The second-hand store is a cluttered labyrinth carved out of a much larger building, once a department store, which explains the mysterious ups and downs of navigating its full extent. For example, the only way to go up to several floors of stored furniture above is to walk down a short flight to the basement. From the subterranean level, you catch the elevator up run by a short jaunty fellow in a hat. He will leave you off at whatever floor you say and he always, as he assures you, comes back for you later.

There’s a ceremony in using the elevator. The door is held shut by a heavy bar latch, which he undoes by lifting and shifting with a clang. He rolls back the segments of doors and shows you in. He may doff his hat. Once loaded, he closes several doors, latches and a heavy metal safety-gate before beginning operation. The elevator is not self-aligning; it responds to his handling of a massive switch, and once he gets near a floor, he fine-tunes it with little twitches. At the floor, he repeats the ceremony of pulling switches, bars and gates in a certain order to let you out.

For a little while, he experimented with a tips tray held aloft by a piece of secondhand statuary, but not for long. I don’t think he had any takers. He always has his eye out for you and when you step down into his basement area, he’s right there asking if you want a ride up. Somehow he can make you feel vaguely embarrassed for not using his services.

Of course, we aren’t really used to being transported by others. We’d rather jump in and go. His service comes from an entirely different tradition. He invites you in. He asks you to go up. He implies that what you need must be on the upper floors reachable only by his elevator. He’s always sort of around. Probably he cleans up, fixes washing machines and moves the furniture around when he’s not transporting customers, but I’ve never seen him do so. He knows me by sight now, and our encounters have become a short-hand: he says “Today?” with an upward gesture of his head. When I say “Nope,” he gives me a look like I don’t know what I’m missing.
Today he gave me a start. I came looking for a special bowl of a certain size, and I found two right away at a good price on the main floor. I was short of time. Why did I go downstairs at all? I brushed past the Book Nook full of musty sheet music and coverless magazines. As I went down, I caught a whiff of the ever-present sewer gas, no worse than usual but no better either. I think it comes up from the next level down, the sub-basement, which must be dug nearly to the level of the nearby lake. It must have been difficult to get the sewer in so deep, but maybe it’s not quite deep enough, judging by the smell.

He was suddenly beside me, hat pulled low. He glanced up and recognized me. “Hey,” he said, “up today?” but before I could say, “Don’t think so,” he started telling me his story. He pulled his lip aside to show me a big space where his teeth used to be. “Yeah, I broke one and it got infected. They took out four. Now I’m waiting for my false teeth to come in.” It looked bad for him, and he looked bad too- worn, tired, and he seemed to have shrunk in his clothes. He was poking around with a broom, sweeping the floor, and didn’t seem to care much if I went up or stayed.

Something new in the store caught my eye. In the back of the basement, where it used to be dark and moldy, it was now shiny. There was a curtain hanging from the low ceiling, separating a new, bright space from the old basement. I walked past rows of slumping armchairs, absurd lamps, and stained couches, and as I went back, I could see past the curtain.

They must have broken through the cellar wall into a new part of the old basement. From where I thought it used to end, the cellar continued back, and someone had dry-walled and painted an all-white room just big enough to contain eight church pews with a lectern facing them. Behind the lectern hung a large golden cross bathed in light.

There was no one in sight, except for the sweeper. I looked around. The room was meticulously clean and bright. The benches were polished and carefully arranged. Even the floor was freshly painted and unmarked. The sweeper took no notice of my discovery of the new room, but I was suddenly afraid of being caught in the basement shrine by whoever worships there.

“So how you doing today?” he asked as I started to hurry out.

“Oh, I’m okay,” I said, “and I already got what I want. I left it at the front desk- just have to pay for it on the way out.”

“Come back when you got some time to go for a ride,” he said, the dust from his broom rising around our ankles.

-by Stephen Lewandowski


Anonymous said...

oh holloween,

hey Stephen,
on a side note, it would be cool if you could let us know what is going on in the hemlock / canadice lake coalition, any new information about the happenings? Maybe you could write a new post, or possibly just reply here in the comments section.

glad to see yorkstaters is again publishing. your upstate analysis is well needed. welcome back,


York Staters said...

You always say the sweetest things. But seriously, good to hear from you again. I'll pass your note on to Stephen (I'm not sure how often he reads). Hopefully we'll get some posts from you? No pressure.