Djuna Barnes, The Village, and the Prize Winner Around the Corner

Nonfiction by Craig Nova
Diner by Brad Holland. Copyright the artist. Courtesy the artist.

My apartment on Sullivan Street in New York City was above a candy store where a loan shark did his business. The apartment was on the second floor, and the walls were white, the floor was painted gray, and the shower was on a platform so that the water would drain out of it. I had published two novels when I lived there and was trying to write a third, and I’d get up in the morning and shave at the sink, which was above the pay phone in the candy store. The loan shark was an overweight man, balding with his scalp shining through his thinning hair. His voice was heavy and had a rumble to it, as though he spoke from the bottom of a trash can. As I shaved, he made his first call. He said, “You know who this is? You hear me? The connection is all right? That’s good. Uh-huh. You said that before. You said you were going to have it on Monday. Then you said you were going to have it on Wednesday. It’s Friday. Do you see what I’m saying?”

I had a cup, a badger brush, some soap in the bottom of the cup, and some hot water from the stove. I was pleased by the clink, clink, clink as I worked the brush over the soap to make a hot lather. The loan shark dropped another coin into his pay phone. I didn’t understand why he used the pay phone, but he left the coin box open, so that when he made a call, the coin fell into the small bin under the phone. He reached into the metal box for each new call. “You said you were going to have it yesterday. Do you have it? So, you don’t have it? That’s a problem. Do you see what I am saying?”

I understood exactly what he was saying, and I thought of the man on the receiving end of this call, as the brush made a clink, clink, clink. “You poor bastard,” I thought. “If I had any money, I’d let you have some.”

Little Italy, south of Houston Street, was filled with bakeries, delicatessens, restaurants, like Umberto’s, the Luna, or Puglia’s, and shoe repair shops. Ferraro’s, a pastry shop that was known all over the city, was a block south. A social club was across the street. This was a storefront with windows painted black and with a table or two in front. Middle-aged men, who looked a lot like the loan shark, went into the social club in the morning, where they drank coffee, stared into the distance, and seemed to communicate by facial expressions and hand gestures. The mood on the street was a delicious scent of fresh bread, newly baked pastries, the inky news print of the New York Times and the New York Post that were for sale on small stands on the sidewalk.

My neighbors in the building on Sullivan Street were mostly middle-aged women, and while I supposed they could have moved to New Jersey, they liked to stay in Little Italy, which for them was a place they understood. When I passed one of these women in the hall, I said, “Good morning,” or “Good Afternoon,” and the women dipped a head or almost smiled, as though we were in Rome or southern Italy. Another neighbor was a young man who had long hair, a beard that never seemed to grow properly, and who had an air of the disreputable. He was selling pot in the neighborhood, mostly, I thought, to students at New York University who spent time in Washington Square Park. One of the women in the building didn’t like this young man, who wasn’t polite and had a variety of hip animosity, as though being cool meant he could be abrupt with old Italian women. One of these women passed this young man and then me in the hall.

“Do you see him?” she said to me.

“Yes,” I said.

“He doesn’t say good morning,” she said.

“That’s too bad,” I said.

She nodded. We understood one another and knew how important it was to say good morning, which, after all, helped to make it a little better.

“He’s selling dope, isn’t he?” the woman said.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“No?” she said. “Then you are not as smart as you look.”

“I don’t know what he is doing,” I said.

“I could go to the police,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “That’s possible. You could talk to the man in the candy store.”

“You mean the loan shark?” said the woman. She made a face as though she had tasted a piece of fruit that had gone bad. It was as though she said, “Him? A greedy man who threatens people? No. I don’t want him. I want someone who understands. A man.”

“I understand,” I said. “Good morning.”

“The social club,” she said.

“The one across the street?” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “They will help.” She hesitated, since we hadn’t spoken so much before. “I hear a lot of clicking from your apartment. What are you doing?”

“I’m trying to write a book,” I said.

She smiled.

“It’s nice that you said ‘try.’”

Jean Stafford, a short story writer and novelist, had been a teacher of mine at Columbia, and we had become friends. Sometimes I went to spend time in a small outbuilding behind her house in East Hampton. She told me that when she had been visiting her father’s ranch in Colorado, when she was writing her first book, she had set her typewriter next to the window. A ranch hand, who worked for her father, heard the sound of her work, and he stopped next to the window and said, “Do you mind if I ask what you are doing?”

“No,” she said. “I’m writing a book.”

“That’s a nice cool job,” he said. “You can do it in the shade. But can I ask you something else? How do you get the lines to come out even?”

The San Genaro Festival was on Sullivan Street, and for a week the scent of cooking sausage, onions, and peppers hung in the air, along with the sweet perfume of cotton candy. New York at this time was a very hard place, as it must be now. In the hall I passed the middle-aged Italian woman who hadn’t liked the young man who hadn’t said good morning and who was selling dope in Washington Square Park.

“Good morning,” I said.

“Good morning,” she said. “How is the book going? Sometimes a long time goes on between the clicking noises.”

“I’m trying to think of what to say,” I said.

“Tell a story,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “Which one?”

She raised a brow in a way that suggested a woman in a Southern Italian town who had just heard a piece of news. That raised brow made me think of the cowboy who stood outside the window where Jean Stafford had been typing. I am sure that this man, who had lived on ranches in the west all his life, understood hard work.

“I guess that’s where the work is,” she said.

“Yes,” I said. “I think that’s it.”

“When you aren’t typing,” she said. “I’ll be listening.”

“Maybe I should get a tape recorder and record the sound of typing. I could play that so you can hear it.”

She shook her head.

“No,” she said. “I can tell. You wouldn’t do that.”

“Don’t be too sure,” I said.

She smiled.

“You are a charmer, too,” she said.

“Any ideas about what stories to tell?” I said.

She sucked the inside of her cheek, glanced at the door where another middle-aged woman, dressed in black, came into the building.

“Where did you grow up?” she said.

“Hollywood,” I said.

“With movie stars and all that?” she said.

“I’d see them around,” I said.

“Maybe there’s something in where you grew up,” she said. “Aren’t you lonely for it?”

“Not in a way I can do anything about,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “That’s a problem.”

We stood for a moment as the scent of new bread from the bakery two doors down came into the hall. She raised a brow, as though we were communicating by gestures. Tolstoy says somewhere that the writer has only one obligation, which is to describe the circumstances of his birth.

“Have you ever read Russian writers?” I said.

“No,” she said. “I went to a Polish restaurant off Saint Mark’s place. They served little dumplings. Made out of potatoes.”

“Pierogies,” I said.

“Yes,” she said. “I guess that’s it.”

“Well, good morning,” I said.

She nodded.

“That young man who didn’t say good morning seems to have moved out,” she said.

“Did you go over to the social club?” I said.

She shrugged.

“Who knows?” she said. “He’s gone, isn’t he?”

Upstairs I heard the loan shark drop a coin into the pay phone, and the ratchet, stop, ratchet stop of the old-style dialing came into the kitchen. I sat down at the table where I had my typewriter and considered something I could do nothing about. In those days I had portable typewriters, and since I couldn’t touch type, I wrote as though I was driving nails, with my fingers starting next to my ears and then hitting the keys from there. With this treatment a typewriter lasted about six months, and I had a pile of them in the corner. Touch typing came when I had to start using a computer, but that was some years away.

After a while I went up to Houston Street, where a store sold fresh pasta, and the aroma of it, of flour and cheese, and the paper bags that they put fresh tortellini into, was like a caress and seemed to be a variety of memory, just stepping into that smell. Then I took it home and cooked it for lunch, with a fresh loaf of bread from Zito’s bakery.

Before Sullivan Street, I had been living at Milligan place, which is a short street of four brownstones behind a gate at Sixth Avenue and 10th Street. The street had the myth of literary history, in that E.E. Cummings was supposed to have been there, and I heard, too, that Theodore Dreiser had the top floor, where I then lived in what would have been his bedroom. A companion street, Patchin Place, another short block of four buildings, ran parallel to Milligan place. Djuana Barnes, a writer, reporter, and illustrator, lived on Patchin Place, and while I didn’t know who she was when I first moved there, I saw her as she walked around the block on Sixth Avenue.

She was tall, as dignified in her old age as she had been on the avenues of Paris where she had mesmerized writers, and just about everyone else, in the 20s. She still wore a black hat, a black dress and skirt, and a black shoe. She seemed to have moved from rue Jacob in the Sixth in Paris and to have done so without having lost a bit of her presence, which was at once stylish and imperial. When I saw her, on Sixth Avenue, in front of the Jefferson Market, I didn’t smile or nod my head, since any impertinence, any gesture was obviously to be avoided. Still, I saw her and in the way I accepted things in those days, she seemed to be part of the neighborhood, not so much strange as vaguely ominous, like the Women’s House of Detention.

My editor at the time at Harper told me that she was going to bring a book of Djuna Barnes’ back into print. This was Ladies Almanack, and my editor showed me the Dior Stocking box that the manuscript for the book had been kept in. The box was a pale creme color, the lacquered surface of it cracked, like a dry lake, and it had a label, with a red border like for an accountant’s ledger, pasted on the front of the box that said, “Ladies Almanack.”

“I need your help,” said my editor. “I am trying to find a buyer for Djuna’s papers, and that means I have to get them out of her apartment.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll help. But why don’t you hire a driver with a van. I’m sure there are plenty in New York.”

My editor sighed.

“I don’t think you understand how difficult she can be,” she said.

That dignified, imperious figure came to mind, the black clothes, the furiously restrained presence as she made her way past the Women’s House of Detention to Balducci’s, the fruit and vegetable stand at Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street.

“Maybe I can understand,” I said. “Have you seen her walk around the block on Sixth Avenue?”

“No,” she said. “I can imagine, though.”

We looked at one another and nodded.

“OK,” I said.

“If I hired a driver to get the papers, he might make a grammatical error, and Djuna would order him out of her apartment. I wouldn’t be able to get the papers. Can you do this without making a mistake?”

“There’s a chance,” I said. “I can try.”

“You’ve got to do more than try,” she said. “Djuna wants to sell her papers so she can pay for a proper burial.”

“When do you want help?” I said.

“Soon,” my editor said.

The papers were a hundred letters, as Djuna Barnes said, from “Tom,” which was T.S. Eliot. Also, or so I understood, she had a set of the galley proof for Ulysses, which Joyce had given her with jokes written in the margins that only Djuna would get. She had other letters and manuscripts, which she wanted to sell. My editor said that she would be bringing me along to help with the papers, and she described me as a young writer who had won the Harper-Saxton Prize. Djuna then began to refer to me as the “prize winner around the corner.”

The next day, and the days before going to her apartment to help with the papers, she took her walk, and when I passed her, I only glanced at her, and did my best not to be impertinent. This was easy given how she carried herself and how regal she seemed. Of course, I had grown up on the stories of Paris in the Twenties, and this myth had something to do, in some profoundly romantic way, with my urge to want to try to write books at all. Still, there was something in her appearance, in her presence, that no matter who she was or what she had done, that was like the essence of rose petals in a small container, a haunting, perfectly substantiated presence. She wasn’t intimidating so much as a little otherworldly, or she seemed, when she appeared on Sixth Avenue, like a glimpse of an oracle. And, given what I have learned about the writing life, maybe she was. Even in her late seventies or early eighties she suggested by her regal presence, her imperial gliding down the street, how she must have cut a swath through Paris. I am sure there were many men and women, in particular, who still trembled, even in the 70s, at the memory of what Djuna had been as she walked down Saint Germain.

I went, with my editor, to the apartment on Patchin Place at 9:00 in the morning. Djuna had an admirer who left a rose on her doorstep every morning, and there was a rose there when we arrived. It was a late spring day in New York, not hot yet but having that yellow haze that reminded me of Eliot, and the image of fog that rubs itself like a cat against a window pane. I wondered just what it was that Eliot had had to say to her. We knocked on the door.

She answered. If anything, in that instant, she had the air of Miss Havisham, I suppose, but no matter what my editor and I hesitated in the doorway. Her dark eyes lingered over my face, as though I was being given the once over, and I surely was, and then she said, “Come. Come in.”

The apartments on Milligan and Patchin Place were small, and hers, as I recall, was a small sitting room with a small bedroom concealed behind something like a bead curtain. The room had three chairs, one of them behind the desk where she still worked. She put me there. Then, without missing a beat or with a fluid movement, Djuna went to a sideboard, where she filled a water tumbler to the brim with Scotch, wrapped it in a Kleenex as a sort of cocktail napkin, and put the glass into my outstretched hands. The touch of her fingers was like dry ice.

I hadn’t eaten anything that morning, and I sat with the smoky colored liquid in the glass and considered just what a half pint of scotch would do to me on an empty stomach, but even then I immediately thought that I had done many stupid things in my life, particularly up to the age of 28 or so as I was then, but refusing this woman’s hospitality wasn’t going to be added to the list. I thanked her and took the first drink. Surely, her expectation of politeness was as severe as those women I met later on Sullivan Street in the building above the loan shark.

Yes, she was imperious, but it seemed that something else was going on, too, and, in fact, I have been lucky with older women, such as Jean Stafford, in that while they seemed impossibly proud, they sometimes took me under their wing. In this case, as I took that first burning sip of morning Scotch, I glanced down at Djuna’s desk, before which she had seated me with such a stern idea of where I should sit, I realized that she had left on the desk a drawing of a tree, highly stylized as her illustrations were, which showed the characters in the book she was writing. Or, maybe later it was reassuring to me that this was a book she was trying to write, too. I glanced at her dark eyes, and while I am certain she was too proud or too imperious to wink or anything like that, there was nevertheless some momentary softening. She knew, as she said, that I was “the prize winner around the corner,” and this of course meant that I was trying to write a book. The back of her apartment on Patchin Place faced the back of my apartment on Milligan Place, and I wondered if she could hear, too, like those Italian women in black on Sullivan Street, the sound of those clicking keys, not to mention the ominous silence between bursts of typing.

The drawing of the tree of the characters of her book had the style of Aubrey Beardsley, although here, Djuna had added colors, too, and a texture of bark, which seemed to be, in a way I find difficult to describe, ominous, not quite like a storyboard for a horror movie, but still arresting. I went on drinking the Scotch. I thought, Jesus, I hope I don’t stagger when I walk out of here. If I walk out of here.

Djuna went on, in a cheerful, inquisitive voice about a rowing race between France and England in those years when she had been in Paris, and fifty years later she was still brooding over a question she was unable to answer. In one race that had taken place at that time, a storm had come up when the rowers were midway between France and England, and many of the men had drowned. Djuna was curious as to why, when these men washed up on the beach in France or England, they were found with their flies down. She knitted her brow in concentration, and as I worked on finishing the first tumbler of Scotch, and hoped that she wouldn’t offer me another (but knowing if she did, I would drink every drop), the consensus between Djuna and my editor (although I can’t say for sure that I didn’t agree or even suggest this) was that the flies were down because in the middle of the race, the racers wanted to relieve themselves and didn’t want to be constantly zipping and unzipping. This answer, after years of brooding, seemed to satisfy Djuna.

I sat at her desk and realized now that no matter how stern and gruff she was, and whether or not she could hear me typing from my apartment, she still let me see how she organized a novel, and I often think, when I am in the middle of a book, or starting one for that matter, of that Aubrey Beardsley-like drawing that Djuna, in a profoundly generous moment, had let me see. And yet, she had gotten me way too drunk to move the papers, and it seemed to me that no one who had lived through the Twenties in Paris, and survived a half century after that, wasn’t fairly cagey. I’m pretty sure that she didn’t want to give up the papers, or the letters from T.S. Eliot, any sooner than she had too, and so she had gotten me too drunk to do much more than sit there, at her desk.

I did my best not to stagger as we went out the door and, in the street on Patchin Place, my editor and I glanced at each other, since neither one of us was precisely sure what had happened. We had been there in Djuna’s imperious attitude, and yet, at the same time had been the recipient, or at least I had, of her generosity, while my editor had seen the caginess. In the end, the papers went to the Harvard University Library, where they should have.

The mood of Sixth Avenue at this time, when I lived on Milligan Place opposite Djuna Barnes’s apartment on Patchin Place was a combination of the hopeful ballerinas who went to a school directly across the street, and who appeared in the early afternoon, hair in tight buns, their gaits erect, dignified, and innocent. A block south, piles of oranges like cannonballs on a village green stood at Balducci’s, which was an open air market. They left the scent of citrus, which was mixed in with the slight perfume of the glistening leaves of damp lettuce and sweaty odor of those tomatoes that were as red as a fire engine. Bigelow’s pharmacy was across the street, and it was like something from It’s a Wonderful Life, or it had the mood of another era. The Jefferson Market, a place where I shopped for groceries, was a place where James Beard came to look at the fruit and vegetables and where he caressed the raspberries with a quality that was almost erotic. The Women’s House of Detention, which looked like a middle-income project, had all the complicated valence of a prison for women. At this time, on Milligan Place, I got behind on my phone bill, and it was turned off. To make up for it, I had an answering service that took messages for me, and one day, my editor left word that a party was going to be given for me, and at the same time I received another message from a girlfriend who said she couldn’t make the party. The young woman at the message service had a lovely voice, and after she told me that a girlfriend couldn’t make it, she said, “But I’m available.” I called in to get my messages from the telephone booth that was in front of Milligan Place, and which Djuna Barnes passed like my own Miss Havisham. The mood was one of the ballerinas, and their whiff of sweat, the brightness of the oranges at Balducci’s, the touch of James Beard’s fingers on the raspberries, as pink as the lips of the ballerinas, and the promise of the young woman at the message service.

Craig Nova

Craig Nova is the award-winning author of 15 novels and one autobiography, Brook Trout and The Writing Life. Nova's writing has appeared in Esquire, The Paris Review, The New York Times Magazine, and Men’s Journal, among others. He has received an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and is a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship.

Brad Holland

Brad Holland is a self taught artist and writer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Playboy, Wall Street Journal, Fortune, Rolling Stone, New York Times and many other national and international publications. In 2005 he was inducted into the Society of Illustrators Hall of Fame. Brad Holland lives in New York City and continues to work on assignments and commissions from clients around the world.