Monday, May 25, 2015

In America, Part 3: To Write About New York

What is there, really, to write about New York anymore? Can anyone write anything that hasn't been said by Alfred Kazin, Walt Whitman, Jane Jacobs, E.B. White, Joan Didion, Paul Auster, Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, Marshall Berman, Langston Hughes, Don DeLillo, John Dos Passos, and the rest?

Writing anything essayistic bears the requirement that you can only approach your subject in bursts, flashes, the occasional extended close-up shot. If a writer holds a mirror to reality, it's probably a rear-view that they only look at when they need to. And how true is that when you're dealing with a space so vast, so worked-over as New York.

The worst of the Midwest followed me as far as JFK. I was seated next to a gin-blossomed couple from the North Dakota oil country, on their way to a tropical holiday. The husband's material was a book accusing Bill Clinton of organizing the murder of Vince Foster, a favorite paranoiac fixation of the extreme right, and the wife's was a collection of sayings from noted motherfucker Pope Benedict XVI, both of which they felt compelled to summarize to one another next to me while I tried to catch up on sleep I'd lost the night before. And so I arrived in New York City exhausted, my bags on my shoulders as I tried to find my way to my host's apartment. Yet when I came up from the subway at 110th Street, to a slightly chill late afternoon, to books being sold on the street, to the sun setting over the Hudson, it was like I'd drank a sudden double-espresso. I was suddenly in a place that crackles in the nerve endings.

I spent the next few days wandering. I haunted the Museum of Modern Art, snarling at the tourists taking selfies with Starry Night, yet delighted that they left me alone to sigh with the Ensors and the De Chiricos. I skulked through Greenwich Village, where poised, beautiful NYU students had no compunction about pushing me to the curb. I went for long evening walks along Riverside as it passes by Grant's Tomb, up and down Broadway, Amsterdam, Lexington, form Harlem down to Midtown and back, every block having something you've heard about your whole life.

But more so than that, I loved the forgotten things, the accumulated addenda of a couple centuries lingering in the corners.

There were beaux-arts quoins and column and statues, monuments left to rot in odd corners of parks, self-consciously aping Greece and Rome, marble ruins of a haughty, newly mighty American state.

And there were still things like plumbing supply warehouses, wig shops, dirty fried chicken places all named after states and presidents even in the middle of toweringly vertical neighborhoods. Here was a sign in a jaunty '50s font for Barney Greengrass, who proclaimed himself the “sturgeon king” in an era when there were still men named Barney, and they still ate sturgeon.

And I fell in love with the deli food, a remnant of a very singular point in the history of food technology, from maybe around 1920, a time when pastrami, mayo, pickles, seltzer, and sugar cookies were first standardized, a comfortable industrialization of what had once been the luxuries of the shtetl. What was once modern-- the simulated-wood paneling replacing the rough-hewn timber of the taiga, exotically named jam-filled tarts that were once the privilege of the nobility of the Austro-Hungarian Empire now being sold for two dollars apiece-- now relegated to nostalgia.

It's easy to feel regret at the loss of an “old New York,” the New York that I felt was promised to me by all those Velvet Underground and Miles Davis albums. Any number of professional New Yorkers have made it their mission to bitch about the Chipotlization of the city.

Great Jones Street, which contributed a verb to the English language, still had its strung-out derelicts, but they were far outnumbered by the condos. There were definitely still bums on the Bowery, but they stood outside a Whole Foods. I had to wonder, were they still being held on for the sake of pastiche? I hate admitting it, but when a lantern-jawed middle-aged man came out of a doorway saying “Ima get a gun and shoot all these motherfuckers,” my first thought wasn't fear, but authenticity.

And the longer I stayed, the more annoyed I became by all the conspicuous wealth, the multimillion dollar apartments in maximum-security buildings. I picked up the New York Times magazine, and found an article espousing the “simple luxury” of condos in the Hamptons. And of course the photo of a pile of salmon roe artfully balanced in a sea urchin shell stood opposite an article on the revelation that there might actually be income inequality in America! Overindulge on one side, feel guilty on the other, like a schoolboy going to confession after a Pornhub marathon.

Yet this is how it is, isn't it? Your dreams of the place are so often at odds with the realities, like the poor deluded Japanese who can't handle the piss smell and bad attitudes of the real Paris, and lapse into psychosis and delusion. Or the pious souls on two-week holidays in Jerusalem who find altogether too much to connect to, and suddenly see themselves as prophets and messiahs.

My flight back was through JFK again, this time from the international terminal. Hasidim lined up for El Al, men in dishdasha for Qatar Airways, women in saris for Air India, each of them yet more narratives of New York.

I got on an eastbound flight across the northernmost parts of the world, crossing Greenland, Svalbard, Siberia. At this time of the year, the flight-path is an arc of eternal daylight, the sun rising and dipping, but never completing its passage. The time zones whir by at these latitudes, like colors on a roulette wheel.

Unable to sleep, too tired to read or write, I can only jot down one thing in my notebook, the one all-encompassing thing I can say about New York. How perfect it is to end my trip back to the country I'm from than to experience everything I love and hate about at once.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In America, Part 2: The Thing We Call Home

The drive up Interstate 35 northwards from Des Moines is one I've taken hundreds, if not thousands of times in my life. The indicator that I was always home: the blue water tower in the distance. I can't remember-- did I see it or not?

I had flown from Seattle-- magnolias, shiny streetcars, seagulls-- and arrived in Des Moines, at a three-carousel airport with beige carpets, mahogany signs, and sepia-tinted windows looking out on fields evincing still more colors of brown.

And when I arrived in the sleepy college town where I grew up, I had to ask whether these were these really the streets I once knew. I thought I recognized these houses, factories, office buildings. They looked like I'd seen them before, but before in the sense that I'd seen photos of them, or maybe that they were somewhere I'd been a few times before. And at the house I'd spent the first 17 years of my life in, I had to wonder if the stairs were always this particular length.

I don't go “back” often-- once every two or three years, really. While this certainly gives me a certain familiarity with the place as it is, moreso than really most other places on Earth, it's infrequent enough to make me feel, every time I go back, less and less like a native and more like a visitor.

At first, there was this sense of loss and remove, that the deep connection that I'd once had to this place had been severed. As an alienated teenager, as a counter to the superficiality and stupidity that seemed to define most of the world, from the Iraq War down to my idiot English teacher, I looked for a way out. Like a lot of teenagers, I smoked weed out of crushed Pepsi cans and listened to the Velvet Underground in my room. But I also became invested deeply in the forgotten geography of the place I was in, as if, somehow, by piercing through the hologram of modern commercial society, I could find the way to a more authentic way of living, something worthy of my heroes of the time, Kerouac, Edward Abbey, Sherwood Anderson, Bob Dylan.

So my memories of the most forlorn places of the Iowa prairie-- abandoned grain elevators, frozen creeks-- were, in so many ways, so lush and Proustian, that to look at them later on was to set myself up for inevitable disappointment.

But somehow, I've been gone so long that even that sense of disappointment is gone, and to look at the places I was once invested in is instead like looking at a photographic negative, clearly a recognizable image of something, but something somehow distorted and wrong, even if the details bear an eerie, hyperreal similarity-- a mullioned window, the smell of a donut shop.

In the end, I wound up doing what a lot of what other twentysomethings do when they visit their hometowns and come to realize that they can only spend so much time with their families, and they don't really have any friends left there. I walked around town, read books, tried (and failed) to write, watched too much trash TV, drank too much beer alone. I'd stay up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning in the basement, marathoning my way through Special Victims Unit or Intervention over a bottle of Gordon's Gin and a plastic bottle of Hy-Vee brand tonic water, watching dramatized stories of serial rapists at court and “gritty,” exploitative accounts of snarling alcoholics, heroin addicts, and compulsive gamblers and their weeping families.

Fucking America, I'd mutter as I poured myself into bed.

But then there was the morning I woke up especially early, to a cold sunrise coming in through the livingroom windows, casting its light onto the green carpets, and the books on my mother's shelves.

Some were mine, and I smiled at the new home they'd been given, remembering where I'd gotten each volume. This John Barth, Powell's Books, Hyde Park, Chicago, Spring '05. That Lawrence Durrell, a library book sale. My beloved copy of Invisible Cities, the spine stained with Febreze that spilled in my luggage that I'd read on a filthy staircase in Paris, quietly thinking my god, people can write things like this.

And there were my mother's books, my father's that he'd neglected to take with him after the divorce, books left from relatives and family friends. I'd read a great many of them. But there were others, books I'd never even thought about picking up, that I'd seen all through my childhood, even if I'd only seen them neatly stacked on the shelves-- possess some incredibly bright and furious internal world, some knowledge or some way of seeing things, that I would, one day, be able to touch.

I could smell the coffee in the pot. The sun hit the spines of the books, gilt lettering shimmering in the dark.

This, this was my home.