BY MICHELE HERMAN | Our son the architect casually offers us a prize if we can identify the smoky, shadowy New York City street corner in an old Tom Waits music video. In it, Waits leans against a narrow column in front of an old building and sings, in his croupy but oddly alluring voice, “Downtown Train” while appearing to be dancing, or having convulsions. The camera zooms in on the people who live upstairs — an old Italian couple, a black boxer, a man in bed wearing a blindfold, a woman in an extremely pointy bra, all tormented by the noise.
I watch the video over and over. I get to know the details. The fluted column set atop two steps above the sidewalk. The cobblestone street. The dark horizontal strip at the top of the first story on the building facade, which may or may not be light brick. Across the street: a murky building with arches within arches on the ground floor and some kind of large awning, each detail impossible to nail down.
Before even venturing out, I guess: Automatic Slims at the corner of Bank and Washington? My son says, good try. I go out on a rainy Sunday afternoon and circumnavigate the Village, where I’ve lived forever. I find a couple of corner buildings with a fluted column and, of course, many cobblestoned streets, but I don’t find the two together, and I don’t find anything resembling the big murky building across the street.
I e-mail my son. Before I drive myself mad criss-crossing the Village streets, I write: Is it even in the Village? No, he says. My instincts are pointing me toward Tribeca, I say. Your instincts are good, he replies. He works in Tribeca. He says (making me happy), I must be your son because I drove myself nuts too before I found it.
On a sunny Saturday I head down to Tribeca on my bike. When I get there, I realize I don’t really know the boundaries of Tribeca: Is it the entire triangle of Manhattan below Canal down to the Battery, or is it just what I generally think of as Tribeca: the Lower West Side with its gorgeous Romanesque Revival red-brick buildings? I don’t have a smartphone, so I have no idea.
I try to be systematic. I can’t head south on Washington, because it’s been roughed up in preparation for fresh paving. Besides, it’s my regular running route; surely I would know if there’s a corner building with a column. Instead I head south on Seventh, which turns into Varick and then West Broadway.
This is feeling promising: many small, old buildings of the sort that might be propped up at the corner with a fluted column. My hope rises as I approach each corner: All I need is a column and cobblestones. Once I find those, surely the murky building across the street will present itself and come into focus. I find one fluted column, but it’s flush against the sidewalk, no steps.
My system breaks down quickly with the one-ways and the odd bits of street that branch off. I take a turn and make a mental note that I instantly forget. I’m not sure if I should head down to the Battery or head back Uptown. I know that Greenwich and Washington Street both change directions. I know that Washington disappears at Hubert, but that little pockets of it reappear here and there, discontinuous, farther Downtown, requiring a lot of zigzagging.
I head north on Church. No columns. I go over to Greenwich. I keep forgetting where I’ve turned and find myself back on the same bumpy cobblestone blocks, miserable on a road bike. On Hudson Street I find a building with two steps and a column, but the column is all wrong. I find a building with arched doorways and an awning — close, but no fluted cigar. I come upon two alleyways and get my hopes up. One has a column, but it’s propped on one step, not two. In the end I ride home up Hudson, extremely frustrated.
Next day I realize I missed a pocket of cross streets off Broadway, so I head out again. For some reason I’ve convinced myself that Lispenard will be the one. It’s not. I do find another alley, one I didn’t know existed: Franklin Place, perpendicular to Franklin Street. Its cobblestones make Greenwich feel like oak parquet, but I endure from one end to the other, because I’m all about obscure street corners. I ride home up Hudson, extremely frustrated.
I realize I can do my detective work at home on the computer, with Google Maps Street View. But there are only so many corners to click on the map of Tribeca, and I’ve biked past every one two or three times by now.
I often think about the different degrees of minor daily frustration we humans are willing to tolerate before we give up on whatever silly thing we’re trying to accomplish, and fling all the puzzle pieces off the card table in a huff. Tom Waits’s soulful growl works its way deep into my kishkes as I watch the video over and over, now able to advance it to the exact spots in which the street corner appears. Even my city-obsessed husband, who’s been known to offer a prize to anyone who can answer one of his questions about obscure New York monuments, keeps asking me why I don’t just ask our son where it is.
Because — I say, like a toddler — I want to solve it for myself. It’s about dissonance and resolution, which I’m learning about in my piano lessons. I’m spending way too much time seeking resolution by plunking my little map avatar on street corners and then rotating Google Street Views 360 degrees in the unlikely event that I missed a column in person.
Then one morning, having eliminated the impossible, I review the improbable, a la Sherlock Holmes. There was one candidate that came close at the corner of Beach Street and the little-known two-block alley called Collister Street, near an old American Express stable that still stands in all its red-brick glory.
My candidate has a fatal flaw: The fluted column sits on a single step, not the two that appear in the video. But everything else checks out: the dark fascia (horizontal strip) on the side of the building, the cobblestone street, and the very specific and unusual details (small ground-floor arches set within larger arches) of the murky building across the street. One other essential feature in the video that I’ve somehow neglected to focus on also checks out: The corner is a T-intersection and not a through street.
My dissonance eases a bit. Now that I have an address I can type in, I do an image search for Beach+Collister. Bingo. I find an old photo from before the sidewalk was raised, back when there were two steps below the base of the column. Sweet resolution. A ding, ding, ding from my son, along with an admission that it took him a very long time to find it himself, especially considering that his Tribeca office gets its pizza from a pizzeria located in the very same building.
All is well in my small corner of the world.
If you’ve read this far, here’s your prize: the video of Tom Waits’s “Downtrain Train.”