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Artificial Eyes (December 24, 2003)

Back in the last century, a densely-populated island called Manhattan housed numerous curious enclaves.

On a single block, every store might sell political memorabilia. Seeking Grover Cleveland victory banners, or “Eleanor, Start Packing: The Willkies Are Coming” campaign buttons? Head over to West 48th Street, at Sixth.

If polyester flowers, African beads, jukeboxes, baseball cards, obscene figurines, or back-dated magazines were what you craved, neighborhoods catered to you, too.

A confusing factor, in marketing terms, was that these obscure specialty shops always set up right next door to each other, competing in the most confrontational way possible.

Suppose you were founding your Morality Monkey business. Would you try to lease a spot immediately adjacent to See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, Inc.?

It wasn’t on account of ethnicity. Sure, there were stretches of traditional Jewish delis, Armenian falafel joints, Mongolian barbecue, and, naturally, pizzerias, plus parlors pouring allegedly papaya-based beverages.

But there were many small multicultural areas where they practiced fading arts such as medallion-plating, gem-cutting, narrowing of lapels, document forgery, and fedora-blocking.

Philatelists and pornographers often operated in the same building. On the south side of a West Village street, you’d find nothing but vintage record dealers. North, it was celebrity photos and movie posters, exclusively.

Way downtown got even odder. Specialists in typewriter-ribbon spools and sewing-machine bobbins. Unguents and powders employed for questionable purposes. Obsolete implements…

Inevitably, behind each counter, a forbidding character slouched. He could either answer all your questions, if you were polite and serious, or brutally bust your chops if you weren’t.

A typical magazine retailer, for example, offered the choice between, “We’ve got issue number 48, mint condition, in back,” and, “This ain’t a library, case you didn’t notice.”

Imagine having an obsession, though — model trains, let’s say — and knowing of a musty outfit run by an authority on miniature track gauges and scaled-down engine maintenance.

Most cities, today, have no such resources; their only current equivalents are the few surviving independent hardware stores. They’ll make sure you leave with the proper size of washer and take time to describe relative virtues of spackle or screwdrivers. Not for long: here comes another Home Depot.

In the strange, somewhat Gothic New York of my youth, one constantly came across improbable, bizarre enterprises.

Whoa, looks like this is the Rubber Stamp District. Now I've blundered into Formaldehyde Heights.

Flaking gold letters on front windows, promoting foreign military regalia, scalpels, curative elixirs, pen-nibs and inks, magnifying glasses and monocles, cedar hangars, paraffin.

A block beyond, it became marbled book-binding paper, toupees and wigs, elevator shoes, watch-crystals, genuine sable brushes, discontinued curtain-rods, sheets of veneer, pinking shears, taps, clarinet and oboe reeds, innards from mysterious machines, rare maps, conductors’ wands, dental mirrors, ventriloquists’ dummies, semi-precious stones, cathedral radios, snuff tins, straight razors, and, believe it or not, telegraphs.

Somewhere within what’s now called TriBeCa, I wandered into a cluttered, dim, underheated world of telegraphs.

Samuel Morse’s surly heir predictably scowled at me, over his marinated, unlit cigar. “Help you?”

“Who do you sell these to, exactly?” I asked.

“Depends,” he growled.

“They work?”

“’Course they work. Assuming someone’s on the receiving end. That’s usually advisable. For communication purposes.” Faxes hadn’t been invented yet. But telegraphs?

Better yet was the house of artificial eyes, an establishment that mesmerized me the moment I entered it. Glass eyes of every variety, every color, human and animal, round and almond.

“This is amazing.” A sign read WHY LOOK ELSEWHERE?

“We rank as world leader concerning artificial eyes.”

A more cordial owner than most, sporting a huge turban.

“I believe it. People wear these? Like Sammy Davis?”

“We engage in some prosthetic work, yes. Primarily, we are providers to taxidermists and museums.”

“Like Natural History, Madam Tussaud’s?”

“We have served both. Smithsonian as well.”

“Animal eyes and human eyes. Damn.”

“More than half the eyes implanted in displayed dioramas at the Museum of Natural History were created here.”

I kept looking around, watched by an enormous array of beautifully-crafted artificial eyes.

“I’d like to get one that looks like mine.”

He peered briefly at my irises.

“You are hazel, bordered by some forest green.”

He opened one slot amid a wall of several hundred sliding hardwood drawers. After presentation, the eye was wrapped in delicate protective paper and placed in a small box.

What a city, I thought. You can buy a perfect glass replica of your own eye.

Nearly all that’s gone now, I regret to report, replaced by live/work lofts, Starbucks, and slick spaces staffed with software developers.

I’ve managed not to lose the eye, and have also held onto a pair of antique, amber pharmacist’s jars. For me, they’re relics, considering there’s not much left of the old town.

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