The Big Apple proves a palimpsest of history and literary culture, haunted by ghosts of its past and populated by the vibrancy of the present
I had once vowed to never be a writer who waxes poetic about New York City, or who recounts travel to the Big Apple as if its crammed streets and its subway system’s rank exhaust were more pastoral than so many lines of Wordsworth. Perhaps, there is a spark of jealousy or envy to my oath. New York writers, after all, take their city in their stride. One can traverse the poised and melodramatic New York of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence or Henry James’Washington Square, the same New York that devolves into the soap-operatic entanglements of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Other writers chart the city as an elaborate metaphor; I think, here, of Paul Auster, whose New York is the stuff of potboilers, its congested streets and alleys as inscrutable as noir novels’ suspects.
Literary as they are, I have never inhabited these fictional, alternative New Yorks. I had arrived in New York for a weekend in early January to meet with a novelists’ group that I had founded with several of my peers from the MFA program at Rutgers-Newark. The BoltBus from Washington unloaded us, without a shred of pomp, at the Sbarro on the corner of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street. Outside, the air was sweet, heavy with Sbarro’s smell of baking dough—reminiscent of both homey comforts and hectic kitchens. I was able to snatch my suitcase from the bus’s cargo hold, before a mob of exhausted passengers grabbled around me. I escaped, wheeled my suitcase behind me, and jogged to the intersection.
I was standing a stone’s toss from Penn Station, Madison Square Gardens, and a vacant building advertising “Prime Retail Space on One of Manhattan’s Busiest Corners.” Several years ago, that space housed a multi-level Borders, until that bookstore chain collapsed from. . . . Choose your own natural disaster: e-books, Barnes & Noble, YouTube, LOLcats. I had purchased Christmas presents at that Borders during December 2010, when the company’s death throes slashed prices. A pall descended on me, as my gaze drifted from the once-Borders, to the Madison Square Gardens, to Penn Station. I thought of trains, rambling rides back to the Newark of my MFA years, or to my native Pennsylvania. I studied the crowded stairwell that descended into the Hades-hot furnace of Penn Station: a portal to my previous lives. I was being haunted by my own ghosts.
This is the city’s function: a spiritual fusion that collides particles of identity into new compounds. My unintended rendezvous with history at the corner of 7th Avenue and 33rd Street charted past onto present—but who else saw this compression of timelines? I trudged away to Union Square, passing en route many incarcerated in traumatic encounters with their histories: a girl who asked her mother why the pretty dress wasn’t in the store window anymore; a man who secreted himself in a phone booth’s gutted carapace and, after snorting something off the booth’s shelf, muttered he needed more. He needed more.
I left them to their devices (or, more aptly, to my literary ones). New York does not tell you, “Writers are terrible voyeurs, and Patrick, the worst of the lot: feigning decorum by lowering his head and soldiering on, but really leeching content from these soliloquies.” But isn’t this New York? “Hidden identities everywhere,” as Porochista Khakpour writes.
The next morning I was photographing the lion statues outside the New York Public Library until security opened the doors, welcoming the public. Two facsimiles of the lions, built from Legos, stood sentry inside the library’s doors and opposed the Christmas tree. I stroked the lions’ snouts, and then toured the marble corridors. Even the library’s water fountains were lions, fiercely gilded and salivating crystalline drinking water at the turn of a knob. I passed tourists giggling at the fountains as I navigated my way to the main reading room. There, I passed through an antechamber and into the grand hall, with vaulted ceilings and rows of writing tables. I set up my laptop and worked at a novella-in-progress. A security guard, with hands clasped behind his back, moseyed through the aisles and hissed to patrons: put that camera away, no phone calls, mute that laptop, no recording devices. (In noiseless retaliation I snapped a self-portrait with my MacBook’s camera.) The security guard policing the silence of our public privacy: this, too, was New York.
After a few hours of writing, I packed my things. When I returned to the foyer, workers were unspooling garlands from the Christmas tree. Epiphany had ended, marking a return to ordinary time, the season when, as New York poet Marie Howe writes, “what happened did not occur in public view.”
But those obscured happenings—what the city compresses into each person’s mind—become visible in the wares of New York’s bookstores. The thriving independent booksellers (including The Strand, Housing Works, and McNally Jackson) host literary events most nights of the week, often celebrating the poets, essayists, and fiction writers invisible to the bestseller lists—but critical to our literary imagination. After my writing stint in the library and literary shoptalk over coffee with a friend, I attended a reading by George Saunders and Deborah Eisenberg at The Strand. To a standing-room-only crowd, these celebrated short story writers shared from their work and discussed how the short story achieves its effect through compressing information so that, concentrated, we might comprehend the piece.
I left The Strand and stepped out to a rainy night, and I thought ahead to my novelists’ meeting the next day. Colliding in mind were the lives I had glimpsed in New York, smashing against Saunders’ and Eisenberg’s preference for the short story. I thought of E.B. White, who claimed that New York “is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines.” Compression, consolidation, spiritual fusion: poetry, short stories, and New York City shared these compositional techniques. So, avoid the tourist traps, expensive tours, and pricey restaurants: these are not the city. New York exists only in the hidden identities inhabiting its streets, its libraries, its bookstores, and every isolated cranny.
Image from: http://www.nydailynews.com/opinion/save-new-york-public-library-article-1.1103518
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