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The Human Touch

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Early one morning this week I was standing at the southwest corner of Twenty-third street and Second avenue, waiting for the bus that takes me to the office, and thinking of nothing. My mind was in that pleasant daze which it achieves rarely enough to be news. I wasn’t even thinking of the subject matter of my next column And while I was standing there, with my mind so pleasantly empty of all thoughts and concerns, an automobile—not the bus I was waiting for—halted and a pleasant young woman poked out #her head and asked: “Can you tell us where the brass shops are, Mister?”

Thus rudely jostled, I asked, querulously, “Brass shops?” as if brass shops were the last thing I could be expected to think of, as indeed they were. Had the can been filled with old men wearing iron grey beards and women with scheitels beneath their shawls, I would have guessed at once that they mean shops somewhere on the East Side. But this car was filled with blonde and bland young women, dressed neatly but not gaudily, four or five of them, looking like graduates from some Middle Western college having a cultural spree in New York. If my young questioner had asked the way to the Aquarium or Grant’s Tomb I would have been less puzzled. For the rude shake-up they gave my state of mind they might just as well have asked me where they could find a good kosher delicatessen, which question I was asked on Fifth avenue more than a year ago by a southbound auto-load of out-of-town Jews.


After I said “brass shops?” thus querulously I gained grasp of the simple situation. They meant the brass shops on Allen street and perhaps among those Middle Western girls there was a bride who was going to bring home some brass fixings for the house, or a curio-seeker, or a brass collector someone who, in the Middle, or Far West had been told of New York’s brass shops on the East Side, and was given no more specific direction than that.

It wasn’t much to ask of me, and yet I failed those strangers. For the thirty-five seconds during which I was trying to orient myself I failed to think of Allen street in relation to brass shops and to relate Allen street to Twenty-third street and Second avenue. But I did not fail them completely. I directed them to ride down Second avenue until they reached First street, at which point, I assured them, someone would be sure to put them on the right road. It was only when I saw the can speeding away and my bus approaching that the lost name of Allen street came to mind and then I visualized Allen street and its brass shops as south of Houston and east of Eldridge. I consoled myself for my dereliction by pointing out to myself that I had brought them at least twenty-three blocks closer to their goal and by the reflection that had they struck any one of the five hundred other denizens of the Twenty-third street sector, the auto-load of brass shop seekers would have been completely misdirected, if directed at all.

It peeved me that. I couldn’t think of Allen street right off, and you needn’t bother to give me any of your Freudian explanations because I know them. Allen street was the first street in the New World in which I lived when, as a mite of four or five, I came off the boat. Yes, I too was once a mite. But between the comparatively narrow space separating Allen from the extension of Chrystie street that is Second avenue have intruded East Bronx and West Bronx, Harlem and Fifth avenue, Oklahoma and Europe and many points in between. And that is why I could not think of Allen street when the young female Nordic said “brass hops” to me.


But it wasn’t because I had lived on Allen street in my childhood and had even attended Cheder there that I should have answered “Allen street” when someone asked “brass shops?” When we moved off Allen street and onto Norfolk or Suffolk street, which was our second residence in the New World, I was utterly innocent of the knowledge of brass shops, on Allen street, or anywhere else.

I should have made the connection between the two ideas because, when I returned to Allen street as a more or less grown person, some time in 1921, I returned to it to buy brass in its brass shops. We spent a morning walking up and down flights of stoop stairs, looking at and selecting objects of brass. I took almost no part in the selecting, or in the rejecting, in the dickering or in the final purchases, when those purchases were made, for what is one to do when one’s wife has impeccable taste and knows more about bargaining than you can learn in a month of Sundays? And we carried off from Allen street that day two sturdy candlesticks of a design most original and two brass flower pots, of which, after more than a decade, we still possess the candlesticks and one of the pots. I have seen the candlesticks a thousand times and never once thought of Allen street in connection with them, but now, after that strange query about brass shops, Allen street will be like an invisible tag upon them.

Next time, I promise you, no auto-load or hay wagon-load or Fifth avenue bus-load of out-of-town curio seekers will find me at a loss to do the honors of the brass shop district. But in all likelihood the next time any one asks me for the way to some point of interest, that point of interest will be the nearest airport, or where they can buy a hookah. But they won’t stump me if they ask where they can get a bride’s outfit, for I wait for the homegoing bus at the exact western point of the bridal shop district on Grand street. Want to buy a duck?


The second word looked up in the fat New Oxford dictionary acquired recently by trade was poignant. Someone used the word in reference to a man’s intelligence, as a sharp, pointed intelligence. I asserted that he was misusing the word; that poignant had the sense of pathetic, as a poignant story would be a heart-rending story. A third person said, “Let’s look it up in the dictionary,” and we discovered that poignant does have the meaning of sharp and pointed, in addition to its literary meaning. That dictionary is going to be worth its place on the bookshelves, at this rate. . . . I have learned that the most controversial column I have yet written was the one that appeared two Sundays ago, the one casting doubt on the existence of Yiddish literature. The Yiddishists are still mad at me.

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