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Posts Tagged ‘City Life’

Hand in Glove

December 8, 2014 | by

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From The Saturday Evening Post, 1839.

A few weeks ago, my mom called. This is not in itself unusual, and she had important news: she’d sighted the Barefoot Contessa and her husband on the self-checkout line at the supermarket. I was naturally interested, but I happened to be in the middle of something. I was about to excuse myself when she said, in tones of great distress, “Oh God. Oh no.”

“What?” I said, alarmed. “Is everything okay? What is it?” 

Her reply was muffled.

“What is it?” I repeated. “Are you okay?”

“Yes,” she said, once again audible. “But … there’s a really nice glove on the ground.”

I was silent.

“I picked it up,” she continued. “Should I take it to the police?” Read More »

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Everyday Blasphemies

November 12, 2014 | by

Dubliners at one hundred.

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An illustration by Stephen Crowe for de Selby Press’s new edition of Dubliners.

It was a priest who first convinced me to read Dubliners. On the face of it, this might seem strange. Joyce had a lifelong hatred of clergymen, and claimed the sight of one made him physically ill; in “The Sisters,” the opening story of Dubliners, he chose a senescent priest as the first, and arguably most disturbing, of the many images of decay and paralysis that pervade the book. But in the Dublin of my teens, the priests were running the show; it was even possible for priests to be celebrities, and it was the most famous of these who took my class on retreat at the end of Transition Year, in June 1991.

Joyce writes about a religious retreat in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, in which an unnamed preacher terrifies the boys with a lengthy description of the torments of hell. Ours wasn’t like that. There were beanbags and unlimited biscuits; the celebrity cleric, who had become famous in the sixties as the Singing Priest and latterly hosted a hugely popular radio show, spoke to us like we were his friends. Even though the retreat consisted for the most part of the usual list of prohibitions—don’t do drugs, don’t have sex—his gravelly voice and inner-city accent gave him a convincing authenticity. Then, for reasons I still can’t quite understand—modernist literature was not at that point high on our list of temptations—he started talking about James Joyce. According to the Singing Priest, Joyce was one of the greatest hoaxes ever to be perpetrated on the Irish people. Far from being a genius, he was a charlatan, a phony, a false prophet. Furthermore, the priest continued, nobody in the world had actually read his famous novel Ulysses, and anyone who claimed otherwise was a liar.

Well, this came as a surprise. My father was a professor of Irish literature at Joyce’s alma mater, University College Dublin; in his study at home he had multiple copies of Joyce’s books, including Ulysses, as well as innumerable books about Joyce’s books. Had he been pulling the wool over our eyes for all these years? Read More »

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Crossroads of the World

October 1, 2014 | by

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Times Square from above. Photo: Anthony Quintano, via Wikimedia Commons

In Times Square, surrounded by embattled Elmos and superheroes, several of us stopped at the crosswalk to wait for the light to change. The blue font on the overhead news ticker looked so cartoonish, so sort of jolly, that it took a moment for the words’ discordant meaning to sink in.

It read: THREE WOMEN BEHEADED BY ISIS IN SYRIA.

I stood and stared in horror; next to me was a very old man bent nearly double by kyphosis.

“Was it you?” came a voice. I looked down; there was a guy in a tweed flat cap. “Was it you?” he said again, to the old man. The old man looked up at him in uncomprehending irritation.

“Did you do it?” the guy in the cap persisted, indicating the circling words above us.

The light changed then and, without acknowledging him, the older man began his laborious navigation of the crosswalk. Over his head, Tweed Cap gave me a broad wink. I looked away as quickly as possible.

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Inherit the Earth

September 18, 2014 | by

REBECCA

From Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation of Rebecca, 1940.

The moment of crisis had come, and I must face it. My old fears, my diffidence, my shyness, my hopeless sense of inferiority, must be conquered now and thrust aside. If I failed now I should fail forever.
―Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

It must be wonderful to be one of those pedestrians who own the streets. To be one of those people who walks where he likes with Ratso Rizzo–like entitlement, or, better yet, is gracious enough to usher a car forward when, in fact, the car has the right of way. Such people, of course, never give a timid wave of appreciation—a tacit “thank you for not killing me”—when a car lets them cross.

It must be wonderful never to assume your name has been left off the list, or that your card will be declined. It must be wonderful not to have the moment of anxiety, every time you pass through automatic doors, that they will not open. It must be wonderful not to cry every time someone slights you, and feel bruised for days afterward. It must be wonderful to be Rebecca de Winter, rather than her nameless successor.

Whether you consider Rebecca escapist fun, or an uneasy picture of the Electra complex run amok, or a masterpiece of Gothic storytelling, one thing is for sure: du Maurier paints one of the most accurate portraits of shyness in all of English literature. The narrator has none of Jane Eyre’s reserves and mysterious poise, none of the position and dignity of Jane Austen’s uncomfortable heroes. She is instead consumed by the particularly agonizing egotism that is shyness: a paralyzing self-consciousness that is reinforced by every slight, every harsh word, every reaction of the world, real and perceived. (I suppose I should add a spoiler alert here, for those unfamiliar with the plot of Rebecca.) Read More »

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If You See Something

July 28, 2014 | by

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Photo: Jaroslav Thraumb

I was midway through a very different sort of post today when something unexpected happened: I got hit in the face on the subway.

It was an accident, but no less unpleasant for that. On the subway, you expect a certain amount of violence: in the course of a rush-hour commute you’re liable to be jostled, elbowed, crowded, and trod upon. If you are short, the incidence is even higher. But even by those standards this was unusual. Indeed, even by my own day’s standards—which seem to contain more petty indignities than a Benny Hill sketch—this was unusual.

Long story short: as we were both getting up to exit the 1 train, a man hefted his backpack and, in the process, backhanded me. Because his arm was propelled by the weight of his bag, and because I was in the midst of standing up, the blow was really hard. A gasp went up from everyone who had seen. He apologized, twice, but there really wasn’t anything he could do. And because there is nothing worse than refusing an apology for something done without intention, of course I accepted it, and tried to smile and pretend it was nothing.

It has been a while since I was punched in the subway. The last time was much worse. I got on the train with a heavy paper grocery bag in each hand. No sooner had I walked through the doors when a teenager, out of nowhere, punched me in the stomach. It wasn’t that hard, but the shock was enough that I dropped my bags, a plum rolled down the car, and—I would discover later—several eggs broke. His friends cackled with glee. No one did anything.

That wasn’t even the worst part. “Hey, sorry,” said the kid, after I had sat down. Then, “Give me a kiss.”

Now, I’m sitting here with a cold pack to my aching jaw—I have one of those cartoon-drunk ice bags. I think it is going to swell, but hopefully won’t excite too much comment. If I have to, I guess I could make some awful joke about Zsa-Zsa Gabor and New York, and try to be jaunty. But the truth is, I hate having to admit I’m a victim of the city, you know?

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Trouble-Proof

April 24, 2014 | by

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Gustave Caillebotte, Rooftops in the Snow, 1878

Is there a song about city life more evocative than “Up on the Roof,” the Drifters’ 1963 hit? In 1980, The Illustrated History of Rock and Roll said, “From the internal rhyme of ‘stairs’ and ‘cares’ to the image of ascending from the street to the stars by way of an apartment staircase, it’s first-rate, sophisticated writing.” All true, but the appeal is emotional, visceral, too.

Many years ago, I used to occasionally babysit for a little boy who sported a diaper until an advanced age. When he had to go to the bathroom, he would scream, “PRIVACY!” and everyone would have to vacate whatever room he was in.

That was weird, in retrospect. But I sort of envy him it—not the diaper, but the ability to magically invoke solitude. Maybe I am extra aware of it because I am currently visiting with my parents, and they have a tendency to shout to each other between floors, and I have a tendency to regress, and suddenly, just as when I was a teenager, all I want is to have some space of my own, where I can read, and think, in private. Read More »

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