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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Love it? Hate it? “There is no middle ground.” Teresa Carpenter plumbs 400 years of diaries about New York

Guest blog post by Teresa Carpenter, editor of New York Diaries: 1609 to 2009, just published by The Modern Library
Today I arrived by train in New York City, which I’d never seen before, walked through the grandeur of Grand Central Terminal, stepped outside, got my first look at the city and instantly fell in love with it. Silently, inside myself, I yelled: I should have been born here!
Edward Robb Ellis
April 22, 1947
Edward Robb Ellis’s wonderstruck Midwestern boy’s ardor for New York never waned throughout his long life in the city, a period of fifty years during which time he became one of its best-known newspaper columnists and most faithful diarists.

His entry stands in marked contrast to that of eleven-year-old Anaïs Nin who, wrenched from her beloved Barcelona to relocate in New York, wrote on August 11, 1913:
It was 4 o’clock when the ship began to move again . . . Now, leaning on the railing, I couldn’t hear anything. My eyes were fixed on the lights that grew closer, I saw tall buildings, I heard the whistling of the engine, I saw a great deal of movement. Huge buildings went by in front of me. I hated those buildings in advance because they hid what I love most—flowers, birds, fields, liberty. . .
. . . Although I admire New York for its progress. I hate it, I find it superficial. I saw it as an ugly prison…
The point is: You either love New York at first blush or you want to turn and take the next train out. There is no middle ground.

My own experience was closer to Ellis’s. A Midwesterner as well, I came in through the modern and infinitely uglier Penn Station and I nearly fell to my knees and kissed the pavement. Who can explain that kind of spontaneous love you first feel for a city? New York just seems to open its arms and whisper, “No matter how strange you are, I accept you.”

Loving New York, I think, is not so much a mark of character as an indicator of temperament. You have to be comfortable with change—constant, rapid change. You must even thrive on it. You can be as public as you want or as private as you need to be. That’s possibly why celebrities like the city so much. Some days in New York you just naturally have the wind at your back, other days it’s like you’re tacking into the gale. Some will argue that it’s not the ideal place for creation of books or music or paintings; too many distractions and the ubiquitous temptation to party. Others will insist that it’s the ideal place because it marries ability and opportunity. I hold with the latter.

I’ve spend the last seven years culling through four hundred years of diaries about New York. I’ve seen the city at its worst, and in creating New York Diaries I didn’t shy away from the ugliness. To some readers I may seem a ruthless portrayer of cupidity, vice, personal betrayal, and the pity of war. Mine is not, as one reviewer noted, a Hallmark card sensibility.

But I was as deeply moved by the stories of hope and the restless striving for beauty recorded in those pages. One of the collection’s most captivating figures is Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian refugee who was shipped to the U.S. as a displaced person in 1949. He kept a diary of those years, later published as I Had Nowhere to Go: Diaries, 1944-1954. Pursuing concurrent careers as filmmaker, critic, and the first director of Anthology Film Archives, he would later be hailed as “The Godfather of American Avant-Garde Cinema.”

During his early days in New York, Mekas lived hand to mouth as a factory worker. In an entry of November 16, 1949, he writes:
Still with G.M.Co. Putting together scissors, pliers, screwdrivers, but most of the time I don’t even know what. When we get an order of drills, the palms get covered with blisters. I can’t even touch anything, even with gloves. They keep rotating the workers from one table to another, but it’s of little help. 
The fingers are working automatically. They lead their own automatic lives. I may as well let them. Who cares about the fingers. I leave them alone. They keep moving. … Suddenly I catch myself dreaming, making plans, completely unconscious of the activities of my fingers. I have no idea what they did in the meanwhile. Maybe they strangled somebody. I wouldn’t know. I am not responsible for my fingers at all. I am a space traveller.

I am taking off again! Next to my knees the radiator is boiling. I am standing at a long table, with my back to other workers. The radiator sizzles. Behind my back a monotonous noise. In another corner some women are singing, their voices are very high. It’s their own form of space travelling. They must be off to somewhere.
Went to see Firebird (Balanchine).
Clocking off the assembly line to catch the ballet? Is there any place in the world for such a man? Of course there is: New York.

Also of interest:
Related LOA works: Writing New York: A Literary Anthology (includes entries by many of the writers in New York Diaries); American Movie Critics: An Anthology from the Silents Until Now (includes six essays by Jonas Mekas)

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