Saturday, August 1, 2015

A New Yorker

  My last apartment in NYC, in Brooklyn, had 10 radiators.
  My bedroom walls were lined with cast iron. I slept with a 2 foot gap between me and the metal. Between me and burn marks. Dating me had its risks.
  I did a lot of cycling. Almost no rental units have washers and dryers.
  I thought, "hmm, perfect way to dry stuff." 
   My landlord didn't agree. "Put nothing on top of the radiators. Nothing touches them." 
   So in a rare effort toward manliness I built shelves. Counter tops framed above and around the heaters. 
  Went down to the hardware store run by the Guyanans, conferred with David the son of the elder owners who'd occasionally give me slices of a jam filled cake on holidays I didn't recognize, dragged home the wood he assured me wouldn't buckle in the heat (it didn't) and built me some tan shelves around the black metal monsters in my temporary home. 
   And as soon as I finished them, I remembered that my parents had done the same thing. 
   Pittsburgh. 317 Chestnut St. The radiator in the dining room behind dad's chair, between him and the windows had a wooden "top" where mom packed her plants in rows to catch the southern light. 
  The rear radiator, a spectacular thing, ran the width of the living room with a 2x6 bent across it. A tribute to wooden suspension. And on top of that my parents piled their magazines. Scores of them. Hundreds. Starting on the right with the Nat Geos, the Smithsonian's, Dad's National Defense Quarterlies, Jane's Ships, left over LL Beans leaning into Consumer Reports, merging with mom's knitting instructionals and the odd radical tomes my brothers brought back from college and piled within all that sliding and sorting, like decks of cards in an abandoned casino were the New Yorkers. Years of them. Decades. 
   When I was young I sat by that radiator with my cats who liked the view and the heat. I sat there with them and pretended to have a desk. I'd slide my feet under the radiator, a little sting earned where the keel of the iron met my skin and I'd read my parents' leftovers. Magazines printed before I was born. Articles about countries that didn't exist anymore. I wondered, if I mailed a check to LL Bean for the price of a pair of boots in 1968 would they send them back?
    I couldn't believe people had been writing all this stuff, printing all this material, year after year after year. They hired people and sent them out. They paid people to tell other people about their vacations. You could get a job doing this. And there it all was for me to page through. To learn about the world from a hilly street corner in a collapsing steel town in Western Pennsylvania where almost no one was getting paid to do anything they used to do.
     The New Yorkers came to me late. They didn't have photographs. They reeked of adulthood. Little print. Black and white cartoons. For a child what could be worse?
   And then one day it happened, what could be better? 
    I often say to my friends I never want to be a child again. I don't long for childhood. I don't miss it. I don't want to run around in a smock and play with dolls and little toys, setting up campaigns and conquests or drawings car engines and guns or costumes and kittens, unconcerned with what adults care about because what adults care the most about, deep down, is love. The problem, or the promise, is that that love, adult love,  comes coupled with sex. 
  And suddenly love isn't easy. It's dangerous. It's epic. And often of course a tragedy.
   We love children and how easy it is for them to "love", how clear their emotions are but it's kind of like how "good" child actors are. They're not acting, they're just charming. They're playing tennis with the net down. They don't have the stakes that matter, that we're all gonna die for.
   One day, I was re-enacting Battlestar Gallatica episodes with my 12 year old buddies up in the attic or debating whether or not Vida Blue was a better pitcher than John Candelaria and then the next day I walked outside it was all just over and done with. I didn't want to play with Legos or build an empire of guns and tools and dirt and name it Narnia or whatever fantasy I was being fed lately, I didn't want to act out war movies scene by scene, or argue which Pittsburgh Steeler had the best head fake or the best arm. 
    I wanted to watch Laurie Murphy walk down the street. 
    I wanted to sit with her and see the finial hairs on the back of her neck catch the sun. 
    I wanted to watch her blink. I wanted to watch her breathe. Run. Flex. Bend. Be.
    Nothing else.
    Everything else was just wrapping, just foam flying off the sea. 

  And right about then the New Yorkers became very interesting. 
  They didn't come out every month like the Geographic. They weren't quarterly like dad's military magazines. The weren't even simply weekly. They had a day printed in the cover , " March 23, 1983" a specific day they'd been made back there in NYC and shipped to you to receive. 
   They talked about the previous week just passed in NYC , city politics, parties attended, artists interviewed, odd balls asked opinions of, all of it brought to us out there in the Appalachians and I couldn't quite wrap my head around why we were allowed to read it. I mean, we weren't NYers, how come we got a subscription? 
    Years later when I asked my Eisenhower republican father why he read such a lefty publication he answered , "so i can see what the enemy is thinking." 
  Like the guy afraid to cry during Charlotte's Web my dad privately loved the thing-  he read it cover to cover soon as it arrived. I can see him smiling to himself, wagging his feet back and forth - as clear a sign dad was content as your dog kicking when you scratched him- and I cursed myself that he and I now truly had something in common. 
  The painted covers, the waxed silky stock, the company typeface changing font mid page, the narrow columns, the two or three poems which appeared among the fiction and the non, and those ridiculous ads in the rear, tiny things from stores and schools too small you'd think to afford the rent. but there they were, the end. On my tombstone I wouldn't be upset if, "And he finished his New Yorkers" was carved across the top.
   They gave me diction and an education. They rescued me from countless hours trapped in airports, auditions, subways and bus stations. They've pulled me out of the depression and doldrums that tv only deepens. 
   And they taught me what was love. What printed love was. What passion could come up out of the page. The same passion that walked down the street, that hummed off the skin, came out of a sentence. A voice. Astonishing.
  I drove to Reading PA once because I wanted to see the house where John Updike had spent his childhood. He was from Shillington, a small town just north of Reading and it was still there, a tiny white framed workmen's home on a inconspicuous street. A team of architects used it as an office then but they let me wander around for an hour or so which now that I think of it makes me laugh. They didn't mind. Even when they found me sitting under the dining room table Updike hid beneath to watch the colors from his stained glass door move across the carpet. They didn't mind.
  All this to say it was this fellow Pennsylvanian, Updike who first made me blush or thrill to hear what it was to want a woman, to adore her, to try and describe what this other but same thing was, this femaleness that surrounds us all, all of a sudden transmuting from the maternal to the erotic and back again, and it was in the New Yorker that I first heard him speak and try to say it.
  I remember it like I remember breaking a bone, or running from a fight, or being caught out in a lie. When the truth gets tapped into your heart for better or worse, you never forget.
   Just a poem. Just a short story from let's say  December 14th, 1981, just for imagination's sake, a magazine mailed from a printing press in New York to Western PA and I held it in my hands leaning over the radiator as the cats purred and fogged the window and the metal burned my skin and I read Updike's story where a man lays gold Kuggerands across the soft mound between his wife's legs and they laugh, that finally they are rich, they are safe. This is what it was all for.
   

30 comments:

  1. Is this part of a longer memoir? It should be.

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  2. Great story. I loved the way you wrote it. I could feel the burns on my ankles. I also stuck my feet under the radiator as a kid.

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  3. Great story. I loved the way you wrote it. I could feel the burns on my ankles. I also stuck my feet under the radiator as a kid.

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  4. When I was 22 and graduated from college, I received a New Yorker in my apartment mailbox along with a gift subscription notice and note from my father that said, "You're an adult now. It's time to start reading the New Yorker."

    Years later - when most everything I read is on a screen - there are issues of the New Yorker on my kitchen counter, on my dresser, and can be found in every bag I own. Thanks for putting words to how a publication - beyond being entertainment or education - becomes a rite of passage.

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  5. Your writing makes it easy to be drawn right into the place and time you're describing---thanks for sharing.

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  6. I love animals, but mainly i'm a cat person, I grew up with them. Although I never read the new yorker, I did have these books I read. I believe they were part of time life, it was a collection edition that talked about the 50's, 60's , and 70's.

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  9. Great story David. As a native New Yorker residing in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, I can truly relate. As a freelance/indie writer (fiction), I can also appreciate your passion and writing style. - ☺

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  11. I'm Editor in Chief of an online magazine (Classiques Modernes), which we hope will soon be in limited edition print. We are based in NY but have a global following, and are looking for contributors/editors who are passionate about writing. This blog reminded me of our vision, which is to create a publication that's ultimately part New Yorker, NYT Sunday Magazine, Harper's, Rolling Stone, Life & Vanity Fair. Any chance you might be interested in being a regular contributor? Please? Loy Carlos - loy@classiquesmodernes.com

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  12. love this, david! i grew up in texas as a wee one and there were no funky radiators in any of the houses i lived in while there. it wasn't until i was out on my own living near denver's capital hill that i had my first apartment with a radiator and i was kind of giddy about it. i used it to dry things. haha. but it's like having something in the oven that you have to keep watch over.

    also loved the kitty element! they're like little heat-seeking missiles. it's funny how they find the one strip of sunlight beaming through a window and then line themselves along that sunny strip. :)

    one of my favorite war correspondents currently writes for the New Yorker -- dexter filkins. huzzah to dexter and the New Yorker and kitties ... and to you! (and wow! lucky you! i'd take that offer from the classiques modernes magazine if it were possible for you. i wish someone would hit my blog up with that offer. LOL!)

    oh, & have a happy birthday ... coming soon for you!

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  13. Hello David!

    Just to wish you a Happy Birthday!
    Have a wonderful day and may we count much more birthdays ahead.
    Celebrate life - the most precious thing we have.
    Wishing you well.
    Take care,
    Isabel

    PS - Just read that Porto has won the first place of the most romantic city in the world, after a survey done by an american magazine.What are you waitng for to visit us?

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  14. Wishing you a wonderful happy birthday David!

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  16. I just loved this.....The everyday language you used made this real and easy to read. Readers can relate to this wonderful memory through their own experiences. That's what makes good writing.
    Acting and writing communicate through feelings and emotions. Understanding is greater on the unconscious (spiritual) level than the conscious level. When circumstances just happen to come together into a special moment for a short fleeting time, that is what makes

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  17. life good. Your talent is a wonderful gift of memories. Hey, I loved this!

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  18. "And suddenly love isn't easy. It's dangerous. It's epic." Those three sentences could inspire hundreds of broken-hearted, passion-filled, saucy memoirs. I'm going to hang on to them. Thank you.

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  19. Beautifully written, I could envision it all, you sitting with your feet under the radiator, sweet furbabies purring beside you....and then I read this part and literally laughed out loud. "I wondered, if I mailed a check to LL Bean for the price of a pair of boots in 1968 would they send them back?" Thank you David, you are absolutely brilliant.

    Candie in Ohio

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  20. Beautifully written, I could envision it all, you sitting with your feet under the radiator, sweet furbabies purring beside you....and then I read this part and literally laughed out loud. "I wondered, if I mailed a check to LL Bean for the price of a pair of boots in 1968 would they send them back?" Thank you David, you are absolutely brilliant.

    Candie in Ohio

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