Monday, April 30, 2012

New York missive no 105: Kindles, cars and connections

Pic: hats on display in a 28th Street shop window, no direct connection to this post

One thing with Kindles is that you get less of a sense of the literary landscape of a subway ride. On a recent commute I enjoyed seeing that a guy standing on the platform was reading a paperback called “Wild New Jersey: Nature Adventures in the Garden State”. And, once on the train, that a woman near me was reading “Friends, Lovers, Chocolate”. With e-readers it is harder to see what people are reading. It’s one symptom of the easy-to-bemoan privatization-by-gadgetization of our lives.

Author and lecturer Douglas Bauer points to another potential consequence in his recent Writers’ Chronicle article, “Cather’s World and the Future of Narrative.” He had recently taught a course on Willa Cather’s novels and was surprised by the way his young students appreciated her use of detailed descriptions of nature to convey emotions. To what extent, he wondered, will new emerging writers, who have grown up spending much of their time plugged into headphones and looking at screens as they move about the pace, be willing and able to use descriptions of their environments in their writing? Will writing change significantly as a result?

He said that it’s too early to have seen effects in well-known writers’ work. I imagine good writers will continue to keep gleaning material from the physical environment even if they just use one eye to do it while the other’s drawn to a screen. Also, that whatever does go missing in terms of geographical presence is compensated by new forms of reflecting human experience (and the lack of it).


Cars are another form of disconnection from surroundings, more dated of course. The other day TM gave us a lift back from their place in Park Slope, Brooklyn. JNH was excited by the ride. “More drive, more drive,” he’d request whenever we stopped at traffic lights. On previous car journeys, he had either been ambivalent or bawling his head off, not used to the feeling of constraint. They had been few and far between, just taxi rides to the airport when we go to see our scattered family in the UK, San Francisco, Miami and Dominican Republic, and trips in the cars of relatives while there.

This time though was totally different. He looked out of the window and described what he saw, and kept up a babbling conversation of sorts with C and TM in the front seats. I too, even felt a slight nostalgic thrill at moving through neighborhoods so quickly, watching them glide past. Of course if we ever get a car the novelty for both of us would very quickly disappear. And notwithstanding the financial and environmental costs that would come with it there’s the human one. On a car journey, from when you leave the front door there’s no form of interaction with the people you pass on the streets. Except, that is, for the occasional screen-divided gesture shared with another driver.

On our pedestrian wanderings around Astoria there are multiple interactions. Walking home with JNH from his daycare the other day for example there was the graying woman who agreed she loved “those horses” when she saw JNH admiring a luminous farm-scene on the side of a supermarket; the huddle of men outside the Irish pub who had clearly been there most the afternoon joking that “I started drinking at that age” as JNH started trying to toddle inside; the lady who commented, “I remember that phase so well, enjoy it,” as he lingered for a long time examining one of those coin-operated machines with a dangling grabber you maneuver to try to get hold of a toy. (Yes, if we’re not in a hurry to get back, our evening return can take a long time – up to an hour for what in adult circumstances is an under 15 minute walk).

Each interaction like that in itself might not count for much, but taken together they build a sense of belonging and shared humanity that car journeys never can. Of course for many people dawdling just isn’t an option. Others might see that kind of passing interaction with strangers as a compelling reason to drive rather than not to. But right now I’m enjoying sensing the presence of the streets at walking pace.


The Psychogeography book I read recently quotes a fabulous critique of travel by Joris-Karl Huysaman. It’s from his 1884 novel À Rebours. The main character Des Esseintes plans to visit London, inspired by the novels of Charles Dickens. But he only gets as far as ordering a taxi and going to an English tavern in Paris before returning home, tired out. It dawns on him that the experience may have been more rewarding than the real thing.

"'Get up, man, and go,’ he kept telling himself, but these orders were no sooner given than countermanded. After all, what was the good of moving, when a fellow could travel so magnificently sitting in a chair? Wasn’t he already in London, whose smells, weather, citizens, and even cutlery, were all about him? What could he expect to find over there, save fresh disappointments...

‘As it is, I must have been suffering from some mental aberration to have thought of repudiating my old convictions, to have rejected the visions of my obedient imagination, and to have believed like any ninny that it was necessary, interesting, and useful to travel abroad.’” [French original is available here: from the last two paras.]

I shared that quote with C who appreciated it greatly, as a regular critic of my and others’ globe-trotting tendencies.

That gets me thinking what it is about travel that appeals. Many things. There’s the way a new environment perks up the senses, the freeing knowledge that at a given time no-one you know knows where you are, the instinct of observation that comes with not belonging, an openness to the unexpected, and making tangible a place that previously only existed as a name, an idea, in your mind. Other than the last one though, all those conditions can be reproduced without travelling, in a location that is supposedly familiar. All the more so when that place is a city.

Friday, April 27, 2012

New York missive no 104 - Pear tree

A while ago I was sitting on the sofa in our living room as dusk was falling. JNH was on my knee having his early evening bottle of milk (still a comforting routine for him – actually for both of us - even though he probably ‘should’ have outgrown it by now, to use the parlance of parenting advice).

There’s a pear tree outside our window, as I’ve mentioned before. As our apartment is on the third floor we are about at the bushiest part of the tree. While we sat on the sofa its leaves and branches were just distinguishable still: black lines against the deepening gray. Then I saw a dark hunched shape in the thick of them. I strained my eyes to make the shape out more clearly, to be sure it was what I thought it was. “Big bird,” I whispered to JNH. It was a city hawk, but in the midst of the blurry branches and night it was both there and not there.

JNH stopped drinking and we crept up closer to the window. It was definitely a hawk. For just a few moments we stood staring, neither we nor hawk moved. Then it launched off its branch and glided silently down the street. It flew in an absolutely straight line parallel to the houses, above the middle of the road. “See? Big, bird?” whispered JNH.


The pear tree stands out on the block for its symmetrical shape and the fact it always appears tougher than others. Each year it’s the first tree around to bud, then to blossom (a white blizzard) and then develop its dense summer leaves. It keeps its leaves a long time, to the extent that when we first moved in I thought it was an evergreen, delaying a startling orange send-off before discarding them for winter. Despite its sturdy shape though, its individual branches are long and thin.

When viewed alone each one seems fragile as it reaches up, jostling with others. In strong winds I imagine that a small creature clinging to one of those branches would feel like being on a raft in the middle of the ocean in a storm. The branches give wide lurches like rolling waves and make sudden changes of direction. Most small creatures, I hope, would find a more secure shelter.


If you’re on the balcony you can stretch over, just, and touch a leaf. The tree is close but not crowdedly so. Back in the living room, there is an element of being in a tree house but with more respectful distance. The windows face almost South. As the sun sets (over the far side of the East River, which is just to the West of us) the tree juggles with its rays and throws light-balls onto the shadows of the living room wall.


There. Have I purged myself of references to that pear tree? I doubt it.

Of course ours isn't the only pear tree in NYC. I came across these great pics of some of the others.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

New York missive no 103 - Individuals & cities, psychogeography, an orange digger

Mural in El Barrio - corner of 104th Street and Lexington.


A snippet of cellphone conversation overheard along Astoria’s 35th Ave: “So when he had the hat on they booed, and when he took the hat off they cheered? That doesn’t make sense, no?"


As a child I entered a poetry contest that had a title something like “The Earth.” I submitted what I thought was an epic entry, “Ballooning the Earth”, about a hot air balloon travelling around the globe. I tried to put everything in that poem. The winner of the competition wrote about a single earthworm. That was a good lesson in the value of small details and component parts. The lesson also applies to writing about cities. It’s only through the stories of cities’ individual inhabitants that any sense can begin to be made of the whole.

With that idea churning around in my head, of course now I am encountering it all over the place. For example, I came across the concept of psychogeography, and intrigued, got a short overview of it by Merlin Coverley. (It’s aptly called “Psychogeography”.) Although formally claimed by Guy Debord and the Situationist International in 1950s/60s Paris, it’s an amorphous term and Coverley traces it both backwards and forwards from there: back to Daniel Defoe, Blake, and other London visionaries; forward to people like Ballard, Peter Ackroyd and Ian Sinclair. Recurrent elements are city street wandering (particularly à la dérive, with no particular direction or purpose), using that wandering to sense the effect of urban environments on the individual psyche, a consciousness of the city’s past as it manifests itself in the present, an openness to re-imagining the city, and challenging the status quo. At times I've felt myself wondering if such a broad concept needs a term at all. It seems a bit contrived to put a label on it, as if to try to rarefy and pigeon-hole into a "discipline" an experience that should be so accessible.

When Coverley gets to talk about Michel de Certeau’s "Walking the City" though, de Certeau’s ideas certainly resonated with me. Perhaps in particular because in that book he was writing about New York? De Certeau describes two roles within a city, the voyeur and the walker. In New York that division is accentuated by the height of the buildings, with the voyeur gazing down from the detached top of skyscrapers to the street-walker below. (Presumably he’s talking, as so much “New York” writing does, about Manhattan). The latter group experience the city as a conceptual whole, removed from individual perspective. The distinction between the two, De Certeau says, “emphasizes the democratic importance of the street-level perspective to be gained from walking the city and reconnecting with individual life...In the light of this distinction it is clear how the simple act of walking can take on a subversive hue, abolishing the distancing and voyeuristic perspective of those who view the city from above.” The history of the city is written from the individual perspective at ground level rather than the generalizing perspective up above, he says.

An 1896 “History of Long Island City, New York” (which used to encompass Astoria and by some definitions still does) by JS Kelsey also makes this point. Written soon before the five separate boroughs merged to form New York, it aimed to preserve details about Long Island City for posterity: the full book is online here. Its preface begins: “The history of a city originates in individuals. In its frontier days stands a household or two as lone prophets of better eras. In the lives of men therefore lie the records of society, whether it is developed into a municipality, state, or nation.”

These are just some of the reasons it is important to release stories of the lives of individuals living in cities. I was delighted to discover the “Spitalfields Life” blog featuring interviews with people in that area of East London. It’s on a far bigger scale than my interview blog on 30th Ave in Astoria was, but it seems the author shares similar motivations. Its “Gentle Author” (s/he aims to keep their identity anonymous) said in an interview: "I believe in microcosm, that everything in the world is here.” S/he also said: "I don't understand why everybody isn't doing what I'm doing. I don't understand why this isn't everywhere. It's free to do. It just takes time." Well yes, time is a significant factor. But here’s to many others following suit.


Recently they knocked down two of the small houses opposite us. (How easy to refer to authorities / developers with a murky “they”). The space where one was is still a gaping hole. In the other, there’s a building site. While if we were a purely adult household that could be seen as a pain because of the noise, with little JNH around it provides endless entertainment. Each morning he asks to see the “orange digger” soon after waking up. Then when we go outside, he wants to “touch orange digger" (depending on whether it's in action or not, C and I try to oblige). He could stand for hours watching the trucks hauling their loads, the men go about their work, the brick walls ascending.

This morning, our neighbor E. was outside his front door. He’s at the opposite end of life to JNH. Now in his nineties, until a few days ago he was sprightly as if he could go on and on. Apparently he only retired about four years ago. Then he had a fall, and suddenly he seems vulnerable. He gave JHN a little green toy train when we past, then as we walked up the street he was still standing by his front door gazing up at the building work across the street.