The strangest thing about knowing I’ll never speak to Michael Seidenberg again is that words never escaped him. The phrase “I’m speechless,” oxymoronic as it is, never occurred to Michael. He had endless anecdotes and aphorisms, a jokey retort for nearly every situation. I can’t imagine forgetting that west-Brooklyn-of yesteryear timbre, one which gave many of his outlandish but totally plausible and emotionally truthful assertions a plainspoken gravity. It was one of his many secret weapons.
His belief in inevitable decay being the central principle of human endeavors and experience—made plain in the name of his column for The New Inquiry, “Unsolicited Advice for Living in the End Times”—seemed to merrily feed his search for ineffable joy. Both aspects of him rubbed off on people, his acceptance of decay, his embrace of joy despite it. The column was both appropriately and regrettably short-lived. He told brutal truths with a smile on his face and in his company you felt licensed to as well. For instance, he was the rare white man I’ve met who could truly grapple with the enormity of our country’s racial difficulties because he was the rare white man who didn’t believe in absolution for the past: What had been done was too monstrous and he’d read enough Dick Gregory, or Fanon, or, Cleaver, or Baldwin to know. Utopian visions of change, prepackaged notions of progress that modern liberals sold you just before they sold the whole project down the river in search of campaign contributions, he identified as fool’s gold. We were running out of time anyways, the end was nigh, so let’s get our kicks while we can. You learned, spending any time with him at all, how staring a terrible thing in the face plain and rendering a laugh against the darkness was the best way to live with the inevitable cruelties of life.
At first, in the fall of 2013, after being buzzed in, going through that odd glass doorway between a dry cleaner and a piano bar, I’d always knock when I got to the door a couple flights up. Later I knew the door would usually be open when I stopped by 235 East 84th Street, #7. Pushing past it, one would find a long hallway lined with cheap, postwar paperback thrillers, and by that point you likely were already overhearing Michael’s or an interloper’s opinion about one thing or another, from the latest political outrage, to the best Cecil Taylor albums, to the under-heralded films of Basil Deardon. His was a place where you could remark on the grim bait-and-switch that Barack Obama’s administration had become or wax poetic about the undeniably American voice of Chester Himes with something approaching maximum wit, as your best self. Michael’s mischievous gleam coaxed people out of their inhibitions and presuppositions; he was a free man and a free thinker and wanted you to be too.
Brimming with books from floor to ceiling, Brazenhead was arranged in the most inviting and felicitous way; it was the type of place where one would weirdly be happy to stand for six hours in hardly ventilated midsummer heat. It served as a bookstore and a place to catch poetry readings, but was also, at various points, a literary nightclub, a therapist’s office, a microcinema and a refuge from a city bent on reckless, unsustainable, and often unjust reinvention. That summer when I began to know Michael well, that last summer before I and many of us began thinking about Donald Trump or Climate Change every day, that summer before all the eviction trouble, I was about to become a full-time college professor, officially a member of the middle class again, but at the time I was still on food stamps and money was tight. Aside from food, I bought almost nothing new; to this day, the broad majority of my clothing was purchased at the Norwood, Ohio Salvation Army family center, a thrift store a five minute drive from my mother’s Cincinnati-area home. So to find a used book store—the Bronx contained not a single one—where I could buy an intriguing or obscure old book for a dollar or two was a dream come true.
Michael had fantastic taste in everything—books, obviously, but also people, movies, politicians, summer-wear—except for whiskey. While holding court at his perch behind the book-lined island in the central room of the East 84th Street apartment he’d turned into the world’s most enchanting secret bookstore, he was never far from a giant handle of Famous Grouse, a cheap, peaty blended Scotch which any reasonable person might struggle to keep down. Michael, even nearing social security and AARP eligibility, was able to consume formidable amounts over the course of many long Brazenhead evenings, and almost never turned down a joint, except when it had tobacco in it, as mine always do. Those nights would normally stretch for this author from 8 PM or so on Thursday and Saturday, when I would amble up to his pad angling to be the first guest of the night and thus get privileged access to this inimitable, irreplaceable New York institution, to the wee hours of the morning, when the crowd might still be pretty lively, but I had to catch the 4 train with enough time to grab the final 2:06 AM Fordham Road–bound Metro North at 125th Street to take me back to my Belmont-area apartment.
A darkness began to hover over the space from the time Michael, early that winter of 2014–2015, informed many of the regulars that Brazenhead was not long for this world, at least not at 235 East 84th, #7; the longtime landlord had died and his/her successor knew he was running an illegal bookstore out of the space. Getting someone evicted from a rent-controlled apartment in the Upper East Side can prove quite lucrative. By that summer, when every salon at Brazenhead carried the tinge of possibly being the last, the place had gotten too hot; the mainstream media had blown it up and suddenly Michael was foisted with a literary celebrity that made him uncomfortable. A space meant for a couple dozen comfortable customers might suddenly have eighty or more. People were constantly sticking motion picture cameras in his face, which he hated. The charm was gone.
We ran out of time to do all the things there we had hoped, ultimately; we planned to screen far more movies together than we ever did and we never threw the Mulatto Night we had long hoped to hold as a means of rehabilitating that out-of-fashion term. I missed the very end of that 84th Street space. My father’s financial and physical well-being, precarious for some time, fell apart that spring, and July was a critical time for my ultimately futile attempts to get him well and his affairs in order; I spent much of it in Cincinnati, despite Michael’s frequent Facebook messages informing me of one last salon, several times during the back half of the month. It seemed like it would never end, but eventually it did.
When Michael began doing salons at the apartment he also called home, a few blocks away on East 80th Street near 2nd Avenue, the charm never fully returned—the space just wasn’t as magical—but the community did. The “Brazenhead beta nights,” as he called them, were supposed to be small and only his favorite “customers” from the previous space would be invited. “It seems selfish,” he said to me once, “but I’m in the late lunch break time of my life and I want to digest it all in peace.” In those later years, on 80th, he became, inadvertently, one of my biggest supporters; his praise for both my feature film, Redlegs, and later my memoir—Making Rent in Bed-Stuy—felt more satisfying than almost anyone else’s, because it came from his incapable-of-bullshit mouth.
Before I left town for allegedly greener pastures California, he’d ask me for random bits of movie industry advice—the company producing the Jason Reitman movie Tully wanted to use some artwork that had been made for the Brazenhead newsletter and he wanted to know how much to ask for in compensation—and upon my return to New York he was the first to offer Brazenhead for a welcome-home soirée or a place to crash. When my father died, he wrote me a simple and beautiful message, one which made me cry all over again looking at it yesterday. I won’t share it with you now, in full, but he alluded to my father dying too young and the way in which it adds to the grief. Michael died at sixty-four this week, nearly the same age that my father was when he passed. We lost him too soon, too. But few people have made so much in the time this life afforded him. His disappearance marks not just the end of a remarkable life, but the end of a warm and inclusive vision for how to ride out the dystopia to come.
I got to know Michael when he began allowing the editors and friends of The New Inquiry to gather at Brazenhead on Thursday evenings. Michael’s more traditional bookselling business had, more or less, failed in gentrifying New York, leading to the books’ installation in this apartment. The speakeasy can’t have been profitable. But its extralegal existence also brought exemption from the pressures and prerogatives of the New York economy. You felt this deep in your soul when you went there. I had a sense of peace at Brazenhead, where you were comfortable lingering because you weren’t being driven to consume things in order to keep the rent paid. No one demanded that you justify your presence, a rare experience in New York. Michael called it “the little shop where time stood still,” and it had—I felt safe there, and in the apartment he shared with his wife Nicky (and a rescued greyhound and three-legged pit bull—he used to roast chicken for them). It was a generous space.
When you opened the unmarked door of Brazenhead, the first thing that embraced you was the warm, sweet smell of pipe smoke, mixed with the smell of perhaps 5,000 books. The second thing that embraced you was Michael, who was like a big bear, in shape, size, and in his sweet gruffness. He was good about asking after your life, after which he would regale you with stories from his time as a puppeteer or as a more traditional bookseller or his wild nights out over the years. He insisted on carrying forward a version of the city that didn’t really exist anymore, where you could give far less of a fuck and still get by. Visiting him felt a little like being parented by that spirit of New York.
By the middle of the night (we would often leave Brazenhead in the early hours of the morning) Michael tended to have his shirt unbuttoned about halfway, and he’d be sipping a whiskey, smoking his pipe or—more likely—some good pot. His comments would become gently apocalyptic. Several of us would at this point be sitting on the floor cradling books to buy, but really on our fourth or fifth hour of intellectual discussion. Some of my deepest bonds were forged in this space, so much more intimate than a bar, more free-flowing than an editorial meeting or political gathering, open way late.
Michael created a shop that was an expression of his own social and literary sensibility, but also his ethics. He believed that people should sit around and talk, and love books and each other. He hated that everything was a hustle. (Read his “Unsolicited Advice for Living in the End Times” column for the purest distillation of his political vibe.) His spirit will live on, I think, because anyone who spent time in his world wanted to be a little like him. I’m heartbroken to lose Michael because I loved him, and because the one place where you could stand still won’t be coming back. The end times are going to be a lot harder without him.
What else can prepare you to die but the way in which you live your life? Living in this moment is what it’s all about. . . . It’s all just here. —Ram Dass
You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do. —Carl Jung
Michael loved Bob Dylan. The release of Rolling Thunder Revue was a highly anticipated event in his universe as he recuperated from heart bypass surgery. Though it came with an added poignance. Michael had attended shows from that mid-’70s tour twice: once in New York, once in Paris. It was clear this collection and Martin Scorsese’s accompanying documentary were a boon: When I asked if he wanted me to send the 12-disc collection digitally, he replied, “listening to it right now, up to disc six . . . fantastic.” I wasn’t surprised. The next morning, when I asked whether he’d watched the movie, he said, “Just finished it this minute . . . unbelievably amazing.” I told him the Rolling Thunder tour—in its impassioned, carnivalesque vibe—reminded me of an inverse Brazenhead Books. Instead of wandering, we gathered in one place, with similar energy and mystery, Michael as Dylan, the fiery architect, welcoming all who were willing to surrender to the unknown.
It began in a puppet theater. Michael and his business partner at the time rented a space to put on performances where Michael used the front as a bookstore. Over the decades, the bookstore moved and transformed. The collection expanded and contracted to fit whatever space he inhabited. All the while, Michael on his journey of truth-seeking and aligning with what he found: love, acceptance, compassion, empathy—the forces that allow people to live more fully as themselves. For those impressed by his way of being, or his nearly 40-year relationship with his wife, Nicky, he always reminded them of the less visible work that led there. As someone who seemed stationary, and whom most people never encountered outside of Brazenhead, there was a level at which he never stopped evolving, being in the flow of life. When was it that the bookstore began to express the essence of who he was?
The Brazen Head is a novel by John Cowper Powys, Michael’s favorite author. A brazen head is an ancient alchemical and magical bronze head that functions as an oracle, truthfully answering questions put to it by pilgrims and seekers. Brazenhead Books was not a place for mass consumption. It had its own gravity that attracted and repelled accordingly. Michael called it self-selecting. Anyone who was interested in the uniqueness of what he offered likely belonged. He didn’t market or sell himself. Even the selling of books was somewhat of a ruse for connecting with others and connecting them to the experiences contained therein.
Though a singular person with a singular vision, he acknowledged that being yourself without an aspect of service to something greater was just ego—so he remained flexible and open. Most evident in his physical creation of the bookstore: the last two incarnations were apartments where he also lived (the books inseparable from life). People also suggested he write his many stories down. But he would look around and say he was already doing his part and it was someone else’s job to record it. Michael was a gifted oral storyteller—his voice, expressions, humor, and the changes he would make in the retelling.
Michael could do nothing but stay true to himself. The things that sway people off of that track simply didn’t tempt him. Perhaps the most traditional part about his employment history was working in the warehouse for Argosy Book Store. Aside from his brief stint as a puppeteer, he’d also been a partner in a moving company, worked at a travel agency, and attended a two-year program at Queensborough Community College for four years (leaving with one year’s worth of credit). It’s true he was a New Yorker and incarnated what people romanticize as a bygone era, but he would have been who he was in any context. He wasn’t trying to rebel or counter the mainstream. It was just that so much of this society could not offer the fulfillment he sought.
Michael met you where you were. If you needed a book, he had just the one. If you wanted a good time, he offered that as well. If you wanted to be by yourself in a place other than your home, you could browse books uninterrupted. And even if you wanted a best friend, guide, protector, confidant, or catalyst to mirror back to you your fullest potential—he had all of that covered. For most people, Michael served a banquet of community, belonging, and reverie. He knew joy worked best. He made himself available. He had such capacity: to listen, to reflect, to offer, to suggest, and ultimately to give. Even before Brazenhead moved into his home, he and Nicky opened their doors to so many—out-of-towners, down-and-outers, friends, family, and everyone in between. Why have children, he would joke, when he had so many childish friends.
Those friendships ran decades by default. He was a loyal, generous, caring person regardless of how long you had known him or whether you had done anything to merit it. But the depth of his friendship knew no bottom once you learned to meet him as he met you, once you moved past your projections and need-fulfillment to meet him in a place of just being together. When I mentioned I was traveling to Iceland in 2017, a light bulb went off over his head as he hurried to his bedroom (similar to when he’d have the perfect idea of a book that would synchronize with someone). When he returned, he’d changed his shirt. The new (very old), faded green t-shirt read “Iceland,” something he’d picked up on his travels through Europe. He beamed. Not only did he have something for every person that crossed his path, he had something for every shared moment. To be in his presence was to be connected.
I think a lot of people saw what Michael created in Brazenhead as being somehow separate from “real work,” as if fulfilling your destiny were a lesser responsibility. Yet, being present for ourselves and others is the greatest work we have in this life, with its share of wear. I wondered how many reciprocated Michael’s love and attention, how many attempted to give back in addition to simply taking. Night after night, I witnessed people leaving behind a state of destruction in their inattentive wake. I would stay late and clean. Trusting me to close up, he would go to bed with people still there, while they, somewhat surprised, would ask me where he went. I’d then suggest it was time to call it a night, proceeding to turn off the dozens of lamps he employed to create just the right ambiance. He justified others’ poor behavior by saying his life was so good that it was okay to absorb some of this. And so, he would always invite people back. He would also urge first-timers to not become a statistic, joining the many that never returned. The second time is so much better, he would say. He was right, of course. And though Michael always welcomed with open arms, he hated goodbyes. To sidestep this unpleasantness, he preferred people to pretend they were going out for bagels or something and just not come back. When I would have to leave his upstate house to return to the city, it would often be Nicky and I sneaking off to the train station while he slept.
In 2015, Michael and Brazenhead underwent tremendous transformations. The bookstore moved from Michael’s original Manhattan apartment to his home, a few blocks away. Life and work were more indistinguishable than ever. Also, after spending his entire life in the city, he’d found a place in upstate New York: an idyllic haven where he, Nicky, and their two dogs, Ava and Rosie, discovered a blissful renewal. Michael spoke of a newfound appreciation for the sun, birds, trees, and watching the seasons change. Finally, he found a match worthy of his internal intensity. Nature nourished him in ways he didn’t know possible. He cherished it. The bookstore flourished as well, finally attaining the vision he had made his life’s work. These developments brought him peace.
I wish for everyone to feel the power of unconditional love. If not in receiving it from a parent, sibling, partner, or friend, perhaps in extending it to yourself or someone. Anyone. Michael, our closeness, and the space he created transformed my life. It is no exaggeration to say all of my current life sprouted from our friendship. I spent more time with him than anyone else in my life over the past five years—I felt compelled to and I’m happy to have trusted that feeling. It’s something he taught me to do.
The night before he passed, I dreamt we embraced and told each other “I love you.” In hindsight, I think he might have worried how I would receive the news and just wanted to reassure me. Just like him to do so.
Michael has left his physical body. And with it a legacy of love unbound by the worldly limitations of time and space. People always remarked about the stretching or irrelevance of time at Brazenhead and I believe it was Michael’s grace that allowed this transcendence. Like Dylan, Michael had a presence in the now that would pull others into his orbit. It’s this ineffable quality that is built in private and to others seems to spring from nowhere. And where exactly is it that we all think we’re going anyhow? And where is it that we think Michael has gone? Seeing as how every time we extend a hand to someone or open our space to be shared or connect in conversation, there he is.
So, okay, Michael, I’ll play along . . . on your way out for bagels, are you?