By Pago Habitans*
I was standing on the east side of Seventh Avenue at Sheridan Square, waiting to cross west, when a couple of tourists got my attention. They were consulting cell phones, examining street signs, studying a map, and they looked perplexed—bewildered by the intersection of so many streets at such odd angles.
When I offered my help they were like survivors of the Titanic seeing the Carpathian on the horizon. Giving them directions to Little Island, I saw my friend Brother Ben approaching. He waved a hello, but the couple apparently didn’t see him.
“I hope you sent them up West 4th Street,” said Ben, who’s been around the Village a long time and takes an interest in all sorts of people, both living and dead, fleshy as well as fictional.
“No,” I answered, “I thought it was least confusing to send them down Christopher Street,” to which Ben responded, “But you’ve deprived them of the Mystery of West 4th Street.”
“And what Mystery would that be?” I asked.
Instead of a direct reply, Ben recited a bit of doggerel:
East is East
And West is West,
Though sometimes West goes north.
If you doubt that’s true
I’ll meet up with you
At the corner of West 10th and West 4th.
As we began walking up West 4th Street, Ben observed, “It used to be called Asylum Street.”
Ben continued: “West 4th Street, of course. This section of West 4th used to be named for an orphans’ asylum between Bank Street and what is now West 12th Street. Long after the building was demolished and the street renamed, they still sang a song in Village saloons:
Wee Charlie cries himself to sleep
And prays that God his soul will keep
In hopes that he will see once more
His mother dear walk through the door.
Ben often sings songs and ditties as they occur to him in our conversations. He has a mellow baritone voice, so it’s a pity most people can’t hear him.
He continued his story. “It remains a mystery exactly why the City chose to change its name to West 4th Street, as that street clearly angles north in the West Village. Of course, in the early days there were no numbered streets west of Greenwich Avenue. Tenth Street was Amos back then; Eleventh Street was Hammond, and Twelfth Street was Troy.”
We stopped to consider where the Asylum had stood.
“Come to think of it,” said Ben, “the idea of an orphanage in the neighborhood is why this part of West 4th Street interests me. It speaks to the historic values of the Village. When it was Asylum Street it sheltered orphaned children. Since then the Village has been a shelter for all sorts of older orphans who leave home to find their place in the world.”
“West 4th Street defies the rigid order of New York’s numbered streets. And a questing, creative life is like that. Sometimes we must go against the grain, break patterns, question customs, and look at life from a different angle—as Emily Dickinson appreciated when she wrote, ‘Tell all the truth, but tell it slant’. The Mystery—no, the Manifesto!—of West 4th Street is that it slants!” And off he went to look for souls who might be lost and in need of directions.
*Village Resident otherwise known as T. P. Miller