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City Lights: Stories about New York

Overview

With a poet’s clear eye and a journalist’s curiosity about how a city works, Dan Barry shows us New York as no other writer has seen it.

Evocative, intimate, piercing, and often funny, the essays in City Lights capture everyday life in the city at its most ordinary and extraordinary. Wandering the city as a columnist for The New York Times, Barry visits the denizens of the Fulton Fish Market on the eve of its closing; journeys with an obsessed guide through the secret ...

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City Lights: Stories About New York

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Overview

With a poet’s clear eye and a journalist’s curiosity about how a city works, Dan Barry shows us New York as no other writer has seen it.

Evocative, intimate, piercing, and often funny, the essays in City Lights capture everyday life in the city at its most ordinary and extraordinary. Wandering the city as a columnist for The New York Times, Barry visits the denizens of the Fulton Fish Market on the eve of its closing; journeys with an obsessed guide through the secret underground of abandoned subway stops, tunnels, and aqueducts; touches down in bars, hospitals, churches, diners, pools, zoos, memorabilia-stuffed apartments, at births and funerals, the places where people gather, are welcomed, or depart; talks to the ex-athlete who caught the falling baby, the performance artist who works as a mermaid, the octogenarian dancers who find quiet joy in their partnership, and the guy who waves flags over the Cross-Bronx Expressway to wish drivers safe passage.

Along the way, Barry offers glimpses of New York’s distant and recent past. He explains why the dust-coated wishbones hanging above the bar at McSorley’s Old Ale House belong to the doughboy ghosts of World War I. He recalls a century of grandeur at the Plaza Hotel throught the tales of longtime doormen who will soon be out of a job. He finds that an old man’s quiet death opens back into a past that the man had spent his life denying. And, from the vantage of the Circle Line cruise around Manhattan, he joins tourists as they try to make sense of still-smoldering ruins in Lower Manhattan three weeks after September 11, 2001.

Each story in City Lights illuminates New York, as it was and as it is: always changing, always losing and renewing parts of itself, every street corner an opportunity for surprise and revelation.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"It's easy to wake up and spend a day in New York and not notice the wonder of it all. The city offers up daily mysteries and curiosities, yet most of us are so involved in our own neighborhood-centric routines and work-and-love intrigues that what goes on outside our immediate purview is a blur. Which is why God created newspaper feature writers, who venture out to mine the magic in the seemingly mundane.

Two new collections by reporters for The New York Times, Dan Barry and Joseph Berger, showcase the poignant and inspiring, funny and heartbreaking stories of everyday life in the five boroughs. Both writers grew up in the New York area and retain affectionate memories dating back more than four decades. These homegrown boys are on a personal my-kind-of-town quest as they search for tales to illustrate how the city and its people are changing. Collections of newspaper clips risk appearing like retreads from the recycling bin, yet these volumes hold up.

Barry wrote the weekly About New York column from 2003 to 2006, working in this deadline-driven format as a miniaturist. Whether describing a Queens College receptionist's quietly heroic decision to donate a kidney to a friend, recording the split-second actions of a Brooklyn neighbor who caught a baby girl thrown by her mother from a burning building, or writing about a Guyanese immigrant, 38, bold enough to take on a gifted Yale student in a $1.3 million poker championship, Barry uses lyrical language to illuminate life-changing choices. Like an old-time radio announcer conjuring up a field of green in describing the play-by-play of a baseball game, Barry conveys a you-are-there feeling in ''City Lights.'' He is so graceful a stylist that he can make even a cold-weather story — a night when the temperature dropped to 1 degree — worth reading (with pleasure) three years later.

Barry, who artfully chronicled his Long Island upbringing in his 2004 memoir, ''Pull Me Up,'' writes elegiac depictions of vanishing New York institutions, from the fragrant Fulton Fish Market (''It smells of truck exhaust and fish guts'') to that 28-flavor wholesome outpost in Midtown, Howard Johnson's (''an orange-and-blue stitch in the crazed Times Square quilt''). His wordplay frequently provokes a smile. In a rainy-day reverie about that most common of New York phenomena, umbrella hawkers, Barry writes: ''Umbrella. Say it fast, as one peddler did in Times Square — umbrella-umbrella-umbrella — and there's music playing. Say it soft, as another peddler did at Herald Square — ummm-brell-laa — and it's almost like praying. Umbrella. Umbrella. Will we ever stop saying umbrella?''

A collection like this is better sipped than consumed quickly in one sitting: too many clever leads and carefully constructed codas become overwhelming. Perhaps his publisher felt a historical obligation to include Barry's pieces written about 9/11, but these columns seem jarring, and dated. What shines instead are Barry's quirky efforts to track down such urban mysteries as what happens to those bundles of Christmas trees left on the sidewalk; or his celebrations of city characters like Stan Burns, magical ventriloquist; or my personal favorite, an elaborate musing out loud by a man — presumably Barry, who wrote in his memoir about being successfully treated for cancer in his trachea — on what he sees and feels on a seemingly ordinary day as he crosses Manhattan to go to the hospital.

In ''The World in a City,'' Berger has taken on a more ambitious project, transforming and expanding his Times articles about how immigration is changing New York neighborhoods. The child of Holocaust survivors, Berger, who was born in the Soviet Union, moved at 5 with his parents to the Upper West Side and then the Bronx. His father eked out a living in a factory job, and his mother trimmed hats at home. As Berger roams the city, he uses his parents' experience as an emotional framework to report on how today's immigrants cope with the timeless difficulties of displacement.

His chapters are structured around neighborhoods, with primers on the new inhabitants of areas like Astoria, Ditmas Park, Flushing, Rego Park, Bensonhurst, East Harlem and the Grand Concourse. Berger's descriptions of the adaptations of these newcomers serve as inspiration for even the most cynical New Yorkers. He details how Russian immigrants have come to dominate ballroom dancing throughout the city, buying up Fred Astaire dance studios, and explains why so many of the nurses in New York hospitals are Filipino. Schmoozing with the local residents, boning up on census data, eating his way through the city (with recommendations that include a bakery in Forest Hills called Beautiful Bukhara and a joint specializing in Ghanaian dishes, the African American Restaurant in the Bronx), Berger takes on the role of informed tour guide. In deference to his father's 90-minute commute to Newark, he tags along with Intesar Museitef, a divorced mother who was born in Ramallah on the West Bank, on her two-hour trip from Bedford Park to work as a health care aide in Jamaica. He also examines the sadder-eyed sides of the immigrant experience, writing about wife beating among Bukharan Jews in Rego Park and the dilemma of young Afghan women in Flushing struggling with the tradition of arranged marriage.

Berger is a rambling and discursive writer, and his effort to graft new reporting onto previously published articles is labored. In trying to cover so much territory, he at times gives bizarrely short shrift to characters about whom you're eager to know more. Dylcia Pagán, a Puerto Rican nationalist who had spent 19 years in prison for a bombing plot and was looking to buy a brownstone in East Harlem, gets one brief paragraph.

Bookstores do not categorize their stock by daytime/nighttime reading. But if they did, ''City Lights'' would be filed in the bedside department — beguiling words to dream by — while ''The World in a City'' would belong in a special Saturday morning slot, a travel cornucopia to prompt stick-in-the-mud New Yorkers to explore outlying neighborhoods."—NY Times

"Quite possibly I have missed a new generation of newspaper writers whose familiarity with and sensitivity to their urban bailiwick, as well as a gift for pungent and nimble prose, has made them an essential part of their cities' cultures—I'm thinking of Herb Cain, Mike Royko, Jimmy Breslin, and Murray Kempton. Possibly Dan Barry is a modern-day version of those types." —The Morning News

"This is a great book to dip into, reading randomly, a column at a time. It's the book I'm giving to everyone I know who loves New York." —Alice McDermott, Commonweal

"Among writers about New York, Dan Barry is very special. He does justice to the subject; no one today writes more perceptively about the city and its people."—Gay Talese

"a glowing collection of essays that sparkles and illuminates as much as the city it endeavors to capture...Readers will thank Barry for bringing these stories to their attention."—Booklist

"highly evocative." —Publishers Weekly

"Terrific...he absolutely captures the diurnal kaleidoscope of this pell-mell place that comprises, in its immense diversity and Sisyphean tragedy, the constantly changing face of America." —Virginian-Pilot

Meryl Gordon
Barry wrote the weekly About New York column from 2003 to 2006, working in this deadline-driven format as a miniaturist. Whether describing a Queens College receptionist's quietly heroic decision to donate a kidney to a friend, recording the split-second actions of a Brooklyn neighbor who caught a baby girl thrown by her mother from a burning building, or writing about a Guyanese immigrant, 38, bold enough to take on a gifted Yale student in a $1.3 million poker championship, Barry uses lyrical language to illuminate life-changing choices. Like an old-time radio announcer conjuring up a field of green in describing the play-by-play of a baseball game, Barry conveys a you-are-there feeling in City Lights. He is so graceful a stylist that he can make even a cold-weather story—a night when the temperature dropped to 1 degree—worth reading (with pleasure) three years later.
—The New York Times
Publishers Weekly

A perpetual tourist in his New York City hometown, Barry wrote a weekly New York Timescolumn from 2003 to 2006 humanizing the faceless hordes of a bustling metropolis. He gives a voice here to umbrella peddlers grumbling about bad business in a downpour, a Buddhist monk robbed of his bag of humble possessions at Trump Tower and a Bronx poker champ whose winnings bought 10 heart surgeries in his native Guyana. In a city of transition, Fulton Fish Market hawkers bid adieu to their old stinky open-air digs; Plaza Hotel doormen lament the famed hotel's conversion into luxury condos and the probable loss of their jobs. Remarkable yet ordinary New Yorkers include a Methodist office worker who donated a kidney to a Muslim woman, a Harlem window washer who plummeted to his death in a Silk Stocking neighborhood and a potato chip salesman who was unmasked as a brutal Nazi. September 11 casts a long shadow as a Staten Island retired firefighter learns for the fifth time in two years that parts of his son, a commodities trader, have been recovered at ground zero. Pulitzer Prize-winner Barry delivers highly evocative pieces, but they'll be yesterday's news to Timesreaders. (Sept.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312538910
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 3/31/2009
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 535,922
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Dan Barry wrote the weekly column “About New York” for The New York Times from June 2003 to November 2006, and now writes a national column for the Times called “This Land.” He was a nominated finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina and for his coverage of life in New York City, and shared the 1994 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting while working at the Providence Journal. He is also the author of a memoir, Pull Me Up. Born in New York and raised on Long Island, he lives with his family in Maplewood, New Jersey.

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Read an Excerpt

City Lights

PART I

New York, Starring New York

NOVEMBER 26, 2003

From an Alabama Sousaphone, a Fanfare for the City

They deserved New York. Those who have willingly donned the maroon-and-gold uniforms of the Pinson Valley High School marching band, who have lived to the tweets of their director's whistle, who have played so much upbeat music that they can bring pep to "Avé Maria." Yes, these children of Alabama deserved to participate in that glorified commercial known as the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.

But none deserved New York more than their five sousaphone players, including Andrew Parsons, sixteen. His lot in band life is to lug around a heavy instrument that looks like a tuba straining to be a boa constrictor. While others frolic among the high notes, he and his four mates boomp-boomp-boomp in the low. Andrew likes that.

Those boomps were an integral part of what won his band its brass ring: selection as one of the nine high school bands in this year's parade. Hundreds of practices followed, as did car washes, cookie dough sales, and other fund-raisers to pay for the 950-mile trip to New York.

They left Alabama on Sunday evening, 261 students, parents, and teachers packed into five chartered buses. They breezed through Washington on Monday and got to their hotel near Newark Liberty International Airport around midnight. Andrew shared a two-bed room with three other boys; he slept on the floor.

The band practiced its routine again in the hotel parking lot yesterday morning, somehow blending "Old Man River," "Jingle Bell Rock," and "Big Noise from Winnetka" into a toe-tapping medley. The band director, Jeff Caldwell, who stays up nights thinking about band precision, blew his whistle and told everyone that they looked and sounded great.

Then the people from Pinson Valley piled onto the purring buses for a day trip to Manhattan. Like many around him, Andrew had never been to New York, although he had been to St. Louis once. He had his name tag around his neck and his camera in his pocket. He took a window seat, not far from where his parents sat.

As the buses pulled out, Andrew set aside his performance anxieties—about remaining four paces behind the mellophone players and four ahead of the percussionists—to focus on Manhattan. The first stop was to be lunch at the South Street Seaport.

"Never heard of it," he said as Jersey whirred past. "What is it?"

Over the next few days the Pinson Valley band will have the same New York experience as that of most of the other parade bands. Accommodations at a New Jersey hotel (it's cheaper); meals at Planet Hollywood and the ESPN Zone; Thanksgiving dinner on a chartered boat; a Broadway play; and visits to South Street, Times Square, and ground zero.

"I'd like to see where they were," he said of the twin towers.

The buses hit congestion on the road to the Lincoln Tunnel, which meant that the Pinson Valley tour included protracted views of a McDonald's, a Taco Bell, and some auto junkyards. Andrew pointed at an industrial parking lot and said, "We have stuff like that in Birmingham."

The buses inched along, eating away at Andrew's excellent adventure. "Is traffic always like this?" he asked. He was gently told yes.

Then the lead bus pulled into a Wendy's restaurant parking lot, a stop that was not on an itinerary that had been months in the planning. Soon all five buses were in the lot, waiting for a woman whohad hustled inside. Andrew stared out the dusty window and asked whether they were already in New York. He was gently told no.

Some students passed the time by wondering what they might have for lunch in the seaport's food court. Their meal coupons listed options that ranged from California rolls to Nathan's hot dogs. "What's souvlaki?" one of the students asked.

The woman returned, and the five buses eased back into the congestion. But traffic quickly cleared up, and soon there appeared the Manhattan skyline across the Hudson River, dominated by the largest building that many of them had ever seen.

"Oh, wow!" said students and parents as cameras and video cameras clicked and recorded. Andrew was on the wrong side for this panorama, so he hurriedly handed his camera to his mother. Too late, though.

At the Lincoln Tunnel toll, a few students puzzled over a sign that said camera use was prohibited inside the tunnel. "They don't want you to find a way to blow it up," Andrew explained.

As the buses drove into the tunnel's dusk, a parent explained that they were traveling under the Hudson. Then came sunlight, and tall buildings, and quiet. Andrew Parsons, a sousaphone player from Alabama, had made it to the show.

CITY LIGHTS: STORIES ABOUT NEW YORK. Copyright © 2007 by Dan Barry. Foreword copyright © by Alice McDermott. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N. Y. 10010.

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