lampshade.”
    “A harp.”
    “That’s it!”
    “I guess you need a fother to hold it to the shade?”
    “That sounds right.”
    “How about a perlingham?”
He unlocked cabinets and fished for shiny bits and bobs. With an old grocer’s hook, he pulled down lamp sockets in smoky plastic bags.
    “That Andrea Bocelli, he’s an angel. Sad story. Sad story. You know he’s blind?”
    “Was he blind from birth?”
    “No, no! He told the story a couple of years back. When he was ten years old he wanted to play soccer. So his parents enrolled him in this soccer league, and one day when he was playing, he fell and hit his head. Whatever way he hit himself, he damaged his optic nerve, and he went blind.”
    “Poor guy.”
    “I got every album he made. My daughter loves him now, too. My son is maybe just getting into him, but he prefers rap.” He shudders. “I hate rap. Such angry crap. My nephews say it’s cool. It ain’t cool.”
    “What age is your daughter?”
    “She’s 21 years old now,” he said. “You know, I used to draw Stevie Wonder. I should draw Andrea Bocelli as well.”
    “What do you use? Pencil? Charcoal?”
    “I start with pencil, then I ink it in. Then I do calligraphy underneath. People think calligraphy is Roman, but it isn’t,” he said solemnly. “It’s an ancient Chinese art.”

We gathered my fixtures and the owner rang them up on an ancient cash register. He, too, stared mistily at the TV. “Beautiful. Nothin’ like it.”
Andrea Bocelli got ready to sing the final song. The assistant patted my arm. “This one is amazing. He cries. He always cries when he sings this one.” On the tiny screen, a pair of ice dancers made snow angels, then slowly twisted themselves upright. They swooped across the ice, as cheesy and compelling as a Jeff Koons puppy.
    “Now it’s time to say goodbye,” Bocelli sang.
    “You see that? The lump in his throat? You’re going to see a tear in a moment. My God.”
A gorgeous woman with an Afro walked in, carrying a chihuahua in a jogging suit. She wanted to fix her Christmas lights, and the third assistant sadly left the TV to help her. I stood and watched the end of Mr. Bocelli’s concert. It reminded me of the rapt way we used to watch the Eurovision Song Contest twenty years ago.

As I left, Chris Hackett came in, still fierce and handsome even with his jaw pieced back together. So these were the dusty aisles from which the Madagascar Institute got the supplies for its condiment wars, Brooklyn bull-running, and welding parties. Fear is never boring.

4 thoughts on “Hardware”

  1. Hey John!

    It does crack me up. I work right by SoHo, and I can spot Irish (and separately, English) shoppers a mile away. Aside from distinctive haircuts and fake tan, Irish people seem to carry more bags than anyone else this year.

    I’ll be heading back to Ireland on the 28th. Would be lovely to reprise an afternoon in Nancy’s.



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