Curious characters have always lead anonymous lives in New York. One of them was a Village man who dubbed himself the Poetry Mender.
Everything known about him comes from a small, touching article from 1948 in the New York Herald Tribune:
“The sign outside the door at 25 West Third Street, Greenwich Village, said ‘ring bell loudly or knock hard and wait.’ But no one tugged at the bellpull—a piece of baling wire with clothespin attached—or knocked on the faded green door last night.
“For the Saturday night soirees of Anton Romatka were over forever.”
Romatka, you see, had scratched out a meager living writing poetry, which he and other “versifiers” would tack “on the fences around Washington Square.”
The old man’s apartment “was the kind of place which non-Villagers think of when they speak of garrets of poets and artists in that romanticized section of lower Manhattan.”
Manuscripts cluttered the room; boxes of food hung from string attached to the ceiling to keep them from mice.
Romatka, a Bohemian in both senses of the word (he was born in Bohemia) also hosted Saturday night sessions, were poets sat around on chairs and soap boxes to read their work aloud and hear his criticism.
“He charged a few cents to criticize or edit poems; he wrote verses to order, from five to 15 cents a line.”
One Saturday night, his students got no answer when they pulled the wire. “They called police, who broke into the two-room cold-water flat on the third floor. There they found the 70-some-years poet dead of natural causes.”
After his death, his students—among them Max Bodenheim (at right, in the 1950s)—paid tribute to Romatka at the chapel at Bellevue Hospital and then by his grave in New Jersey.
“The people who were close to him in Greenwich Village said that Mr. Romatka, who never married, was widely known for his generosity and kindness—especially his chivalry toward women.
“It was for the latter quality, they said, that poets placed a picture of Our Lady of Fatima on his breast, beside the poems and a group of red roses, before his coffin was sealed on Tuesday.”
The four photos (from the NYPL) are of Romatka’s Village, Washington Square South and the vicinity in the 1920s and 1930s.
He was known to pace up and down the sidewalk, “his frayed brown hat pulled down over his brow, offering advice to fellow poets—or a piece of the apple pie some one had paid him for a verse.”