I don’t always feel like someone good in New York. I feel insubstantial and a bit fraudulent, like a classic nobody in American fiction – one of those frighteningly thin, lost characters out of a Nathanael West novel…”
by kristina eldredge
I gave someone money on the subway this morning. As he made his way up the car, I went through the usual inner debate: “When you catch up on your rent, then you can give to homeless people… But you have a job, your version of poor is not what his is. … Yeah, but look at his shoes, they’re newer than yours. Is he truly needy, in such snappy running shoes? But maybe someone gave them to him, don’t be selfish, open your heart, you tightwad,” etc. When he reached me, I fished a dollar out of my wallet and tucked it into his can.
“Thank you, my sister,” he said, looking right at me with a smile.
Oh! My heart melted like butter on a hot pancake. This is it, this is what I moved back to the U.S. for.
I climbed the subway stairs to go to work for once not feeling like one of a milling, identity-less swarm of robots enslaved to the mighty dollar. More like part of the human family. Like someone good.
I don’t always feel like someone good in New York. I feel insubstantial and a bit fraudulent, like a classic nobody in American fiction – one of those frighteningly thin, lost characters out of a Nathanael West novel. Attempts to establish myself as a fiction writer, singer/songwriter, music journalist and humorist having all failed, I now have a boring office job and I hurtle to it every day on the subway. The existence is about as far as you could get from what I dreamed of when I came here. And so there’s the added shame of being mocked by your dreams, which were made of ambition and that’s why you have to pay, with deprivation and shame.
Yeah, I have Puritanism in my background.
I don’t think I “get” New York anyway. I don’t see the enchantment in the long indifferent avenues, the blank-faced jostling crowds, the ill-humored war between traffic and pedestrians, the elevators, the bad deli food. I mean I see some excitement in the whole stressed out nightmare of it, but I don’t really get why it’s all that special. But I think my view is that of a complete outsider, who’s pondering what about the banal landscape is supposed to be so freaking great, because I’m aware I’m missing it, in any event.
But Brooklyn I got right away. I love the green silence, the black night split by running feet. I love my corner store guys who call me ‘Baby.’ Call me Sister, Baby, Mami – anything that connotes relationship. I don’t mind the regressive politics – I like being called those things. Call me anything but Jew or Four-Eyes or Queer, is how I feel, for reasons I’ll get to in a moment.
Brooklyn, with its dark warmth, reminds me of the south. I grew up in southern Ohio, in a little town called Yellow Springs. Paradise for a child – dense, viney woods to play in; eccentric Quaker philanthropists and cool go-go-booted teenagers downtown – but somewhere adults don’t stay, I guess. Not my parents, anyway. After my father had taught at Antioch College for five years he wanted a bigger school and also Antioch was going crazy with the hippies (who were our babysitters – the best, the most inspired babysitters ever). So we moved to Ottawa, Ontario.
It was a shock. No viney, overgrown woods – instead, woods you could see straight through, the trees were so fine and leafless. A broad, flat landscape, with broad, flat rivers. Lonely rivers. When you drove in the country, far from either side of the highway were thin lines of distant, inaccessible trees. Everything felt inaccessible. The flatness, the endless flatness, and the immense, inaccessible sky. It reminded me of what I had read about the Russian steppes. And the more I’ve learned about both countries, the more I think not enough is made of their similarities. The harsh climate and stark landscape breeds a compensatory personal warmth. But those factors also make people reach for comfort, sometimes fatalistically. Coffee, donuts, alcohol, cigarettes – it was unthinkable to live without any of those anodynes, I decided when I became a teenager. And I think the same substances comfort a large percentage of the Russian population, and maybe any country’s where for eight months of the year you are buried in snow and darkness.
But it wasn’t just the physical barrenness. It was the social climate. While I couldn’t understand the harsh Quebecois French I heard everywhere, that wasn’t the oddest thing – more disconcerting was how far back in time everyone seemed. My friends’ parents looked like my grandparents: grey-haired, in sober wool suits or cardigan sets. Many had English or Scots accents, clipped tones in which they expressed polite disapproval of normal playtime things like going down the hall stairs head-first on your stomach. “Here, here, that’s enough of that,” they’d say briskly, until we were confined to incredibly boring activities like television or dolls. In Yellow Springs I had played dolls, but only long enough to savage them by ripping out their glossy hair and drawing frowns on their smiling mouths. Perhaps I wasn’t the normalest, you’re thinking. But what kind of people would object to the innocent pretending-to-be-on-an-LSD-trip, the way we did in Yellow Springs, when we’d bounce off couches and beds and act like we were “freaking out”? Only Canadians, repressive repressive Canadians.
Collectively, there might have been a cold atmosphere in Ottawa, but one on one, Canadians were extremely nice – so nice, I could never be nice enough back. My American manners seemed blunt and clumsy. Saying “What?” when you hadn’t heard someone was rude – the correct response was “Pardon?” I said “napkin” for what you wiped your hands on at dinner; they said “serviette.” They were brought up more conservatively, so they didn’t laugh outright at their parents, or share obscene jokes with them. It was easy to blunder in this world.
“Hello, is Heather there?” I said once on the phone. A cool silence made me immediately suspect American gaucherie was once again the problem. “If you mean, is my daughter Heather at home, the answer is yes. If you mean, ‘may I please speak to Heather,’ I’ll see if she’s available,” came the icy answer. “Oh, Dad!” my friend called in the background, but not before my soul had shrunk and dried up like an osage orange on the Artic tundra.
But it wasn’t just manners, either. Some element of behavior was missing: Canadians don’t tend to be prone to quests, dreams, acting like they’re on acid, or extreme behavior of any kind. Though finely tuned and fiercely emotional, they’re more self-contained than Americans and I found them hard to locate, slightly veiled. In a light-hearted mood, I once danced up to a girl in my Brownie troop, singing a little song. “You’re always singing. It’s so stupid,” she said. I stopped singing and studied her contemptuous face. “You are the rudest girl I have ever met,” I said, which was probably something I had read in a book. I was very bookish, which helped me overcome a lot of my social problems. Ha ha. No, my habit of narrating out loud, adding “she said sardonically” and “he replied fatuously” to everyone’s conversation was not appreciated by my streetwise Ottawa classmates (or often, by my irritated family). Since I read a lot, and had cat glasses and dark hair, my classmates must have concluded I was Jewish (though I’m not), because “Jew” was one of their nicknames for me, along with “Four-Eyes,” “Queer” and “Teacher’s Pet.” That last one stung so sharply that it became the source of a grand pattern of underachieving which I am brilliantly maintaining to this day.
For a while, I fought back. The summer we arrived, a neighborhood kid said to me, “You’re a freak,” and I answered smartly, “You’re not such a bargain yourself,” but now I can hardly believe I ever had the spine to make that kind of retort. Soon, the Canadian vipers crushed me. I stopped defending myself. I caved in to all pressure and began a relentless effort to conform, which resulted in wearing a lot of the same kind of toque that everyone else did and skiing a whole lot. Yes, I was an exciting person.
But I mourned the loss of my Ohio home. It wasn’t just texture, color, warmth, happiness, imagination, belonging and love that I missed. It was life itself. I just didn’t feel anything anymore.
So I looked for it and then, you know, a lot of therapists said everyone misses their childhood, and my Toronto analyst said “ah, the mother country” whenever I said I wanted to go back to the States, and in every way I was encouraged to believe and I did believe that it was simply lost innocence and joy that I missed, not anything that could really exist.
But sometimes something happens that makes you think, Hey wait. This is the thing I need. This is what I missed.
Like, “Thank you, my sister!”
Once, as an adult, I went back to Ottawa on a business trip. I was startled by how truly northern a city it is: I hadn’t imagined the vastness of the sky, and it seemed like every other store sold skiing equipment. The city has physical charms – the Rideau Canal, the Laurentian mountains visible from downtown, and even the snow that drives onto every surface, flat or perpendicular, the snow I’d spent years staring at and trudging through and comparing to Corn Flakes and milk (when it was mixed with fall leaves). Snow was an essential part of the veil, the whited-out mystery I associated with living in Ottawa.
But out the taxi window on the way to the airport, I saw government workers standing knee-deep in mounting drifts on Wellington Street, turning their backs on the driving sleet while they waited for the OTC, the miserable Ottawa Transport Commission, to deliver them up a bus to take them home before they froze their might-as-well-be-Russian asses off. The scene was stark, shivery, devoid of color – it was unimaginably desolate. And I thought: Oh my God, I was right. Children sometimes have distorted views and sometimes, once in a while, they must be just dead right.
So I came back to hear the southern voices tell me: Hello, my sister! Hello! Welcome back! And thank you, my sister!
(collages: john richen)