As one of the recipients of a #NYCArtist Corps grant, I did a reading last weekend of my work in progress, “40 Days at the Dog Cafe,” at the market adjacent to the dog cafe, Marche le Woof. After my reading, I conducted a workshop called “A Sense of Place,” inspired by the fact that I was inspired by the dog cafe, Chateau le Woof, to begin writing about my changing neighborhood, over the summer.
I am toying with the idea of offering a regular, free, low-key generative writing workshop for writers of all levels. The workshop was my favorite part of an already rewarding day. Here is the “teacher’s edition” of the handout I provided the participants. Let me know what you think in the comments.
A Sense of Place
A Chateau le Woof workshop
When we read stories, we often don’t think of place as a primary element. In the earliest stories we heard, place hardly mattered at all. The story happened in a place – far away? enchanted? A kingdom? A village on the edge of a dark forest? A cottage by the sea? We had just enough to orient ourselves.
When we think of stories, we think of plot, characters, and the rise and fall of action. If we think of place at all, we think of where a story “takes place.” To Kill a Mockingbird takes place in Alabama, or, if you move in, in a small town in Alabama where everyone knows everyone else, or, if you move in more closely, on the front porch of the Finch household and in a courtroom.
A Game of Thrones takes place in the Seven Kingdoms, in Westeros, in King’s Landing, and in the throne room where the frankly ugly chair that everyone is fighting for actually sits.
But I’d like to explore how place can serve a story. How it can act as character, or metaphor, or place setting. Place setting is most common in the movies, where a bleak western landscape or a busy heartless city can set up a conflict for the hero. something to conquer.
But place can also be one of the main characters. the examples below are from essays. Let’s see how descriptions of place can be used.
PLACE AS CHARACTER
Somehow you are supposed to teach yourself how to comprehend Hong Kong’s energy and flash contradictions; Asian and Western; the encroaching Chinese mainland and the remnants of England; the greasy night markets of stick-rice tamales and knock-off leather boots that slouch right across from Tiffany, Chanel, and Prada. The only things common to these are the offices sending air-conditioned blasts into the street, a kind of longing for money, and, most important, the sense of storytelling that the city seems to require as a visitor’s pass. Hong Kong has a way of turning on your internal monologue. Walking becomes an act of silent storytelling, figuring people out. You feel like you are lost in some prelapsarian novel in which the plot has begun but the characters wait for you to name them. In some time, at some place, we step into an underground Cantonese restaurant and I see a grey-suited, red-tied man act like a parody of the States. American, I say, with an American accent: good-natured smiles, occasionally the slow English dispatched on foreigners and children, and a slightly uncomfortable look, as though he’s worried he’s outnumbered.
Ken Chen, “City Out of Breath,” 2005
This essay by Ken Chen describes a visit he made with his father to Hong Kong. His father spoke Mandarin but not Cantonese. Is Hong Kong a character? Perhaps an antagonist?
Once I loved a man who was a lot like the desert, and before that I loved the desert. It wasn’t particular things but the space between them, that abundance of absence, that is the desert’s invitation. There the geology that underlies lusher landscapes is exposed to the eye, and this gives it a skeletal elegance, just as its harsh conditions—the vast distances between water, the many dangers, the extremes of heat and cold—keep you in mind of your mortality. But the desert is made first and foremost out of light, at least to the eye and the heart, and you quickly learn that the mountain range twenty miles away is pink at dawn, a scrubby green at midday, blue in evening and under clouds. The light belies the bony solidity of the land, playing over it like emotion on a face, and in this the desert is intensely alive, as the apparent mood of mountains changes hourly, as places that are flat and stark at noon fill with shadows and mystery in the evening, as darkness becomes a reservoir from which the eyes drink, as clouds promise rain that comes like passion and leaves like redemption, rain that delivers itself with thunder, with lightning, with a rise of scents in this place so pure that moisture, dust, and the various bushes all have their own smell in the sudden humidity. Alive with the primal forces of rock, weather, wind, light, and time in which biology is only an uninvited guest fending for itself, gilded, dwarfed, and threatened by its hosts. It was the vastness that I love and an austerity that was also voluptuous. And the man?
Rebecca Solnit, “A Field Guide to Getting Lost,” 2005
This essay by Rebecca Solnit describes a landscape and a love affair. She ends the passage with the question, “and the man?” but what do we already know about the man, from the way she described the desert? Is he fat or lean? iI the sex good? Is he emotionally available? What clues do we have?
PLACE AS TABLE-SETTING
In the bar up ahead waitresses slam sloe-gin fizzes down on wet tables and men point pool cues at each other in the early stages of drunkenness. The singer in the three-man band whispers test into the microphone and rolls his eyes at the feedback. The sound guy jumps up from a table full of ladies and heads over to turn knobs.
We crunch over the parking lot gravel and wait for our song to finish. I’m over my head, but it sure feels nice. The bar is low and windowless, with patched siding and a kicked-in door; the lot is full of muscle cars and pickups. A man and a woman burst through the door and stand negotiating who will drive. He’s got the keys but she looks fiercer. In the blinking neon our faces are malarial and buttery. As the song winds down, the drama in front of us ends. He throws the keys at her as hard as he can but she jumps nimbly out of the way and picks them up with a handful of gravel, begins pelting his back as he weaves into the darkness.
Jo Ann Beard, “Cousins,” 1995
Where are we? When are we? What do we make of the fact that the writer describes what’s going on in the bar before she and her companion even arrive? What kind of evening is going to unfold, and how do we know?
Whenever the experiment on and of
My life begins to draw to a close
I’ll go back to the place that held me
And be held.
Jane Mead, I Wonder if I Will Miss the Moss
Write about a place that held you, how it held you, what it felt like to be held there.
Art is energy, held in a form long enough to be experienced.
Write about a place the gives or gave you energy, that inspires or inspired you. (It doesn’t have to be artistic inspiration – it could have inspired you to make a move, or a declaration.)
Write about anything you like.
And still we keep on creating, though myself not as much I would like of late. Lacking friends with benefits, I turned earlier this summer to friends with books out.
Marcia Trahan’s memoir Mercy: A Memoir of Medical Trauma and True Crime Obsession explores her own medical ordeals, her obsession with true crime on television, women’s bodies as commodities in society, and her own identity. Sue William Silverman’s How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, a memoir in essays, explores assault and addiction, and masterfully illustrates how trauma can stalk a person’s life, sometimes in brief shadow, sometimes in full-blown flashback.
I like to call Lee Martin’s recent fiction “Southern Illinois Noir,” although whether he likes me to call it that is not something I have asked. In his recent novels and story collections, momentarily untethered people make rash decisions that lead to outsized consequences; sometimes, as in his recent Yours, Jean, based on a true crime, an entire town acts as both chorus and cast.
There has been little progress on my own work, except for publicity for and correction of the proof of Censorettes. While I have little to complain about (I know; I am lucky!), how rarely that stops me. I am able to work from home, and I am putting in more hours than ever, including Sunday afternoon, which at least provided peaceful, uninterrupted time. I am attending a virtual writing conference next week, and need to get my day job ducks in a row.
Once I was done, a walk to the park was in order. My new favorite place is Chateau Le Woof, because I love the ingenuity the owners had of turning a former industrial parking garage into a dog-friendly cafe, open to the street, across from the park. On the way there, I met a woman and her dog. The owner and I nodded, but the dog did a full-fledged double take and pulled her back to where I was sitting. “YOU AGAIN!” he would have cried, had we both been human, and cast in a romantic comedy where in an earlier scene I would have stolen his parking spot, or spoiled some meticulously prepared model just before the big presentation. He gazed at me with ardent brown eyes through dirty white fur.
“Hi,” I said to the dog, as his owner tried to break his stare and pull him along, chuckling apologies to me. I said to the dog, “Hot out, right?” and then, as a man walked by, “Okay, I’m really not that interesting. Try that guy.”
Because of allergies, I’m not a petter of strange dogs, particularly ones who regard me like an antic Cary Grant regarding the leopard, if not Katherine Hepburn, in Bringing Up Baby.
Then, I said to the dog, “Alright,” and got up to walk with them to the park.
“You a Vermonter?” asked the woman.
Strange question, I thought, until I looked down and realized I was wearing a Vermont t-shirt. I still think it is a strange question. People don’t necessarily wear t-shirts advertising their home, so they can be returned if life becomes wayward. People visit places and buy t-shirts to show they were there; there is even a cliché about it. But I once wore a t-shirt I bought in Canada on a Brooklyn riverside bike tour, and people kept asking me what province I was from, or telling me how much they liked Quebec.
The woman was herself from Burlington. I told her, then, about Vermont, how I attend the Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Conference in Montpelier, Vermont every summer (where I met the above authors, Lee, Marcia and Sue), how this year it is virtual, which means I am not at my picnic table on the town green at the top of the hill, or hanging out in the Cafe Anna with my friends, but in my apartment, in my same crippling home desk chair, a captive of Zoom, with pandemic hair and bad lighting (I know; I am lucky!)
Maybe I am a Vermonter.
We turned the corner on Vernon Boulevard, where some string players were entertaining an insufficiently socially distanced group and their dogs.
My canine love interest took off across the park, a sculpture park, which is currently home to this monolith.
The music of the strings lured me out of the park and I stood among my insufficiently socially distanced neighbors, enriched that day by so much heat and creativity. We are isolated; still, we create. We are ordered to keep a distance; still, we connect. We experience ordeals and suffer from bad decisions; still, we write books (albeit ones with blood-splattered covers).
The string players launched into I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You, alternating the melody line, first the pizzicato, then the legato. We all grew very still and drank it in. We knew we were lucky.
Screen to screen to screen has been my life this past month — my work laptop, augmented by my personal laptop, and then my desktop, when the workday is through, followed by some viewing on my laptop again. I am privileged to be able to work from home and to live in a co-op building which is well-maintained. But as I have revealed, I have taken to gazing out my window.
Now straight ahead, dead straight, to the left of the streetlight and to the right of the bright window in the building across the street, you can see a bit of colored glass. There. You see it? Had I an actual camera (instead of a phone) or were I a better photographer, I could capture that image — the streetlight, the stained glass of the Ukrainian church beyond.
Last night, I attempted it. The bars of the fire escape were too intrusive and the zoom on the cell phone camera wasn’t sufficient, so I climbed out on the fire escape and did my best.
This yellow-robed Ukrainian saint has been gazing into my living quarters for the past 20 years, but I only thought to think of it now. Of course, I was aware that there was a Ukrainian Orthodox Church a block away — I have photographed their fete on Ukrainian heritage day. Beribboned children in native costume dance all afternoon in reluctant troupes. Ornately braided girls and grim embarrassed boys prance and clap on a wooden platform in front of the church, to the blaring of recorded accordion and clarinet music. A street block is roped off from traffic to allow for tables selling embroidered goods and meat-stuffed pastries, and chairs for the parents of those mortified, loyal prepubescents.
These wares, these performances, are not meant for the likes of me. I don’t know the difference between Greek Orthodox and Ukrainian Orthodox but I know neither proselytizes. Far from it. It is from the Greeks that we get the word “xenophobia,” from the Greek xenos meaning “foreigner” or “stranger.” Also, “barbarian,” which originally meant “a person who does not speak Greek.” (Non-Greek sounded to Greeks like someone saying “bar bar bar.”)
After twenty years in Astoria, I was not keen to insert myself where I was not welcome.
It took a pandemic to make me realize that the church I look out on every day was not merely a church, but a religious residence. The low tan building I look out on (and appreciate, since it affords me sunlight when a commercial building would not) is not just extra church space, but a dormitory for the order.
Queens Gazette which, in case you have mislaid your copy, details the destruction of a piano which was placed in Athens Square Park by the nonprofit group Sing for Hope. As a summertime public art project which has become a kind of New York tradition (the cows, the Gates, the waterfalls), Sing for Hope has placed sixty pianos in public places around the five boroughs. “Play Me, I’m Yours!” the pianos invite.
One piano was placed in Athens Square Park in Astoria, home of the Steinway piano factory, the last active piano factory in New York City, which in the 19th century numbered 171. The last factory to close was the Sohmer factory, on Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, which closed in 1982, spent some time as an office furniture warehouse, and was declared an historic landmark in March, 2007, and has been in the process of being converted into condos for the past couple of years delayed, I can only surmise, by the credit crunch of the recession. If you have visited Socrates Sculpture Park, you have seen the former Sohmer factory with its landmark mansard-roofed clock tower. Sohmers are not Steinways, but they are nothing to sneeze at. When Irving Berlin wrote, “I Love a Piano,” he write it on a Sohmer.
Here is a photo and an excerpt from the fascinating (especially if you are a geek about the history of neighborhoods) report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Why do I know all this? A few weeks before that factory was declared an historic landmark, I found a Sohmer piano put out on the street for Saturday large trash pickup. I have written about it hereand am also developing it into a larger piece because, how can I put this, I just love pianos. I still have the Sohmer I rescued from the street, even though the soundboard is ruined and several of the keys don’t work at all. I have not come up with the $8,000 I need to have it fully restored to its former glory. But I can’t let go.
“The badly vandalized piano at Athens Square Park, 30th Street and 30th Avenue,” reads the article in the Western Queens Gazette, “had all of its keys and part of its inner gears removed.”
Indeed. The vandalism is quite specific and specialized. The piano was not smashed, axed, beat up, beat in, set on fire or otherwise generally molested. But its keys and part of its inner gears were removed. This particular neighborhood is full of retired tuners and technicians. The violated piano was a Kimball, a Chicago-based manufacturer. The vandal carefully removed the keys from their supporting nails and left the frame. But why, as Keith Morrison on Dateline NBC would ask, why would anyone do that?
Originally published Wednesday, June 30, 2010
The holiday party held annually in the lobby of my building took place yesterday and provided an excellent opportunity to observe the changing demographic of the building. More young people are moving in, particularly young people starting families. There are two Jennifers, each with a newborn baby and a shy, kind-eyed husband. This is all good, in a bittersweet way. It is desirable to have young people about, and it is best if a co-op is occupied one hundred percent by owners but as I wrote last year, the disappearance of the old people makes me one of the old people.
I went down to the lobby with my neighbor Michael who knows more of the neighbors than I ever will. “That’s ‘cause you work,” he told me, which was, until recently, true. “I’m around all the time.” It is also because Michael, as the saying goes, could charm a dog off a meat truck.
For example, I introduced myself to a neighbor I thought was new to the building and learned she has lived here for two years, that she has a cool job in the music industry, and that she bathes her cat every day with some allergen-killing shampoo. She is a cute, chipper young woman with the sturdy, compact build of a gymnast because, as I later learned, she spent two decades performing gymnastics.
She had vaulted over to the hors d’oeuvres when Michael and I were approached by someone who was new to the building. He told us his apartment number. Michael, who goes to every open house the building holds and has the blueprints of the whole place locked in his memory, informed me, “That’s the old Melman place.”
“Ooooooh.” I turned and tried to get an impression of the new guy: dark hair, dark eyes, dark shirt, black jeans, an unplaceable accent. “Mr. and Mrs. Melman. They died within a day of each other. She died and then he died the next day.”
My new neighbor looked distressed.
“No, it’s romantic,” I assured him. “They were married for like 70 years. They were like Cathy and Heathcliff.”
“If Cathy and Heathcliff were two short old Jewish people,” Michael added. “So, what do you do for a living?”
This was unusually blunt: for the party, for Michael, for the stage of the conversation we were in. But yet, there was something about the new guy that solicited a demand for an explanation. Who was he?
“I’m a social worker,” he said.
“In a clinic. In New Jersey.”
“I have a car.”
Oh, do you? Michael and I nodded and withheld the unasked questions. Among them: How can a social worker afford a car andthe old Melman place, a two-bedroom on the top floor? And Do you live there alone? And God, the place must be pristine! The same tenants for 50 years and then newly renovated! And What is your accent? And Why are you pretending to be a social worker?And “in New Jersey”? Could you possibly be less specific? AndWhy is the aura of intrigue about you as palpable as fog? And Can we go see your apartment? Now?
We are all dying to get into one another’s apartments. The units named after the first dozen letters of the alphabets all have unique layouts: the studios, the compact one-bedrooms, the wastefully large one-bedrooms and the highly coveted two-bedrooms. The units named after the next dozen letters of the alphabet, on the other side of the lobby, follow the same patterns, only flipped. Even if your apartment is exactly the same as that of your neighbor, even, if, oh, say you were to lock yourself out of your apartment when the door slams shut behind you on your way to take out the recycling and you have to cajole the woman downstairs into letting you cross through her apartment and climb out her window onto the fire escape so you can break into your own apartment through the living room window, you would still pause and marvel at what she had done with the space, how she had met the challenges of the literal nooks and crannies that all the apartments have. It is a pre-war building filled with the quirks and perks of the time: built-in bookcases, high archways, deep closets, meandering hallways, foyers, occasionally, a raised dining area just off the kitchen.
The Gymnast bounded back and we introduced her to the Social Worker. I added, after some preliminary chatting, “He bought the old Melman place.”
“Oh! They died within a day of each other!” she told him pertly.
“Did they die in the apartment?” he asked, understandably apprehensive at the party line on his new place.
“No.” I then realized I had no idea. Mrs. Melman had been in the hospital, but who knew about Mr.? Ambulances are a routine sight outside the building. When we ask “Who is it?” of a neighbor watching the EMS workers unload the gurney onto the sidewalk, the answer is usually given by apartment number, as in “Who is it?” “5N.” “At least, I . . . don’t think so.”
“Um, I um . . . cheese . . . right back . . .”
The Social Worker headed toward the refreshment table.
“That guy is not a social worker,” I said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” said the Gymnast. “There’s something just, like — ”
“He’s a spy, obviously.” I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Furst’s novels recently. “But not a very good one. Because spies should try to blend in more. Like those Russians in New Jersey.” (New Jersey!) “There’s nothing about him that says ‘social worker.’ What everything about him says is ‘international man of mystery.’”
As it happened, when I left the party, the international man of mystery joined me in the elevator and carefully asked me to repeat my apartment number.
“I’ve been thinking about having a gathering,” he said. “In my apartment.”
“Oh!” I was pleased that one of the young people would consider inviting me to a gathering, that I was not yet manifestly one of the old people; pleased, also, that I would get to see the old Melman place. “That would be nice.”
Only later did I realize – he never said what kind of “gathering.”
First published Monday, December 20, 2010
I have recently acquired a pen pal in St. Louis, my home town, who was under the mistaken impression that I live in L.A., due probably to my recent interview for the Women and Hollywood blog. He wrote from a gloomy day in St. Louis, grumbling that he didn’t even want to hear about how the weather was where I was (L.A., he presumed) and complaining about the weeds taking over the zoysia grass. I’m sure zoysia is common worldwide, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about it in these parts. This is probably because I live in New York City, where talk of lawn care in general is thin on the ground. But the word “zoysia” immediately evoked my South St. Louis grandparents and their too-perfect lawn.
“I don’t live in L.A.!” I wrote back to him. “I live in Astoria, Queens.”
He wrote back that although he had grown up in Brooklyn (back when there were still Brooklyn Dodgers) he knew little of Astoria except for having traveled through it to visit a relative.
Well, that was Astoria, originally. A place to travel through. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes it thus, in the 20’s, before Astoria was transformed by the great wave of Greek immigrants in the 50’s. Back then, it was just a dismal backstage boneyard feeding the roaring 20’s maw of Manhattan:
This is a valley of ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.
A place, in other words, no decent Princeton grad like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” would be caught dead stopping in, even for gas, traveling between his “bond business” on Wall Street and the great West Egg of Long Island to Gatsby’s mansion. How awful, to have to witness the “obscure operations” of the working class from your Ivy League gaze.
And popular culture has been no kinder. The people of Queens are depicted in the movies as buffoonish ethnics, the defeated lower middle class, slamming crockery and stepping on their vowels, or a curiously unethnic, untough and un-accented Hollywood baby-faced Spiderman.
What I had been about to tell my pen pal about Astoria was that I chose it, or it chose me, for a variety of practical reasons – its persistent lack of cool keeps the prices down, its proximity to Manhattan repeatedly startles visitors from other boroughs, and primarily, its sense of déjà vu. “It is like South St. Louis,” I would have written him, “except substitute Greeks for Germans, and I don’t know which is more xenophobic.”
Well, I do know which is more xenophobic. For one thing, the Germans are colder towards everyone, even their own kin, while the Greeks are more clannish.
Also, “xenophobia” is their word — “xenos” from the Greek meaning foreigner and “phobos” from the Greek meaning fear. I have lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years and only recently has the butcher or the tailor at the dry cleaner given me a reluctant nod in response to my “Good morning.” Even my saying it in Greek elicited no kinship: “kalimera” brought nothing but smirks or blank faces. “You Greek?” they ask. “No, actually I’m from –” I start to reply, but already the shades are drawn and the front door lock has clicked.
It would also be helpful to remember here that the word “barbarian”, now understood to mean an uncivilized person, means, in Greek, “one who does not speak Greek.” It was thought, according to noted Classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver, to derive from the Ancient Greeks’ mockery of the languages of other tribes: “Bar bar bar,” they would say to the mongrel tribe leaders, much as we say “blah blah blah” to indicate the speech of those whose interests and patience do not match our own.
What I would have told my St. Louis pen pal is that the pre-war buildings and the tidy gardens of Astoria remind me of South St. Louis. I bought my apartment because I loved the pre-war building, about which I have written here. The building has lovely arch doorways, and beautiful landscaping (though no zoysia) to which several of my neighbors contribute the whole of their weekends. My neighbors and I are not as close as I would like. But I realize that in NewYork City, even in the “ashes” of its glitter, that lack of neighborliness is a luxury problem. My building is diligently tended to, scrupulously clean, generically attractive, as the lobby of an “extended care facility” might be attractive, full of unused couches and artificial flowers. No, my building is not cool. But it is lovely.
But my grandmother would have been pleased. I would say “delighted” but “delighted” was never her style. I was able to buy the apartment in the first place because of a small inheritance from her and her frugal, reserved lifestyle. When I stepped into my then-empty apartment as a prospective buyer, I felt that my grandmother’s dishes would fit into the kitchen. I felt that she would have approved although, had she been there, she would have had no one to talk to, Germans and Greeks being what they are.
Recently, the Wall Street Journal was the latest to “discover” Astoria
as a “gentrifying” and “hip” emerging new nabe. We have been down this road before. Roomy apartments! Young hip filmmakers! Close to Manhattan! Up and coming! Have a baklava!
But on second thought, you know what? Stay away.
Originally published Wednesday, May 19, 2010