Walking up the loose bricks of Lexington Avenue, passed the Shady Grove florist shop, I thought for the first time in years about the series of gift cards I used to produce. It was 1997 and, in a bout of entrepreneurial motivation, I designed a number of collages from old issues of National Geographic.
The magazines came from a turn-of-the-last-century house tucked into an overgrown wedge of land at the far end of Montford. The property had the feeling of being at the edge of the known universe (just past the treeline was a steep hill that bottomed out on the interstate) and also lost in time. It was too ornate for a farmhouse but its rambling garden, wire fence and white-washed siding all nodded to farmhouse-ness. I took a weekend job helping to clean it out after its owner — a hoarder and chain smoker — passed away. A friend of my mother’s was the realtor and needed to remove a lifetime of ephemera in order to put the house on the market.
I loved every moment in that house, despite its nicotine-stained walls and claustrophobic floor-to-ceiling piles of boxes, books and newspapers. The tall windows were all blocked by layers of blinds, yellowed lace on top. The carpets were in various stages of decomposition and the few valuable antiques were damaged by cigarette smoke and neglect. Proud objects slumped in obscurity beside rickety TV trays and overly cute knick-knacks. Little Bo Peep, Little Boy Blue, a nursery rhyme in a horror show.
At the end of the weekend I took a box of National Geographics and an oversized faux-fur coat in payment. The coat, on, looked like half of a bear costume and smelled like furnace. I eventually gave it away to a drag-queen co-worker at a late-night hotel job. But the magazines I kept and cut, slicing new stories out of old. A picture is worth a thousand words, and then it can be repurposed for a thousand more.
I made eight collages and had them color-copied at Kinko’s, back when Kinko’s was a destination. It was an all-hours, fluorescent-lit bastion of office drudgery and rare creativity. Paper clips, three-hole punches, lamination, clear plastic sleeves. You could run off a report (I never did) or reproduced your chapbook in double-sided print pages with a center staple. The color copies were pricey at a dollar a page, but if I combined four collages onto a letter-sized sheet, I’d get four prints for my dollar.
The greeting card production consisted of glueing a collage print onto the face of cream-colored cardstock and signing the image title (“Sisters,” “Tropical Fruit,” “Travel Dreams”) and my name on the back, like it was high art. (It was, at least, medium art.)
I sold the cards, eight at a time — one of each print — to flower designer Perri Crutcher whose tiny shop was tucked into a Lexington Avenue storefront. The shop itself was barely larger than a closet, but it smelled dark and mysterious. Damp, exotic, slightly dangerous and deeply enchanted. But the true magic of the place was that its side door led to an alley that opened into a back lot where once a building might have stood but had long been left to return to the wild. It was a large open-air room shaded by a giant maple tree. Narrows paths led to rusting metal benches and wooden furniture in stages of collapse. It all felt at once diminishing and expanding, dying and caught in the act of being reborn.
My entrepreneurial spirit ended there. I only ever sold my cards to Perri and when he moved away, I quit making them. Things change, it’s the nature of being. Creativity ebbs and flows and takes on new forms. But I think, when I pass Perri’s old shop — now Shady Grove — about how the secret garden still exists out back. It’s not closed off to visitors, but it’s the kind of place you have to know exists. You have to make an effort to get there. And then, when you do, the garden reveals its strange magic without ever rousing itself from its own tangle of dreams.