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Archive for the ‘NYC’ Category

My partner and I visited New York City in the spring, to celebrate his 40th birthday. We stayed in a ‘bed and coffee’ in Alphabet city. Apparently this was a prettyorchard.jpg rough area not that long ago, but has undergone a – is it revitalization, renewal, or gentrification? – I’m not sure. It was great to be in an area of the city where you could actually imagine yourself living, rather than the more touristed Manhattan destinations. We visited the Lower Eastside Tenement Museum and heard about the masses of immigrants who lived cheek by jowl in these tiny apartments. Often this was their first experience of America – straight from the docks into and dingy, crowded room in a tenement. I can’t really explain why I find this little part of history so fascinating, but ever since the visit I have been reading about the lower eastside.

A subject heading search with “lower east side” and fiction lead me to Eleanor Widmer’s book Up From Orchard Street. This is the story of a Jewish family, living in the tenements in the 20’s and 30’s. Bubby is the matriarch of the story. She’s really the only adult who has any sense, so she acts as a parent to her grandchildren, while her son and his wife, Jack and Lil, carry on like a couple of kids in love. Jack and Lil make a spotty living in the fashion industry. They are fond of fine clothes and spend their evenings dressing up like a couple of swells and going to the theatre to spend money they don’t have. Bubby runs a restaurant out of the tiny living room. Her food is famous, but increasingly, she has to compete with the shiny new delicatessans moving into the neighborhood. The story is told from the perspective of Elka, the ugly duckling, and the brightest member of the family. She’s a reader and writer, and learns her craft recounting the stories of her childhood.

This is an autobiographical novel. Either that fact, or the fine writing makes you feel like you know what it would have been like to live on Orchard Street.

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Well I really did mean to post recently, but I forgot my password. It’s not really fair to blame it on the dog though – for one thing, I don’t have one, though I’ve been a vicarious dog owner for a long time. That’s why I enjoyed The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Schine so much. It starts with a tale of true love, unconditional love – the kind that can only take place between a dog and his or her human companion. The dog in question is a ragged around the edges pitbull, and the owner a single woman named Jody on the downward slope to 40. What I loved about this book was that the language was so pleasant to read. Here’s a description of Beatrice’s entry into Jody’s life:

newyorkers.jpg“Naturally, she had gotten herself a dog. She originally set out to get a cat, thinking that as she seemed to be moving headlong into eccentric spinsterhood, she should begin collecting some of its accoutrements. But when she arrived at the ASPCA, she saw an elderly dog, an oversize pit bull mix so white it was almost pink, a female, who wagged her tail with such stately pessimism that Jody took the huge beast home. She named the dog Beatrice, though she had sworn not to give her new pet a person’s name, thinking it faddish and particularly pathetic for a childless woman. But the dog seemed to her to deserve a real name. Beatrice was not a youngster. The ASPCA had picked her up wandering the streets of the Bronx. Half starved and covered with ticks, she had obviously survived a harsh and difficult existence. Beatrice was a name with inherent dignity. Jody felt the old dog deserved that.

Fattened up and well groomed now, Beatrice was a noble-looking animal with enigmatic blue eyes that constantly sought out Jody’s with measured determination. She moved slowly, and though she was not playful, she was amiable and particularly loved strangers, throwing her great weight at them in a joyful greeting, unaware, presumably, that such a welcome might not always be, in fact, welcome. She trusted everyone, which was a testament to her gentle nature, as no one until now had ever earned her trust. But Beatrice seemed to be above the failures of the world, and they far beneath her. She had seen a lot, she seemed to be saying, and so nothing surprised her, nothing frightened her, nothing fazed her. She was lucky to be alive, and she seemed to know it.”

Man, that’s an awfully long quote to put on a blog, but it was hard to show restraint. After reading that passage I was instantly in love with Beatrice, and so happy that Jody found her at the pound.

The other aspect of the book that’s so engaging is the portrayal of New York City. I was in NYC in the spring and it captured my imagination, so much so that I’ve been looking for books set there, as you will see when I get around to posting again. What would it be like to live in a New York brownstone, and get to know your neighbors through chance encounters with their dogs? Anyway, you could think of this as a series of romantic stories tied together by dogs – what’s not to love?

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