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Death of the Astor Place Kmart

So the Kmart at Astor Place in Manhattan finally closed. I honestly did not know it was still open. I think Kmart only has a couple dozen locations still remaining in the US, and none of them are anywhere near me. I haven’t been back to New York since 2013, and probably won’t be returning any time soon, since I switched jobs. But I still have a lot of random memories of the place from the years I lived there.

Like I mentioned in Death of a Kmart, I was a Kmart kid. (Or K-Mart, rather, before they dumbed up the name for Y2K.) By the time I was in high school, Kmart was a joke, the place where poor rednecks shopped for school clothes and electronics that would break in a month. And by college, it was an ironic place to go. You actually shopped at Target, but you went to Kmart late at night to make fun of the muzak and the bad clothes.

So when I got to New York, Kmart was a strange callback to childhood in a city that was a completely alien landscape to me. There wasn’t a Target or a Best Buy or any big-box store in Manhattan at the time.  It was almost comforting to go back to a store with big aisles and cheap housewares and prices that ended in a .97. I spent most of my time in haphazard bodegas and crowded mini-groceries, where I couldn’t find anything. Kmart was filled with giant-size everything.

The store itself was giant. The only big stores in Manhattan then were places like Bloomingdale’s or Saks. The main floor that opened up from the Lafayette street entrance seemed cavernous, like the ceiling was two stories high, held up with giant pillars, a giant Valhalla filled with Kathy Ireland clothes and the Martha Stewart collection. An insanely long escalator took you up to the second (really third) floor, where there were more home goods and a cafe. Or you could go to the basement, which had electronics, toys, seasonal goods, and as much junk food as you could possibly imagine. And the basement was even directly connected to the 6 train.

I arrived in New York in 1999, a few years after the place opened. I remember first hearing about it because the band U2 played a live show there. At the time, I hated the band U2, largely because I had an ex a few years ago who worshipped them, and I probably wasn’t over her at the time, so I found the whole ironic Bono stunt a bit silly. There are videos of it on YouTube, which are so incredibly 90s, they give me horrible flashbacks, but would be a big hit with the vaporwave folks.

Anyway, here’s a bulleted list of a bunch of random memories of the place:

  • My first celebrity sighting in New York was seeing Gilbert Gottfried there in 1999, trying to buy an oscillating fan.
  • The store had a Big K Cafe on the third floor. Despite the bad food, it had a very nice view of Astor Square from the giant windows on the front of the building, and was a great place to sit and relax, until everyone realized it was a great place to sit and relax.
  • Everyone seems to mention that there was a public restroom by that cafe. Nobody seems to remember how dirty it got after a few years. Every Kmart has horrific restrooms. I think it’s because of the merger with Sears, because every Sears bathroom anywhere in the United States smells like it was painted with a thick coat of raw sewage.
  • When I lived in Seattle, I got addicted to Slurpees. Every night, after I hit my daily writing quota, I would drive to 7-Eleven and get a Coke Slurpee. Then I moved to New York, and there were no 7-Elevens. The Kmart Icee was an imitation Slurpee, and I could never figure out why they were inferior – maybe not enough syrup – but it was almost an acceptable substitute. Also, corn dogs were for some reason rare or hard to find in Manhattan, but they had them at the cafe.
  • In 2000, I met someone online and we had a long-distance thing going for a bit. When she came down to Manhattan to meet me for the first time, the public rendezvous point was at that Big K Cafe.
  • Kmart had holiday stuff disturbingly early, or what seemed disturbingly early then. (Target probably has Christmas trees out already now.) When I was at Juno, they told us we could decorate our cubes for the holidays, so I went to Kmart and bought an unnatural amount of Christmas lights, like a Clark Griswold amount of strands, including ones that played carols and holiday music through a cheap little speaker. They probably stayed up until May.
  • This was the era when Kmart was trying to be a “hypermart” and had an almost full line of groceries in the basement. You typically had to go to the outer burbs and rent a car to get any giant multi-pack staples like this. I could never hack grocery shopping there and dragging everything home on the train. But it was always awesome to buy snacks in bulk and bring them to the office. Either you could buy a candy bar for a dollar at a bodega, or you could buy 96 candy bars at Kmart for like five dollars.
  • I bought a lot of cheap home goods at Kmart, because I could never find them at other places. Like any time I needed a dish drainer or a bathroom plunger or whatever, I normally stopped there first. I had a fluorescent light fixture in my kitchen, and the only place where I could find the special circular bulb was at Kmart. I also remember buying a new toilet seat for my Astoria apartment, and ten years after I left, I saw some realtor photos for the place, and it’s still on there.
  • I also loved wandering around the basement level, looking at all the weird stuff you could only find at Kmart in Manhattan. Like they had a full aisle of fishing gear, in case you wanted to fish for dead bodies and toxic trout in the Hudson river.
  • I talked about this in The Replay but that Kmart was a pivotal memory in my 9/11 experience. When I walked home that day, I stopped at that Kmart to develop my pictures (remember analog film?) and buy a pair of sneakers so I didn’t have to wear my messed up dress shoes home. I ate corn dogs at the Big K Cafe and watched the destruction on CNN while a large armada of office workers all bought new shoes to walk home in.
  • After not going there for years, I stopped in to use the restroom and was dismayed that the Big K Cafe was gone, converted into a makeshift furniture overflow area.
  • My last memory: in 2007, we had packed up everything for our move to Denver. All I had left in the apartment was a week of clothes, and I didn’t have a bag to put them in, because the movers had packed and shipped my luggage. While I was taking a shower on the last day there, one of us who may not have been me (trying not to blame anyone here) turned on the automatic oven cleaner and almost burned down the house. The entire apartment filled with a dense smoke and the fire department showed up. My week of clothes now smelled like they’d been in a house fire, which they had been. So on my last day in New York, I went to K-Mart, bought a large gym bag. a couple of pairs of Wranglers, some generic t-shirts, and a bunch of multi-pack Hanes socks and underwear, plus some junk food and extra toiletries. That was my luggage on the flight to Colorado, and all I had to wear until our house showed up on a moving truck ten days later.

No big surprise on the store going away. Aside from the greater death of everything Fast Eddie Lampert got his dirty hands on in the Sears/Kmart empire, pretty much everything in New York changes every year or two. Within a stone’s throw of that store, there’s been a complete turnover of damn near everything, except Starbucks. And that Chase bank is doing okay. (So’s the six other locations within a thousand feet of there. too.) Anyway.

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Bourdain

Usually, these things don’t get to me. But for some reason, this one has.

So Anthony Bourdain is dead. Suicide, hotel room, 61. I feel some need to extrapolate on this, front-loading this with a lede of what he accomplished or why this is so tragic, etc etc. I have no energy for that. You can go to Facebook and see that 50,000 times.

I’m trying to figure out why this bothers me so much, and I think it’s because of when I became connected with his work. I remember exactly when and where I first picked up a copy of Kitchen Confidential. There was a book store called Coliseum Books in Columbus Circle, and I’d go there every Friday after I went to my shrink. (She’s also dead, I found out recently – lymphoma, I think.) I think I read the New Yorker article, so I picked up his book. This was back when I spent hours and hours on the subway, and was single, lived alone, had no cable TV, so I would plow through books, reading a book a day most of the time. But while I read a lot of forgettable work back then, his stuff had a real resonation for me.

My kitchen career was low-level and short-lived. A summer on the Taco Bell drive-through; a couple of months washing dishes at an old-school Italian restaurant; part of a semester doing the same at a dorm, with the very brief and slight promotion of being the dude who stocked the milk and juice bar in the front-of-house. But when Bourdain described the camaraderie, the in-the-trenches slog of working the back half of a restaurant, I immediately related. I’d never aspired to cook or even stay in the business long enough to do anything other than collect a small paycheck, but I’d spent enough Friday nights at war with the dinner rush, completely slammed with a wall of dirty pans and plates, and no way out. I got it, and it pulled me in.

Bourdain had a persona, and I think it grew much more when he became a TV personality, picking fights with other chefs, with vegetarians, with food chains. His work as that persona was good, but it’s easy to forget he was a hell of a writer, and that’s what drilled into my brain. It wasn’t that he was a good brand; he was a guy I knew, someone telling stories and shooting the shit and talking war, a war I briefly fought. There’s something about any writing about a very involved job like that – it’s the reason I probably go back and re-read Bukowski’s Post Office every other year. Bourdain had chops, but he also had the ability to figure out what to write from such a career, and to do it in a different template than all the other stodgy food books up to that point.

I think he’s also a very intertwined part of the early 00s and New York for me. I was not a foodie, and spent far more time at McDonald’s than at any French restaurant. But if I had to make a list of the things that made up the background of my time in New York from 1999 to 2007, he’d be on that short list. I used to walk home down the back alleys of south Manhattan to avoid the tourists and bustle of Broadway, the Broome to Jersey to Mulberry to Prince to Bowery route, the interior of the blocks that were grand and exquisite on the exterior, but I’d be seeing the service entrances and freight elevators. And that’s where I’d see the chefs, always smoking, always preparing for a battle that was about to start when I was heading home from the cubicles. And that always made me think of Bourdain and other chefs, and the underbelly of the city, and those folks who took the long train from Jackson Heights or Hoboken to cut up fish or wash dishes for minimum wage in a city where bankers earned millions of bonuses in the W years.

It’s weird because I feel like I knew Bourdain, although I didn’t. When I stop and think about it, I think, wait, did I know him? Like did I meet him at a signing, or have a friend of a friend that worked with him, or run into him at some point? I didn’t, but it feels like it, because his writing got so in my head. I don’t have a connection to the TV host who jetted to France to eat oysters with someone famous in the food world. I mean, good for him that he got the money and the opportunity, and it’s fun to binge-watch on Netflix, but that’s not what did it for me. He somehow burned into the background of my brain, and that’s why his death bothers me.

There’s also the usual thing I do, where I look at him at 61, and me at 47, and I’ve wasted a lot of time on 401K calculator sites that all tell me I have to keep this optempo going for another twenty years, and I feel like I want to retire in 20 weeks, and who knows when I’ll even get started with this writing thing in earnest. He broke big because he wrote what he knew and he wrote as a person, and I’m so burned out and sick of writing what I write. So I keep thinking, well maybe next week I’ll reinvent myself, and do everything different. But the clock is ticking, and when someone goes, it puts that in perspective.

I’m not going to go into the why of how he did it, or if this is some epidemic, or if prescription drugs played a part, or what 800 number you should call, or any of that shit. You’ve probably seen it a million times already this morning. Just like how I couldn’t think of a snappy paragraph to open this, I don’t have one to close it. Just wanted to get down my thoughts now, because it seems like I never get to do that anymore.