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Posts Tagged ‘New York’

09 OCTOBER, 2013

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

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“I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan.”

“I was in love with New York,” Joan Didion wrote in her cult-classic essay “Goodbye to All That,” titled after the famous Robert Graves autobiography and found in Slouching Towards Bethlehem — the same indispensable 1967 collection that gave us Didion on self-respect and keeping a notebook; she quickly qualified the statement: “I do not mean ‘love’ in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again.” More than half a century later, 28 of today’s most extraordinary, diverse, uniformly interesting women writers revisit the eternal story of devotion and departure in a new anthology titled after Didion’s iconic essay: Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (public library), envisioned and edited by Sari Botton, tells tales — funny, poignant, irreverent, deeply human — that ring immutably familiar to anyone who’s ever called Gotham home or dreamt of being able to, yet, like the city itself, always infuse our expectations with subtle surprise. Though the stories differ enormously in both style and substance, one thing unites them: Like Didion’s original meditation, they bespeak a level of intimacy with the city that takes on the language of romance, of sex, of infatuation — a persistent pattern that transforms these personal, autobiographical accounts into stirring universal letters of love, and loss, into paeans of lyrical, conflicted nostalgia for the imperfect lover whom you chose to leave yet whose loss you still secretly grieve.

Illustration by James Gulliver Hancock from ‘All the Buildings in New York.’ Click image for details.

The magnificent Cheryl “Sugar” Strayed — one of the finest hearts, minds, and keyboards of our time, whose Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar is an existential must and was among the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012 — had a rude awakening to NYC. On the warm September afternoon of her twenty-fourth birthday, she saw a man get stabbed in the West Village. He didn’t die, but the shock of it — and the shock of the general bystander-indifference as a waiter assuringly said to her, “I wouldn’t worry about it,” while pouring her another cup of coffee on the sunny sidelines — planted the seed of slow-growing, poisonous worry about the greater It of it. Strayed writes:

I couldn’t keep myself from thinking everything in New York was superior to every other place I’d ever been, which hadn’t been all that many places. I was stunned by New York. Its grand parks and museums. Its cozy cobbled streets and dazzlingly bright thoroughfares. Its alternately efficient and appalling subway system. Its endlessly gorgeous women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats.

And yet something happened on my way to falling head over heels in love with the place. Maybe it was the man getting stabbed that no one worried about. Or maybe it was bigger than that. The abruptness, the gruffness, the avoid-eye-contact indifference of the crowded subways and streets felt as foreign to me as Japan or Cameroon, as alien to me as Mars. Even the couple who owned the bodega below our apartment greeted my husband and me each day as if we were complete strangers, which is to say they didn’t greet us at all, no matter how many times we came in to buy toilet paper or soup, cat food or pasta. They merely took our money and returned our change with gestures so automatic and faces so expressionless they might as well have been robots. … This tiny thing … grew to feel like the greatest New York City crime of all, to be denied the universal silent acknowledgment of familiarity, the faintest smile, the hint of a nod.

That realization was the beginning of the end. On a cold February afternoon, Strayed and her husband began packing their New York lives into a double-parked pickup truck. They were done after dark, long after they had anticipated — for living in New York is the art of transmuting a shoebox into a bottomless pit of stuff, only to have it unravel into a black hole of time-space that swallows you whole each time you move shoeboxes — and all that remained was that odd morning-after emptiness of feeling, which Strayed captures with her characteristic blunt elegance:

I’d entered the city the way one enters any grand love affair: with no exit plan. I went willing to live there forever, to become one of the women clad in slim pants and killer shoes and interesting coats. I was ready for the city to sweep me into its arms, but instead it held me at a cool distance. And so I left New York the way one leaves a love affair too: because, much as I loved it, I wasn’t truly in love. I had no compelling reason to stay.

Yoko Ono's hand-drawn contribution to ‘Mapping Manhattan.’ Click image for details.

Dani Shapiro, author of the freshly released and wonderful Still Writing: The Pleasures and Perils of a Creative Life — had a rather different experience:

The city, was what people from New Jersey called it. The city, as if there were no other. If you were a suburban Jewish girl in the late 1970s, aching to burst out of the tepid swamp of your adolescence (synagogue! field hockey! cigarettes!), the magnetic pull of the city from across the water was irresistible. Between you and the city were the smokestacks of Newark, the stench of oil refineries, the soaring Budweiser eagle, its lit-up wings flapping high above the manufacturing plant. That eagle — if you were a certain kind of girl, you wanted to leap on its neon back and be carried away. On weekend trips into the city, you’d watch from the backseat of your parents’ car for the line in the Lincoln Tunnel that divided New Jersey from New York, because you felt dead on one side, and alive on the other.

She moved to the alive side at nineteen, to live with a boyfriend she soon married, only to find herself divorced at twenty. (“How many people can claim that?,” Shapiro asks clearly rhetorically — and, clearly, she’d be surprised.) Now, thirty years later, she has a Dear Me moment as she looks back:

I wish I could reach back through time and shake some sense into that lost little girl. I wish I could tell her to wait, to hold on. That becoming a grown-up is not something that happens overnight, or on paper. That rings and certificates and apartments and meals have nothing to do with it. That everything we do matters. Wait, I want to say — but she is impatient, racing ahead of me.

And though she became a writer — a Writer in the City — Shapiro found herself strangely, subtly, yet palpably unfitted for the kind of life the city required:

I could lecture on metaphor; I could teach graduate students; I could locate and deconstruct the animal imagery in Madame Bovary. But I could not squash a water bug by myself. The practicalities of life eluded me. The city — which I knew with the intimacy of a lover — made it very possible to continue like this, carried along on a stream of light, motion, energy, noise. The city was a bracing wind that never stopped blowing, and I was a lone leaf slapped up against the side of a building, a hydrant, a tree.

Writing now from her small study in scenic Connecticut, two hours north of the city, she reflects on her choice to leave after — and despite — having attained her teenage dream:

My city broke its promise to me, and I to it. I fell out of love, and then I fell back in — with my small town, its winding country roads, and the ladies at the post office who know my name. I did my best to become the airbrushed girl on its billboards, but even airbrushed girls grow up. We soften over time, or maybe harden. One way or another, life will have its way with us.

Photograph by Berenice Abbott from ‘Changing New York,’ 1935–1939. Click image for details.

Roxane Gay, author of the beautiful Ayiti, recalls her first impressions of New York as a child in Queens — its city-street grit, its Broadway glitter, its daily human tragedies and triumphs unfolding on every corner. Above all, however, the city sang its siren song of unlimited diversity and unconditional acceptance to her — a young black girl with an artistic bend — as she became obsessed with attending college there:

If I went to school in New York, surely all my problems would be solved. I would learn how to be chic and glamorous. I would learn how to walk fast and wear all black without looking like I was attending a funeral. In adolescence, I was becoming a different kind of stranger in a strange land. I was a theater geek and troubled and angry and hell-bent on forgetting the worst parts of myself. In New York, I told myself, I would no longer be the only freak in the room because the city was full of freaks.

But despite being admitted into NYU — her most dreamsome fulfillment of idyllic fantasy — her parents had their doubts about the city’s dangers and distractions, so they sent her to a prestigious school a few hours away. And yet Gay continued to fuel the fantasy of New York’s make-or-break magic wand of success — a fantasy especially entertained by aspiring writers:

New York City is the center of the writing world, or so we’re told. New York is where all the action happens because the city is where the most important publishers and agents and writers are. New York is where the fancy book parties happen and where the literati rub elbows and everyone knows (or pretends to know) everything about everyone else’s writing career. At some point, New York stopped being the city of my dreams because it stopped being merely an idea I longed to be a part of. New York was very real and very complicated. New York had become an intimidating giant of a place, but still I worried. If I wasn’t there as a writer, was I a writer anywhere?

And yet she did became a writer — a great one — even though she left the fairy Gotham godmother for a tiny Midwestern town, where she now teaches, writes, and revels in the unconditional unfanciness and comforting underwhelmingness of it all. After a recent visit to the city to meet with her agent — for though a Real Writer may live anywhere, a Real Writer’s agent invariably lives in New York — she reflects:

New York was a strange land, and I was still a stranger and would always be one. Overall, that visit was fun. The city was good to me and I looked forward to returning and soon. But. There was nothing for me to say goodbye to in New York because I never truly said hello. I became a writer without all the glamorous or anti-glamorous trappings of New York life I thought I needed.

Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York is an exquisite read in its entirety and a wonderful addition to these 10 favorite nonfiction reads on NYC. For an antidote, complement it with some cartographic love letters to the city from those who decided to stay and the mixed experiences of those who came and went.

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07 OCTOBER, 2013

Ernest Hemingway on How New York Can Drive You to Suicide

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“I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through.”

From Jack Kerouac’s nightlife tour to Gay Talese’s obsessive observations to Frank O’Hara’s ode to its dirty streets, New York City has always had a way of mesmerizing famous writers into recording their unfiltered impressions of Gotham — especially so in their diaries and letters. Now comes a new addition from none other than Ernest Hemingway, who had spent the previous five years living in Paris: In The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 (public library) — the impressive sequel to the first volume, offering an unprecedented glimpse of Papa’s peak of self-discovery as a writer and a human being — Hemingway writes to his Parisian friends Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas The letter, dated October 11, 1923, appears to be his way of sorting out his own thoughts in deciding, once and for all, that he was no longer interested in living in North America’s urban epicenters.

Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn at the Stork Club, New York City. (JFK Presidential Library & Museum)

Hemingway begins with a quick, excited, and irreverent report on his new baby boy born the day before (“I am informed he is very good looking but personally detect an extraordinary resemblance to the King of Spain.”), makes a playful riff on Stein’s famous 1922 poem “A Valentine to Sherwood Anderson” (“Got a Little Review with your Valentine for Sherwood. It is very fine and very mine couldn’t help writing that mean very fine and very Sherwood.”), and proceeds to deliver his verdict on New York — from a meditation on its cuisine to a critique of its architecture to a prescient remark on suicide four decades before his own.

Contrary to my remembrance the cuisine here is good. They are very fine with a young or fairly young Chicken. I have also found some good Chinese places. We have both been very homesick for Paris. I have understood for the first time how men can commit suicide simply because of too many things in business piling up ahead of them that they can’t get through. It is of only doubtful value to have discovered. In New York four days I could not locate Sherwood or anybody I wanted to see because of being too busy. Tried telephoning etc. New York looked very beautiful on the lower part around Broad and Wall streets where there is never any light gets down except streaks and the damnedest looking people. All the time I was there I never saw anybody even grin. There was a man drawing on the street in front of the stock exchange with yellow and red chalk and shouting “He sent his only begotten son to do this. He sent his only begotten son to die on the tree. He sent his only begotten son to hang there and die.” A big crowd standing around listening. Business men you know. Clerks, messenger boys. “Pretty tough on de boy.” Said a messenger boy absolutely seriously to another kid. Very fine. There are really some fine buildings. New ones. Not any with names that we’ve ever heard of. Funny shapes. Three hundred years from now people will come over from Europe and tour it in rubber neck wagons*. Dead and deserted like Egypt. It’ll be Cooks most popular tour.

Wouldn’t live in it for anything.

* Tourist buses — from “rubberneck,” slang for tourist or gawking onlooker

The Letters of Ernest Hemingway: Volume 2, 1923–1925 is a treasure trove in its entirety. Complement it with other famous writers on New York, then revisit Hemingway on writing and the dangers of ego, his Nobel acceptance speech, and his irreverent letter to F. Scott Fitzgerald on heaven and hell.

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26 SEPTEMBER, 2013

The Four Types of Jaywalkers: An Illustrated Morphology of Bad Pedestrians circa 1924

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“The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian.”

Walkability might be the key to what makes a great city, but it comes with an inevitable double edge: More walkers means more bad walkers. But while the advent of smartphones has certainly exacerbated the epidemic, the history of pedestrian nuisances is a long and colorful one. The very term “jaywalker” — after jay, a silly person — was coined on August 3, 1924, in a New York Times editorial about the proliferation of pedestrian menaces — something I learned from a passing mention that Alexandra Horowitz, who knows a thing or two about the art-science of urban walking, makes in her unspeakably fantastic meditation on learning to see the familiar city with new eyes. Alexandra was kind enough to help me track down the original archival article, and I was immediately taken with the marvelous morphology of bad walkers that it paints. So I teamed up with my friend Wendy MacNaughton — brilliant visual storyteller and frequent Brain Pickings contributor — and asked her to do for the taxonomy of pedestrian perils what she did for Gay Talese’s taxonomy of street cats, illustrating the archetypes of walkers described in the New York Times article. Please enjoy.

Titled “The Confusion of Our Sidewalkers: And the Traffic Problem of the Future in the Erratic Pedestrian,” the original 1924 article by M. B. Levick presages the urban density of our present and examines it through the eyes of an imagined Uncle Jay Walker, a sort of patron saint of sidewalk orderliness and pedestrian manners. Levick writes:

The speeding and erratic pedestrian is a problem of the present but nothing is but thinking makes it so and the town has not come to realize it yet. Envisage the Manhattan of distant aeons — say 1926, after the fashion of popular prophecy — and the picture shows motors by the million, of bizarre design, closely packed but orderly and docile to semaphores on roadways, sunken, raised, suspended or maintained by radio. In this picture the pedestrians file as orderly as a column of troops along Utopian footways. But what of reality then — and now? The question is not of the jaywalker, but of the master anarchist in all his varieties (and hers), who is creating new and ineluctable hazards in the process of getting from place to place. Here is a problem that has been only touched upon by the “Keep Moving” signs along Fifth Avenue.

Does the world offer worse sidewalk manners than those of Manhattan? Savages in distant isles stroll more urbanely through nine-mile streets like the jungle trail of Typee and never elbow their way with a war club. Medieval streets two feet wide, with the rooftops over hanging, give the Old World traffic cop nothing to do save to help the occasional plump pedestrian who sticks between the walls. Look at the Bund and you see benighted Chipamen trailing single file, and if for them the right side is the wrong side, as for the Englishman, at any rate, the sides are recognized. But New York, orientation smitten from it, rushes in where angels fear, and if there is anything in the transmission of acquired characteristics it bodes ill for the future.

Levick then outlines the types of bad walkers:

There are the veerers who come up sharply in the wind and give no signal. The runners who dash to a goal and then dash back again without even tagging another “it.” The retroactive, moving crabwise. Those who flee and turn swiftly to victory, making a commonplace of the ruse that gave Joe Choynski his fame in the ring. Left-ends and butters, the people who never met the Marquis of Queensberry and to whom Greco-Roman is more foreign than jiu-jitsu.

As mad as the satellite particles of an atom and amid each group, like a nucleus, a static type. The plodder, trudging through Times Square as o’er the lee and knowing neither near side nor off side. The inferiority complexes whose only sense of power is to make the world walk around them. Children of the cigar store Indians standing stock still, so that a couple passing must say “Bread and butter!” Others who are to movement what the color blind are to light and the swaggerers who in an earlier age would take the wall, but in this present confusion must take wall and gutter and all between to assert their precedence.

Conceding that punishment is not enough, Levick — who laments that New York can’t afford the Southern disposition that “the woman pedestrian is a concern of gallantry and not of self-defense” — proposes some solutions:

Control is Uncle Jay Walker’s real work. Perhaps he should devise a speed law and a minimum speed law. Or traffic lights on every house front. If you believe that Western delegate, New Yorkers never knew the rules of the road. Is it too late now? They could be taught in school in rhymes like the doggerel which helps sailors on pathed waters:

From three short blasts ‘tis yours to learn
That she is going full-speed astern.

The verse has a hint; remember it when a determined stout woman comes at you like a skittish battleship. Horns and sirens, to be supplemented with side lights and range lights and a masthead light “at a height above the hull not less than the breadth of the vessel.” All this would have a practical value, and think, too, of the aesthetic appeal. The sober, hurrying crowd would become as gay as a convention of fireflies: the dandy could spend on matching the lights of lapel and coat tail what time he now give to his tie, and mankind, like taxicabs decorated in the latest manner, would burgeon like a Christmas tree, red, green, yellow and blue.

What would be the effect on the traffic accident rate if pedestrians bore false arms for warning, like the grotesque red hands that truck drivers work with strings? It would be a training whose results would be apparent in the roadways no less than on the sidewalks. He who has learned to jaywalk on the sidewalk would be less apt to jaywalk in the street and Special Deputy Policy Commissioner Baron Collier could doubtless point to an even greater saving of life that the street fatality ration between the first half of last year and the same period in 1924. Last year’s rate for the six months was fifteen persons killed to each 10,000 registered vehicles, while the rate to July 1 of the present year was twelve. Of this year’s deaths 82 occurred at crossings and 130 away from crossing, from which Commissioner Collier draws a moral for the jaywalker, at the same time wishing for a law that would give the police regulation over pedestrians as well as vehicles.

And yet, Horowitz tells us in On Looking, though jaywalking may be a civic traffic violation, it could actually be safer because it relies on shared attention rather than mindlessly following traffic signals, which means you’re making judgments based on eye contact rather than autopilot — which, of course, is no reason to plod or veer across city streets.

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