Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City

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Not-Reading Is Fundamental

“The gizmo, the golden, deceptive, brass-filled gizmo, was gone at last.”  So reads the final sentence of Jim Thompson’s con-man sleaze-romp The Golden Gizmo, which I finished last week.  Though it ran under 200 pages, the story was crammed with double-crosses, faked deaths, and a massive talking dog.  There were shady gold dealers and exiled Nazis, a femme fatale and a hag of a wife.  I’d been mildly confused throughout, but the ending tied things up efficiently enough.  I had questions, but not many complaints.  After rereading the final line, I admired the cover image: a grainy photo of hundreds being shuffled.  I flipped to the last page and inspected books “Also Available From Jim Thompson.”  And with that, I had squeezed all that I could from The Golden Gizmo.  I returned it to its narrow gap on the shelf, scanning the books that I hadn’t yet read.  But I didn’t pick a new one, not just yet.

In recent months, that moment of lingering, of browsing my own library, has become one of my favorite aspects of reading.  In the past, I’d immediately swap the book I’d just read for a new one, a literary chain-smoker.  But now I take my time—luxuriating in possibility, enjoying expectation, and pondering what’s next with a real, idle pleasure.

And after finishing the Thompson book, my options seemed endless.  I’ve lately been in stockpile mode, picking up The Curious Case of Sidd Finch, Lush Life, and A Prayer For the City.  A friend had given me Lonesome Dove, The Bronx is Burning, and Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.  There was The Punch, about Kermit Washington’s near-fatal swing at Rudy Tomjanovich during a 1977 NBA game.  And of course, the dozens of titles—by T.C. Boyle and Frank Herbert, Pete Dexter and Chris Elliot—that I’ve owned for years and have never quite gotten to.  From all of these, I happily chose nothing.

Instead, I let my mind drift around the books’ edges, nourished by thoughts of what they would bring: Plimpton’s erudite humor, Price’s ordered chaos, Bissinger’s knowing outrage.  I could conjure T.C. Boyle’s dexterity and Pete Dexter’s toughness.  Though I denied myself the satisfaction of engagement, I also avoided disappointment: did I really need to read a 1,000-page western—or, for that matter, anything by Chris Elliot?  I don’t even really like westerns, and Get a Life was axed when I was still in Reebok Pumps.  Better, perhaps, to let those remain abstract and idealized.

In this nebulous state, anticipation is also fed by jacket design.  The Punch looks especially awesome: the cover is spare, with bright orange type over a blown-out picture of the titular incident.  It’s violent, discomfiting, hard to ignore.  The book looks so good that, to be honest, I don’t want to spoil things by actually reading it—getting bogged down, as I suspect I will, in the minutiae of Carter-era neurology and Kermit’s deep regret.  Nonetheless, The Punch calls to me.  Knowing the sex won’t be as good as you’ve dreamed is no reason to keep your pants on.

Post-Gizmo, I spent five days like this—weighing my options, considering my desires.  I caught up on my comic books and magazines, cleared out unread newspapers.  And then, with private fanfare, I walked upstairs for a book.  I’d recently bought And Here’s the Kicker, a collection of comedy interviews—but after glancing through it, I found I wasn’t in the mood.  Mamet’s Bambi vs. Godzilla was enticing, but something—maybe its candy-colored fight-night cover—pushed me past.  The Punch, too, would have to wait.  In the end, I picked Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life.  It looked breezy and smart, and had come highly recommended.  I took it down, laid in bed, and began to read.  It was wry and nostalgic, serious and absurd.  I’d made the right choice.  It even contained a line I found relevant to my dilatory new habit: “Most of us go about our duties of commerce and leisure in a state of perpetual longing.”  I thought about that.  My postponement of reading was a way to embellish that longing, to make it even more deliciously perpetual.  After thirty years, I’d found one more way to wring enjoyment from books—even as they sat on the shelf.

The Bronx is Yearning

I.
The 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.
I 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

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