"TWENTY YEARS ON"
Today I ended up back at the first place I lived in New York, and from where
I moved exactly twenty years ago today. A set of fortuitous circumstances got
me to the place in the first place, and the same could be said for how I got
back there today. I haven’t figured out the cosmical/meta-symbolical reason I
ended up back there today, but maybe that’s for later.
The first time: I’d always wanted to live in New York,
to be a poet in New York.
The New York
I’d formed in my mind was a juxtaposition of “That Girl” and ideas gleaned from
articles about punk in rock magazines. It may not have been entirely cohesive,
but whatever it was it was the opposite of dull, judgmental, racist,
comformist, narrow-minded working class Chicago. It seemed open, improvisatory,
vulnerable, strong, self-creating, self-deprecating and celebratory — the
perfect place for me. When I finally resigned myself to the fact that becoming
a world-famous poet/rock star like Patti Smith was not my fate, I decided that
getting myself into one of those poetry MFA programs everyone was starting to
talk about would be the best way to establish myself in the Magic Kingdom.
At least I’d have something to do, a place to go, some structure. I applied to Columbia University’s MFA but they put me on the
waiting list, which pissed me off. At the urging of my therapist I quickly
applied somewhere else — Brooklyn
College. I knew
absolutely nothing about Brooklyn
College (except that they
had an MFA program), not even that my idol Allen Ginsberg was teaching there.
The outdated information I’d found in some catalog of graduate programs at
Kroch’s and Brentano’s — this was 1987, and pre-Internet, so information was
sometimes hard to come by — listed John Ashbery as the MFA poetry teacher.
Ashbery was someone whose work I certainly liked. I could definitely see myself
studying with him.
After I was accepted, my therapist then suggested I call the English department
and see if I could visit the campus, talk to somebody about housing, job
opportunities, a student loan, etc. I dilly-dallied at that point because of
the now-pressing need to put my vague plans in action. In general I’m always on
the alert for omens and clues as to how to proceed, and when I found the tarot
card Temperance on the sidewalk outside my apartment building I decided that
was how I had to proceed: with moderation, patience, reliance on intuition, and
a willingness to experiment until I got “it” — the establishment of myself in
New York — right.
I called the Brooklyn College English department and got an appointment with
Maurice Kramer, the Graduate Deputy. I had no idea how to get to the school, or
to Brooklyn. And where would I stay? I
couldn’t afford a hotel, and the few people I knew in New
York were mostly my boyfriend Carl’s friends, and lived in tiny Lower East Side studios with plenty of chairs but nothing
you could rightly call a couch. On a visit with him a year or two earlier we’d
slept on folded-up sleeping bags on wooden pallets on the floor of his friend’s
windowless, unlit, under-the-hallway-stairs utility room. (Remember that
“Seinfeld” episode where Elaine pretends she lives in a storage room, so she
can get Chinese food deliveries? It wasn’t that nice.) “Good thing I’m the
super,” Carl’s friend assured us, handing over a flashlight. “Don’t’ worry —
this is one of the few buildings that doesn’t have rats.” I still have
nightmares about that place. That night I decided that no matter how desperate
I got, no matter how important it might ever be for me to be in New York, I’d never stay
in a place like that again.
With some prodding I got Carl to recall another old friend who (he thought)
maybe still lived in the East
Village. He made some
calls, got some numbers, made more calls, and sure enough, she was still there.
I stayed with her and slept in an actual bed. She had a subway map, and I was
ecstatic to see that Brooklyn was accessible
via many trains — who knew? The Brooklyn of
“Car 54, Where Are You?” seemed like a made-up place. And Brooklyn College
was even on the subway map — the last stop on the 2/5 lines, also called “Flatbush Avenue.” Flatbush Avenue?
There was actually a Flatbush
Avenue? Like in “The Lords of Flatbush”? Not only
was this easy, it was hilarious.
On what had to be the hottest day of June, 1987, I trudged up the subway stairs
and onto Flatbush Avenue.
The first thing I saw was the huge, hulking Flatbush Federal Savings and Loan
building. Flatbush Federal? I had to smile. And then across the street was a
store called “Carl’s College Beat,” with a window full of 1950’s-looking
baseball jackets with leather sleeves, alpaca sweaters and button-down shirts.
Were these people for real with all the Brooklyn-y stuff, or what? I laughed
out loud, and some teenage kid walking past me said, in a mellifluous Jamaican
accent, “Didja just see your reflection in the window, gal?”
This was really going to be something else.
I had no idea where to go. I looked around and saw no signs for any college.
I’d figured Brooklyn College would be like where I got my BA, Columbia College – a nondescript block-y gray
building on a corner. I checked the address; it wasn’t Flatbush Avenue. I looked down the block
and saw some trees. My intuition told me to go that way, and I did. I walked
past a building with a sign that said Brooklyn College
(thinking: oh, that’s the college), through iron gates and then further on,
curious, towards more greenery. When I saw the ivy-covered brick buildings and
the grassy quad for the first time — the whole vista so restful and pleasing to
the eye — I was absolutely shocked: it was a real school. A real beautiful
school, too. With students sitting on the grass with books — open books! And
there were birds singing, too. Birds! Winding around on the paths, I came upon
a pond. With lily pads. Freaking lily pads! I really couldn’t believe it. This
was the place I had chosen, sight unseen, with no information, to spend the
next two years of my life. Somehow, I was doing something right.
Of course, I was late for the interview. I was wearing a white blouse and
totally sweating my ass off, and I knew I’d not only ruined the blouse for
further use on the trip but I’d also ruined my chance to make a good first
impression. But Maurice Kramer was really nice. I told him I was really excited
about being able to study with John Ashbery.
“Oh, no,” he said. “You must’ve gotten some outdated information. I’m sorry to
tell you that John isn’t teaching here. He got a MacArthur and took a leave.”
“Well, no matter,” I said, shrugging. “I feel like just being here is important.
Who took his place?”
He said something after that, but I didn’t hear him because the voice in my
head going HOLYSHITALLENGINSBERGHOLYSHITALLENGSINBERG overwhelmed everything
else. I felt like crying again. I had to really pull back. It was hard, trying
not to cry and/or sweat more. He then asked me if I needed a place to live, and
I must’ve said I did.
“Because,” he said, “a place just became available today — one of our
professors, Nancy Black, is going to France for the semester and she’s
looking to sublet her place for three months. Three months isn’t a long time,
but you’ll be able to have a base of operations while you go to school and look
for a permanent place. Here’s her phone number. Call her as soon as you can
because there’s a high demand for apartments here, as I’m sure you know. Oh,
and are you looking to do some teaching? Because the department chair just
happens to be here today. I don’t think she has anyone in her office right now.
Let me just call her . . .”
I had once said to someone, jokingly, that I’d never move to New York unless I had a job, an apartment,
and a career waiting for me. I got back on the subway that day with a job, an
apartment, and Allen Ginsberg waiting for me.
A month or so later I received a letter from Professor Black, with photos of
her home — “Just so you know what you’re getting into.” The first photo was the
exterior of 178 Lincoln Road
— a classic, attractive Brooklyn brownstone
with geraniums in planters on the windowsills. Wow! My apartment would be a
room in that nice place! The next photo was of a big kitchen with a
stove/table/butcher block island in the middle. Wow! I’d be doing some cooking
there, which would definitely help me save money. The next photo was of a huge,
airy room with a curtained bay window, a couch, a chandelier, a fireplace with
a mantle and (wait for it) a grand piano. And the photo after that was a
bedroom with a four-poster canopied bed, a stained glass bay window, a
chandelier, and an antique divan. On the back of those photos was written “your
living room” and “your bedroom.” This was my first apartment in New York, for which I
would be paying (wait for it) $500.
Go ahead — hate me. All my Chicago
poet-friends did. It felt great.
It was to this gracious place that I returned earlier today. An old friend back
in Chicago had mailed a Christmas present to me at that address because she
didn’t know my current one, and I was going back to retrieve it. Interesting, I
thought, that I’m going back exactly twenty years after I left (minus two
weeks). I’ve only lived in two places in New York,
and so I still have very vivid memories (both good and bad/sad) of Professor
Black’s beautiful home — my first home in the Magic Kingdom.
Getting off the subway at the Prospect Park B train stop I kept my eyes open
for things that had changed/things that had stayed the same. Oddly, almost
everything seemed the same: Sister Patricia the psychic was gone, but the
Chinese take-out place where I first ate lo mein, the little grocery on the
corner with its not-so-great produce, the pharmacy on the other corner, and
“French Dry Cleaners” on the opposite side of Flatbush Avenue were all still
there. Yes, I was living a block away from extremely Brooklyn-y Flatbush Avenue. In fact, when
Carl and I drove into the neighborhood for the first time, and stopped at the
light at this intersection, a man in the next car saw that I had a map open and
yelled, in a classic Brooklyn accent, “Where ya goin’?”
“178 Lincoln Road!”
“Go ta da next cornah, make a left, go two blocks, make anudda left, den anudda
left after dat, an’ go two more blocks — it’s on ya left!”
Walking toward 178, I tried to recall and feel the things I thought and felt
twenty years ago. Was I always happy to be here? No, not always. Why the hell
wasn’t I? Looking back, I was damn lucky to have landed where I did. But what
did I do with all that luck? Studying with Allen Ginsberg had been an amazing
experience. He nominated me for, and I received, the coveted MacArthur Scholarship
(John Ashbery had graciously donated a portion of his MacArthur money to fund
the award). And Ginsberg had chosen me to represent Brooklyn College
at a Poetry Society of American event, “Best of the MFA Programs.” He wrote
recommendations for me, wrote a blurb for my first poetry collection,
introduced me to his friends at poetry events as “one of the most talented
young poets around,” counseled me when my father was dying, and defended me in
class when other students criticized my work. Once he called me at my
boyfriend’s (not the same boyfriend I moved to NYC with) apartment at 11 am on
a Sunday because he’d woken up thinking he’d forgotten to do something for me,
and was worried we’d missed a deadline. The night before I got the call that my
first poetry collection was accepted for publication, I had a dream that he and
I were standing in front of my childhood house on Racine Avenue in Chicago,
pressing our pregnant stomachs together and laughing about how funny it was
that we were both pregnant at the same time, and that a man could get pregnant.
But mixed in with all the good memories festered a major regret. In 1997, a
Japanese literary magazine put me up in the Chelsea Hotel
for a week, and told me to “have experiences and write about them.” An interview
with Allen, I knew, would be perfect for the article, so I called his office to
schedule it. Bob, his secretary said he was out of town, but he’d have him call
me as soon as he got back. Sure enough, Allen called, but it was too late — I’d
already written the article. But why didn’t I just interview him anyway? He
died a few months after I spoke to him on the phone. Ours would’ve been his
last interview. I totally blew it, but even in death he taught me something: be
ready, think ahead, say yes.
Crossing Bedford, with 178 Lincoln
coming into view, I recalled how Carl and I sat on the “stoop” our first night
in Brooklyn — August 15, 1988. Those first
days in Brooklyn were happy, so funny. Carl
and I broke up soon after leaving Lincoln
Road, but no matter; I met my soul-mate (and now
husband), David, later that same year. New
York had been so good to me, helping me get rid of
what was no longer serving me. New York had known what I needed, all the way.
Why wasn’t I ecstatically happy back then? One of the reasons was the other
person that Carl and I had shared 178 Lincoln Road with: a relatively
established writer who was also in the MFA program. Relatively Established made
sure that we knew his connections were not to be shared. One time he invited us
to come along to what would certainly be a very interesting, totally classic
New York literary party. One of the reasons I had moved to New York was to go
to totally classic literary parties. When we were all ready to leave he
announced, “Oh, the hostess said I couldn’t bring you. Sorry.”
Nancy Black answered the door. She looked exactly the same as the last time I
saw her, when I handed back the keys. She smiled and ushered me in. There was
the table where we’d had the shitty Thanksgiving dinner; there was the counter
where I sat when Ma told me over the phone that Dad had been diagnosed with
cancer; there was the little table made out of a sewing machine at which I
planned to read and write in the mornings until Relatively Established decided
it was his favorite place to smoke. On the wall back then had hung rusted
garden implements from Professor Black’s family’s antique shop, but those were
gone now, replaced by needlepoint samplers.
Nancy made me a cup of tea and gave me a band-aid (I’d scraped my knuckle in
the subway coming over) and we went upstairs. Ah, the carpeted stairs! I was
always worried I’d fall down those stairs on my way downstairs to the bathroom
in the middle of the night. There was the living room with the grand piano, the
curtained bay window, the fireplace and the mantle with the antique clock and
two brass bird sculptures — I used to write in this room, on the couch on
Saturday and Sunday mornings. The guy I cheated on Carl with sat there once.
And last was the room that was the bedroom — now back to being an extension of
the living room — with the stained glass bay window, chandelier and bookshelves
behind glass doors. While talking on the phone to a friend in that room the
beautiful antique divan I was sitting on had suddenly shuttled back and forth
across the floor. I thought it was a ghost, but it had been an earthquake — the
November 25 Saguenay earthquake, the epicenter of which was in southern Quebec.
The next day the Daily News’ front page headline was THE NIGHT THE APPLE SHOOK!
Nancy and I sat down and had tea, and after a while her husband, Michael,
joined us. We talked about her retiring from teaching, medieval women writers,
Christmas, Allen Ginsberg, how I really should join the Park Slope Food Coop,
and how Relatively Established screwed up Thanksgiving. Michael asked me how I
came to live in their apartment, and I told him the story. “Things don’t often
happen that way!” he laughed. I agreed.
I felt sad when it was time to leave. I wished I’d had more time there, to look
at objects and the space between objects again, to concentrate on the
trajectory between then and now to understand what was gained and what was
lost, and to get inside the wonderful, dream-come-true feeling of being newly
arrived in New York. I guess I wanted to go back and really feel the excitement
of being there, in a way that I didn’t before. Relatively Established’s
emotional depredations kind of put kibosh on feeling excited, as did reading
Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye To All That” on a rainy August morning a few days
after I first arrived:
“It is often said that New York is a city for only the very rich and the very
poor. It is less often said that New York is also, at least for those of us who
came there from somewhere else, a city only for the very young.”
I was only twenty-seven when I moved to New York but I felt very, very old, and
those lines sent a chill through me. Was it already over? It hadn’t even begun.
Relatively Established made me feel that way, and so did Carl, at times, because
he was such a nay-sayer. To a self-expressed bohemian like him, the idea of an
MFA program, even with Ginsberg teaching in it, was about as repugnant as a
coffee table and Lladro figurines. The people who were solidly behind me during
that transition I could count on one hand and still have fingers left over. And
reading that Didion essay was a mistake. But, looking back, it was one of the
few mistakes I made in terms of the move and my first few months in Brooklyn. I
had done everything right, actually. The effortless way it happened made me
think that that was the way things always happened. But, as I now know, that’s
hardly ever the case.
But what did I do right then, and how can I learn from it now?
I had a real plan, but I allowed myself to be open to experimentation with the
process of seeing it through. I often felt scared, and like I was abandoning my
family, but while I acknowledged those thoughts, I never “invited them in for
tea” — that’s what Allen taught me when he taught me to meditate on the floor
in front of his little altar on a quiet, sunny afternoon on the Lower East
Side. Afterward, he heated up some soup for us, and packed the leftovers for me
to take home. What I learned from him went beyond rhyme and meter. How I wish
he were still alive. How thankful I am that our paths crossed.
Look at the View
Right to horizon
Talk to the sky
Act like you talk
Work like the sun
Shine in your heaven
See what you done
Come down & walk
From “Gospel Noble Truths”
AG, New York Subway, October 17, 1975
[Sharon Mesmer. "Twenty Years On." January 24, 2009. Found on the author's blog at http://virginformica.blogspot.com/search?q=%22Twenty+Years+on%22.]