You’ve probably heard that New York is a tough city. It’s the city of “talk to the hand” and the nanosecond of the New York Minute; of ruthless promiscuity married to endemic loneliness. Just before I moved here, a friend back in London told me a story she thought indicative of life in the Five Boroughs. A British ex-pat is sharing her boyfriend problems with an office colleague. After a few minutes of one-sided chat, the New Yorker swivels in his chair to brandish a quarter in her face. “Here’s 25 cents,” he says. “Go find a phone booth and call someone who gives a shit.”
Who can say if this happened? The important point is that to my friend, this anecdote provided a recognizable caricature of the Gotham attitude. New York has a bad rep. It’s undeserved (London is a far less friendly place), and Ian Frazier’s endearing and idiosyncratic reminiscences of the metropolis help to put the record straight.
Gone to New York collects articles written between 1975 and 2005, and published in the New Yorker, Atlantic and elsewhere. In these pieces, Frazier depicts the everyday city behind the popular myth. The rough stuff is still present. We find the toxic Gowanus Canal, bubbling in the summer heat; a SWAT team swarms over a downtown apartment building, prompted by a rumor, and disperses into the night laughing; street vendors hawk merchandise in exchange for a mysterious currency, the “dallah.” But come spring, crowds fill the paths through the blossoming and incongruous cherry orchard of Brooklyn’s Botanic Gardens, having their photos taken in their best clothes; a park warden cracks a joke and ‘a duck quacks, in Brooklynese, “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” having heard it all before.’ The grime, noise and belligerence of the streets are not censored. But they are features of the city, as depicted here, not a metonymy for it—we’re not meant to take those unpleasant parts as representative of the whole.
Frazier, whose work for journals has been anthologized in a number of volumes, including Dating your Mum and The Fish’s Eye, is frequently billed as a humorist. There is nothing inaccurate in that. Humor fizzes away in his writing like a more pleasant version of the overheated Gowanus. It carries you from page to page, from Brooklyn, which has the ‘hard-to-remember shape of a stain,’ to Downtown Manhattan, where an intersection is ‘an open-air car mall, [and] stoplights function in a largely advisory capacity.’ That said, it isn’t the laughs but Frazier’s gift for capturing the accidental pathos of metropolitan life that will make a lasting impression on the reader. One of the best articles here, ‘Take the F,’ a paean to Brooklyn, ends in a moment of euphoric tenderness. A neighbor is taken to hospital soon after having given birth. The whole apartment block where she and Frazier live is left ‘expectant, spooky, quiet.’ When Frazier finds her in the foyer, having returned under her own steam, they hug ‘and it was the whole building hugging her. I walked to the garden seeing glory everywhere. I went to the Rose garden and took a big Betsy McCall rose to my face and breathed into it as if it were an oxygen mask.’ Community and kindness will seem as improbable in association with Brooklyn as flowers; yet all of these things flourish here.
Frazier, an Ohio native, doesn’t write in a style that might be thought typical to New York. His wit is down-home rather than urbane. He doesn’t present a thesis or argument but meanders through details that collectively create not just a powerful sense of place, but a feeling of displacement among the familiar. In ‘Antipodes,’ Frazier shows us what we would find if we ‘drilled a hole straight through the earth, starting at the corner of Seventh Avenue and Forty-Second Street.’ What follows is a wealth of research about the Indian Ocean, where the deep seabed is covered by a translucent slime called globigerina ooze, which can be as much as one thousand feet thick. Elsewhere, in the elegiac ‘To Mr Winslow,’ we are presented with a record of the tributes laid in Prospect Park at a spot where a man was murdered. An ad hoc memorial is built up anonymously and fades away over the course of a year. Little reflection is offered on this spontaneous outpouring of sympathy and grief. The tributes remain powerfully preserved on the page, symbols of nothing other than themselves.
At times, these litanies of detail, which recall the bouncing rhythms of Kerouac’s descriptive lists, become dull. The articles are not all equally inspired, but this is to be expected when a man makes a living out of celebrating moments of epiphany. Writing about the bus that takes him from the Port Authority Terminal to New Jersey, Frazier says, ‘I always try to get a window seat and then look at the scenery. If this were a ride at an amusement park, I would pay to go on it.’ There are two ways you can interpret a statement like that, and at different times both are true for Frazier. At his best, he sees things in the ordinary landscape of the city and its environs that evade most of us; at his least brilliant, he is simply a man with a very high boredom threshold.
In the ranks of the less impressive are the two articles that deal with ‘the snagger,’ a tool Frazier invents with a friend for removing the refuse that gets caught in the branches of city trees. Armed with the snagger, they abandon their families at weekends like avid urban anglers and wander the city debagging the greenery. It is a public-spirited, quixotic endeavor; he hints that it is a kind of penance for the destructive acts of his youth. But you can’t help wonder about a man who will devote himself willingly, unpaid, to expend his energy collecting litter from trees. Has he passed beyond mere eccentricity? Does he confuse tedium with transcendence?
There is a strong element of the obsessive-compulsive in Frazier, which sometimes makes him an awkward companion. Thankfully, more often his love of the quotidian directs our eyes to ordinary miracles that redeem much not only of the city, but of life. For New Yorkers not too jaded to feel the romance of their home and sensible enough to need the city rendered in realistic shades, Gone to New York is an occasionally slow but more frequently uplifting read. It is a prose antidote to the misconception that the proper avatars of the New York spirit are Donald Trump and Carrie Bradshaw.