Yesterday, I had the pleasure to walk through Manhattan’s Lower East Side, from Essex Street up through Alphabet City to Tompkins Square Park to Second Avenue and then down to Houston Street. For better or worse, it has cleaned up immensely over the decades, but the LES was once where New Yorkers, dragged by the particular gravity of heroin or the adversity of poverty, sometimes once slid. But it possesses a kind of romanticism for myself and my wife, especially when, still living in New Haven, we’d rise early on Sunday mornings, get in the car and drive in advance of the sun, Velvet Underground playing as we’d speed along the tree-lined Merritt and Hutch until through the Bronx and into Manhattan. Over almost two decades we’ve observed the Lower East Side stabilize and then become hewn from its fractured, graffitied center. With contempt, we glowered at the hipsters coming in and their moneyed benefactors. We wanted our grit-filled fantasy intact, not their new playground.
And the stories of riotting squatters, squatting junkies and their deep knee bends, and even Molly, the sex worker who worked the soup kitchen of Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Church, all returned to me as I wandered on this shining, humid day to the park’s General Slocum Memorial. I put my hand in the lion-head fountain there in the white marble stele, and let the cool water run over my fingers, a kind of holy font to remember the thousand people, mostly German women and children, who died in that horrific steamship fire over a century before, the worst accident in the city until September 11.
Walking up Avenue C, I thought about if every writer has a corresponding city of style, that every kind of writing has its place. Readers like to ground writers in a particular location, because writing, per se, is indeed an ungrounded, intangible act, unrestricted by a reader’s distance. We like to moor, to tether our authors to cities, if we can, to walk among their words in order to claim them and their experiences, to find strength, solace, and resonance. There is a part of my writing that I would like to be of the Lower East Side, that aesthetic of hopeful despairing in urban decomposition. Again, there is that romantic conceit that comes with Sunday morning’s Velvet Underground excursions. There are no drugs or poverty or abuse underneath my words and maybe my desire to be a part of that feeling is my personal privilege’s exploitation of those who have no power to escape the drag and crush of that particular gravity. Slowly, I’ve been watching Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, and I see a similar romanticism of that West Coast collapse and beyond.
Writers are odd creatures, conduits and artisans seeking to observe and grasp and fashion what is inarticulate into something somehow, to whatever degree, palatable. They make life and passion manifest for the reader in the way that water vapor chills and condenses into rain, rain that can free your parched lips or drown your family in a flood. But in the pleasures of the moments of reading, we forget that writers are mostly failed alchemists, heretics seeking to transmute the intangible into something of value, something incongruently gold and lead in the same breath and sentence.