CONTENT NOTE: Death, alcohol
I stayed up until nearly 4:00 AM last night finishing The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin. One of the “perks” of having a broken ankle and being unable to do any parts of my job that aren’t from my phone or a computer is that I can sleep as late as I want, but it has made me into something of a horrible night owl. So when I woke up this morning at a quarter to noon, there were two texts from my best friend that had been there for nearly 3 hours that read:
“So I just found out Michael Seidenberg died? I think last night or over the weekend?”
This is how you find out from friends that celebrities have passed away now, and it is fitting that though Michael was our friend, his death should be communicated in this way. He was, more than anyone I have ever known personally, legendary.
Michael ran an invite only speakeasy bookstore in a rent controlled apartment on the Upper East Side called Brazenhead. There were no windows in Brazenhead, or rather, there were, but they were so obscured by bookshelves that the world outside disappeared entirely, and the place operated on casino time. You would arrive at 9:00 PM on a Saturday night, swearing you would go home early this week, only to find yourself hailing a cab at 4:00 AM with one arm, the other full of books. Opening the door to Brazenhead was like being able to open the pages of a book and walk into it— it was Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore crossed with Shakespeare’s Boar’s Head Tavern, with Michael as Falstaff with none of the bad qualities. He never robbed us of anything but time, and we were happy to turn around and pay him for the pleasure of it as each night inched toward dawn.
Though his eyes always glittered like a mischievous boy’s, he wasn’t young when I met him, and his vices, though neither extreme in their type nor excessive in their indulgence, were consistent. Still, because I never saw him outside of the entire world he built within those book lined walls, he just seemed eternal. A minor deity, perhaps the offspring of Dionysus and Thalia, but immortal all the same. He was so much a character, in the sense that he was too wonderful to be real, to be something so banal as mortal.
Some of the patrons came bearing libations of red wine or Tullamore Dew, but left without buying any books. They were only there for the conversation, to listen to Michael deliver his often blue opinions on art and literature with puckish nonchalance, or tell stories about the mythical old New York we never got to see. Some only came for the books. The dancers he called the Bulkagov Ballerinas had always scooped up the best Russian literature just before I could get to it, quietly making their selections, paying, and then walking out as if it were any other bookstore.
Most of us came for both. I usually spent five or six hours systematically browsing a section or three that had caught my eye that evening— one week might be books on New York, fantasy and sci-fi, and the two or three shelves of books categorized together only because they all had cover illustrations by Edward Gorey. I kept my eyes on the shelves, all the while listening to the tennis match of clever quips volleyed between the dozen or so writers who were always present, and I’d even throw out my own from time to time. “I love the way you browse,” Michael said to me one night as I was sifting through every book piled to my eye level in a corner between two floor to ceiling bookcases. “Most people just come here to see and be seen, and the books are incidental for them. You are a real browser.” I have carried that compliment with a feeling of superiority ever since, a medal pinned to my heart.
My friends and I would usually arrive early enough that only one or two people were already there chatting with Michael in the room that opened directly off of the door, but soon the room would be packed nearly shoulder to shoulder with nowhere to sit and little space to browse. We would retreat to the back room that housed all the first editions, as well as a torturously uncomfortable settee and a handful of unmatched stools and chairs. Bathed in the warm light of a single lamp, the first editions room was intimate enough for wanton flirting, semi-private enough to cry openly over a recent heartbreak, but also just large enough to hold court for visiting friends we held in high enough esteem to share our most precious secret with them. Sean made up a game of finding the most expensive first edition, and he has always held the record for a $1,500 copy of Catch-22. I suppose, now, his record will never be defeated.
As the rest of the customers, and I use that designation rather liberally, filtered out, we would emerge back into the light of the main rooms, able at last to have the shelves and Michael all to ourselves.
There are so many memories I have there. Some are sad— the night Michael opened just for Poncho, Helena, and me when the three of us were desolate over relationships ending or never quite started, and spent the evening reading the saddest poems we could find aloud to one another. With just the three of us there, Michael didn’t feel the need to perform his usual role as ringleader for a circus of misfits. Perched above us on a metal stool of the type you see in municipal libraries, he listened with empathy, and, of course, prescribed books that assured us we were not alone in our particular despair. It is the only time I can ever recall seeing him sit down.
Most of my memories of Brazenhead are ecstatic— all of the times Helena and I roped someone new into our playful argument over whether the paleontologists in Jurassic Park would have already heard of chaos theory before Ian Malcolm told them; the time I recited the entirety of “The Walrus and the Carpenter” from memory and made Sean fall in love with me; the surprise 30th birthday party that Thomas and I organized there for Helena; the night a dear friend from my hometown was visiting, and I went hoarse from screaming crying laughter, my mascara smeared all the way down to my collarbone. Most of the details of that last one would be so “you had to be there” as to be inaccessible, but what I will say is that it was the first time I had seen Sean in a few weeks, after we had broken up about a month and a half earlier. That we could comfortably share such a gleeful and hilarious night was the entire reason I believed we could give being friends a chance… which ultimately, and very quickly, led to us getting back together.
Which means my marriage quite literally exists because of Michael.
At the end of every night, as we checked our phone screens in shock to find that what had felt like an hour was really six or seven, we would comb through the books we had chosen to decide which we couldn’t bear to leave behind. More often than not, at least one we had pulled off the shelf to ask someone if they had read it; if they hadn’t, we insisted on buying it for them, scribbling an effusive inscription on the fly leaf right then and there, below the price in pencil in Michael’s precise hand. Taking turns, we would hand them to Michael who would flip through the covers, add up the amounts from what he had written, and then give us a number distinctly less than what the total should have been.
We always bargained upwards and wouldn’t accept any change.