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Get It While You Can or A Butterfly In New York

Updated on December 3, 2009

Get It While You Can

New York in mid-September can be a bit chilly. Particularly in the shade. The parks are usually quite sunny and some days, one can be comfortable in just a T-shirt. The morning of September 11, 2001 was one of these unusually warm mornings. My fellow sidewalk booksellers and I were out in full force with our best merchandise on the nicest day we've had since graduation. Then we needed a lot of Ken Kesey and Timothy Leary since all that were left were the aging hipsters.

          We had lengthy discussions about who would come earliest to secure the best spot on the block. These were our concerns: That we can exercise our First Amendment Rights without harassment from some self-proclaimed authority figure and that it does not rain. The New YorkUniversity Administration and the NYU Bookstore cannot be counted among the number of supporters that the sidewalk booksellers have acquired. We provided excellent books at a price that left the students with some money left over for beer or cell phone bills. And we sold dangerous literature. Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey, Che Guevara, Eastern Philosophy; maybe something off the wall like The Art of the Fart.They felt a certain sense of freedom from the rigorous demands of their academic over-lords.
          Ali, or maybe it was Muhammad, was the coffee guy. Every weekday morning at 4:00, Ali would be in the prime spot setting up his Coffee and Donut Cart. Ali was from Afghanistan. Ali used to extend credit to booksellers who showed up in the morning with no money for coffee. Such was business in August as every business man knows. We always paid him after our first sale. After all, he had three wives and sixteen children to feed. Sometimes he would leave the leftover donuts, if there were any, for the booksellers at the end of his shift.

          The morning was progressing nicely. The students, just awake and fresh from the ATM, were surfacing, first singley, then in couples, then in groups and herds! Twenty-five thousand wonderfully supported by daddy students everywhere with itchy palms. Oh, what a glorious day this will be!
          The fragrance of the freshly watered shrubbery in Washington Square Park, coupled with the aroma emanating from Ali's coffee cart, prompted one to forget for a moment that a carbon monoxide based civilization such as New York City could possibly exist on a morning such as this. Instead we are momentarily, upon closing our eyes, transported by our imaginations, to a calmer time of Beatnik coffeehouses and Parisian sidewalk artists. Far out daddio!
          I inserted The Beatles' new CD '1' into my portable stereo. It is a great collection of #1 hits by The Fab 4 that was released (re-mixed) for the Christmas shopping season. It is a proven scientific fact that playing Beatles' music increases serotonin levels and sales. 'We Can Work It Out' sings Paul McCartney. ‘All You Need Is Love' pleads John Lennon. This attracted a more mature, moneyed clientele who would purchase our pricier items like 'The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test' or Timothy Leary's 'The Psychedelic Experience'...."Here Comes the Sun" proclaims a triumphant George Harrison..."And I's alright!" I sold a first printing of Abby Hoffman's Steal This Book for eighty dollars. It was a perfect morning.
          Ali and I never spoke to each other much. He was very quiet and reserved, very friendly, and very mysterious. I was mentioning to him that in all of my years in NYC, I had yet to see a butterfly.

“Would you want to live in New York if you were a butterfly?"Ali replied.

There was gentleness in this Middle Eastern man's voice. For a moment, he reminded me of a guru imparting some ancient wisdom that had travelled from disciple to disciple over centuries and destined to reach my ears. Tahiti...Florida...that's where I would live my short life if I were a butterfly.
This early in the morning, the students and villagers would usually stroll leisurely by the book tables with a coffee in one hand a donut in the other. Some would stop and look. Maybe they'll buy something. Very often a conversation would develop between two strangers who were eyeing the same book. The book tables were the spawning ground of many lasting friendships as it attracted people of similar interests to one location where they had the opportunity to meet each other when they would otherwise have passed each other by.
          Sometimes a career browser would spend what seemed like an hour rearranging my carefully crafted display only to tell me that they'd return another day to buy something. I always thought we only had today and everyday after that was a gift that not everyone was guaranteed to receive.

“Get it now. You may miss your chance" I would tell them.
          Suddenly, there was a disturbing uneasiness in our near-perfect world of fine literature, fragrances, and new found friendships. A crowd was gathering on the corner: their eyes were focused upward. Was it a bird? A plane? I asked a disheveled young man who was hurrying to the corner to join the gathering on La Guardia Place what was of such interest to the crowd on the corner.

“Some idiot just crashed a plane into The WorldTradeCenter!”
          Within seconds The Beatles were drowned out by the sound of emergency vehicles' sirens blasting their way through the thoroughfares leading to downtown Manhattan. I quickly turned on the radio. What seemed like a hundred students had gathered around my table to hear the news about the terrible accident that had just taken place downtown. The second plane hit the south tower, and we suddenly realized that this was no accident.
          Within a couple of days, it appeared that Greenwich Village was returning to normal. The musicians and magicians were back in the park, and the students were hurrying to class.
New York City had a new skyline and here were the booksellers. We never left. We couldn't leave. The areas south of Canal St. and north to 14th St. were closed by the NYPD and our drivers couldn't get to us to transport our stands back to our storage units, which were now closed anyway for the next eleven days due to the attack.
          Four days after the terrorist attack, the smoke from Ground Zero reached our area and NYU Security distributed masks to anyone who requested them. Imagine, if you can, the sight of stranded booksellers standing in a row looking like surgeons selling books to pay for their medical educations. After nearly two weeks of being stranded on West 4th St, the campus was beginning to look like a refugee camp. The streets were finally opened with some restrictions, and we were able to leave. After a few days of rest, we returned to ply our trade.
          We never saw Ali again. In his stead was a cheerful old bald headed Romanian guy with his plump wife selling falafels. Who wants falafels for breakfast? We want our coffee and donuts! The career browser was back rearranging my perfect display. As he turned to leave without making a purchase, I called out to him.

“Are you coming back to buy something another day?"

“Yes, I’ll be back another day!" was his reply.

I thought about all those people who had died in the towers. All of those browsers who said they would be back another day. I would tell them, "Get it now; you may miss your chance!"


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