Some writers learn by practicing their craft alone in their rooms, some by a mentorship with a beloved teacher, some by M.F.A. committee. I have always tried to learn by osmosis: by placing myself in the physical location of genius, on the off chance that some greater force clinging to the chandelier would attach itself to me and give my writing a cosmic boost. Though I did spend many nights in my early twenties at the Cedar Tavern (where there was certainly some cosmic mojo to be had), the easiest path to absorbed genius always seemed like the real estate section of the newspaper.
I found my first apartment a couple of months after graduating from college—a studio on Perry Street, at the curious point in the West Village when 4th Street finds itself between 10th and 11th Streets. Though I knew the neighborhood a bit from my own teenage explorations, there was one simple reason I wanted to move to Perry Street. Ted Berrigan, one of my favorite poets at the time, wrote this in 1963:
I think I was thinking when I was
ahead I’d be somewhere like Perry Street erudite
dazzling slim and badly loved
contemplating my new book of poems
to be printed in simple type on old brown paper
feminine marvelous and tough.
Feminine, marvelous, and tough. I wanted it tattooed on my forehead. Never mind that in 2002 a pair of Marc Jacobs stores sat around the corner from Perry Street, and I was too intimidated by the salespeople to walk into either of them. I was tough and feminine and absolutely convinced that living on Perry Street would make my writing more wild, which it did: I wrote a long, messy novel that took Wuthering Heights and put it in my high school. There was incest, in a sexy way, like Flowers in the Attic. I forced my boyfriend to paint the entire room a shocking shade of pink and shoved my tiny desk against the oven, which was good for two reasons: The first was that I never used the oven, not once, and the second was that an entire family of mice soon took up residence inside the oven’s walls.
My second apartment was on Patchin Place, the half-block-long Mews off 10th Street at Sixth Avenue, directly across from the Jefferson Market Library. A crumbling metal gate blocks the street from traffic, and though the gate is never locked, there are always tourists standing outside, peering in. Of the ten row houses, only #4 is still intact as a single-family house, and was e. e. cummings’s home for forty years. I lived in the second to last house on the left side of the street, just before the still-functioning gas lamp. My neighbors were an elderly couple who argued on the front steps (one memorable fight centered on the fact that the husband had taken the subway all the way to the airport before realizing he’d left his wife behind) and a woman who watched daytime TV at the loudest volume possible. Slightly more glamorous former residents of Patchin Place included Djuna Barnes, Theodore Drieser, and Marlon Brando. After I’d been there six months, my best friend moved into the other apartment on my floor, and together we lived in a sitcom without the laugh track, with hot water that wouldn’t run simultaneously in two different faucets and hallways that smelled like cigar smoke. I wrote mysteries in bed and had dinner parties in the overgrown shared garden, imagining a poetic spirit laughing along with me and my friends—always in lowercase letters, all of us smoking and drinking and listening to music when the lights went out. In the end, it was a combination of vermin and love that drove me away, because not even the promise of a poetic life in a garret can override the revulsion at finding a cockroach on your neck in the middle of the night, and because splitting the rent with my boyfriend seemed at least twice as romantic.
When we packed up for graduate school in Wisconsin, I read Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety in anticipation. It was fiction; it was serious. I was ready to give the steady life a go. The characters Larry and Sally moved to an apartment on Morrison Street, and we did, too. I suppose we would have discovered the beauties of Madison—the lakes, the sunsets, the affection that grows with isolation—without Stegner’s help, but he certainly helped us locate those things in the early days. It was in Madison that I became dedicated to sentences as much as to plot, to revision as much as to that first heady rush of composition. There were writers around every corner, but they were all snowed in to their houses, working. I put on layers of woolly clothing and did the same. In the novel, Stegner writes,
Don’t you think of this place as an opportunity? Don’t you feel it the way we do, how young and promising it is, and how much there is to be done, and given, and taught, and learned? … We’re determined to give it our absolute best. Before we’re all done with it, let’s make Madison a place of pilgrimage!
Why the city of Madison has yet to print that on a T-shirt, or on the side of the Capitol building, is completely beyond me.
We left Madison to return to New York and found a 1910 limestone in a neighborhood close to Prospect Park but miles from anyone we knew, in a corner of Brooklyn far from Lethem and Lahiri, from Ames and Egan. There are writers in the neighborhood, ones I know by name, but they aren’t famous. There are no plaques. I have yet to find a poem with the name of my street in its lines. In my most grandiose moments, I hope that my house is the first one with a plaque, but more often I savor the fact that, for the first time, I’m living on streets not already codified in someone else’s language, at least in no publication I’ve found. Is it possible to discover new corners of a city so well-documented in literature? There are two ninety-year-old women on my block, and I’m sure the stories they could tell me would contain volumes of poetry, and several novels to boot. Maybe it’s just that I need to listen to their cadences and caesuras, their homemade villanelles.
And so, yes, it wasn’t Perry Street that made Ted Berrigan, it was Ted Berrigan that made Perry Street. Without him, Perry would be the same to me as Charles or Jane or even Leroy. But I imagine that my peculiar psychosis is the same reason people go to Andalusia and look for peacocks: It’s the hope that some tiny bit of magic is still clinging to their feathers and that, if plucked, that feather will offer an epiphany. I hear they sell pieces of dirt in the gift shop; perhaps it’s time for a road trip. Some habits are hard to break.
Emma Straub’s short story collection, Other People We Married, will be published in February 2011.