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Literary Memories of an Ex-Manhattanite
I was born in Brooklyn and spent all of my adult years in Manhattan (first on the Upper West Side and then in Stuyvesant Town) except for one curious, Alice in Wonderland sort of year in Astoria, Queens. Recently, however, my wife and I packed our few sticks of furniture and scraps of clothing (like the Joads in Grapes of Wrath) and moved to Westchester, proving that there is always a new page to turn, a new chapter of life to explore.
Now, I’m not suggesting that White Plains is the outskirts of civilization--nothing on the order of, say, Wasilla, Alaska--but relocating does broaden perspective. For a formerly Manhattan-centric guy, I now see that many people who do not live here still manage to lead abundant and contented lives. Most Americans, I suspect, never give a thought to Manhattan, while others move mountains to avoid it, perhaps regarding it as the devil’s playground.
Still, for all the virtues of my new home, I doubt if I will ever be as familiar with any place as I am with Manhattan. Almost every street holds a personal significance or memory. And the geography of yesterday is always being superimposed on the scenery of today, so that I feel as if I’m existing in several eras simultaneously. For example, on Broadway in the eighties today is a massive yet nondescript apartment building, covering an entire block; more real to me, however, is the New Yorker Theater which used to occupy the same space, and where I spent summer afternoons at the Janus film festival (one year I saw so many consecutive Ingmar Bergman films I came away thinking I understood Swedish). Multiply this example by several hundred, and memory itself becomes a kind of archaeological excavation.
Complicating this tangle of visual and emotional touchstones are my literary memories of Manhattan.
Almost as soon as I got back to work after my move (for the first time as a Metro-North commuter), I set about tracking down some of the writers whose visions of New York City have helped to color my own. Of course there are so many of them that an entire book could be compiled of their work. . .and, in fact, it has: Philip Lopate’s Writing New York, an indispensible anthology, chronologically arranged from Washington Irving to Dom DeLillo.
"Few cities have inspired as much great writing as New York, or indeed as much writing: the literature of the city is extraordinary for its variety and sheer volume,"
writes Lopate in his introduction.
"Almost every major American author, if not a New Yorker, at least went through a New York phase; there were legions of minor authors who specialized in portraying the Empire City; and countless distinguished visitors left a literary record of their sojurns."
To read the book from cover to cover and trace the recurrent themes and impressions shared by its authors would be a fascinating study. My own approach, however, is more haphazard--I open the fat volume anywhere, dip in at random, and am always rewarded by some phrase or image which is strikingly true to my own experience.
For instance, a brief vision of the old Upper West Side in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story "The Cafeteria" (reprinted in Writing New York) is so evocative that the moment seems to be my own.
"After the snow came rain, then frost. I stood at my window and looked out at Broadway. The passersby half walked, half slipped. Cars moved slowly. The sky above the roof shone violet, without a moon, without stars, and even though it was eight o’clock in the evening the light and the emptiness reminded me of dawn. The stores were deserted."
I can put names to those empty stores. I once slipped along that same frosty pavement. Right now, the description of that violet evening sky is more vivid to me than the computer screen I’m staring into as I write this. During the late seventies and early eighties, when I lived on the Upper West Side, Singer was a familiar fixture of the neighborhood and could often be spotted eating in a coffee shop, roaming the streets, or feeding the pigeons on one of the Broadway traffic islands. In 1978, just after his Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, I happened to be looking in the window of a local shoe store when I became aware of an elderly couple alongside me. One of them was Singer himself, complaining to his wife that he could no longer go from store to store, looking for shoes. I like to think he was shopping for his forthcoming trip to Stockholm.
Another book which has been with me since my days as a Brooklyn boy with visions of the Manhattan life is E. B. White’s Here is New York. I remembered the book as a joyous evocation of city life, and of course it does contain much in that spirit:
"A poem compresses much in a small space and adds music, thus heightening its meaning. The city is like poetry; it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music to the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive."
But there is also a darker strain, a realistic sense of how New York "can destroy a person, or it can fulfill him, depending a good deal on luck." I hadn’t read Here is New York in a long time, but browsing through it again for the purpose of writing this post I was surprised to discover, in this book first published in 1949, a startling, disturbing, and prescient image:
"The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumple the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition."
A particular pleasure of New York literature is reading about places you know. And what place is more familiar than the New York Public Library, which has been the hub of my existence in Manhattan for many years, whether I approached it from my uptown apartment or my downtown apartment (or now from Grand Central Station)? The library has appeared in more books, both fiction and non-fiction, than it would probably be possible to count; but my favorite portrait occurs in the early pages of Alfred Kazin’s memoir, New York Jew. Here he describes the years spent writing his first book
"in the great open reading room, 315, of the New York Public Library, often in great all-day bouts of reading that started when the place opened at nine in the morning and that ended only at ten at night."
Although the hours are somewhat less inclusive now than they were in the late 1930s, Kazin’s experience of the reading room still resonates with me like a musical chord, particularly when he writes:
"There was something about the vibrating empty rooms early in the morning light falling through the great tall windows, the sun burning the smooth tops of the gold tables as if they had been freshly painted--that made me restless with the need to grab up every book, press into every single mind right there on the open shelves."
Getting back to E. B. White, it is true that he can be a little derogatory about the commuter, finding that:
"The suburb he inhabits has no essential vitality of its own and is a mere roost where he comes at day’s end to go to sleep. Except in rare case, the man who lives in Mamaroneck or Little Neck or Teaneck, and works in New York, discovers nothing about the city except the time of arrival and departure of trains and buses, and the path to a quick lunch."
Well, I do know where the lunches are to be found, and right now the thought of catching the 5:20 is somewhere in my brain, but I think that after all these years the museums, the concerts, the opera, the foreign movies, the streets, the neighborhoods, and the memories are folded too deeply into my personality for me to ever let them go.