Love in the Time of Irony: A Neon Heart Beats on in a Home for NYC Wanderers - Atlas Obscura
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Love in the Time of Irony: A Neon Heart Beats on in a Home for NYC Wanderers

article-imageAnthony Pisano’s doorstep, February 2014 (all photographs by the author unless indicated)

There is something so alluring about 102 E 7th Street in Manhattan’s East Village that even in the dead of winter, as I lurk the sidewalks nearby, a couple of young women can’t resist stopping to consider its doorstep, try the knob, and peer into it’s salt-dusted window panes.

I’ve come back to this familiar street scene in the snow, four years after I first crossed the hearth of this peculiar storefront, seeking the glow of the warm red neon heart that first beckoned me with this declaration: “It’s Time.” But while this beautiful broadcast still exists vividly in my memories of New York, sadly, the bulbs are cold, and the storefront here is pale and shadowed.

article-imageThe neon heart in 2010

I tell the women reaching out hesitantly to touch a plane propeller decking the front door to keep coming back. “Anthony Pisano lives here. This is his apartment. But he lets you walk right in and it’s magical.” I know I sound crazy. But one of the owmen smiles and says, “Thank you, I will!”

I know he’s still here, I’ve gotten at least this much from the vaguely obliging woman who lives next door and from inquiring in all the surrounding restaurants and shops. “I haven’t seen him in a few weeks,” says one clerk, and my heart sinks. For years, I’d wanted to come back to this place of personal New York mythology, to revisit a story I’ve told delightedly many times to people in all corners of the world outside this City to most effectively illustrate what it is I love so much about New York. And the story goes like this:

article-image2012 photo of Anthony Pisano, courtesy Marty Wombacher; 2014 photograph of the front door

One evening as it was getting cold, I was walking up and down every block of the East Village because I couldn’t stop exploring (even though I didn’t have enough cash to imbibe, shop, or loiter anywhere long enough to recover my swollen feet). I had come to feel at home, even constantly moving, so long as I was on the outskirts of Alphabet City and Tompkins Square Park. And it was there, on 7th St between Avenue A and First Avenue, that I saw the neon heart and heard music coming from within. And mixed in was a conversation, low and jovial and thickly New York accented, two men sharing memories or jokes.

Suddenly, they were looking at me. I had stepped over the doorstep and was standing inside either the most authentically curated throw-back of an oddities shop or quite possibly someone’s bedroom. Turns out, it was both.

“Hi there, come in!” Anthony Pisano greeted me immediately with such a pleasant gleam in his eye, I didn’t second guess that I was walking into a place meant to be shared. He asked me right off: “Are you a musician?” I said I was and how did he know? He said he could just tell and gestured deeper into the apartment, where I saw a big, old grand piano. Just beautiful. A neighborhood friend was leaning leisurely against it and a comfortable house cat lounged there too, eyeing me indifferently. “I’m a musician,” Anthony said, “and I’ve recorded many musicians here over the years. Sit down and play us something!”

article-imageA cuckoo clock and the piano in the shop (courtesy Marty Wombacher)

I had moved to New York months earlier to pursue music, not that anyone would know it. I’d stopped playing. In the tradition of starving artists, I’d had to sell my beloved instrument to buy things like bulk ramen noodles, weekly metro cards, and “casual business attire” for job interviews. It was a simple request to play this beautiful old piano, but no one had asked me to play anything since I’d arrived in New York. This was the first and only time that year and I teared up a little with the weight of it, but obliged. Anthony readied his big, old recording equipment, and I sat down to that well-loved piano and played a song that, to this day, only Anthony and his friend and his cat have heard and that I couldn’t recall now if I tried.

I’ve since moved out of the New York City and live in the Midwest, where people have a somewhat outdated perception of the city and seem surprised to hear a story like this. So, they might ask, he turns out to be a schizophrenic, right? Or asks you to do a smutty film? No. Anthony is a native New York gentleman with a big heart and an undeniable charm. Just ask anyone who knows him from the neighborhood, or ask any one of the hundreds of people, like me, who have looked up from their wandering and suddenly fallen in love with his vibe.

Anthony has been living in this storefront residence for 34 years, but in the last couple of years, he’s received some long-overdue recognition, with the making of a 2012 documentary short film called This Is My Home and media coverage by everyone from New York magazine to Business Insider. His residence even has a listing on Foursquare. And when I first discovered this new wave of fans, I was jealous. Like a discovery I’d considered very much my own over the years, there was a pang in knowing that the secret was out. I half expected a small crowd when I arrived to his doorstep this time around. But the street was quiet. And as I stood there washed in memory, people hurried by.

As the winter day starts to fade, it seems as if I’ll leave with only the story I came with, which I recount to my friend Marc when he joins me outside Anthony’s door. Before we leave to find a warm place to catch up, however, I take my plane ticket out of my purse and turn it over. I draw a heart just like the one on the window pane and I write: “Dear Mr. Pisano. My name is Shannon. I was here four years ago and I’ll never forget that day. I’d love to talk with you again. Wishing you all the best.” And I add my phone number. An hour later, Marc and I are sitting just around the corner in the Odessa cafe on Avenue A, and I answer an unknown number hopefully:

“Shannon? This is Anthony! I got home and noticed a piece of paper on the floor. Dear, you drew a heart there and it touched mine. Thank you so much. Four years, my god, you deserve an award! So tell me who you are, I wish I could place you! You sound very pretty….”

And this is where we reconnect. I finally get to impart to him how important that moment of connection was for me in a very difficult time. And because Anthony inspires this curiosity and joie de vivre in so many all year round, I tell him I believe Seventh street between First and Ave A must be the most serendipitous block in the world.

“The kids with the music in their ears, “ Anthony says, “they don’t always notice. You’re special, you’re different, you’re kind, because you wanted to know…” He explains that his store is for the ones who wander in, the ones that possess the curiosity and the willingness to engage another human being they’ve never met before and share some time. And as his neon sign urges, “It’s Time” for that, indeed.

“I believe this is a lucky place,” he says to me over the phone as I stare at my pierogis and smile into space. He further illustrates this with a story about a pretty and forlorn-looking pair of red headed dolls holding an envelope I had noticed earlier in his storefront window. He tells me of the woman who made them, a frequent visitor who had come into Anthony’s home one day distraught over losing everything — her apartment, her job, her lover — but had still come in especially to bestow twin dolls she had made for his eclectic window display. Anthony loved them and put them up right away. He’s often given tokens, totems, gifts, and oddities and delights in exchanging items with others.

article-imageA fish tank in the storefront (courtesy Marty Wombacher); a still from “This Is My Home”

“Nothing is for sale here, nothing,” he pauses in the story to reiterate. “It’s very important people know that.” But when the dolls were placed in the window, two very well dressed men stopped and inquired inside: Who made them? Where did they come from and how could they be purchased? Loving a good mystery, Anthony didn’t say much at first. He instructed them to open the envelope in the dolls’ hands. The gentlemen did and inside they found a hand scrawled name card with the doll creator’s contact information. He gifted the two men this card. And that very night, as he was turning off the neon and calling it a night, the woman came running into the storefront, ecstatic, exclaiming she’d just been offered a contract by fancy toy makers and that she’d be making and selling three hundred dolls right away.

As Anthony tells this story so enthusiastically, lingering on details, I can almost see inside the shop in my mind’s eye. It’s as if he has taken the story down from a high shelf and is handing it to me to hold and examine for a moment. Stories like these, he says, are what gives him light and life. “And that you remembered me after four years! And that you drew the heart. Because this is all for you and people like you who understand it.”

Anthony is headed upstate to tend to an ailing brother, so we don’t meet in person this time around. But a few days later, Anthony and I talk over the phone again. And I ask him if people have always “gotten it,” his open door policy and his neon love. After all, the neighborhood looked a lot different 34 years ago.

“The neighborhood was the same… the buildings, the cellars, the houses the doorsteps still remain. The change was a transition of people, the way people lived at that time, it was so different. When I got here in the beginning, there was mostly drug addicts that lived in the area. Nobody wanted to live here that had any decency. Drugs and burglars and what have you… a lot of squatters living in halls and basements. I never had that feeling of being in danger although I lived within it. Everything that surrounded me was off base but I never felt threat.”

His response to all the chaos around him? Create beautiful, colorful, and clean chaos inside of it. What Pisano found was a living, breathing neighborhood. And he knew this environment could nurture something positive, even while it fed something darker in it’s underbelly. So he circled off his doorstep with brightly colored chalk and threw open the door, letting music seep out into the summer nights, while most people were putting metal gates on their windows and boarding up their doors.

“[My place] was all boarded with metal gates. I removed that. I thought possibly, maybe if I did that, maybe other owners would tear down their metal doors and window bars and people would be less afraid and maybe the whole neighborhood would change. If you’re taking care of something, caring for your neighborhood, then show people you’re not afraid to live there. I decided to take everything down that was Fort Knox, you know. One or two store owners did the same. We got together to talk about what the neighborhood could be. It proved to be beneficial.”

And the music that drew me in to meet Anthony in the first place? Turns out that music has been pouring out since the beginning, part of Pisano’s beautification strategy and part of his essence. He himself is a jazz musician and plays trumpet, a likeness of which is in, what else, neon on the front window pane.

As for what else is inside of that mysterious shop of nothing for sale, the collection changes, but there are some statement pieces, as documented in this great blog entry by writer Marty Wombacher. I remember an imposing, mesmerizing aquatic tank and many old instruments. Marty and I have made plans to share our respective experiences some night over coffee, as we coincidentally both moved back to our hometown — Peoria, Illinois. I wonder if Anthony realizes the web of connections that start at his doorstep?

When we say goodnight, Anthony makes certain I know I am always welcome at his home. “This is all for you,” he says, and I know he means us — the wanderers, the endlessly fascinated and curious, those of us holding out and digging deeper here or there for new evidence that something mysterious has survived the over-saturated and exhaustingly meta-internet culture we live and breathe daily — we that know instinctively something magical has somehow escaped contemporary irony and cynicism.

If this is you too and you’re in the New York metro area as Valentine’s Day approaches, can I ask a favor? Take the F train to 2nd Ave with a Valentine addressed to Anthony Pisano. Slip it in the mail slot of 102 East 7th Street, if that neon heart is still cool and the windows still dark, and just let him know we’re out there. And as the weather warms up, drop by again to experience your own personal NYC moment of magic. It’s time.