palimpsest

An overused word in regard to NYC, perhaps, but there’s not really any good replacement.

okay, maybe overused only by word geeks and classics students, but still . . .

In the olden days, parchment (stretched and dyed sheep or goat skin) was expensive and thus sometimes reused. Palimpsests are parchment manuscripts that were used two or more times. The initial writing was scraped off, then a new manuscript was written over it. Often the parchment was turned 90 degrees, so the the new writing wouldn’t be too messed up by the old writing, which tended to peek thru or reemerge over time. Many classical manuscripts are known only or partially thru palimpsests – scholars look for readable traces of the old (often pagan i.e. Greek or Latin) manuscript under the newer (often Christian, early medieval) manuscript.

Palimpsest has come to be used for anything composed of layers of information over time. Information that is only partially obscured by new layers, or that peeks out. Voila – a perfect image for NYC streets, where facades fall to reveal the old signs beneath, posters are layered over posters and tear and wash away over time, graf gets written over and written over. Regular NYC walls.

When I first came to NYC, I worked in the Flatiron building for one of the world’s worst- paying publishers. We were paid $200 a week – $10,400 a year. In the mid-1980s.

But the Flatiron district was pretty dismal, then. Both Madison Square Park and Union Square park were full of needles, bums, and the like. There was the occasional lunchtime shootings at the lone sandwich spot on B’way, a Subway just north of Paragon Sports.

This meant there were lots of cheap places to eat. Right across the street was an Andrews Coffee Shop, Eisenberg’s, and Squires, to name just three of the greasy spoons that fueled us eager young publishing assholes with digusting hamburgers, BLTs of highly questionable LT, grilled cheeses fried in all manners of grease, and my favorite – the Squires baloney sandwich, a construction of such foulness and amplitude that one sandwich could feed me for three days – not that I ever really wanted to eat it. But as I recall, it cost $1, or $.33 a meal. That was almost as good as the 4/$1 Kraft mac and cheese deal.

Squires, which shared more than its first three letters with “squalid” disappeared years ago. I forgot about it and its life-sustaining (or shortening) baloney sandwiches. I came back to the area. Across the street from the Flatiron building was a large Italian deli called Marino’s, which was replaced by one of sketchiest of Asian delis I have ever frequented.

This deli was staffed by the sullen and stocked with Potemkin villages of unbought, unsought cereal boxes, soy nuts, Pringles, rice cakes, Nescafe jars, and more. Towering dustily over the pallid salad bar, the walls of boxes gradually faded and sagged toward history. I bought and returned at least two cartons of moldy yogurt there before quitting the place entirely. It was cursed. The deli closed and opened several times in the last year alone, each time gathering another “Closed by Order of the Marshall” sticker on the door.

Finally, it closed up shop entirely. Workers were seen emptying the place, probably shipping the dusty Pringles, Cocoa Puffs, and Count Chocula off to some hungry Belarussians.

I walked by last week and there it was:

The aluminum and canvas canopies were gone, and suddenly the continuity of evil food and business failure in the place all made sense. It was Squires.

I just hope they don’t open a sushi place there now.

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