The New York Times Book Review
Letters of Transit: Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Lossby Andre Aciman, Eva Hoffman, Bharati Mukherjee, Edward Said, Charles Simic
All of the award-winning writers in Letters of Transit have written powerfully on exile, home, and memory, using the written word as a tool for revisiting their old homes or fashioning new ones. Now, in five original essays, they offer moving meditations on these themes.
The New York Times Book Review
- New Press, The
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Letters of TransitReflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss
By Andre Aciman
New PressCopyright © 2000 Andre Aciman
All right reserved.
On a late spring morning in New York City almost two years ago, while walking on Broadway, I suddenly noticed that something terrible had happened to Straus Park. The small park, located just where Broadway intersects West End Avenue on West 106th Street, was being fenced off. A group of workers, wearing orange reflector shins, were manning all kinds of equipment, and next to what must have been some sort of portable comfort station was a large electrical generator. Straus Park was being dismantled, demolished.
Not that Straus Park was such a wonderful place to begin with. Its wooden benches were dirty, rotting, and perennially littered with pigeon droppings. You'd think twice before sitting, and if you did sit you'd want to leave immediately. It had also become a favorite hangout for the homeless, the drunk, and the addicted. Over the years the old cobblestone pavement had turned into an undulating terrain of dents and bulges, mostly cracked, with missing pieces sporadically replaced by tar or cement, the whole thing blanketed by a deep, drab, dirty gray. Finally, the emptied basin of what used to be a fountain had turned into something resembling a septic sandbox. Unlike the fountains of Rome, this one, like the park itself, was a down-and-out affair. Never a drop flowed from it. The fountain had been turned off decades ago.
Straus Park was, like so many tiny, grubby parks one hardly ever notices on the Lower East Side, a relic of a past that wasn't ancient enough to have its blemishes forgiven or to feel nostalgic about. One could say the same of the Art Nouveau-style statue of what I took to be a reclining Greek nymph lost in silent contemplation, looking inward, as it were, to avoid looking at what was around her. She looked very innocent, very Old World, and very out of place, almost pleading to be rescued from this ugly shrub that dubbed itself a park. In fact, the statue wasn't even there that day. She had disappeared, no doubt sold.
The thing I liked most about the square was gone, the way so many other things are gone today from around Straus Park: the Olympia Deli, the Blue Rose, Ideal Restaurant, Mr. Kay's Barbershop, the Pomander Bookshop, the Siam Spice Rack, Chelsea Two, and the old Olympia Theater, drawn and quartered, as all the theaters are these days, plus the liquor store that moved across the street but really disappeared when it changed owners, the flower store that went high-tech, and La Rosita, which went from being down-and-out to up-and-coming.
Why should anybody care? And why should I, a foreigner, of all people care? This wasn't even my city. Yet I had come here, an exile from Alexandria, doing what all exiles do on impulse, which is to look for their homeland abroad, to bridge the things here to things there, to rewrite the present so as not to write off the past. I wanted to rescue things everywhere, as though by restoring them here I might restore them elsewhere as well. In seeing one Greek restaurant disappear or an old Italian cobbler's turn into a bodega, I was once again reminded that something was being taken away from the city and, therefore, from me--that even if I don't disappear from a place, places disappear from me.
I wanted everything to remain the same. Because this too is typical of people who have lost everything, including their roots or their ability to grow new ones. It is precisely because you have no roots that you don't budge, that you fear change, that you'll build on anything rather than look for land. An exile is not just someone who has lost his home; it is someone who can't find another, who can't think of another. Some no longer even know what home means. They reinvent the concept with what they've got, the way we reinvent love with what's left of it each time. Some people bring exile with them the way they bring it upon themselves wherever they go.
I hate it when stores change names, the way I hate any change of season, not because I like winter more than spring, or because I like old store X better than new store Y, but because, like all foreigners who settle here, and who always have the sense that their time warp is not perfectly aligned to the city's, and that they've docked, as it were, a few minutes ahead or a few minutes behind Earth time, any change reminds me of how imperfectly I've connected to it. It reminds me of the thing I fear most: that my feet are never quite solidly on the ground, but also that the soil under me is equally weak, that the graft didn't take. In the disappearance of small things, I read the tokens of my own dislocation, of my own transiency. An exile reads change the way he reads time, memory, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss.
I remembered that on summer days many years earlier when I was doing research on my dissertation, I would sometimes leave the gloomy stacks of Butler Library at Columbia and walk out into the sun down to 106th Street, where I'd find a secluded, shaded bench away from the drunks and sit there a while, eat a sandwich, a pizza, occasionally smiling at some of the elderly ladies who sat, not in the park, but along the benches outside, the way they did on Saturday afternoons around Verdi Square on 72nd Street and had probably learned to do on sunny, windy summer days in Central Europe, and as they still do in those mock-England spots in Paris that the French call petits squares, where people chat while their children play. Some of these ladies spoke with thick accents. I pictured their homes to myself, lots of lace, many doilies, Old World silverware, mannered Austro-Hungarian everything, down to the old gramophone, the black-and-white pictures on the wall, and de rigueur schnapps and slivovitz. They made me think of old 1950s pictures of a New York where it seemed to grow darker much sooner in the evening than it does nowadays, where everyone wore long gray overcoats because winters were always colder then, and of a time when the Upper West Side teemed with people who had come from Europe before the war and then stayed on, building small, cluttered lives, turning this neighborhood into a reliquary of Frankfurt-am-Main--their Frankfurt-away-from-home, Frankfurt-on-the-Hudson, as the old joke goes, but not an inappropriate reference to a city which, in Germany today, dubs itself Mainhattan, and which is, ironically enough, a far stranger city to them, now that it imitates Manhattan, than their adopted Manhattan imitating old Frankfurt.
There I met old Mrs. Danziger with the tattoo on her arm. Eighty-three-year-old Kurt Appelbaum, a concert pianist in his day, was sitting on such a bench; we spoke; we became friendly; one night, without my asking, he offered to play the Waldstein and the Rhapsody in Blue for me, "But do not tape," he said, perhaps because he wished I would, and now that I think of it, I wish I had, as I sat and listened on a broken chair he said had been given to him by Hannah Arendt, who had inherited it from an old German colleague at the New School who had since died as well.
That was the year I rediscovered the Busch Quartet's 1930s recordings of Beethoven, and I imagined its members playing everywhere in those Old World, prewar living rooms around Straus Park. And by force of visualizing them there, I projected them onto the park as well, so that its benches and the statue and the surrounding buildings and stores were, like holy men, stigmatized by Beethoven's music as it was played by a group of exiles from Hitler's Reich.
I would come every noon, for the statue mostly, because she was, like me, willing to stand by in this halfway station called Straus Park. She reminded me of those statues one finds everywhere in Rome, springing on you from their niches in the evening when you least expect them.
It is difficult to explain what seclusion means when you find it on an island in the middle of Broadway, amid the roar of midday traffic. What I was looking for, and had indeed found quite by accident, was something that reminded me of an oasis--in the metaphorical sense, since this was a "dry" fountain--but an oasis of the soul, a place where, for no apparent reason, people stop on their various journeys elsewhere. Straus Park, it seemed, was created precisely for this, for contemplation, for restoration--in both its meanings--for retrospection, for finding oneself, for finding the center of things.
And, indeed, there was something physically central about Straus Park. This, after all, was where Broadway and West End Avenue intersected, and the park seemed almost like a raised hub on West 106th Street, leading to Riverside Park on one side and to Central Park on the other. Straus Park was not on one street but at the intersection of four. Suddenly, before I knew why, I felt quite at home. I was in one place that had at least four addresses.
Here you could come, sit, and let your mind drift in four different directions: Broadway, which at this height had an unspecified Northern European cast; West End, decidedly Londonish; 107th, very quiet, very narrow, tucked away around the corner, reminded me of those deceptively humble alleys where one finds stately homes along the canals of Amsterdam. And 106th, as it descended toward Central Park, looked like the main alley of a small town on the Italian Riviera, where, after much trundling in the blinding light at noon as you take in the stagnant odor of fuel from the train station where you just got off, you finally approach a sort of cove, which you can't make out yet but which you know is there, hidden behind a thick row of Mediterranean pines, over which, if you really strain your eyes, you'll catch sight of the tops of striped beach umbrellas jutting beyond the trees, and beyond these, if you could just take a few steps closer, the sudden, spectacular blue of the sea.
To the west of Straus Park, however, the slice of Riverside and 106th had acquired a character that was strikingly Parisian, and with the fresh breeze which seemed to swell and subside all afternoon long, you sensed that behind the trees of Riverside Park, serene and silent flowed an elusive Seine, and beyond it, past the bridges that were to take you across, though you couldn't see any of it yet, was not the Hudson, not New Jersey, but the Left Bank--not the end of Manhattan, but the beginning of a whole bustling city waiting beyond the trees--as it waited so many decades ago when, as a boy, dreaming of Paris, I would go to the window, look out to the sea at night, and think that this was not North Africa at all, but the Ile de la Cite Perhaps what lay beyond the trees was not the end of Manhattan, or even Paris, but the beginnings of another, unknown city, the real city, the one that always beckons, the one we invent each time and may never see and fear we've begun to forget.
There were moments when, despite the buses and the trucks and the noise of people with boom boxes, the traffic light would change and everything came to a standstill and people weren't speaking, and the unrelenting sun beat strong on the pavement, and I would almost swear this was an early summer afternoon in Italy, and that what lay behind Riverside Park was not just my imaginary Seine, but the Tiber as well. What made me think of Rome was that everything here reminded me of the kind of place all tourists know well: that tiny, empty piazza with a little fountain, where, thirsty and tired with too much walking all day, you douse your face, then unbuckle your sandals, sit on the scalding marble edge of a Baroque fountain, and simply let your feet rest a while in what is always exquisitely clear, non-drinkable water.
Depending on where I sat, or on which corner I moved to within the park, I could be in any of four or five countries and never for a second be in the one I couldn't avoid hearing, seeing, and smelling. This, I think, is when I started to love, if love is the word for it, New York. I would return to Straus Park every day, because returning was itself now part of the ritual of remembering the shadow cities hidden there--so that I, who had put myself there, the way squatters put themselves somewhere and start to build on nothing, with nothing, would return for no reason other than perhaps to run into my own footprints. This became my habit, and ultimately my habitat. Sometimes finding that you are lost where you were lost last year can be oddly reassuring, almost familiar. You may never find yourself; but you do remember looking for yourself. That too can be reassuring, comforting.
On a hot summer day I came looking for water in a place where no water exists, the way dowsers do when they search for trapped, underground places, seeking out the ghost of water, its remanence. But the kind of water I was really looking for was not fountain water at all, Roman or otherwise. I remembered my disappointment in Rome years ago when, dunking my feet in the turtle fountain early one afternoon, it occurred to me that these surreptitious footbaths in the middle of an emptied Rome in August and all this yearning for sunlight, heat, and water amounted to nothing more than a poor man's simulated swim at the beaches of childhood, where water was indeed plentiful, and where all of the body could bathe, not just the toes.
Excerpted from Letters of Transit by Andre Aciman Copyright © 2000 by Andre Aciman. Excerpted by permission.
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