It has come to my attention, and perhaps yours as well, that virtually everyone in the digital age considers him- or herself an artist. A glance at Facebook is like a trek through the Casbah, with so many people hawking their photos, their music, their writings, and so on.

How can a seasoned artist make a buck in such a climate? It was never easy, and it’s getting harder all the time, as the competition expands. Soon aspiring creative types will outnumber regular folk, who can only spend but so much money on things that—let’s face it—are almost always headed for permanent obscurity. Then, too, a lot of “artists” give their stuff away for free, leading audiences to think all creative output should be free, unless, for instance, it’s written by Jonathan Franzen, whose wealth must approach Illuminati levels if he charges by the metaphor.

How come so much of your writing, both fiction and non-fiction, takes place in Brooklyn? And in Manhattan too, for that matter. Your newest book, Not Now, Voyager, has a lot of both places.

Maybe I should be called a regional writer. I grew up in Brooklyn, and even though I moved away at seventeen, it left its claws deep inside me. So much of what I’ve seen and done since is measured against my early memories, the house, the street, the school, the neighborhood. Not that they’re all great memories. The truth is that when I was living there, all I could think of was escape. I thought Brooklyn was boring. It was boring. And yet now, I seem to find it fascinating, in retrospect. It was a kind of closed community, with its own ways and habits, and those kinds of places are always intriguing to look at. (Today Brooklyn is completely different, of course, no longer boring. When I go back there, sometimes to look at the ocean or walk on the Boardwalk in Brighton Beach, it feels exotic.) As far as Manhattan, I’ve lived in the same neighorhood for many years now, and it feels like its own little enclave. I’m not so aware of place when it comes to architecture, stores, and so on. It’s more the feel of a place that grips me, the look of the sky at certain hours, where the sun sets, the sounds and smells, the general aura. I’ve written about other places I lived in—Rome, Honolulu, Boston, Philadelphia, St. Louis. But I always return to New York. It’s the place that feels right for me.

 

How come you’ve traveled so much, especially when you say in Now Now, Voyager that you don’t like it?

Some of it was for pleasure—visiting European countries for the first time as a young person. My husband and I lived in Rome long ago when he had a year-long Fulbright grant, and that was great. It wasn’t traveling—it was living. I had a grocery store, a bakery, all the things you need for a life and don’t get as a tourist. A lot of my traveling has been for work. I never had a permanent teaching job because I wanted my time for writing, so for years I lived like a nomad, taking one-semester jobs here and there, all over the country. But I was always a bit of the outsider, and I liked it that way. I didn’t want to be part of a large institution and have to obey its rules.

 

How did you manage to write so many books and teach and raise a family?

I really don’t know. Sometimes I wonder myself. I guess because I didn’t do much else. I don’t really like vacations that much. I like working. Those early books—I loved writing them. When I could sit at my desk and dream—that was what I liked best.

 

You have two grown daughters, I’ve heard. How did having and raising children affect your work?

Oh, what a question. I could write a book about it, and maybe someday I will. It’s very hard, as everyone knows. Almost impossible. Many contemporary women writers have families, but if you think about it historically, the writers we remember today, the very best ones, say Jane Austen, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Isak Dinesen—they didn’t raise children. Still, I don’t think I would have been a better writer without children. I probably would have been worse: loving and raising children taught me about life, and gave me so much to write about. When my kids were young, I would swear to myself that I’d put my work first; I thought a serious writer had to do that. But whenever the kids needed me or even wanted me, I dropped everything to be with them. Sometimes I wanted their company as a relief from writing. And I was very lucky: I had daughters who loved reading and writing, so I could spend hours reading to them and with them, which was part of the world of books that I loved. They entered into that world with me. The hard part, of course, is dividing your attention and your emotional energies, because both activities are so intense and demanding.

 

Do you ever think of what you might have done if you hadn’t become a writer?

All the time. I think I would have been good at running an organization or program of some kind—not a corporation, maybe a non-profit. I like to make order out of chaos and to tell people what to do. But I never got the chance to boss anyone around, except when my kids were very young, and that didn’t last long. I always wanted to play old popular tunes in a piano bar and have people drop bills into a wine glass on top of the piano. I wanted to sing and dance in musical comedy. But I think those things are pretty much beyond me now.

 

Do you think you’ll keep writing forever?

Probably. I used to write because I loved it, and it was an escape from daily life. Now I think I write more out of habit. It’s simply what I do once I’m up and dressed. I like translating—I’ve translated several books from Italian. Maybe I should have been a translator, I mean full-time. Translating has all the pleasures of writing, finding the right words, the right phrases and rhythms, except you don’t have to make the stuff up. That’s the hardest part.

 

Are you glad you started publishing when you did, in the 1980s?

I certainly am. I feel like I got in under the wire, before publishing started selling out to the conglomerates and the whole industry began disintegrating. I was at the tail end of a long and wonderful tradition of honorable book publishing that’s pretty much history now—or exists only in pockets here and there–which is very unfortunate. And I was lucky in having a terrific editor, Ted Solotaroff, who was loyal through my first six books and became a close friend. It’s much harder for younger writers now.

 

Do you have any advice for younger writers?

Nothing about how to get published. Business was never my strong suit. My main advice is, Read. Read great books carefully and learn from them. Don’t read only your contemporaries. You can learn a lot from the dead—remember they were once alive and struggling too.

 

 

In 1997, after the Christmas holidays slowed and we dragged the brittle tree out of the house and down to the edge of the woods, my parents and I packed everything I owned into their mauve Ford Taurus station wagon, and drove north from Tennessee to New York City.  We spent New Year’s Eve in a hotel room somewhere in between here and there.  It was snowing, and we were tired, and we didn’t stay up to watch the ball drop on television in Times Square, which we had done for many years with our neighbors, the Craft family, playing Trivial Pursuit until midnight.

When people talk about what super power they’d like to have, pay attention to what they say: Most people don’t want a particular power because it would be more fun or because they could use it to vanquish evil or right wrongs. They want it because it would be practical in more situations. More than anything, the powers people covet are invisibility and flight – because most people are both insecure and frequently late. Super strength would be more useful for fighting crime and saving lives, but who wants super strength? No one, because most people don’t get in fights or stumble into situations where they have to lift cars off of accident victims. People want the power of flight because it would let them sleep an extra twenty minutes on weekdays. They want invisibility because it would let them find out what their friends say about them when they aren’t there.
It’s safe to assume that superheroes get into the crime-fighting business – and supervillains into the crime-doing business – because of their powers. It’s not that Superman is incredibly strong and
extraordinarily virtuous. He’s just a basically decent guy who would be bored doing regular jobs. He could probably be a very productive construction worker, but he could only speed up a few projects, while thousands of others would proceed at a regular pace and continue to rely on backhoes and cranes and the like. And frankly, nothing I’ve read suggests that Superman would be a great architect, or an especially good general contractor. He doesn’t have super bidding powers, and no amount of physical strength can speed up the municipal licensing process. Fighting evil on a global scale is the only job where Superman’s talents are perfectly matched to the challenges he faces every day.
And that is, fundamentally, the thing we find appealing about superheroes – and about most heroes in popular entertainment: they have skill sets that are well-matched to interesting work, so it’s fun to watch them do their jobs. James Bond isn’t so appealing just because he’s a good spy – a lot of good spies, after all, are good because they excel at being boring and blending in. We like Bond because on top of stealing secrets and impersonating dignitaries, he’s handsome, clever, athletic, and seductive. He has a skill set that’s well-suited to every situation.
For most people, finding the match between skills and situation is the essence of defining happiness. We hope to marry and live with a person we like, someone we desire who desires us. We want to spend free time with friends whose company we enjoy and work in a trade at which we excel. Many of us do this fairly well, and we call that success, but it doesn’t make us heroes or superheroes or James Bond. The difference is that ordinary people, in finding what they do well, minimize the likelihood they’ll be forced to do something they’re bad at. Even those who take on challenges routinely tend to do so in a context where they’re more or less prepared to succeed. James Bond simply can’t find a challenge that he can’t overcome with panache. And for one night, when I was 22 years old, I couldn’t either.
Like most boys, I started out wanting to be a superhero. Not a flying, costumed crime-fighter, mind you – that was plainly unrealistic. Instead, I aimed for something more along the lines of a jedi – unexceptional to outward appearances, but under the right circumstances and with the proper training, able to discover and exploit latent talents. When we were about eight, my best friend and I sought to bring out our hidden powers through games that involved trying to intuit the movements of unpredictable things: usually, this took place in a darkened bathroom, where one of us would try to dodge the beam of a flashlight wielded randomly by the other. We also tried catching a glow-in-the-dark super-bouncy ball that we had thrown really hard against the inside of the bathtub. As you can probably imagine, neither of these activities was very successful.
By high school, I accepted the fact that I was unlikely to develop super powers. I also moved from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon, in eighth grade, so the void left by my hope for supernatural traits was flooded with the certainty that I was cooler than everyone around me. (Try to imagine – teenagers everywhere assume they know more than everyone else; and there I was, a thirteen-year-old citizen of the greatest, most cosmopolitan city in the world, displaced unwillingly to some backwater where everyone waited for the walk sign to change before crossing the street – even if there were no cars coming. I was pretty much intolerably superior.)
On top of that, people in Portland made fun of me for having a New York accent and for gesticulating a lot – which is weird because I don’t, really – and that spurred me to embrace this conception of myself as tough and New Yorky and street smart – which I definitely hadn’t been up to that point. So instead of being a superhero, I started to dream of becoming some sort of suave, underworld fixer – somewhere between James Bond and Easy Rawlins from the Walter Mosley novels. I didn’t want to be a criminal, exactly, but I wanted the connections to criminals that would allow me to move stolen merchandise or obtain some unusual item on short notice, and the detached cool of a movie bad guy. I also desperately wanted – and completely lacked – a vague hint of menace. The only concrete steps I took toward any of this during my high school years were to steal a lot of street signs and drink my coffee black.
My problem, fundamentally, was that I wanted to be good at stuff, but I didn’t have the patience to get good. Everything that briefly held some allure required practice, and many things required getting hurt: kung fu would have been great, or even just the sort of street-fighting skills one develops from regular brawling. But in martial arts training and in fistfights there’s a big getting-punched-by-people component, and I never had the stomach for it. It’s also hard to find the seedy underbelly of a place like Portland – and if you do, you realize it consists mostly of drunk people riding public buses. Also, I hated Portland and wanted desperately to go back to New York.
When I did return to New York, I couldn’t pick locks, fence hot stereos, or immobilize a man by pinching his neck just so. But I arrived with the zeal for personal invention that frequently suffuses college freshmen, and a renewed love for my hometown. I was determined to embrace New York more than I had when I was growing up, to discover its secrets and to make it thoroughly my own. This proved to be something I was willing to practice, and before long my knowledge of Brooklyn streets and Manhattan alleys was rather impressive. By sophomore year, I didn’t just know the nameless curry joint where the cabbies went for late night meals – I knew the cook. I could head out on my bicycle at one in the morning and reliably return in a few hours with something surprising and delightful: a dozen roses made of silk ribbon, a life-sized plaster cat, high-end salon products sold to me at bargain basement prices by the junkie who stole them. I had an office job that gave me access to free Tommy Hilfiger samples six months before they hit the street, and I knew a guy who worked at a printing shop in midtown who would buy those samples at a 200% markup.
Naturally, I mostly put all of this knowledge to the service of dating. Having long ago recognized that I was neither the best looking nor the most charming, I cultivated a particular sort of date and image, equal parts romantic comedy and street theater. This would involve piping hot loaves of bread purchased from the unmarked back door of a commercial bakery, wine purchased from a store that did not appear to sell wine, and, depending on the girl to be wooed, weed purchased over the counter from what, to the untrained eye, looked like an ordinary bodega. With provisions thus acquired we would picnic on the Brooklyn Bridge at midnight, or on the Staten Island Ferry at any time, or watch the sun rise on the beach at Coney Island. I was pretty good.
Once, my friend told me that her sister, who would be in town from Chicago for the weekend, was getting over a bad breakup and it would be really helpful if I could seduce her. I had never even seen her sister, but I figured my friend was fairly good-looking, so how bad could her sister be? I promised to do it, and I did, with a night of live jazz in a hole-in-the-wall club, front-row seats to a freestyle rap battle in a subway station, and of course, fresh bread and red wine on the Brooklyn Bridge under a full moon.
By the time I graduated college, I had pretty much let go of the idea that I would parlay street smarts and moxie into some sort of career. I had worked as a bike messenger for a while, which seemed pretty close to the ideal cover job for a modern-day, urban superhero, but it ended up involving a lot of injuries and didn’t pay terribly well. Don’t get me wrong, it was definitely fun, and it was perfect for expanding my network of low-grade black market connections (the office I hung out in between runs was in the same building as a strip club and a firing range). But for all the cachet that such a job had with certain girls, it cramped my style with others: I once had to cancel a much anticipated date because I got hit by a bus, and the blood inside the welt on my forehead was draining down into my eye socket and making me look too weird.
I also met my future wife shortly after college, and while my shtick proved useful in wooing her, it wasn’t so essential for keeping her. Pretty soon, we moved in together, I got a job that allowed me to keep ordinary hours, and life was good. We still drank wine under the moon on the Brooklyn Bridge, and I still had my little connections around town – free curried goat from the roti stand by the World Trade Center, the car service driver in Sunset Park who called me “Capitán” and would take me anywhere in the city for a flat eight bucks – but my childhood dream was doing what childhood dreams do in the best of circumstances: Slipping away without being missed.
And then, an early autumn night: Anna and I were at a bar in Manhattan for our friend’s birthday and it was a madhouse – too many people, the music oppressively loud, smoke everywhere mixing with the smell of sweat and beery breath and maybe even the night’s first hint of vomit. We went to the bar, but the crowd was swelling and pitching like the ocean, and try as we might, we could just not get back to our friend. In the midst of this, we found ourselves beside another friend of his, a woman we had met only once.
We all pantomimed our hellos over the din of the place, and then this woman, whose name I can’t recall, sort of swam closer to me in the crowd, and I leaned down to hear her: “This is a disaster!” she said. “I have another party to go to in Brooklyn. Do you guys want to come?” So I grabbed Anna and we waded out of the place, promising ourselves we would make it up to the birthday boy later. And from that moment forward, all my New York powers came together perfectly, and for one night, I was a superhero.
(First, two other important pieces of background:
(1) When I was a kid, my mom lived in a six-story brick building in the middle of a block full of similar buildings, on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. Each building had two fire escapes in the front and one in the back, and a long series of trash-strewn concrete yards ran the length of the block behind the buildings. Some of these yards were connected to one another; some were blocked by fences, and one was patrolled by a belligerent pit bull. The kids who lived on the block – me, Jose, Anthony, and Jared from my building, Eddie and Rashad from one building up, and a few others from here and there – played a complicated game of tag that covered the entire block. The rules were that we could go on the sidewalks in front of the buildings and in the yards behind the buildings, but not in the building lobbies or hallways. That meant that the only ways to get from sidewalk to yard were (a) through the basements, which were frighteningly dark and sometimes inhabited by the super of my building, Jose and Anthony’s alcoholic grandfather, who was always too drunk to tell which kids were in his family and which weren’t and consequently assumed we were all kin and he could beat any child he could catch; and (b) via the roof, which required going up a street-facing fire escape, across the roof, and down a yard-facing fire escape. This was the preferred option, and we did it frighteningly fast, partly because the faster we moved, the less likely we were to be seen by one of our moms, and partly because we were nine years old and too foolish to realize how dangerous it was.
(2) When I was a junior in high school, I spent a year in Argentina on a student exchange program. As a result, I can speak Spanish with a convincing Argentinian accent. Subsequent years in New York have trained me to speak with a passable Puerto Rican accent as well.)
So we came out of the bar and decided we should take a cab to the party in Brooklyn, because it was in Greenpoint, which is a pain to get to. But for whatever reason, all the cabs were full at that particular place and time. So while Anna and our new companion were feeling flummoxed, I did something that was really not that exceptional, unless you didn’t grow up in New York: I flagged down a car service car.

(Until I moved away, I didn’t realize this, but there are actually places that don’t have the car service/taxi distinction, so let me explain: In New York, yellow cabs must have a special medallion – an actual metal oval about six inches wide with a license number on it, bolted to the hood. These medallions are exceedingly rare and worth many thousands of dollars, and they cause the number of yellow taxis to be limited. Since cab fares are regulated, the margins are tight and there is a strong incentive for taxis to stay in Manhattan, where the concentration of wealthy people is greatest and the trips are generally short. To serve the rest of the city, there are car services: private cars licensed to carry passengers, but not permitted to pick people up without an appointment. You are supposed to call them and they come to you, and the fares are unregulated and subject to negotiation. Every refrigerator in Brooklyn and Queens has at least one magnet with a car service number on it, and most people in those boroughs have a strong opinion about which of the two or three competing services in their neighborhood is better.


What locals know that recent arrivals (and Manhattanites) don’t know, is that you actually can hail a car service car and they will pick you up. You see, there is an unwritten rule that car service cars have to be black, late-model American sedans with huge antennas and tinted windows. So if you see such a car, you can stick your hand out and flag it down. Of course, that’s what I did on my superhero night.)

So the girls settled into the back seat ahead of me and our new friend told the driver that we were going to Greenpoint, to which he said, “Twenty-five,” except that it was more like “twenny-fie,” because he had a thick Spanish accent. So I kept the door open and one foot on the pavement and I said, “Oye –¿qué te pasa, brother? Vamos a Brooklyn nomás. Si vas a ser así, podemos buscar un taxi.” What’s up with that, man? We’re only going to Brooklyn. If you’re going to be like that, we’ll just find a cab. It was sort of a gamble, because saying “brother” in Spanish is very Puerto Rican and this guy could have turned out to be Dominican and just told me to go fuck myself, but I had a hunch and I went with it. He paused for a second, looked over his shoulder at me, and said, “Fourteen.” I said, “Gracias, pa,” and closed the door.
As we headed to Greenpoint, our friend told us that the party was being thrown by a group of artists from Spain whom she met earlier in the week. They were visiting New York because one of them had a gallery show, and they were all staying in the loft of a local artist who was out of town, and had invited all of their Spanish friends for a big party before they flew back to Madrid the following afternoon. They told her that there was no doorbell for the loft, so she must call one of their cell phones so someone would come down and let her in. We called as we were getting out of the car, but no one answered, and we figured maybe we’d shout from the sidewalk or go in when some other tenant was leaving.

The loft was in an old factory building, a long four-story brick number with a boarded up loading dock next to the front door. We looked up at the dark facade, then peered into the dingy lobby to see if anyone was around. There was no one. There weren’t even any buzzers at all by the door. We called again, and again no one answered.


The building was next to an empty lot, blocked from the sidewalk by a tall chain link fence topped with razor wire. There was an old fire escape covering the side of the building facing the lot and extending over the sidewalk, past the razor wire, with the bottom rung of its iron ladder about fifteen feet above the ground. Walking over by the lot, we could see the side of the building, and there in the back, on the second floor, we saw the party. They had the door open onto the fire escape and music was blaring, and we could see people milling around inside with drinks in their hands – they looked Spanish, and artsy. We shouted to them and shook the fence, but they were too far from the street and their music was too loud. We called again, and again there was no answer – probably because the music was too loud for anyone to hear the phone.


Anna and our new friend slumped against the fence and cursed quietly, pondering how to salvage the evening now that we had bailed on the birthday party to stand on a sidewalk in Greenpoint. And then, without a word, I sprung into action: I leapt onto the fence and climbed to just below the razor wire, so my back was to the sidewalk and the bottom of the fire escape ladder was behind me, about three feet back and two feet up. And just as Anna said, “You’re going to get arrested,” I launched myself backward off the fence and up, and caught the fire escape with one hand, my feet swinging out toward the street. It was probably the most graceful and athletic thing I’ve done in my life, and I can’t even really describe it except to say that it was fucking incredible.


I grabbed on with my other hand and muscled my way up, one rung at a time. The muscles in my arms were burning and the rusty rungs of the ladder were pressing uncomfortably into my palms in a way I could recall from when I was a kid. For a second, I though I wouldn’t make it, but I held on, and pulled until I could get one foot on the ladder, and then the other foot, and then I was up! I swung around from one side of the ladder to the other the way I had done a hundred times high above Ocean Avenue, brushed myself off, and sauntered into the party as if I owned the place. I knew these Spaniards would be amused and surprised by an Argentinian accent, so I turned mine on full bore: “Look, boludos” I said in the sing-song, quasi-Italian, lilt, using the best known Argentinian insult, “We’ve been out there hollering for fifteen minutes and calling on the phone, and you guys are too busy to let us in!” Then, after a pause, “And could somebody get me a drink?”


The reaction was just as I’d hoped. Someone looked out onto the fire escape, looked at the razor wire and the weedy lot, and said, “Where did you come from?” and then, “Who are you?” Someone else handed me a beer. I looked at the next person I saw and said, “Come on, let’s go downstairs and let everyone in,” and fortuitously, I started walking in the right direction to get to the front door of the loft, reinforcing the impression that I knew everything there was to know about the place and all the people in it. 

And that was it, the childhood dream come true: Just as I stood on the precipice of adulthood, a year from marriage, four years from parenthood, seven years from buying a house; just as I was beginning the time-honored process of narrowing my circumstances to fit my strengths, I got one evening to be effortlessly good at everything, and stylishly so. When I opened the building’s front door, a drink in my hand and a Spaniard by my side, I was a suave, unflappable, Brooklyn James Bond. I looked at Anna and our new friend and said, “Are you two coming in, or what?”

I’ll Only Leave Manhattan in a Body Bag

 

Is it me or is the word suburbia loaded?

Like ‘stay-at-home mom’ or ‘Britney Spears’, suburbia has its fans, satirists, detractors. Until 2005, I was smugly ensconced in the third category, a self-styled city slicker who wore black garb, told cabbies the best route to get across town, exchanged intimacies with people riding elevators. Typical New Yorker. Suburbia to me — a psychologically-scarred Brooklyn-born kid whose family never ‘made it’ to Long Island — was an aseptic construct where women over 40 lost their edge and their calf muscles because they spent their days driving to the strip mall and schlepping kids to soccer practice.

“That will never be me,” I’d swear to my husband driving over the George Washington Bridge after visiting friends who lived in cavernous colonials with marbled foyers and Labrador retrievers. “Never!”

My lifelong scorn for suburbia enabled me to put up with every city-related inconvenience or absurdity. Circling like a hungry buzzard for a parking spot or keeping windows shut on hot summer nights to drown out whining sirens or the occasional gunshot. Even when I was tripping over my toddler’s loot, I believed IKEA was the solution to our ever-shrinking 700-square-foot apartment.

We could not afford a bigger apartment in a steroidal real estate market but I would not contemplate suburbia.

I was mentally and physically asphyxiated by my long-held beliefs that the sticks were filled with people who stopped going to independent films and who ate dinner before 7. Sure I was yearning for room and trees and a driveway but my childhood demons were ninjas. It all started the day my family piled into the yellow Cadillac to see the white house for sale in Long Island. At ten, this was the most glamorous house I’d ever stepped inside of – it was nothing like the cramped ones in Brooklyn. My mother wanted this house and this life more than anything in the world. My father didn’t. He thought a Cadillac in his driveway and a detached house in Canarsie was good enough. My mother’s brooding and envy for greener pastures turned into scorn for all-things-suburban. An emotionally resourceful woman, she came up with plan B: raise her daughters to worship Manhattan.

Throughout college, I tacked up in every dorm room I lived in a famous New Yorker Magazine poster that put Manhattan as the center of the universe. Then I went about spending my whole adult life there, becoming the quintessential New Yorker. You know, Woody Allen’s template.

Disturbingly at 43, for the first time in my life, my romance with Manhattan was wilting. Sept 11 had crushed me. The apartment walls were closing in on me. I wanted to step on Elmo’s face every time he said “Elmo loves you.” I was growing unrecognizable. I began to think my daughter needed a bedroom (rather than a creative space) of her own more than a first-class education on the Impressionists at the MET. I started to dream about what it would be like if she could distinguish between lavender and salvia. I thought about how delightful it would be to wake up to the whata-cheer-cheer-cheer of Northern Cardinals rather than screaming sirens.

My husband knew not to suggest suburbia – I considered it a four-letter word. Instead, Mr. Tactically Brilliant got me to spend long stretches of time in the country.

 

 

Call of the Wild

 

I am a city kid. Born in Brooklyn, I hung out on stoops, played kickball in the street, could hear neighbors when they fought.

But every summer, my parents shipped me off for eight weeks to sleep-away camp in the mountains. There I pulled a blanket over my head at night because I was afraid the bats in the rafters would sweep down and weave nests in my waist-length hair. At night, dark, black starry nights, I worried a bug-eyed country loon with a warm rifle would do us in. But each morning the sun rose and I plunged happily into the serene lake and was sad only when the sun set.

I was even sadder when the camp bus returned me to Brooklyn’s hot streets eight weeks later.

Three decades later, the country is a container of youthful memories. Julia was two when we rented a summer house in the Catskill Mountains. The little Arts-and-Crafts two-story cottage was set back from the dusty dirt road near a lake. I felt my chest expand every time we drove up on a Friday afternoon. Turning up the steep road after Ellenville, we’d pass hulking hotels, abandoned riding stables, bungalow colonies – some lived in, others reminders of days when the Catskills drew New York’s urban Jews by the droves. Sheep and goats grazed behind wire fences. This down-and-out depressed area is a no-man’s land to some but to a down-and-out stressed out urbanite it looks like paradise.

The cottage was rickety and unfinished – wires hanging where the owner meant to install a fixture – but the diaphanous lake seen through our window was like an Impressionist painting, changing colors with the hours of the day, altering perspectives with the opening and closing of the waterlillies on the lake’s surface.

I found unexpected peace and pleasure. I woke to bird song. My daughter and I yanked wild flowers, especially tiger lilies from the side of the road. We gathered bouquets in bunches and put them in tall skinny glasses. The day I swam across the lake to a tiny sandy beach on the other side I was transported back to my teen years at sleep-away camp, a time when I had felt most alive. The lake was telling me something. I had only to listen.

One day our landlord told us she was thinking of selling the cottage.

“Do you guys have any interest in buying it?” she asked.

My first instinct was to throw my arms around her and say “yes, yes, please, yes” but instead my husband said “We’d need to think about that.”

That night, after we tucked Julia into her crib, we went out on the deck. We crawled into a sleeping bag and gazed at a sky of diamonds. I think we were both afraid to start the conversation.

“So, have you given the idea any thought?” he asked.

“I love the idea but we can’t afford to maintain the apartment and a summer cottage,” I said.

“Yeah, I know, but it would be nice,” he said.

“I know,” I said. “If we could at least escape on weekends, I’d probably be a nicer person,” I said, wistfully.

“Maybe we should move up here permanently,” he said.

I thought he was joking, and left it at that.

In early September, on our final ride back to Manhattan in our car stuffed to the brim like the Beverly Hillbillies, I blubbered like a baby.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter asked my husband.

“She doesn’t like to leave the country,” he explained.

There it was—the simple truth. I wanted to be immersed in nature, to quiet the noise, to slow down the pace.

That September misery became a gauzy shroud. I secretly began scouring real estate listings on the Internet – unable to admit to my husband or myself I was thinking about leaving Manhattan’s hallowed ground. But viewing houses for sale on the Internet is additive. It was only so long before I’d break down and admit I had to live in one of those old farmhouses that looked so inviting on my computer screen.

The old house we bought was a total wreck. It had been on and off the market for five years. We viewed it on a January day, tramping through waist-deep snow. It was covered in cobwebs. Every window was broken, every door was warped, every wall was crooked. But a great brick hearth, strands of light pouring through skylights and a wall of windows facing acres of woods said “rescue me.” Deer grazing outside the window might have sealed the deal.

Taking in a shallow jittery breath, I said “I’ll take it.”

“Are you sure?” the broker asked. “This is a money pit.”

She wasn’t wrong but we jumped. Sometimes it is those insane decisions you make for the wrong reasons (or at least those your mother would say are the wrong reasons) that end up putting your life in the right direction.

The house needed a four-month top-to-bottom renovation. In that short span of time, I learned I had a knack for rebuilding a house. I discovered how good I can be under pressure. I figured out how the innards of a house work. I learned the alphabet soup of HVAC and BTUs. Four months gave me a life-time of experience, and at the end, a house that held my DNA.

During the renovation, we lived in the Catskills cottage. One night, I told my husband there was a drunk intruder stumbling around outside. We closed the lights in the house and peered outside. He was big, all right—I’d say about 400 pounds—and he didn’t give a rat’s bottom when we shone a flashlight into his beady silver eyes. He just looked up and presumably said, “Hey, I’m eating dinner. Buzz off.”

I accelerated the renovation, bringing down the whip even harder on the contractor. A week later we packed the car and drove HOME.

I cried again as we wended down the mountain.

“Why is mommy crying?” my daughter said.

“She’s crying tears of joy because we’re not going back to the city,” my husband explained.

 

***The rest of the collection is availabe on Amazon for $2.99.

 

 

Please explain what just happened.

I Googled all the past Nervous Breakdown questionnaires to see how other, wittier people answered this question.

What is your earliest memory?

It probably would be the time myself and a fellow three-year-old helped ourselves to the whiskey in her mother’s drinks cabinet. I mean, it would be if I could actually remember that. I got a head-start on wiping out neurons.

 

If you weren’t doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?

Whatever I’d choose, they wouldn’t let me do it. Probably wisely.

 

Please explain what just happened.

I judged a high school/middle school battle of the bands. Female art-rockers prevailed over arena-ready, emo-tinted boy rock. Every one of the four categories of winners had a girl in the band–and only one was a high school band. The middle-schoolers were, predictably, more of a shambling lot, but were a lot stranger, and funnier, in their creative choices.

 

What is your earliest memory?

Disneyland. I’m in a stroller, and one of the seven dwarves is looming over me.

 

If you weren’t a musician what other profession would you choose?

Penniless song collector.

Please explain what just happened.

Large black fill-ins with the old Krylon farmer, fluorescent orange as an outline, on a rooftop right near the Manhattan Bridge.

What is your earliest memory?

Receiving a drum kit from my Dad for my fifth birthday. He got it at the Goodwill.

If you weren’t a musician what other profession would you choose?

Matt and I have been lucky enough to play and joke together for going on 9 years. I might have been good at racing cars or some type of I.T. job though.

 

I meet Matt at BookCourt an hour and forty-five minutes before the reading in Brooklyn. I haven’t seen him in months. Every time we reunite, I think the same thing: this room isn’t big enough to contain two people as beautiful as this. I consider loathing myself for this — it’s not a competition — but there it is all the same. In my head the words take up physical space and I visualize pushing them aside so they disappear somewhere near the ear canal.

I Heard That – The Hard Bop and Slow Blues of Brooklyn’s Eric Wyatt

Jazz saxophonist Eric Wyatt with mentor and godfather Sonny Rollins

I first met the American saxophonist and Sonny Rollins protégé Eric Wyatt on a bitterly cold rainy night in Shanghai a couple of years ago, when I was still sore in the hip and limping from the little street urchin who’d gaffer taped himself to my thigh in a late night ambush outside my hotel, which I strangely had to admire for its sheer commitment.

When I first saw you, you were shuffling down the aisle of a crowded train, pausing every few seats to check in—

“How do I get to Myrtle?”

“How do I get to Myrtle?”

“How do I…”

I’ll admit to feeling a prick of annoyance (not another one), but it passed on realizing your compromised condition—a slight allover tremor, eyes milky with age. You were lost, and without assistance. When you got to where I was, it was time to step out. Thinking fast—Myrtle… Myrtle Avenue?—I said I could help you; I reached for your arm, and you gave it to me. As we stood together on the platform, I asked you for more, for anything. But all you could give was “Myrtle,” plus a few extras like “want” and “need,” conjuring an image of Myrtle not as place but as woman pined for. I consulted a subway map anyway, a matrix of colored strings to confuse the spriest of us. Pointing out various neighborhoods Myrtle Avenue traverses, I looked for signs—an affirming nod, flicker of recognition: home. None came. Instead, a new word, faint but there: “Lewis, Lewis and Myrtle.” Energized, I trailed a finger, inching east, and… Lewis. Lewis Avenue: a mere three complicated train transfers away. Daunted on your behalf, I did my best to explain the complexity of what awaited should you attempt again the train, next asking softly if you had money for a cab home. You were keeping up well enough, because you pulled out a billfold, which you opened and held open for me, revealing a brave sad emptiness. I told you it was okay, I could pay for your ride, and you followed me silently, slowly up the stairs and out into the circus that is downtown Brooklyn during rush hour. As you waited somewhere at my back, I watched cab after cab clear the intersection, every last one taken. An irrational desperation crept steadily in, erasing relationship woes, that problem at work, until the only thing left to care about was getting you out of all this. I chanced a quick look behind—your face, that impossible read—and a second later a yellow car was slowing at the curb. I filled in the driver, paying in advance, in approximate, and he gave you a kind smile, understanding. “We’ll getcha there.” You took some time getting situated, organizing your tired bones in that backseat, and I stood there wondering about so much… Your solemn “thank you” caught me unawares, struck deep, though I don’t believe it changed anything important.

Years out, certain evenings when I’m feeling lost, lived up, I take to Brooklyn’s quieter streets and think of you and our exchange. I hope you made it home alright,

home to your Myrtle.

Jackie was from Newport, Rhode Island, which as far as Franny knew was Nowhere, Rhode Island, and even though she was from Brooklyn, they both felt like total rubes at Barnard, where all the city girls wore going-out clothes to English class just because they felt like it. Their dormitory room was exactly the same as all the others on the hall, narrow and Spartan, perfect for two eighteen-year-old nuns. Jackie tried to spruce it up with some pictures she’d cut out of magazines, mostly models dressed up to look like Ali MacGraw. The two girls tried to do the same—sweeping bell-bottoms and collegiate sweaters. The effect was not great on Jackie, with shoulders as wide as an Iowan football player or on Fran, who stood just over five feet and had to hem every pair of pants by several inches, sometimes cutting off the bells entirely.

Clearly, Emma, you are a liar. Your book, Fly-Over State, is billed as a novella, when everyone can see that it is nothing more than a short story. How do you sleep at night?

I had no idea this interview was going to be so hostile. But, yes, you’re right, it is a short story. It is a long short story, at least by my own standards. When Flatmancrooked approached me about their New Novella series and Launch program, the emphasis seemed to be on the ‘New’ and ‘Launch.’ It is also possible that I am a bad listener. Hopefully, the story is satisfying enough that one feels as though they’ve read a novella.

There was semi-recently an internet kerfuffle on the topic of babies in bars in Brooklyn, which I have been thinking about a lot but, because I have one of these babies, have not had time to properly respond to until now.  Yes, I realize that the world has been clamoring for the response of me, an eminent Park Slope literary mama (by which I mean, of course, the author of an under-read novel, the mother of a one-year-old and yet NOT a member of the Park Slope Parents website and thus obviously not much of a mother at all, and a lowly renter rubbing elbows with the owners of million-dollar brownstones).  
 
And so I will tell you, dear readers, that there was something about the story and ongoing response to it that really got me.  What on earth is wrong with people? I thought every time I read some vitriolic comment from a non-breeder who no doubt had time to compose the perfect snarky retort after sleeping until noon and then reading the entire newspaper.  Babies are wonderful. Babies are the best things on Earth.  I take my baby everywhere, because what, am I meant to hole up in my apartment all day, everyday?  Thus is the joy of having a baby in Brooklyn, after all -– there are tons of entertaining places to go.  We can walk to any number of growing-brain-stimulating places, the baby and me.  I can plop her in the carrier or stroller and take her to a coffee shop, or an art museum, or even, yes, a bar.  And I have, a very few times – always in the middle of day, mind you – taken her to bars, the kind of bars that serve food and, you know, have high chairs.  (Holla, Bar Toto!)

After all, we were all babies once!  And babies are people too!  Adorable, lovey, magical, sweet-smelling tiny people!  What’s more, I maintain that adults who hate babies have something seriously, sociopathically wrong with them.  I mean, sure, it’s true, sometimes babies cry.  But the sound of a baby’s cry is about a tenth as annoying as most of the conversations you overhear in places like bars.  I mean!  What is wrong with people?
 
Anyway.  As awesome as my baby is, I admit that sometimes I need a break.  After all, I am with her all day every day without any childcare, and my husband often works late nights and weekends, which means, you know, A LOT of uninterrupted time, just babe and me.  So the other night after a particularly grueling bedtime, I excused myself for some mommy-me-time.  I strolled down the block, and threw some baby clothes in a machine over the laundromat (I’m not that self-indulgent after all!) and then wandered into my quiet neighborhood bar.  There was candlelight.  There was inoffensive indie rock.  I ordered a beer – a beer! – and settled in with a novel – a novel!  For a few amazing moments, it was just me and my pals Stella and Mary.  I could feel my shoulders untensing.  I hadn’t had a moment like this in months, and this moment would only last about thirty minutes before I had to retrieve my laundry and go back home.
 
And then I heard it. 

A giggly coo. 

A baby, I thought.  In the bar.  You have  got to be fucking kidding me
 
This baby was mega cute, and having just learned to walk was toddling around on her chubby legs with the drunken strut of a 13-month-old with places to go.  She sidled up to me and commenced to play peekaboo behind my table. 

The problem is, I love babies, always have, and have always been the one to, yes, entertain someone’s baby in a random public setting.  I wanted to indulge the little girl.  And I wanted to provide her parents a moment of peace as they ate their fancy meals.  But also, I really, really didn’t.
 
I was tempted to explain myself to her father who came to retrieve her once it became clear I wasn’t going to play.  It’s just that this is the one half-hour in like a year that I don’t have to entertain a baby, I wanted to say.  And anyway, also, what the CRAP man, it is 9pm! Why is your baby even up and out and nowhere near going to bed? A side note: I hate when people judge each other’s parenting.  I judge people who judge other people’s parenting.  But also, I was feeling very, very judgmental. “She’s so cute,” I managed, weakly.  I offered a very small smile.   She grabbed at my book.  “Oh, ha ha.  She likes Nabokov?”  NabAHkov, I said it.
 
The hipstery-facial-haired be-courderoyed father had a smile that resembled a wince.  “Oh, yes, she just loves her NaBOOkov,” he said, inflecting my beloved author’s name with an exaggerated Russiany pronunciation.
 
And then you better believe it was on.  No help for you, buddy!  I tugged my book away from the pretentio-tot and willed my smile to vanish.  I pulled out the big guns.  “Okay, bye-bye!” I said.  I covered my face with the book, like a bad spy in a movie.  “Bye-bye,” said bar-baby. 
 
She toddled back a few more times and I worked hard to ignore her every time.  I even tried not to notice her loitering near the bathroom door and almost getting knocked out every time someone came out, though the mother in me was dying to hop up and usher her away, or at least warn her parents, who were busy ordering dessert.  But the heartless bar-fly in me (she’s small, but she’s in there) enjoyed ignoring the baby in peril.  Even when she finally bit it and began to howl.  I didn’t even offer a sympathetic look!  In fact, I GLARED!  I can sort of hear that baby’s crying above the jukebox and chatter, I meant my mean look to say.  And I am not pleased!  The now-harried-looking parents scooped up their little drunken sailor and scooted.  I looked around for someone to toast, but no one else seemed to have noticed the whole drama at all.

In conclusion: babies in bars are totally fine and obviously everyone should be nice to them and their parents.  But only if they happen to be my baby.  All other babies should be tucked in bed and kept out of my goddamned sight.

After an extended period of contented real estate monogamy, my family and I have outgrown our one-bedroom Brooklyn floor-through (it’s not you, it’s us!) and so, despite its great location, lovely landlords, double exposures, and adorable mice, we have been looking for new place. And by that I mean, we have looked at about fifty places. At least. Over the course of this search I have come to two conclusions: 1) There are no deals in New York realty, and 2) Apartment-searching is a bit like dating. I say this having never really dated, and so I am open to the idea that this analogy might be absurd, but follow me, if you will:

Because we are not desperate to move, we (much like serial daters in New York) have the luxury/curse of getting to be really picky. You look at a place (go on a date). You think, eh, it’s okay. It has some slightly ridiculous problem as most NYC apartments, and people, do – no tub, or no closets, or it’s on the fifth floor (real estate equivalents of an annoying laugh, or being too short or too tall– all things you could overlook if you were really in love, proving that you aren’t). So you think, eh, I’ll wait. Something better might come up next week. And you look at some more places (go on a few more dates). You start to forget that you yourself are not perfect either. After all, you want to receive a lot and give a little. But it’s easy to forget this because you are in New York City after all, and while there are a lot of duds (dank basements for $2500 a month/drooling hobos peeing into milk jugs on the subway) you know that there is also the possibility of perfection (gorgeous brownstones with jewel-box backyards/surprisingly humble models who really just want to work with children).

And thus, we have become the real estate equivalent of the dater who just can’t settle down because she always suspects there is something better right around the corner. Because there probably is. There must be! There just MUST be a non-crappy, large 2+ bedroom in a decent neighborhood near the train within a young family’s budget…right? With room in the hallway to store a stroller? And if it could possibly not be a directly beneath the freeway/adjacent to a housing project or live poultry shop/actively on fire, that would be super sweet too.

(Dear non-New-Yorkers, know that what I am asking for is roughly the equivalent of hoping to see a unicorn making love to a liger while sliding down a rainbow. Realtors have literally laughed at me.)

(Oh, and by the way, Dear Realtors. Please stop telling me that a “cozy little room” is a “perfect nursery” when it is clearly a closet. And that door-less “bedroom” leading into the kitchen? That’s called a dining room. I’m not that stupid.)

If only I could cobble together bits and pieces of the 50-some places we’ve seen. The windowed sunroom of the Windsor Terrace tempter; the two large, separate bedrooms of the wackadoodle co-op; the backyard with cherry tree of the crazy people’s place in Kensington; the elevator and pristine laundry room of the Ocean Parkway condo; the PS 10 school zone of the livingroom-less wonder. The most perfect apartment would rise like Frankenstein’s monster and shuffle-step over to our current abode, gathering into its guts all of our belongings and placing them just so. Then it could lurch back to its quiet, tree-lined street with ample parking and a cute, never-crowded, baby-friendly, inexpensive café/bookstore/organic fruit stand right by the park. “Dang,” we would say to each other, “it’s almost too sunny in here!” And, “Sheesh, what are we going to do with all this closet space!” And, “Darn this spare bedroom, now everyone we know is coming to visit us.”

Sigh.

On the upside, house-hunting does provide a unique treat for a writer and/or nosy person: the opportunity to boldly snoop where you would otherwise never go. How else would we ever have visited the Sunset Park apartment with the room dedicated entirely to collections of crystal and its bedroom display of hardcore gay porn? Under what other circumstances would we have seen the Queens haunted-house foreclosure with its friendly squatters, or the Crown Heights edifice that’s become affectionately known in our household as “the murder house,” or the dramatic decorative stylings of Alexei, he of the space-ship-Jacuzzi-shower, circus-tent-ceilinged-living-room, and belanterned “wine cellar” closet with its brick-veneer-wallpaper? We’ve dated oh so many homes and though we’ve had our hearts broken more than a few times at least, like a commitment-shy ladies’ man (or man’s lady), we have some stories to tell.

There is no fairytale-wedding-style-ending to this tale–not yet, anyway. But the other we did measure the baby’s crib to see if it would fit in my office. Which is really a closet. And you know? It just might.

[Ed Note: But then that night a leak busted a hole through the ceiling of that room, breaking the plaster and ruining many books! It has not been fixed! And to that I can say only: HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA! HA!]