When I moved to the West Village from Alphabet City two years ago, I got lost left and right. It was my Swedish fiancé who convinced me to leave my comfort zone, the easy grid of numbered streets and lettered avenues where I’d spent the last ten years of my life, so we could explore something new. When we moved in together we’d both be moving west—him to a new continent and me to a new neighborhood. Though he transported himself 3,938 miles across an ocean, and I moved only 1.8 miles away across eight avenues, I wasn’t sure who made the more dramatic change.
Seen from above, the West Village is a cracked mirror, a cluster of acute triangles and intersections made of apexes, mixed with bending lanes and meandering mews. This is due to a cholera epidemic in 1811 that kept workers out of the neighborhood while the main grid plan was built in the rest of the city, and then the extension of 7th Avenue South in 1914 splitting the buildings into even smaller triangles. Ironically, we chose an apartment where West 4th crossed West 10th, adding to my confusion.
There are some advantages to being direction-challenged and map-opposed. While walking on backstreets looking for a short cut early on, I found myself standing at Edna St. Vincent Millay’s front door, the same spot she must have stood hundreds of times in a different era. I read the plaque on the brick wall at 75 1/2 Bedford Street, taking in the narrowness of the façade and the stair-stepped gables. One of my favorite poets, I love even the sound of her name, and repeated it aloud several times, thinking of all the other writers, musicians and artists who walked the streets that I now walk.
A few days later, rather than a classic poet, I came across a cult classic. As I was unwinding after a long day, weaving back and forth through the streets of The Village, I came across a tiny storefront tucked in between the chess shops on Thompson Street. The Little Lebowski Shop might be the strangest store I’ve seen, entirely devoted to Big Lebowski merchandise. Handwritten quotes from the movie line the walls and a plastic blow-up doll is suspended in the back of the store; its bright red wig and dominatrix outfit identify it as the Julianne Moore character. I couldn’t resist buying a Lebowski Kit for my husband, complete with a mouse-pad rug, coffee cup and a small plastic toe.
Disoriented on 7th Avenue just below Commerce Street, I came upon the Greenwich Locksmith, with its shiny, swirling mosaic-covered walls which upon closer look, are made entirely of keys. While trying to find the Post Office, I found the House of Cards and Curiosities north of Abingdon Square and The End of History on Hudson with its colorful window display of glass vases. By walking the wrong way, I wandered into the Scandinavian candy store on Christopher and the garden at The Church of St. Luke’s in the Fields. I ended up on the beautiful curve of Morton Street and followed it to find a hidden restaurant, the Hudson Clearwater, where I sat and had a drink.
In early spring, I discovered my own secret spot: the place summer hits first in the West Village, where I often sit and enjoy my morning coffee. There are two old blue folding chairs just outside Small’s Jazz Club that are somehow in the sun most of the day—even though the surrounding stoops are not—leaving them toasty warm. The wind is blocked by the surrounding buildings, creating a sort of vortex, so it feels 10º warmer than any other street all year round. But please don’t tell—I want to continue to get a good seat and enjoy my quiet morning routine.
With its architectural delights, gargoyles looking down from every corner, its tree-lined streets and tiny triangular shops, there is nowhere I’d rather get lost. Now I would never go back to a numbered neighborhood; it’s far more interesting finding the unexpected while living off the grid.