Supper at Scribner's
Michael A. Gonzales reflects back on the 1980s—when he was in his 20s, working as a messenger, and spending his free time browsing iconic New York City bookstores.
In the fall of 1983 I was a 20-year-old student journeying from my apartment on West 151st Street to the shabby main office of Archer Courier Services on East 32nd Street. Having seen a classified ad in The Village Voice for “messengers wanted,” I thought the gig sounded better than security guard or McDonald’s counterperson. In those years before fax machines and email, messengers delivered by hand various types of correspondence including contracts, manuscripts, and legal documents. My best friend, future crime novelist Jerry Rodriguez, was a courier for the Wall Street brokerage firm Bear Stearns and encouraged me to take that path.
“It’s an easy job,” he said, “and you get to meet all kinds of people. You’ll like that part of it. It’s the perfect gig for a writer.” The next day I headed to Archer.
When I walked in, I was greeted by cigarette smoke drifting through the room, circulated by cheap standup fans along with hot early fall air. While the sweaty boss looked over my application, he and I talked a bit. I told him I was a college student, an English major with dreams of being a journalist. He nodded his head and assigned me to a messenger center on 48th Street between 5th and Madison Avenues. Working part-time, I didn’t have to be there until 2pm. I was psyched.
In those years before fax machines and email, messengers delivered by hand various types of correspondence including contracts, manuscripts, and legal documents. My best friend, future crime novelist Jerry Rodriguez, was a courier for the Wall Street brokerage firm Bear Stearns and encouraged me to take that path.
The subway ride to Grand Central from Harlem took about 45 minutes, with a 10-minute walk to the office from there. That first day of work, after getting off the subway, I made my way through the hectic terminal. Grand Central was scruffy then, but still majestic as customers formed long queues for train tickets, rushed towards their respective tracks or, if there was time, downed martinis at the Oyster Bar until the last minute. After taking the escalator up to the exit, I strolled uptown on Park Avenue in the shadow of the skyscraping Pan Am Building behind me.
On the corner of 48th Street, the Eurhythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” blared from a parked car as taxis, mail vans, limos, UPS trucks and other vehicles zoomed by. Turning left, I walked another block to a nondescript building a few steps from Madison Avenue. Inside the dimly lit lobby, just past three art deco elevators, were the large metallic doors, leading downstairs to the Archer office in the basement.
Standing at the counter was a short, balding Jewish guy with hairy arms who introduced himself as Dave. He reminded me of a friendly Louie De Palma (Danny DeVito’s character from Taxi). A cigar-chewer and joke-teller, Dave was everybody’s boss, but he was cool.
The job wasn’t rocket science, and as a New York native who lived in Harlem, went to school in Brooklyn and hung-out on the Lower East Side, I knew my way around the city. I’d only get turned around in Greenwich Village, a section of town that seemed to be urban-designed by Dr. Seuss. After a few days, I finally got used to the job and my co-workers. The office radio was always tuned to WNEW-FM, the local music station where dinosaur rockers still ruled. That first week, Dave and I began mock arguing over who was better, The Beatles (me) or the Rolling Stones (him), an argument he started, fueled by his love for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
With the exception of a nice, soft-spoken dude named Renell Shurn, an uptown acquaintance who lived around the corner from me, most of the other messengers were a little odd. There were guys who mumbled to themselves while others silently brooded, seemingly ready to explode.
The job wasn’t rocket science, and as a New York native who lived in Harlem, went to school in Brooklyn and hung-out on the Lower East Side, I knew my way around the city. I’d only get turned around in Greenwich Village, a section of town that seemed to be urban-designed by Dr. Seuss.
Unlike most of the other young Black guys in the office, I didn’t dress in a b-boy style or wear sneakers. While I was into rap as much as other Sugar Hill residents my age, years of Catholic school had given me a conservative fashion sense that rated wing-tips over Adidas and suit jackets over hoodies. I looked as though I was headed to teach a class rather than deliver an envelope.
Behind Dave were six workers who manned the phones and kept the messengers in motion. Archer had accounts with creative artists, lawyers, and a big one with the William Morris Agency. Soon I was delivering to the offices of photographer Richard Avedon, designer Calvin Klein, and Public Theater founder Joseph Papp. If the letter or package I was transporting had a destination farther than ten blocks, Archer gave us carfare. I usually pocketed the tokens and walked. Actress Patti Lupone, who at the time was starring on Broadway in Evita with Mandy Patinkin, was the only person who ever tipped me, slipping a buck in my hand while I stood on the doorstep of her apartment.
One of my favorite clients was graphic designer Milton Glaser, of whom I’d long been a fan. He had a studio on East 32nd Street, where he’d worked since 1965. It was there where Glaser designed numerous book covers, concert posters, early issues of New York magazine, which he co-founded, and the notable I ❤️ NY logo, perhaps one of the most iconic slogans in the world.
In Manhattan there weren’t just famous people to deliver to, but also famous architectural structures, including the Empire State Building, the Flatiron Building and, my personal favorite, the Chrysler Building, places I might’ve never been inside of if it weren’t for that job. One day Dave sent me on a run to The Dakota on West 72nd Street and Central Park West. The iconic rich folk’s luxury building had served as the location for Rosemary’s Baby, the residence of soul singer Roberta Flack, and where John Lennon had dwelled with wife Yoko Ono and son Sean before he was murdered by Mark David Chapman in 1980.
While delivering an envelope to the building’s mailroom, I spied my least favorite film critic Rex Reed, whom I recognized from his many television appearances, walking out of the building with an air of self-importance. A few months earlier, he’d written a scathing review of Francis Ford Coppola’s brilliant film Rumble Fish in the New York Post and referred to 19-year-old star Matt Dillon as, “…a functional retard.” That was the meanest thing I’d ever read from a reviewer. Seeing Reed stand on the curb while hailing a cab, I silently wished he’d step into a steaming pile of dog shit.
Back inside the Archer waiting room, along with my motley crew of fellow messengers, I relaxed until the next run. As a wannabe writer, I always spent my time in the waiting room reading. At that time I was going through an Irwin Shaw, John O’Hara, William Goldman period, reading as much of each author as possible. One day a burly soul bro I’d become friendly with asked, “How do you read all those books without pictures?” I chuckled, until I realized he was serious.
Being a messenger meant becoming used to strangers commenting on my literary choices. One evening, as I waited for an elevator while reading Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, more than a few people approached me with advice. “Don’t believe a word of what she writes,” one man proclaimed. Another simply blurted, “Her books are bullshit.” I knew nothing yet of Rand’s theories, or about Objectivism as a philosophical system. I’d bought the book after seeing the Gary Cooper film version at the Hollywood Twin.
A week later, when I was reading The Catcher in the Rye, the Salinger book was greeted with high praise from office boys and random receptionists. Noticing that I’d just started it that morning, one woman said, “You’re in for a treat.” Later, I got so into the book that I tried reading it while walking down the sidewalk, but after bumping into a few people and stepping into traffic at 5th Avenue, I realized that was a mistake.
As a wannabe writer, I always spent my time in the waiting room reading. At that time I was going through an Irwin Shaw, John O’Hara, William Goldman period, reading as much of each author as possible.
There were a number of bookstores in the vicinity of the messenger office, and I was constantly discovering someplace new to browse, read and buy books. Strolling through the Diamond District, I stumbled onto the legendary Gotham Book Mart at 41 West 47rd Street. A metal sign over the door claimed Wise Men Fish Here. Though I couldn’t afford the first editions or autographed books they specialized in, I loved looking around the cluttered shop.
One afternoon, I spotted writer John Updike browsing the shelves. At the time I was also reading a lot of short fiction by Capote, Cheever and Updike, and must’ve recognized his face from a book cover. Months later I overheard the owner Frances "Fanny" Steloff telling another customer, “You know Updike bought a lot of occult books from me when he was writing The Witches of Eastwick.” The famed shop was also featured in Rosemary’s Baby when the title character is searching for books on witchcraft.
A few of my favorite bookstores included Coliseum Books on 57th Street, where in those days customers were allowed to smoke, Shakespeare & Co on the Upper West Side, where I once spotted Samuel R. Delany, and Doubleday on 53rd Street and 5th Avenue. Back in the 1950s, my mom had been one of the first Black women hired by Doubleday at their 39th Street store. “Right next to Lord & Taylor,” she said. It was she who instilled in me a love of books.
At the 53rd Street Doubleday store there was a spiral staircase that led to the mezzanine where they kept the science fiction, fantasy and mysteries. From the time I was a teenager, my favorite reading matter was a mixture of literary and so-called genre fiction, a habit that would letter bleed into my writing style. Five blocks away from Doubleday was Scribner’s at 597 Fifth Avenue and 48th Street. It was the fanciest of the bookstores in the city, and just a few years before, rocker Patti Smith had worked there. For me, it was a much adored reprieve from the real world of bustling pedestrians, loud car horns, and foul smells.
Every Friday (payday) I entered that cathedral of literature, and splurged on a crisp, new book as opposed to going to one of the many used book shops scattered throughout the city. Scribner’s was a place that felt as welcoming and safe as a warm embrace. At an hour when folks were sitting down for dinner, I was sorting through the shelves looking for something new.
Charles Scribner's Sons, the publishing division, owned the entire building, and their legendary editorial offices were directly upstairs. Even if some hadn’t come across the company’s name on classics by Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Thomas Wolfe, you couldn’t help but be impressed with the regal shop, with its Beaux Arts exterior, sprawling staircases, and elaborate shelves. Legendary Scribner editor Maxwell Perkins had been dead since 1947, but I imagined his spirit drifting overhead while I shopped.
Every Friday (payday) I entered that cathedral of literature, and splurged on a crisp, new book as opposed to going to one of the many used book shops scattered throughout the city. Scribner’s was a place that felt as welcoming and safe as a warm embrace. At an hour when folks were sitting down for dinner, I was sorting through the shelves looking for something new. Truman Capote’s modern woman Holly Golightly did Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but I preferred Supper at Scribner’s.
A few months after starting at Archer I made friends with a Goth woman named Vanessa who worked outside the Archer building selling flowers and reading Anaïs Nin. Vanessa had long, curly black hair, and she wore black lipstick and nail polish. She had sensual yet mysterious Eastern European features. She always had a warm smile and a friendly wave. On her walkman, I later learned, she listened to the maudlin pop of Echo & the Bunnymen, The Cure, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Joy Division.
Back in the 1950s, my mom had been one of the first Black women hired by Doubleday at their 39th Street store. “Right next to Lord & Taylor,” she said. It was she who instilled in me a love of books.
We began chatting when I asked what she was reading. She flashed me the cover bearing the photo of a sad faced woman bordered in black. Though I always thought of myself as well read, I had never heard of Nin. “She was a French writer who documented damn near everything about her life in her diaries,” Vanessa explained. “Her passions, her friends, her lovers, and her writing. She was prolific. There are seven books.”
“Wow,” I said “I admire anyone who can write like that on a regular basis.”
“Do you write?” she asked.
“Some,” I told her, adding that I’d sold one short story and a couple of small articles, but that most of my writing has been for the school newspaper, nothing to brag about. I’d recently written a piece about Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly’s graphic arts magazine, Raw, for NY Talk but back then it didn’t seem cool to me to brag about reading comics, no matter how mature they were. “Unfortunately, whenever I try to keep a diary I lose patience,” I added “I’ll write in it for a few days and then toss it aside.”
Vanessa smiled. She reached down and arranged the flowers in their green buckets. “Well, diary writing isn’t for everyone, but, just don’t lose patience with whatever it is you do want to write,” She said. A tragic romantic, I instantly fell in love, but I never said anything. Many of my friends were women, but I was still naïve when it came to navigating dialogues that led to romance. In the evenings a beat-up van picked Vanessa up, but each day she was back in her spot.
For a few months we chatted every afternoon, but as fall turned to winter and the temperature dropped, she stopped showing-up. I didn’t have her number, nor did I know her last name. Though we’d become friendly, there wasn’t a formal goodbye and never seeing her again was heartbreaking. Years later, when I began writing erotica in 2000 for the Brown Sugar series edited by Carol Taylor, I started reading the poetic prose of Anaïs Nin and thinking about Vanessa, who’d introduced me to Nin’s work. Nin’s sensuous and lustful short stories in Delta of Venus and Little Birds inspired me. (Coincidentally, both books had covers designed by Milton Glaser.)
I had become friendly with a few of the Archer operators, including a cute, freckled-faced Black woman named Pam, who declined to go out on a date with me, but loved to tease me on the phone in her sultry voice. There was also Sean, a pretty-boy blonde punk rock bass player who, after overhearing me tell Dave that I liked The Clash, invited me to his band’s gig in the basement of a tenement somewhere in Alphabet City. I’d never been before that below 14th Street, and was excited to see a gritty punk performance.
Most of the other messengers were just acquaintances, though. The only one I became friendly with outside the office was a kleptomaniac French teenager expat who’d come to New York City to become an actor. He still talked in broken English and reminded me of a young Jean-Pierre Léaud playing Antoine Doinel in those Truffaut films.
For a few months we chatted every afternoon, but as fall turned to winter and the temperature dropped, Vanessa stopped showing-up. I didn’t have her number, nor did I know her last name. Though we’d become friendly, there wasn’t a formal goodbye and never seeing her again was heartbreaking.
After work we sometimes went to Larmen Dosanko on 49th and Madison for big bowls of steaming noodles. One evening, walking by a grocery store stocked with fruit outside, he snatched an apple and took a big bite. “Why the hell did you do that?” I asked. He shrugged. “To see if I could,” he replied. A week later he invited me to his acting class to see him perform scenes from A Streetcar Named Desire, but hearing a French accented Stanley Kowalski didn’t seem like something I could do with a straight face.
There were countless cheap diners, pizza shops, and Chinese restaurants scattered throughout the city to retreat into for a late lunch or to escape the elements for a few minutes. That winter someone introduced me to the wonders of Chinese hot and sour soup, of which I bought a large container nearly every day from a different spot. Each restaurant prepared it differently, with my favorite being from a place on Lexington and 58th Street, across from Bloomingdale’s.
My good friend Francine, whom I’d known since high school, was staying with me and my grandma’s place in Harlem. An aspiring actress paying her dues by running the lights at the 13th Street Playhouse, she had a day job at a coffee shop in the basement of Bloomingdale’s. Most of her co-workers were studying to be either actors or dancers. Whenever I stopped by, I enjoyed hearing them talk about auditions, practices and rehearsals. Because Fran and I were close, her co-workers embraced me too. They showed their love in endless cups of coffee or tea, and all the pastries I could eat. Usually there was no charge, but I always left a few dollars for a tip.
One gray morning that February, I got off the subway to pouring rain. I called Dave from a payphone and lied about being sick; instead, I headed to my favorite Times Square movie theater, the Hollywood Twin, on 8th Avenue between W. 46th and W. 47th Streets. A former porn palace that had been renovated and transformed into a two-screen repertory house, it was one of my cinema sanctuaries. That day there was a Fitzgerald double-bill: The Great Gatsby and The Last Tycoon. Hours later, emerging from the theater, my mind elsewhere, I literally ran into a person on the sidewalk.
“Excuse me,” I mumbled, seconds before I realized I’d almost knocked over my boss, Dave. He looked at me, glanced up at the marquee and burst out laughing. “I thought you were sick.” Not knowing what to say, I simply blurted the truth. “Man, I didn’t feel like walking through all that damn rain.” The following day when I reported to work, Dave screamed, “Well look who it is… the Sunshine Messenger.” Everyone in the office, who’d obviously already heard the story, laughed.
There were countless cheap diners, pizza shops, and Chinese restaurants scattered throughout the city to retreat into for a late lunch or to escape the elements for a few minutes. That winter someone introduced me to the wonders of Chinese hot and sour soup, of which I bought a large container nearly every day from a different spot.
I was pleasantly surprised that Dave didn’t fire me. Instead, though I knew it pained him, he sang the Beatles “Good Day, Sunshine” refrain each time I walked through the door. At the end of the day he said, “I just want you to know, I’m not mad at you for lying and not coming to work; I’m mad that you got a Beatles song stuck in my head for a whole day.”
The next few months I came in every afternoon without fail, even when it was pouring, but after a while I began to dread the job. Whatever romanticism I’d once felt while trekking through the city was quickly fading.
Around that same time, I discovered a cool coffee shop called Miss Brooks on 56th Street and 6th Avenue, up the block from the original Mysterious Bookshop. I’d sometimes go to Miss Brooks’ after work to unwind to the classical music that played on the stereo.
The coffee and desserts were always fresh and most of the staff, judging from overheard conversations, consisted of aspiring artists in various disciplines. While many of the customers were tourists and office workers, there were always a few tables filled with black-clad artists and writers loudly discussing the works of painters, the no-nothingness of critics, or whatever show they’d seen at MoMa, three blocks away.
That first week, Dave and I began mock arguing over who was better, The Beatles (me) or the Rolling Stones (him), an argument he started, fueled by his love for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
I’d sit in the back watching and listening as various scenarios unfolded, and realized this was the type of people I wanted to be around every day. Standing-up, I approached the thin, blonde cashier and asked, “Are you guys hiring?” She smiled and reached to a shelf beneath the register. “I’m Tina,” she replied. “Just fill out the application.” Afterwards, Tina ran down a few stairs and returned minutes later. “Can you start next Monday?”
“Yes…” I told her, “yes I can.”
The following day, I returned to Archer and told Dave that Friday would be my last day. Though used to a high turnover, he said sincerely, “You’re one of my best men, but, I understand.” As the end of the week drew near, I was saddened to be leaving my first long-term job as an adult, but overjoyed that I would finally be working around people who were as arty and smart as I imagined myself to be.
On that last day, as I stood at the counter waiting, Dave handed me my final pick-up and delivery slip and said, “You can go home after this one.” Looking up from his pad, he smiled. “I hate to see you go, Sunshine, but remember one thing.”
“What’s that, Dave?”
“The Rolling Stones are better.”
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