Though I’ve basically abandoned my “20 Years 20 Stories” writing prompt, it still feels like a very New York-y year. I find myself thinking about the-City-with-a-capital-C a lot as I move through it: how it shapes its citizens, cultivates habits, and never, ever stops changing.
Thanks to The Hairpin, I discovered The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker, by Maeve Brennan. It’s a collection of observational essays about New York City that appeared regularly in The New Yorker from 1954 to 1981. Though the pieces vary in length from a few paragraphs to several pages each, they’re somehow exactly the right length to read in bed before falling asleep with a cat nestled in my hair. (Coincidentally, Brennan did own a cat who makes cameo appearances in a few of the essays, but for once this is not a post about cats.)
Brennan’s writing about New York City is disarmingly simple – it can feel like a stream-of-consciousness on paper, a trail of notes dashed off without much considered thought. A closer read reveals precisely-cut gems made up of intimate yet impersonal observations that – here’s the thing – ring as true today as they must have when first published. Part of that is due to Brennan’s keen observational sense: she is direct and unsentimental, but also clever and occasionally wry. Her vignettes don’t follow any scripted form and end suddenly, without resolution, which makes them a perfect expression of New York City. The way she documents lives (including her own) as if jotting down thoughts on a cocktail napkin captures the way every New Yorker’s life bumps into countless others as we engage in our everyday routines.
The stories are striking, in spite of their plainspokenness or – I suspect – because of it. Our modern multi-tasking fog means that we’re not used to reading anything that isn’t engineered to manipulate our attention to a calculated end. Brennan simply writes what she sees, without comment or agenda. And what she sees much of the time is change. Churn. Turnover. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Long-Winded Lady is that Brennan was every bit as rueful about the destruction of her “true” New York as we are about ours today. There are frequent mentions of favorite restaurants closing, buildings being razed, and entire neighborhoods losing their character when particular trades became obsolete. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by that, but I am. I like to think there was a time when popular opinion favored maintaining the status quo (in terms of beautiful architecture or culture) over erasing it in the name of whatever’s new and lucrative. But New York has never stood still, for better or worse. I’m not opposed to change, just to change for its own sake, or for profit over community value. And despite its sprawl and mottled appearance, New York City is a community; one that remains in perpetual motion, perpetually pursuing the next, new, lucrative thing.