Licensed NYC tour guide Joseph Alexiou walked me along the symphonically stinky Gowanus Canal and discussed his new book, Gowanus: Brooklyn’s Curious Canal. Hear my WNYC story here.
In my latest piece for WNYC, novelists Jill Ciment and Adam Sternbergh reflect on New York real estate, iconic scary movies, and what it would take to bring the city to a standstill.
Sternbergh’s new book Near Enemy and Ciment’s novel Act of God each imagine strange disasters befalling a New York City of the future.
If you missed it on the radio, you can listen here.
On a bracingly cold morning this March– exactly 50 years to the day after Kitty Genovese’s death– author Kevin Cook and I met on the block in Kew Gardens where Genovese spent her last living hours.
Cook’s new book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, The Bystanders, The Crime that Changed America looks back at Genovese’s life and death in detail. His investigation focuses in particular on what happened the night she died. Spoiler alert: It’s a little more complicated than what you might’ve heard (or read in that intro psychology course, for that matter).
We also stopped in on some longtime residents of the neighborhood. Carol and Murray Berger moved into a charming home in Kew Gardens in 1957, and have been a vital part of the community ever since. They were kind enough to invite me in and to share their remembrances of how Genovese’s murder transformed the neighborhood’s reputation.
The most recent installment of Hot Reads features new books from Doug Most, Kyle Minor and Lorrie Moore. Full reviews at The Daily Beast.
Making the rounds this week is a wonderful Los Angeles Review of Books essay about the time a young writer named Joan Williams asked William Faulkner for a blurb for her book. Glen David Gold’s line-read of Faulkner’s grizzly reply touches on many things that interest me, like the life of Faulkner (especially, his UVa writer-in-residence years), the highlights and low-lights of literary friendships and favors, the fine art of blurb-making and ellipses insertion (a craft I learned many years ago as an intern in Granta’s offices), the horror of transactional relationships, the lost art of letter-writing, and (spoiler alert!) what happens when an older, famous writer strikes up a relationship with a young, unestablished one.
Some years ago, a prize-winning writer who you probably have heard of emailed me. I was in the middle of an onerous task at a corporate job I wasn’t suited for when the message flashed across my screen. “Please forgive the intrusion,” it began. I almost fell out of my chair. This writer — who had been assigned reading for me in college a few years before — called my writing “smart” and “interesting.” He wanted to know what else I was working on.
What followed was not my ticket to fame or the start of a steamy affair (either which would have made a much better story than the one I’m telling now). To my regret, it was not the start of a lasting literary friendship, either. We exchanged emails — some earnest, some chatty (his were filled with profanities) — about life and writing, and the writing life, while I got started on a freelance assignment he’d set up for me. We planned to meet for coffee but he was traveling extensively, and anyway, I didn’t want to meet until I had made some headway on the freelance assignment — or had other “smart” and “interesting” work to show him.
We never did get coffee. I happened to be visiting my parents in Virginia during the short window he was in New York, but the real problem was that I wasn’t sure if I was exactly who the famous writer hoped I was. I had just finished graduate school, where I had read things, and developed ideas (a “promiscuous mind” full of them, as the only graduate school professor to give me less than an A put it) but I wasn’t sure, exactly, what it was I was supposed to be writing about — or doing, for that matter — next. For lack of any better plan, I threw myself into my full-time job and the busy social life of a single girl living in downtown Manhattan. I hoped things would make more sense eventually. When they did, maybe I would write about it.
In the meantime, my pen pal’s emails were getting ever-so-slightly more familiar and affectionate — nothing untoward, but there was a shift in tone. I studied his words with even more scrutiny than I’d given them in college. I read parts of his messages to my older brother on the phone. “Sly dog,” my brother said. I started flinching every time I saw the famous writer’s byline. Writers: They’re just like us (this was a concept I mastered when I was an intern at Us Weekly). They Google strangers. They don’t know what they’re looking for. They don’t know what they mean. Our correspondence tapered off.
A few more years have gone by and to my surprise and relief, things do make more sense, as I’d hoped they would. I’m happy with my new, different job, my boyfriend and my outer-borough life. And the writing? It’s coming along — slowly. I’m finding my footing. Maybe I should be in more of a hurry, but I’m not. “How much of a balancing act to determine your real value to another person,” Gold writes. Let me add: Or indeed, to yourself.
For a week or two now, it’s been inescapable: “Where were you when?”
My own September 11th story is unremarkable. At the time, I was in my first semester of college at the University of Virginia. I was in my dorm room, getting ready for class when my roommate’s best friend called. Her voice was so emotional I could barely understand what she was saying. Plane? Towers? Even after I turned on the TV, it didn’t make sense. All I really remember about the rest of the day is pressing redial on my phone again and again, trying to reach my brother, who lived in Manhattan at the time, or my mother, who was visiting him that week. My roommate’s parents worked in the Pentagon, and she couldn’t reach them either. I remember walking around Alderman Road and seeing everyone doing the same thing: dialing their cellphones again and again.
My mom and brother were fine — and so were my roommate’s parents. Everyone was a bit shaken but slowly, in media coverage and in our conversations with one another, a narrative began to emerge. The next day I attended a teach-in featuring Politics professors like R. K. Ramazani, Peter Ochs, and Michael J. Smith (who would later become my thesis adviser). The next week, I talked to minority groups on campus. A few months later, I visited my brother in New York. He told me about how his law school roommate, a volunteer firefighter (who would later be the best man at his wedding), had gone down to the World Trade Center site on 9/11. We went to an exhibit of September 11th photos taken by ordinary New Yorkers and hung by clothespins on the small walls of a downtown gallery. As we walked through the city, my brother pointed out which streets had been filled with dust. I spent too long staring at a makeshift memorial in Grand Central. It still didn’t make sense.
It surprises me how much September 11th has entered my career. I’ve spoken with the city medical examiner about identifying victim’s remains from the WTC rubble; I’ve spoken with first responders and post-traumatic stress counselors about 9/11 survivors, interviewed the founder of Stop the Islamization of America and spoken with members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. I’ve worked on coverage of the controversial Muslim community center project in lower Manhattan and of Osama bin Laden’s death. In recent weeks, I resisted the coming tenth anniversary because it felt like over the years, we (and especially those of us who work in the media) haven’t ever paused from remembering that day. Mark Lilla summed it up sharply in New York magazine: “Remembrance became a narcotic that turned a prosperous nation at peace into a debt-ridden wayward giant lumbering around the world, willfully ignorant of its folly, its speech slurred and incomprehensible to anyone but itself.”
Still, seeing the lights this weekend — the two beams where the towers were, reaching into the sky; and the red, white and blue tiers of the Empire State Building — I was moved by the city’s stubborn memory, and the brighter part of “never forget” that represents an affirmation. As Mayor Bloomberg put it:
We had to show the world that – in everyday lives – terror could not diminish our tolerance. Hate could not defeat our hope. And fanaticism could not destroy our freedom. Each of us did that in a million little ways – in the flags we waved and the blood we gave and the donations we made. We did it in time by volunteering – as rescue and recovery workers, social workers and medical professionals, as caterers and caregivers. We did it in the way we treated each other – with a new-found sense of solidarity. People of every color, of every country, speaking every language, practicing every religion, holding every belief, and yet we were all New Yorkers first – proud of our city, and determined to bring it back.
I wasn’t a New Yorker on September 11th, but now that I live in this city too, I’ve seen those little acts of goodwill and humanity — ordinary acts of kindness and courage — day in and day out. They give me hope.
Growing up in southeastern Virginia, hurricane season was always a time of excitement for me as a kid. Hurricane season was summer’s last hurrah before back-to-school season. It was the surging conclusion to countless days of sweltering heat, countless days at the pool and beach, countless Slurpees, and countless mosquito bites. Hurricane season offered one last chance for real summer drama before it was back to the usual routine.
The backyard of our family home tapered off into a marshy Chesapeake Bay inlet so the prospect of a storm always seemed personal. Would the waters that provided the backdrop for so many gorgeous sunrises and afternoons outdoors really turn on us? It was hard to imagine. If the backyard had a personality of its own, it was a benevolent one. But of course it was clear that the storms (with their quaint, outmoded names like Hugo and Bonnie) had personalities too, and it was arguable that those personalities were not so benevolent. They were certainly fickle and feckless, dying down then speeding back up, making strange last-minute turns, and never quite behaving as predicted.
Disaster preparation is a funny thing. My parents rarely watched TV, but in hurricane season, the TV was on for hours on end, excited meteorologists waving their arms as swirling neon hurricane clouds danced on loop behind them. Mom and Dad would stock up on groceries and bring in lawn furniture and potted plants (my contribution: cutting out pictures of colorful hurricane models from the local paper to paste into a collage), but our preparation usually ended there. One year, my mother swaddled all our old family photo albums in layers of trash bags while we kids regarded her with skepticism. We never boarded our windows, or bought bottled water, or extra batteries or canned food. And we never left.
We were lucky. More often than not, the Carolinas would absorb the worst of the big storm coming our way, leaving the Hampton Roads area drenched but essentially unscathed. The photo albums never did get ruined as my mom had worried. But at the end of every summer, the deadly flirtation would start up again — and as I got older, I started to find the whole ritual of hurricane-watching more and more nerve-wracking. How long could our good luck hold out? Statistically, we were due for a doozy of a storm. All it would take is one little swerve, and low-lying Poquoson would be a trashed puddle.
I was away at college in 2003 when Hurricane Isabel took that tell-tale swerve we’d been waiting for. The reported cost of the damage for the city was almost $100 million dollars, and the devastation visibly changed the landscape of the town. Our backyard alone lost eleven trees, and half our dock washed away. Afterwards, state and federal grants paid for entire neighborhoods to lift their homes onto cinder blocks. Eight years later, Hurricane Irene’s trajectory has me thinking about Isabel and worrying about whether it’s my hometown’s turn to take a hit again. As I write, the two people have already been killed in Virginia by trees falling through windows (one the Hampton Roads area) and 70,000 people are without power on the Peninsula alone.
As for New York City, it’s hard to say what’s in store. I’m in the camp of unbelievers having trouble picturing a serious impact here, though between the mandatory mass evacuations, the MTA’s historic shutdown, and a predicted power outage for much of lower Manhattan, it’s apparent city officials (who should know about these things) are bracing for the worst. Then again, given the strange weather NYC has seen this year — a spree of blizzards, a heat wave, record-breaking rains just a few weeks ago, and last-week’s earthquake — oversized hurricane damage wouldn’t come as a big surprise to me either. As I packed up for another hotel room for the weekend, courtesy of my office, the rain had stopped in Queens. The old man across the street who always sits sentry on the steps of his building in his wheelchair was at his usual post, checking his watch. Storm time yet?
photo: Hurricane Irene as seen from space, via NASA