I’ve been to New York City before. But just because you’ve gone once, twice, or even twenty times, it doesn’t mean you’ve been to New York City. Every single trip I’ve taken has been entirely different from the last, and that’s because this urban jungle lends itself to everything from serendipitous encounters to the inexplicably bizarre–the kind of magical realism you can only hope to encounter in a Gabriel Garcia Lorca novel.
Joe and I saw this clip on Louie CK one night. We immediately decided we had to go. (Well, we decided immediately but didn’t really get around to doing it until 3 months later.) The episode (Season 3, Episode 4) is a love poem to New York told through a lens tinged with melancholy and nostalgia, thanks to the tactful eye of Susan E. Morse, Woody Allen’s go-to editor. Among so many other things in Manhattan, the episode features Russ & Daughters, an appetizing store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
The word “appetizer” comes from the Latin word appete, which means “to desire.” At Russ & Daughters, one can very easily deduce its colloquial meaning: “the foods one eats with bagels.” Even further, there simply isn’t a better word to describe what you feel upon entering the store. It’s as much a feast for the eyes as it is for the belly. We ordered almost everything you can see in the clip: pickled herring, bagels with lox, and the chocolate babka. (It was all mind blowing.)
…And then there was the Birdman. Maybe you’ve heard of him. We definitely hadn’t before last night. But let me back up a bit.
After dinner, I had a specific musical craving for Black Sabbath (you know, to wash down the pickled herring.) Naturally, Joe and I wandered into the nearest record store that we could find–Rainbow Music.
Imagine, if you will, a pack rat’s paradise. A sizeable space made small by tons and tons of stuff. In this case, it was music. We squeeze into a narrow aisle of CDs stacked up to eye level–and then some. There’s barely enough room to walk through it face forward; you have to sidestep your way through to browse the CD titles. A short, older man approaches us and asks us what we’re looking for. Although I have no idea how, he knew exactly where the Black Sabbath CDs were and pulled them for us within seconds.
“They call me the Birdman,” he says, without us asking. “They made a documentary a few years back. It won some awards. People come in here asking me for pictures and stuff.” At this point, I’m hooked. There was no question that  we would stay and chat and  we would buy something. Talk about sales strategy.
The Birdman, a 73-year old Wall Street veteran who speaks with a thick New York accent, runs Rainbow Music as a sort of passion project. Having cashed out on his hedge funds long ago, he says the store isn’t about the money. (I asked him for any helpful trading tips, but like any good poker player, he kept his cards close to his chest. However, he did let slip his endorsement for pharmaceuticals and food stocks.) Despite not actively researching what’s trending these days, he’s managed to intuit what “the kids” are listening to. In the organized mess of an inventory, I spotted Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Miles Davis, Janis Joplin, Joan Jett, Michael Jackson, Frank Zappa within easy reach. Somehow, he even pinned me for a Django Reinhardt fan within two minutes.
(I realize that the organization of the CDs could probably just come from people sorting through them and setting them down closer to the front of the stacks. For my own purposes, I may just stick with my theory that he’s a musical clairvoyant.)
“This is all going away next month,” he tells us while ringing up our CDs (by hand and on paper, no less). I can’t tell whether there’s sadness in his voice or if I just imagined it. “We’re moving all of it to the Internet. You sell things a lot faster there.” We learn that the building landlord is leasing the store space out for something else, so the Birdman’s son is going to help open an online store–even though he doesn’t currently own a computer. They’ve been there for 14 years.
After stepping back out into the litany of Manhattan on a Friday night, it’s hard to tell whether being in the store was like stepping back in time or if it was just a crude affirmation of the current times. Even though Lower East Side counterculture warrants the existence and perpetuation of vintage music stores like Rainbow, the Birdman has decided to resign from a brick-and-mortar setup to sell his stuff using digital means. I can’t imagine the buying experience being the same without meeting the Birdman face to face, and goodness knows I wouldn’t have paid $23 for a used CD if he hadn’t chatted us up.
Joe and I drove back to Boston blasting Black Sabbath, full of good food and good stories. I know that the next time I trek to New York, it’ll be completely different and probably even stranger than the last. I can’t wait.