Living here in Manhattan for the summer, I am constantly aware of writers around me, from the live ones I meet at readings and coffee shops (mostly the Hungarian Pastry Shop) to the dead ones whose past work I see in book stores and vendor stalls on the Upper West Side. Often I’m drawn to a neighborhood or even a specific address just to stand at the spot described in some novel or poem I love.
Why do writers’ past lives intrigue me? Why do I love to make their fictions real and my reality, standing there in front of an old house or piece of property, a fiction?
I suppose it’s the wish to cheat time — you won’t catch me, Death! — or maybe a voyeuristic attempt to stare while the present opens itself and reveals its substrate.
Take Henry Roth, for instance, author of the memoir-like novel Call It Sleep. Never mind that he sets the action in the Lower East Side. What he’s writing about is the block at 129th and Madison Avenue where he spent most of his childhood. His best friend was the son of a mortician who operated a funeral home in the neighborhood. Riding uptown on the No. 1 bus running north along Madison from Midtown, I imagined finding a mortuary and tracing it back to 1910 when the two boys would sit in the kitchen above the embalming rooms and do their homework. Then I un-imagined it. Certainly the old buildings would be razed and, instead, I would find little shops for manicures and take-out barbeque and vacuum cleaner repair.
At 129th I got off the bus and saw, across the street, an old brownstone with a narrow blue awning extending to the sidewalk. The letters on the awning stunned me. It was a funeral parlor. Had it been passed down through successive owners who relied on grandfathered-in zoning permissions? Who needed the specialized plumbing and drains already in place? Who utilized an old elevator, maybe a pulley or two, for the lifting and embalming of corpses?
I walked up and down the block, up and down, ruminating, not caring if anyone wondered what I was doing.
And what was I doing? Excavating. Experiencing a private moment when time opened its mouth and I stared in at young Henry Roth and his friend doing their homework in the kitchen one story above the embalming room.