The Odd Woman and the City

The Odd Woman and the City

by Vivian Gornick


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A finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, Autobiography

A contentious, deeply moving ode to friendship, love, and urban life in the spirit of Fierce Attachments

A memoir of self-discovery and the dilemma of connection in our time, The Odd Woman and the City explores the rhythms, chance encounters, and ever-changing friendships of urban life that forge the sensibility of a fiercely independent woman who has lived out her conflicts, not her fantasies, in a city (New York) that has done the same. Running steadily through the book is Vivian Gornick's exchange of more than twenty years with Leonard, a gay man who is sophisticated about his own unhappiness, whose friendship has "shed more light on the mysterious nature of ordinary human relations than has any other intimacy" she has known. The exchange between Gornick and Leonard acts as a Greek chorus to the main action of the narrator's continual engagement on the street with grocers, derelicts, and doormen; people on the bus, cross-dressers on the corner, and acquaintances by the handful. In Leonard she sees herself reflected plain; out on the street she makes sense of what she sees.

Written as a narrative collage that includes meditative pieces on the making of a modern feminist, the role of the flaneur in urban literature, and the evolution of friendship over the past two centuries, The Odd Woman and the City beautifully bookends Gornick's acclaimed Fierce Attachments, in which we first encountered her rich relationship with the ultimate metropolis.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780374298609
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 05/19/2015
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Vivian Gornick is the bestselling author of the acclaimed memoir Fierce Attachments, a biography of Emma Goldman, and three essay collections: The Men in My Life, Approaching Eye Level, and The End of the Novel of Love, which was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Read an Excerpt

The Odd Woman and the City

A Memoir

By Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2015 Vivian Gornick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-374-71168-9


Leonard and I are having coffee at a restaurant in midtown.

"So," I begin. "How does your life feel to you these days?"

"Like a chicken bone stuck in my craw," he says. "I can't swallow it and I can't cough it up. Right now I'm trying to just not choke on it."

My friend Leonard is a witty, intelligent gay man, sophisticated about his own unhappiness. The sophistication is energizing. Once, a group of us read George Kennan's memoir and met to discuss the book.

"A civilized and poetic man," said one.

"A cold warrior riddled with nostalgia," said another.

"Weak passions, strong ambitions, and a continual sense of himself in the world," said a third.

"This is the man who has humiliated me my entire life," said Leonard.

Leonard's take on Kennan renewed in me the thrill of revisionist history—the domesticated drama of seeing the world each day anew through the eyes of the aggrieved—and reminded me of why we are friends.

We share the politics of damage, Leonard and I. An impassioned sense of having been born into preordained social inequity burns brightly in each of us. Our subject is the unlived life. The question for each of us: Would we have manufactured the inequity had one not been there, ready-made—he is gay, I am the Odd Woman—for our grievances to make use of? To this question our friendship is devoted. The question, in fact, defines the friendship—gives it its character and its idiom—and has shed more light on the mysterious nature of ordinary human relations than has any other intimacy I have known.

For more than twenty years now Leonard and I have met once a week for a walk, dinner, and a movie, either in his neighborhood or mine. Except for the two hours in the movie, we hardly ever do anything else but talk. One of us is always saying, Let's get tickets for a play, a concert, a reading, but neither of us ever seems able to arrange an evening in advance of the time we are to meet. The fact is, ours is the most satisfying conversation either of us has, and we can't bear to give it up even for one week. It's the way we feel about ourselves when we are talking that draws us so strongly to each other. I once had my picture taken by two photographers on the same day. Each likeness was me, definitely me, but to my eyes the face in one photograph looked broken and faceted, the one in the other of a piece. It's the same with me and Leonard. The self-image each of us projects to the other is the one we carry around in our heads: the one that makes us feel coherent.

Why, then, one might ask, do we not meet more often than once a week, take in more of the world together, extend each other the comfort of the daily chat? The problem is, we both have a penchant for the negative. Whatever the circumstance, for each of us the glass is perpetually half-empty. Either he is registering loss, failure, defeat—or I am. We cannot help ourselves. We would like it to be otherwise, but it is the way life feels to each of us: and the way life feels is inevitably the way life is lived.

One night at a party I fell into a disagreement with a friend of ours who is famous for his debating skills. At first, I responded nervously to his every challenge, but soon I found my sea legs and then I stood my ground more successfully than he did. People crowded round me. That was wonderful, they said, wonderful. I turned eagerly to Leonard. "You were nervous," he said.

Another time, I went to Florence with my niece. How was it? Leonard asked. "The city was lovely," I said, "my niece is great. You know, it's hard to be with someone twenty-four hours a day for eight days, but we traveled well together, walked miles along the Arno, that river is beautiful." "That is sad," Leonard said. "That you found it irritating to be so much with your niece."

A third time I went to the beach for the weekend. It rained one day, was sunny another. Again, Leonard asked how it had been. "Refreshing," I said. "The rain didn't daunt you," he said.

I remind myself of what my voice can sound like. My voice, forever edged in judgment, that also never stops registering the flaw, the absence, the incompleteness. My voice that so often causes Leonard's eyes to flicker and his mouth to tighten.

At the end of an evening together, one or the other of us will impulsively suggest that we meet again during the week, but only rarely does the impulse live long enough to be acted upon. We mean it, of course, when we are saying goodbye—want nothing more than to renew the contact immediately—but going up in the elevator to my apartment, I start to feel on my skin the sensory effect of an evening full of irony and negative judgment. Nothing serious, just surface damage—a thousand tiny pinpricks dotting arms, neck, chest—but somewhere within me, in a place I cannot even name, I begin to shrink from the prospect of feeling it again soon.

A day passes. Then another. I must call Leonard, I say to myself, but repeatedly the hand about to reach for the phone fails to move. He, of course, must be feeling the same, as he doesn't call either. The un-acted-upon impulse accumulates into a failure of nerve. Failure of nerve hardens into ennui. When the cycle of mixed feeling, failed nerve, and paralyzed will has run its course, the longing to meet again acquires urgency, and the hand reaching for the phone will complete the action. Leonard and I consider ourselves intimates because our cycle takes only a week to complete.

* * *

Yesterday, I came out of the supermarket at the end of my block and, from the side of my eye, registered the beggar who regularly occupies the space in front of the store: a small white guy with a hand perpetually outstretched and a face full of broken blood vessels. "I need something to eat," he was whining as usual, "that's all I want, something to eat, anything you can spare, just something to eat." As I passed him I heard a voice directly behind me say, "Here, bro. You want something to eat? Here's something to eat." I turned back and saw a short black man with cold eyes standing in front of the beggar, a slice of pizza in his outstretched hand. "Aw, man," the beggar pleaded, "you know what I ..." The man's voice went as cold as his eyes. "You say you want something to eat. Here's something to eat," he repeated. "I bought this for you. Eat it!" The beggar recoiled visibly. The man standing in front of him turned away and, in a motion of deep disgust, threw the pizza into a wastebasket.

When I got to my building I couldn't help stopping to tell Jose, the doorman—I had to tell someone— what had just happened. Jose's eyes widened. When I finished he said, "Oh, Miss Gornick, I know just what y'mean. My father once gave me such a slap for exactly the same thing." Now it was my eyes that widened. "We was at a ball game, and a bum asked me for something to eat. So I bought a hot dog and gave it to him. My dad, he whacked me across the face. 'If you're gonna do a thing,' he said, 'do it right. You don't buy someone a hot dog without you also buying him a soda!'"

* * *

In 1938, when he was just months from dying, Thomas Wolfe wrote to Maxwell Perkins, "I had this 'hunch,' and wanted to write you and tell you ... I shall always think of you and feel about you the way it was that Fourth of July three years ago when you met me at the boat, and we went out to the cafe on the river and had a drink and after went on top of the tall building, and all the strangeness and the glory and the power of life and of the city was below."

The city, of course, was New York—the city of Whitman and Crane—that fabled context for the creation myth of the young man of genius arriving in the world capital, as in a secular tableau of annunciation, with the city waiting for him and him alone to cross the bridge, stride the boulevard, climb to the top of the tallest building, where he will at last be recognized for the heroic figure he knows himself to be.

Not my city at all. Mine is the city of the melancholy Brits—Dickens, Gissing, Johnson, especially Johnson—the one in which we are none of us going anywhere, we're there already, we, the eternal groundlings who wander these mean and marvelous streets in search of a self reflected back in the eye of the stranger.

In the 1740s, Samuel Johnson walked the streets of London to cure himself of chronic depression. The London that Johnson walked was a city of pestilence: open sewers, disease, poverty; destitution; lit by smoking torches; men cutting each other's throats in deserted alleys at midnight. It was of this city that Johnson said, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life."

For Johnson the city was always the means of coming up from down under, the place that received his profound discomfort, his monumental unease. The street pulled him out of morose isolation, reunited him with humanity, revived in him his native generosity, gave him back the warmth of his own intellect. On the street Johnson made his enduring observations; here he found his wisdom. Late at night, when he went prowling for tavern conversation, he experienced the relief of seeing his own need mirrored in the company he found: those who drank and talked of Man and God till the light broke because none of them wanted to go home either.

Johnson hated and feared village life. The closed, silent streets threw him into despair. In the village his reflected presence was missing. Loneliness became unbearable. The meaning of the city was that it made the loneliness bearable.

* * *

I have always lived in New York, but a good part of my life I longed for the city the way someone in a small town would, yearning to arrive at the capital. Growing up in the Bronx was like growing up in a village. From earliest adolescence I knew there was a center-of-the-world, and that I was far from it. At the same time, I also knew it was only a subway ride away, downtown in Manhattan. Manhattan was Araby.

At fourteen I began taking that subway ride, walking the length and breadth of the island late in winter, deep in summer. The only difference between me and someone like me from Kansas was that in Kansas one makes the immigrant's lonely leap once and forever, whereas I made many small trips into the city, going home repeatedly for comfort and reassurance, dullness and delay, before attempting the main chance. Down Broadway, up Lexington, across Fifty-Seventh Street, from river to river, through Greenwich Village, Chelsea, the Lower East Side, plunging down to Wall Street, climbing up to Columbia. I walked these streets for years, excited and expectant, going home each night to the Bronx, where I waited for life to begin.

The way I saw it, the West Side was one long rectangle of apartment houses filled with artists and intellectuals; this richness, mirrored on the East Side by money and social standing, made the city glamorous, and painfully exciting. I could taste in my mouth world, sheer world. All I had to do was get old enough and New York would be mine.

As children, my friends and I would roam the streets of the neighborhood, advancing out as we got older, section by section, until we were little girls trekking across the Bronx as though on a mission to the interior. We used the streets the way children growing up in the country use fields and rivers, mountains and caves: to place ourselves on the map of our world. We walked by the hour. By the time we were twelve we knew instantly when the speech or appearance of anyone coming toward us was the slightest bit off. If a man approached and said, "How ya doin', girls? You girls live around here?" we knew. If a woman wasn't walking purposefully toward the shopping street, we knew. We knew also that it excited us to know. When something odd happened—and it didn't take much for us to consider something odd, our sense of the norm was strict—we analyzed it for hours afterward.

A high school friend introduced me to the streets of upper Manhattan. Here, so many languages and such striking peculiarities in appearance—men in beards, women in black and silver. These were people I could see weren't working-class, but what class were they? And then there was the hawking in the street! In the Bronx a lone fruit and vegetable man might call out, "Missus! Fresh tomatoes today!" But here, people on the sidewalk were selling watches, radios, books, jewelry—in loud, insistent voices. Not only that, but the men and women passing by got into it with them: "How long'll that watch work? Till I get to the end of the block?" "I know the guy who wrote that book, it isn't worth a dollar." "Where'd ya get that radio? The cops'll be at my door in the morning, right?" So much stir and animation! People who were strangers talking at one another, making one another laugh, cry out, crinkle up with pleasure, flash with anger. It was the boldness of gesture and expression everywhere that so captivated us: the stylish flirtation, the savvy exchange, people sparking witty, exuberant responses in one another, in themselves.

In college, another friend walked me down West End Avenue. I'd never seen a street as wide and stately as this one, with doormen standing in front of apartment houses of imposing height that lined the avenue for a mile and a half. My friend told me that in these great stone buildings lived musicians and writers, scientists and émigrés, dancers and philosophers. Very soon no trip downtown was complete without a walk on West End from 107th Street to Seventy-Second. For me, the avenue became emblematic. To live here would mean I had arrived. I was a bit confused about whether I'd be the resident artist/intellectual or be married to him—I couldn't actually see myself signing the lease—but no matter; one way or another, I'd be in the apartment.

In summer we went to the concerts at Lewisohn Stadium, the great amphitheater on the City College campus. It was here that I heard Mozart and Beethoven and Brahms for the first time. These concerts came to an end in the mid-sixties, but in the late fifties, sitting on those stone bleacher seats July after July, August after August, I knew, I just knew, that the men and women all around me lived on West End Avenue. As the orchestra tuned up and the lights dimmed in the soft, starry night, I could feel the whole intelligent audience moving forward as one, yearning toward the music, toward themselves in the music: as though the concert were an open-air extension of the context of their lives. And I, just as intelligently I hoped, leaned forward, too, but I knew that I was only mimicking the movement. I'd not yet earned the right to love the music as they did. Within a few years I began to see it was entirely possible that I never would.

As I saw myself moving ever farther toward the social margin, nothing healed me of a sore and angry heart like a walk through the city. To see in the street the fifty different ways people struggle to remain human—the variety and inventiveness of survival techniques—was to feel the pressure relieved, the overflow draining off. I felt in my nerve endings the common refusal to go under. That refusal became company. I was never less alone than alone in the crowded street. Here, I found, I could imagine myself. Here, I thought, I am buying time. What a notion: buying time. It was one I shared with Leonard for years.

I grew up and moved downtown but sure enough, nothing turned out as expected. I went to school but the degree did not get me an office in midtown. I married an artist but we lived on the Lower East Side. I began to write but nobody read me above Fourteenth Street. For me, the doors to the golden company did not open. The glittering enterprise remained at a distance.

* * *

Among my friends, I am known for my indifference to acquisition. People make fun of me because I seem to want nothing; neither do I know the name of anything, nor can I readily differentiate between the fake and the genuine, the classy and the mediocre. It isn't high-minded disinterest, it is rather that things have always sent me into a panic; a peasant like discomfort with color, texture, abundance—glamour, fun, playfulness—is the cause of my unease. All my life I've made do with less because "stuff" makes me anxious.


Excerpted from The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick. Copyright © 2015 Vivian Gornick. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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