Two o’clock in the afternoon and it was awfully dark. West 57th street in the rain always connected me with the New York of old. I could feel the presence of the ghosts of by-gone Manhattan racing past me. Dorothy Parker, James Dean, Lou Gehrig, rushing to get to The Algonquin or the Actors Studio or Yankee Stadium and out of the rain. The reflecting head lights on the wet black streets had me walking through the paintings of Robert Henri and Child Hassam.
Seeing Carnegie Hall across the street immediately sent my mind’s eye to the shop around the corner where the clerk told me that back in the 60’s John F. Kennedy bought up all of his Cuban cigars during the Bay of pigs before the embargo was made official.
I thought of making my way there and waiting out this deluge. Instead “Uncle Sam’s Umbrella and Cane” caught my eye. I don’t know how many times I had passed this place. One of my first job’s in New York, as a waiter was down the street at O’Neill’s 57th, so I saw it often enough but today I was being pulled in by necessity and something else.
The place was packed. The floor was dripping wet. It had a humid wet smell. A “closeness” that everyone brought in with them from the elements.
I was 26 and already living and working and starving in New York for close to a decade. I had never owned an umbrella.
My “home”, the back half the second floor of a 5th floor walkup, was on West 76th street. I had a fold out sofa that was becoming more uncomfortable by the day after years of use. As was the small quarters. My “neighbor” across the way had recently acquired two dachshunds, not one but two, who barked when he was and when he wasn’t there. Nonstop. It was not so slowly driving me mad.
So many umbrellas. The walls were lined with them. Most people bought the cheapest collapsible they could find and made their way out of there as fast as they could.
For me, everything slowed down. It felt good to be out of the constant current of the New York rush to get nowhere fast.
There was the ordinary black umbrella of course, but also there where patterns and colors I had never attributed to the ordinary bumbershoot. Polka dots. Pinstripes. Plaids.
In one of the glass cases I caught my reflection. Soaked. I could have just stepped out of the shower. It was uncomfortably hot for October. Making it feel almost tropical. Plastered down and black looking, my hair, not its usual light brown, made me almost not recognize myself. This stranger I was looking at compounded the feeling that something new and unusual was about to happen.
He looked old even then. Tall and thin. Short cropped gray hair and metal rimmed glasses. Having a mid-westerner’s aversion to salespeople, I could feel myself stiffen up as he came towards me. He squared himself up in front of me and casually put is elbows on a glass display case that separated us. The way he did it, made me like him. It was kind of a folksy move that put me at ease. It helped that he could have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. I’m a sucker for Norman Rockwell. He asked, “See anything you like?” The slight New York accent didn’t seem right coming out of his mouth. I would have guessed Maine or Connecticut.
There were plenty of run of the mill umbrellas, but my eye kept moving towards a selection where the handles were obviously hand carved.
Handcrafted wooden handles, stirred memories of working with my father, a carpenter. Smells of freshly sawn wood and the feel of skin grating off my knuckles while shaving down a doors bottom and the sight of blood mixed with saw dust filled me as my hand gravitated towards one of the more beautiful shapes.
It felt good in my hand. Smooth and cool. So different from the feel of those harsh and unforgiving Ohio mornings in January or February or March even. My Father at the wheel of his decrepit country squire station wagon. Rusted tools in the back and the front seat littered with piles of paper, large and small. Receipts and bills. His unofficial office. I always appreciated the huge stack that created a wall and kept a good distance between us. Every morning, like clockwork there would be a string of snot running down his nose as his coffee steamed in his right hand and the left drove us to the next job.
“Francesco Maglia.” “Excellent choice.” He took it from my hand and opened it. “It’s not bad luck to open an Umbrella in an Umbrella shop.”
He handed it back to me and watched as I put it over my head. “Wonderful workmanship. From another era. So sad that the true craftsman is disappearing.” “Here let me show you how it opens and closes.”
He took it back from me and did just that.
I could feel the credit card that had recently come in the mail, sitting there in my wallet.
A credit card was new to me. Many years in the Theatre got me used to being poor. After my first starring role in an off- Broadway play, I landed a role on a soap opera playing a kind of blue collar Robinhood. My character stole fancy stereo equipment so I could pay for my blind sister to go to boarding school. We were orphans.
Having money was new to me. I wasn’t used to it. And I had horrible feelings of guilt anytime that I bought anything out of the ordinary. Food, rent, classes that was it. At one point every piece of clothing I owned came from a play I had done or a scene I was working on in class. This was different. I was doing something for myself. And according to the nuns who taught me back in Ohio, that meant only one thing. That I was going straight to hell.
He didn’t seem to notice any of these feelings. He just stood there, calmly, relaxed and absolutely positive that he was going to make a sale.
I turned the closed umbrella around in my hands twisting it and turning it. The canopy was a tartan plaid reminiscent of the Black Watch. In the Theatre it is considered bad luck to be put in a pool of green light and for that reason I always stayed away from the color green but for some reason, I kept being drawn to this particular umbrella and its greens and blues and black.
I could feel my hand reaching for my wallet. As I took out the card, I couldn’t help myself and I blurted out. “This is my first umbrella.”
He looked up and smiled and gently said, “Every gentleman needs his umbrella.”
After he rung me up and I signed, he took the umbrella and, this is very difficult to describe, but I’ll try.
He crooked his left elbow at me with his hand to his heart. He then took the umbrella with the handle pointing towards me, placed it on his left crooked arm and slowly slid it across his arm, very similar to an arrow being place into a crossbow. With the handle almost touching me, bridging the chasm between us, he said, “Before I hand this over, I would like to share a few things with you. Firstly, make it your friend. Always keep it by your side. At a restaurant, never leave it at the coat check. Keep it with you at the table. When not in use, especially in the subway, keep the tip facing down holding the handle like this. Always share your umbrella with a lady who does not have one. Open it up to dry after a rain. Use it daily until it becomes part of you, rain or shine, that way you will never forget it.”
With that he slid it even closer to me, giving me the cue to take it from him. Which I did.
He extended his hand and we shook. A firm, warm friendly shake. A handshake from a more deliberate, more civilized time.
I turned and opened the new canopy as I rejoined the strong pour and rush of Gotham’s sidewalk humanity, walking with and against the masses and enveloping elements, the wind and his words kept singing in my ears “Every gentleman needs his umbrella.”