By September 19th the heat in New York is truly intense. The humidity has grown from damp hairline sweat to aggressive hot rain that always finds a way under your umbrella. Without a dramatic storm to cut through it all, the air is heavy like a wet towel. Because of this and more, I feel restless and easily teary.
So I take myself to Strand books. What I really want is a sofa to sink into and hold me while I leaf through a pile of paperbacks. But of course bookstores can’t have inviting sofas. They’d be much too tempting for loiterers. I’m a loiterer!
I buy three books (all, in degrees, about big cities and learning to know yourself. Themes I will maybe, at some point grow out of) and two pairs of socks (Botticelli’s Venus! The Statue of Liberty!) and feel that some new sense of purpose. I’m also aware that spending $50 in order to feel better about yourself is not a sustainable solution.
Still, I walk down to Washington Square Park, where the mist from the fountains dampens passerbys several feet away. I watch the biggest St Bernard I have ever seen. It’s the size of a small car, sitting with a view over the knock-off Arc de Triomph. A dog it would be a true delight to grow up with, to ride on it's back and cling onto it's brown mane. What a childhood, to surrender yourself again and again to that pet on the floor, giggling NO! as it snuffles and licks at your face. To grimace as it shakes a walks worth of rainwater (and whatever else) onto you. To be fiercely protective when your friends try to clamber onto his back, to show them how to mount him the right way, more carefully than you are in the habit of doing. To experience the raw depths of pet-heartbreak long before the end of a romantic human relationship. I fantasise about all of those things, but am free to walk away without a dog companion. I can browse suede tasseled skirts at the nearby vintage shop without having to ask my St Bernard if he’s okay to wait outside.
Another way to counteract restless is, I figure, to go to Sephora and have somebody put makeup on me. The heat melted what I’d put on my face in the morning, and having a stranger tilting my chin gently and saying “look up” would hit the spot. I think, after spending a lot of time alone, I want to be seen. Even if that's by somebody fetching me glitter rollers at Sephora.
Plus there’s the matter of sheet masks. I want to buy them for me, and for Simran who has been waylaid at Toronto airport for 28 hours. A sheet mask with a girlfriend is a calming activity and one I never do as much as I’d like. I think of Amy Sedaris talking about doing masks with her friends when they come over, like it’s the most casual thing. A cut off pair of tights holding back a fringe, a white wet balaclava accompanying gossip.
Sephora is not meant to be though. Because Thompson Chemists pulls me in with it’s primary green front. It looks like a place that might contain answers. Answers in the form of tangible ailments but also in herbal smelling pots of cream that can smooth things out in the short term. I have a certain tolerance of quackery when it smells good.
Of course it all comes down to nostalgia. Nostalgia may not be cool, but it is comforting. This pharmacy triggers a retrospective longing for herbal smelling Grandparents. It smells like being small and being allowed to scoop grains from deep buckets in health food shops that smell of oats, spice and Ecover washing liquid.
This is what I think of when I smell the olive oil and peppermint soaps wrapped in a fern leaf adorned package. That, and, for some reason damp fronds on a drive through the Pacific Northwest in a Volvo 740 Estate with Stewart Brand in the back seat. Something – clearly – I have never done. But all the same, associations that any of this old-style packaging triggers in me. 1970s wellness before Instagram and marble backdrops and paying three times the price for social capital. Woody Harrellson wellness! Hemp, commitment, bio-diesel travel.
Thompson Chemist has it all. Janeke toothbrushes in gold, chrome and faux horn. Mason Pearson brushes for ponyish hair. At the counter are Altoids, tempting kazoos and bouncing balls. A collection of natural sponges asking to be doused in water and squeezed over a soapy back. The shop is small, and everything has a place. Floor to ceiling shelves holding bottles, answers. An ode to storage solutions, if nothing else.
An expansive pharmacy with more than one floor is exciting. You can browse hair dryers and get your eyes tested in the same trip. But it’s easier to walk in and forget what you wanted. Here you can buy bouncy balls!
“Let me know if you have any questions,” the woman says. And of course I do, because isn’t that the whole point of a place like this? To find answers, you just have to speak to people. They don’t have sheet masks but they do have all these clay masks in pots and she’s tried them all.
A man walks into the shop and he has questions too. Head lice kits? He looks like an older Dad, who might be raising his second family. It looks like the head lice situation is tiring him out. The woman finds a kit from the around the back, with all of these bottles packed in a big clear zip-up bag. It looks like a jet pack. Maybe it even has straps – I can’t quite see – but that would be cool. To get this groovy, see-through rucksack to wear to school with your new Tea Tree smelling hair.
“That’ll get rid of them!” I say, while I wait to pay for this stick of Baxter’s – the final chance I’m giving to the natural deodorant cause. He smiles at me and shakes his head, mumbling something like finally. He drops a note of paper and I go to pick it up for him but he waves me away. I feel bad about rushing to pick it up, like he was too old to do that himself. Sometimes you offer your seat on public transport to somebody with white hair and they’re like I’m not old, child. Maybe back at home he’d sit with his son or daughter between his legs and run a small comb through their hair in front of the television. Maybe there’d be a St Bernard sprawled nearby!
I pay for my olive soap and my deodorant, and then a last minute bottle of Thayer’s peach and witch hazel astringent. Something probably quite mundane to anyone familiar with the American drugstore but charming to me in the same way as Arm and Hammer toothpaste, or Smith's Rosebud Salve.
I leave armed with a recommendation for Sunrise Mart and the possibility of sheet masks for a couple of dollars. It feels like there should be a bell on the door when I leave, but there isn’t.