Greenwich Village Spring came suddenly to the neighborhood last weekend, taking us seemingly overnight from the snowfall of two weeks ago to a Saturday in July, and for many in the neighborhood, that meant getting over to the Shanvilla Grocery store, where the petunias had just come in, and putting up the window boxes.
We don't have a lot of acreage in the Village. Folks with a backyard are considered DuPonts, and a row of window boxes is a treat. That, perhaps, is why when the petunias and geraniums and marigolds and ivy arrive at the Shanvilla, it creates such a stir.
Village couples with their babies in denim Snuglis spend a long time discussing this shade of purple petunia or that. Village dogs--which unlike other dogs wear red or blue bandanas around their neck with the coming of spring--loll about on the warm pavement and stretch. The selection of flowers for the window box--flowers which may bloom until early November--is a moment to be savored. The other morning, a gentleman in black leather pants and a black T-shirt with the sleeves torn off stood in front of the plant stand at Shanvilla for a very long time, holding in one hand a pot of red geraniums, in the other pink, much the same as you would see anywhere, except for his uniform.
There were as well, this weekend, other signs of spring: the unicycle man making his appearance after the winter freeze; the stepped-up sale of dope in Washington Square Park; the Jamaicans, in dreadlocks, showing off with a soccer ball. Boy couples and girl couples and even heterosexual pairs strolled hand in hand, basking in the famous Village live-and-let-live. One hopes it will not be sexist to report that the one spat viewed was a traditional pair off. A man and a woman, undaunted by spring, yelling at one another deep in the West Village on Horatio Street.
"Don't get into the car, if you don't trust me," he said, but she did.
It's a curious neighborhood, Greenwich Village, so much legend about it, some of it true, some not. Seeing the patisseries where the Valentine hearts say 'Beat Me' and the jewelery store advertises 'Ears pierced-With or Without Pain,' tourists are likely to get the wrong idea, viewing the neighborhood as Bohemia.
In fact, it is too expensive for that. One-bedroom studios, which were $125 in the '50s when the beatniks really did exist, now are $900, and there are probably as many Cuisinarts in the kitchens as you'd find in Chevy Chase. Even so, the Bohemian tradition of prideful tolerance--and a preponderance of artists--remains.
A true Villager, passing a man in Elizabethan dress on the sidewalk with a parrot on his arm, will pause only to pat the parrot.
The unofficial mascot of the neighborhood is Rollerina, a transvestite who wears a long ballet skirt, black ankle-height roller skates and a platium wig, and who skates about blessing everyone with her magic wand.
The neighbors from whom one borrows a cup of coffee beans are unlike the neighbors elsewhere. In her last building, when locked out, the reporter was obliged to knock on the door of her downstairs neighbors, the gay priests, who wore lavendar shirts with stiff white collars. The building also included a writer named Levinson, who cranked out potboilers at $500 a shot for an outfit he called "Toilet Bowl Books." They were poor about paying Levinson. "We got a million starving writers out there," they told him. "Sometimes we never pay them and they never even call. Maybe they die."
Levinson could not endure spring. The arm-in-arm of the streets made him morose. "Love, your magic spell is everywhere," he'd say, walking down Bleeker at midday. Then he'd go to his room.
"How is the Village?" a refugee asked the other day. "Is The White Horse Tavern still there--have things changed?" It was the sad duty of the reporter, a Villager for 17 years, to report that the White Horse--the legendary watering hole of Dylan Thomas--now had cafe tables with umbrellas that said Cinzano out front; that stores that once sold paint were restaurants with hanging plants.
And yet, on the other hand, even with the rents, it was possible that same of the essential heart of the Village remained. There were many strange faces at the Lion's Head, where the clientele's dust jackets line the wall, but lacking a doorman--as most Villagers do--you could still use the bar as a mail drop.
The Peacock Cafe had lost its lease, and been forced to move, but the same waitress, in her own good time, eventually brought you your lemonade.
On a pleasant night, spring through summer, you could take a stroll and find a musician--a handwritten note in the guitar case--singing in the street for change.
This occurred, in fact, Saturday night, as the reporter and two other Villagers, technically middle-aged, were walking toward the old symbol of the Village, Washington Square Park. Italian food--old Village-style red tomato sauce Italian food--was on their minds. Monte's on MacDougal Street; Il Ponte Vecchio on Thompson. All were considered and with the places there were memories--the visit to Bob Dylan's house when he lived on MacDougal, Phil Oakes singing downstairs at the Limelight, a guy named Dave when he lived in the neighborhood with a beard to his chest. He's an editor at Newsday now.
Crossing the street, at the corner of Sixth Avenue and West Fourth, there was a musician, an old guy, and about him a small crowd. His guitar case held a few dollars, which he had unquestionably placed there himself, and he was singing a very old song. The middle-aged Villagers, recalling it when it was new, listened and laughed. Ponte Vecchio, down past the chess parlor, was full, so they settled at Raffaela's, at Houston Street. It was very old style; with waiters in white shirts, a picture of Sinatra.
Of course, when the wine came, the Villager's drank a toast: To Greenwich Village, in spring, after all these years still the best place on earth.