The Bronx is Yearning

August 21, 2009 | 5 books mentioned 6 5 min read

I.
coverThe Bronx is hot.  Meaning, it’s all the rage. It may not be burning anymore, but its image continues to smolder. The nomination and confirmation of Sonia Sotomayor to the United States Supreme Court put the Bronx on the media map in a particular way – as a place wherefrom tough, brilliant figures rise up — out of the ashes, so to speak, to become prominent leaders (Attorney General Eric Holder has been cited as another Bronx-emerging Obama appointee, the footnote of his urban-tough origins a weird tagalong trailing behind Sotomayor’s blazing coattails).

Although, more often than not, the Bronx seems to come up in the phrase Bronx-born.  In other words, as far as the media (including the arts media) is concerned, the Bronx is a bad hand you get dealt; it’s the place that you survive, and then surmount, and eventually flee.  The cinema has immortalized for us this gritty, get-out-while-you-can image of the Bronx in films like Bonfire of the Vanities, Summer of Sam, and Fort Apache, The Bronx.

In 1931, The New Yorker published this couplet by Ogden Nash:

The Bronx?
No Thonx

(Thirty-three years later, in 1964, Nash penned the following poem to the Dean of Bronx Community College: I can’t seem to escape / the sins of my smart-alec youth; / Here are my amends. / I wrote those lines, “The Bronx? / No thonx”; / I shudder to confess them. / Now I’m an older, wiser man / I cry, “The Bronx? God / bless them!”)

New York State Senator and Democratic Majority Leader Pedro Espada, Jr. (33rd Senate District, the Bronx) is under investigation for (among other things) allegedly keeping a dummy apartment residence in the Bedford Park section of the Bronx while primarily living in an affluent suburban area in Westchester County.

Writers – Bronx-born – off the top of my head:  E.L. Doctorow, Don Delillo, Richard Price, Abraham Rodriguez, John Patrick Shanley.  After doing a little research: Herman Wouk, Moss Hart, Theodore Dreiser, Oliver Sacks, Paul Attanasio, Sarah Jones, Chazz Palminteri (yes, just like his character Cheech in Bullets over Broadway, he wrote – a one-man theatrical piece upon which Robert DeNiro’s A Bronx Tale was based). None, as far as I know, stayed or returned.

II.
Colson Whitehead
wrote about moving to Brooklyn in the mid-90s because he wanted to be “part of a vibrant cultural scene.”  His tongue-in-cheek piece about Brooklyn-as-literary-mecca ran in the NY Times Book Review in March 2008:

As you may have heard, all writers are in Brooklyn these days.  It’s the place to be.  You’re simply not a writer if you don’t live here.  Google “brooklyn writer” and you’ll get, “Did you mean the future of literature as we know it?”  People are coming in from all over.  In fact, the physical act of moving your possessions from Manhattan to Brooklyn is now the equivalent of a two-year MFA program.  When you get to the other side, they hand you three Moleskine notebooks and a copy of “Blogging for Dummies.”  You’re good to go… In interviews, I get asked a lot, “What’s it like to write in Brooklyn?”… I expect… it’s like writing in Paris, but there are fewer people speaking in French.

III.
coverI live in the Bronx – in the southeast corner of the borough in a neighborhood called Port Morris. I lived in Brooklyn a few years back.  When I lived in Brooklyn, I didn’t write much.  After I moved to the Bronx, I wrote a novel.  Mostly, I write alone, at a desk, on a laptop.  Out my south window, I see the Triborough (recently renamed RFK) Bridge, the Bruckner Expressway, and the on-ramp to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.  It’s noisy here; we’re surrounded by industrial plants and the rumbling trucks which transport their equipment and materials.  Port Morris is both sanitation-plant central (the sweet smell of garbage hovers, especially in muggy weather) and the asthma capital of the world.  There are no bookstores or wi-fi cafes.  I don’t talk to people about what they’re reading on the subway; not very many people are reading (books) at all on the 6-train after the Harlem stop, the last stop in Manhattan.  Although the other day, I saw a young man – probably 18 or 19 – reading Alex Ross’s The Rest is Noise.

I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to live in Brooklyn as a writer.  Setting off for the corner coffee shop with my laptop and travel mug and student stories and six bucks to my name, only to be stumbled into by one of the Jonathans – Lethem, Safran Foer, or Franzen – who would be standing in line in front of me, iPhone to his ear, stepping back to survey the scone selection in the display case.  “Oh, sorry about that,” Jonathan would say with genuine remorse, as I grit my teeth to bear the pain of a squashed pinky toe.  Then, back to the iPhone:  Six figures?  Just based on the proposal? Optioned, too? Excellent.  Gotta go, the last blueberry-bran scone has got my name on it.

I wonder what it would be like to live in… Iowa City as a writer.  Fresno?  Portland?  London?  I wonder if it matters at all anymore where you live.  I wonder what “literary community” means these days.  Even way back in 2008, when Facebook was (to me) still that college-kids thing, Whitehead mused:

A lot of my writer friends live near me, and that makes people think we just hang around with one another in cafes, trading work and discussing Harper’s and whatnot.  But I rarely see them.  We’re home working… It would be swell if it were otherwise – if there were some sort of unified Brooklyn vision.  But you’d have to be a bit dense to confuse a geographical and economic accident with an aesthetic movement, no matter how sick you are of hearing about how green the grass is over here, no matter how much you long for that nurturing Elysium of your dreams.

IV.
I’ve been thinking lately about moving to Manhattan. A change may be on the horizon. Cafes, bookstores, parks, readings, what not.  I don’t know, though…

On warm evenings, when I’m working at home, I like to sit on our 4th floor window sill facing the street, beholding from a bird’s eye the waterproofers and metal workers; my legs dangling over onto the fire escape, waiting and watching for my partner J. to come home.  I look down at the old Puerto Rican woman sitting on her stoop – the one who laughs at me when I attempt to parallel park in front of her house – and she waves at me, pointing to the little TV set she’s brought out with her, then pumps both her fists in the air in praise of the Yankees.  The happy transvestite from two doors down rushes up the old woman’s stairs on cloppy high-heels and pushes her way past, barreling through the front door (I’m pretty sure someone’s dealing drugs in there).  To the west, on another neighbor’s rooftop, a lush garden—a veritable local farm’s worth of vegetables—grows from contractor buckets and halved metal burn barrels, green beans and cucumber blossoms vining their way up the TV antenna and vent pipes.  And Mayor Bloomberg has recently graced our block with tree plantings – a boon, especially, for my pup.

On clear nights, we sometimes climb up to the rooftop with a beer and a cigar and watch the blinking lights circle and land at LaGuardia Airport, one after another, like gently, patiently falling stars.  Bridge traffic never seems to relent, no matter what time of day or night. From where we are, we can see the three boroughs, three cityscapes – Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx – everyone shuttling back and forth, here to there and back again.  This is the Bronx, but really, it’s a crossroads. I like the suspension, and the motion. For a writer, it’s a kind of exile – the good kind.  It’s as if, from here, if anything-anyone-anywhere started to burn, or surmount, or speak French, or forge a unified literary vision, we’d see it, and hear it, and smell it; and then, I’d write about it.

Photo by Sonya Chung

is author of the novels Long for This World (Scribner 2010) and The Loved Ones (Relegation Books 2016), which was a selection for Kirkus Best Fiction 2016, Indie Next List, Library Journal Best Indie Fiction, TNB Book Club, Buzzfeed Books Recommends, and Writer's Bone Best 30 Books 2016.  She is founding editor of Bloom and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.  Learn more about Sonya here.

6 comments:

  1. Sitting here in my northwest corner of the Bronx with all the fans going… it is indeed hot. And yeah, definitely a kind of exile. No hip coffeeshops to sit in and run into friends, no bookstores, galleries, no decent restaurants really. It’s not a setup that encourages any kind of society — all the friends I’ve made up here I met at the dog run. On the other hand: lots of light and space, a big yard, and a garage for not too much money. Some days that’s enough — the exile is good for my work habits, and I cook a lot, and I don’t spend much money — and some days it drives me right up the wall.

  2. I always say I can’t move to New York because there are too many fiction writers. But maybe the Bronx is for me. After this post you might find a new influx of writers in the neighborhood–and your exile will end…

  3. Hello,

    I own The Bronx Times at Bronx.com and would be happy to publish your piece under your name on our pages. Please let me know if you would like to do that.

    Thank you,
    Peter

  4. Oliver Sacks was born in North London and I believe they were fairly well off, or at least comfortably middle class; he lived on City Island and worked at Beth Abraham in the Bronx (where the book and film Awakenings is based). I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to cite him as “Bronx-born.”

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