Ben Katchor


           11:00 a.m. Crossing the street to the hardware store for light bulbs, I am struck by a familiar smell. As a frequent visitor to the Upper West Side, during the months spent looking for an apartment, I began to associate this particular fragrance with Broadway. I thought it was some popular brand of perfume mixed with the scent of the fruit and cut flowers sold on the street. It took me several months to isolate the smell, and now I know that it’s the smell of dry cleaning. On almost every block, from 72nd Street to 116th Street, there’s a dry cleaner and all boast that their work is done on the premises. Learning of the deadly nature of the fumes released by this chemical process has made the fragrance all the more titillating; I think of expensive wine stains on impossibly delicate fabric and of the fragility of life. In the rest of the country, it’s illegal to operate a dry-cleaning machine in a residential building–on the Upper West Side, it’s a necessity. The machines in many of these stores are new Italian models, with names like Razzioni and Feodora–I haven’t seen a French dry cleaner for fifteen years. The motorized racks which hold the cleaned garments cover the ceilings of these stores and are always filled to capacity. The dry cleaner closest to me has a computerized retrieval system.      11:15 a.m. To avoid returning to work, I walk to the post office. Having moved uptown, I changed my P.O. box from Church Street Station to Cathedral Station. Will I ever again run into the elderly black man whose job it is to collect the mail returned from SROs to the post office? He approaches the pick-up window and presents the clerk with a document, laminated in plastic, which attests to his authority. When the clerk refuses to release a certain party’s mail, the elderly man reprimands him in an elegant, almost 19th-century form of speech. “My fine young man, you may not understand who I am and what I am doing here today. …”      8:30 p.m. Shopping at the Associated supermarket. I do not understand how it is arranged that only certain brands of milk are sold in each neighborhood, but the milk most commonly available around here comes in a package I find so painful to look at that I cannot bring myself to buy it. On the front is a large, insensitive drawing of a cow’s head, surrounded by a noose of brown rope. The background of the entire carton is covered with a close to life-sized, black-and-white representation of cow hide. On 2% milk the lettering is in purple.