17 Grove Street

7 Feb

If I’d fought in the Revolutionary War I reckon that I would have been a drummer boy. Or maybe one of those fife players; I don’t know, even the kid who carried the flag around. Of course if they’d had war-time newsies back then I would have preferred to be one of those. I have a feeling that they didn’t. But I mean, someone must have sold Tom Paine’s Common Sense. That was a pamphlet, not a newspaper. So maybe they had pamphlet-sies back then instead. Something like that. You get the general idea here — I have trouble seeing myself exactly as a fully grown adult.

Except I am one! Honest. I can do pretty much whatever I want, the same as you. I can pretend anything, and I’m only getting better at it. Though come to think of it, if I was gonna be a drummer boy I’d have preferred to be one in the War of 1812. That would have put me around the right age to buy the lot at 17 Grove Street in 1820 and build a wood frame, two story house there in 1822. I would have called myself William Hyde, and by trade I’d be a window-sash maker. Now I know what you’re thinking: a War of 1812 drummer boy veteran seems a bit young to become a successful window-sash maker by 1822. But trust me — those were heady times back then, and anything seemed possible. A drummer boy cum window-sash maker could go and build a house.

Alright I’ve done that, and let me tell you something: this is a hell of an establishment. It was built the same year as the last major yellow fever epidemic in New York and many city residents came up to what was then the rural village of Greenwich in order to get away from it. And a lot of them ended up staying. So what an investment! Buying just ahead of the curve. The lot was bought for $100 in 1820. Just thirteen years later it was already valued at $700. William Hyde added a small workshop out back in 1833 that’s still standing. A third floor was added to the main building in 1870. By that time a law had been passed banning the construction of wooden frame buildings in Manhattan. In the ensuing century and a half since then most of them have been torn down. But man, this one’s still standing. And it’s a house! A god damn wooden house. In Manhattan people!

Apparently James Baldwin had a good friend who lived here in the 1960s and so he stayed at the place quite often. This was after Baldwin had returned to the States following ten years abroad, primarily in Paris and Istanbul. It was while abroad that he wrote his first novel, Go Tell it on the Mountain, recovering from a nervous breakdown with his lover in a Swiss chateau. Baldwin says that all he brought with him to Switzerland was his typewriter and a stack of Bessie Smith records. Three months later he finished his book. The Modern Library ranks it as number 39 on their list of 100 greatest novels of the 20th century. Can you guess whether I intend to read all the titles that they have on there?

If I lived at 17 Grove Street today I’ll tell you what I’d do: I’d make that small house in back — William Hyde’s old workshop — I’d make that place my office and I’d fill it with all the books I could. And then I’d make lists of everything I wanted to read and see and think about. And trying to fulfill those lists would constitute my life. Actually I wouldn’t even need to live at 17 Grove Street. I could start that right now. I could start that right where I live. I could be in the middle of it as we speak. We could all be in the middle of it. In fact we are in the middle of it. We’re doing it right now. Don’t even blink. Are you ready? Are you ready? Here we go.

(Originally posted Dec. 5th, 2008 on Takethehandle.com)

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