The Writer turned to me on the 4 Train one day (must have been a weekend) and ask “Is that man holding a sheep?” I looked around excitedly – it seemed entirely plausible that a fellow rider was cradling a lamb. Not seeing one, I gave the Writer a quizzical look and he gestured toward a man leaning against the door across the way. No wool in evidence, but his shorts revealed a leg tattooed with an image of the Virgin Mary and men kneeling at her feet. That’s where the Writer saw a sheep, but I couldn’t be sure.
One of the greatest things about summer in New York is all the body art on display in the subway. The rule is never to make eye contact, but I definitely look at my fellow passengers plenty. They can distract from the book I’ve brought along, especially when I’m trying to puzzle out ornate text. One of my favorites, recently, was an ohm on a wrist. Last summer I saw lots of blue swallows on women’s chests and stars on men’s elbows, but now that I’ve moved and switched lines from the C/E to the N/R, I see more religious imagery and family names and fewer “trendy” tatts.
As for me, no ink, partially because I could never commit to an image like that, I’m more drawn to words. Check out Shelley Jackson’s Skin Project for words as tattoos (I also enjoyed her novel Half Life, about nuclear waste creating a huge increase in conjoined twins and a shadowy separation industry).
The funny thing about the Subway Book Club idea is it makes you look wistfully at people reading interesting books. Sure, Outliers is probably great, and I could use a spin through whatever that studious girl across the way is reading. But what I really want is the Zombie Survival Guide. The reader caught me checking it out and gave me a smile. Not that I couldn’t just pick it up on my own, but how fun would it be to review alongside the House of Mirth?
I had never heard of Pete Hamill before spotting this book on the N Train one night on my way home from work. Apparently he’s written quite a few novels, but this memoir is the story of his love affair with the city of New York. He calls his city Downtown, but uses an unorthodox definition of his own devising, stretching up to Central Park South at times.
I have only lived in New York since 2004, though I grew up visiting my father’s lab in the Bronx frequently, and making visits to museums and Broadway shows a few times a year. I lived first at 26th Street, a block from Madison Square Park, then in the Financial District for three years before moving to Brooklyn last summer. Hamill made the opposite move in his young adulthood, from the ethic enclaves of Brooklyn to the gritty streets of 60s Manhattan.
Woven among Hamill’s memories of starting out in the newspaper business on Park Row (my first Financial District address) and visiting the clubs of the Village is an excellent history of the city’s slow climb from its southernmost point up the island. His narrative intersects my recent reads, House of Mirth and The Emperor’s Children, giving the history of times and places that inspired those works.
For someone without a strong grounding in the geography of the city, the stories can be hard to follow at times, but they’ll make even the casual visitor as nostalgic as a lifelong New Yorker for the old days, whether they were the 1600s or last week.
I whipped through Blink in just two days (it was good, and also fairly short) and am on to Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years. I’ve been enjoying all the non-fiction lately, but this is also a Kennedy conspiracy theory book, so there’s a bit more drama than the average history.
The woman next to me on the R Train the other day was reading Infinite Jest, my favorite novel, but I have to say, not a great commuting book. At about 1200 pages in paperback, it’s pretty rough on the shoulder to haul it around.
Summer in New York makes for some Sophie’s Choices on the subway. Bask in snagging a seat on the rush hour ride home or flee your seatmate who’s been digging ditches in the 95% humidity? I’ve tried a few different approaches lately. Breathing shallowly through my mouth gave me a headache. Getting up and changing cars made me feel kinda bad for the guy, who had to realize why. Moving to another open seat (almost never possible) turned out not to be far enough away.
Any other options I missing? I’ve been opting to hold my ground, breathe shallowly and glare from time to time, but maybe there’s a better way.
Coming on the heels of The Emperor’s Children, The House of Mirth was another big novel, in both senses. Both aim to capture the New York of a certain class. Both are pretty scathing in their expose of those people and their conventions, and the toll they take on innocents trying to make their way in the world. House of Mirth is from an earlier era, so the effect on the innocent is not an emotional breakdown, but ultimately her destitution and probable suicide. In that way, House of Mirth is very similar to Vanity Fair, which I read a few months earlier. Gorgeously written, but a parade of horribles awaits our heroine at every turn. Ultimately, I decided to stop reading halfway through, perhaps the second or third time Lily fails to connect with the one man who really loves her and whom she could really love. I skipped to the end to confirm my suspicion of her failure to ever achieve real connection or even the security of a conventional marriage. She instead has a picturesque end in a threadbare boarding house with a post-mortem visit by the true love.
I did enjoy the scene in which Lily strolls through the wedding gifts laid out for a more successful young woman. I had not realized that was ever a custom in the Northeast as it seems to continue only in the South. We think of that era as so cultured, but the naked display of wealth and status was a big part of women’s lives – how else to identify whom to marry?
Usually, public transit is a very safe way to go (if you don’t respond to provocation – people with anger issues, stay home). Today, though, it got a bit scary. Remember, if things start falling from the ceiling, your book can be a protective head-covering.
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