Years ago I left the wide, flat fields of rural Minnesota for the island of Manhattan to find the hero of my first novel. When I arrived in August of 1978, he was not a character so much as a rhythmic possibility, an embryonic creature of my imagination, which I felt as a series of metrical beats that quickened and slowed with my steps as I navigated the streets of the city. I think I was hoping to discover myself in him, to prove that he and I were worthy of whatever story came our way. I wasn’t looking for happiness or comfort in New York City. I was looking for adventure, and I knew the adventurer must suffer before he arrives home after countless trials on land and sea or is finally snuffed out by the gods. I didn’t know then what I know now: As I wrote, I was also being written. The book had been started long before I left the plains. Multiple drafts of a mystery had already been inscribed in my brain, but that didn’t mean I knew how it would turn out. My unformed hero and I were headed for a place that was little more than a gleaming fiction: the future.
I had given myself exactly twelve months to write the novel. If at the end of the following summer, my hero was stillborn or died in infancy or turned out to be such a dullard that his life deserved no comment, in other words, if he was not a hero after all, I would leave him and his novel behind me and throw myself into the study of my dead (or failed) boy’s ancestors, the denizens of the volumes that fill the phantom cities we call libraries. I had accepted a fellowship in comparative literature at Columbia University and, when I asked if I could defer my admission until the following year, the invisible authorities had sent me a long-winded letter agreeing to my request.
A dark room with a kitchenette, an even darker bedroom, a tiny black-and-white-tiled bathroom, and a closet with a bulging plaster ceiling at 309 West 109th Street cost me two hundred and ten dollars a month. It was a grim apartment in a scraped, chipped, battered building, and had I been just a little different, a bit more worldly or a touch less well read, its sour green paint and its views of two dirty brick walls in the stinking summer heat would have wilted me and my ambitions, but the degree of difference that was required, however infinitesimal, did not exist at the time. Ugly was beautiful. I decorated the rented rooms with the charmed sentences and paragraphs I lifted at will from the many volumes I kept in my head.
He had filled his imagination with everything that he had read, with enchantments, knightly encounters, battles, challenges, wounds, with tales of love and its torments, and all sorts of impossible things, and as a result had come to believe that all these fictitious happenings were true; they were more real to him than anything else in the world.
My first moments in my first apartment have a radiant quality in memory that have nothing to do with sunlight. They are illuminated by an idea. Security deposit down, first month’s rent paid, door closed on my squat, grinning super, Mr. Rosales, sweat soaking the under- arms of my T-shirt, I hopped about on the floorboards in what I believed to be a jig and threw out my arms in triumph.
I was twenty-three years old with a BA in philosophy and English from St. Magnus College (a small liberal arts institution in Minnesota founded by Norwegian immigrants); five thousand dollars in the bank, a wad of dough I had saved while I worked as a bartender in my hometown of Webster for a year after graduation and bunked at home for free; a Smith Corona typewriter, a tool kit, cooking equipment donated by my mother, and six boxes of books. I built a desk with two-by-fours and a plywood sheet. I bought two plates, two cups, two glasses, two forks, two knives, and two spoons in anticipation of the future lover (or series of lovers) with whom, after a night of delirious banging, I planned to eat a breakfast of toast and eggs, which, because I had no table and no chairs, would be consumed on the floor.
I remember the door closing on Mr. Rosales, and I remember my jubilation. I remember the two rooms of the old apartment, and I can walk from one to the other in my mind. I can still see the space, but if I am honest, I cannot describe the precise configurations of the cracks in the bedroom ceiling, the lumpy lines and delicate flowerings I know were there because I studied them, nor am I absolutely certain about the dimensions of the refrigerator, for example, which I believe to have been smallish. I’m quite sure it was white and it may have been round at its corners, not square. The more I focus on remembering, the more details I am likely to provide, but those particulars may well be invented. And so, I will not expound on the appearance, for example, of the potatoes that lay on the plates in front of me thirty-eight years ago. I will not tell you whether they were pale and boiled or sautéed lightly or au gratin or fried because I do not remember them. If you are one of those readers who relishes memoirs filled with impossibly specific memories, I have this to say: those authors who claim perfect recall of their hash browns decades later are not to be trusted.
And so, I arrive in the city I have dreamed about since I was eight years old but do not know from Adam (as a child, I thought the expression was “from atom” and that it bore some relation to the terrifying physics of the bomb).
And so, I arrive in the city I have seen in films and have read about in books, which is New York City but also other cities, Paris and London and St. Petersburg, the city of the hero’s fortunes and misfortunes, a real city that is also an imaginary city.
I remember the eerie illumination that came through the broken blinds the first night I slept in apartment 2B on August 25. I told myself I needed a new shade or it would never be truly dark in the room. The hot air didn’t move. My sweat turned the sheets damp, and my dreams were harsh and vivid, but by the time I had made coffee and taken the cup back to my foam mattress to drink it the following morning, I had forgotten what I dreamt.
During my first week in New York, I wrote in the mornings and traveled on the subway in the afternoons. I had no destination in mind, but I know that as the train rumbled through the bowels of the city, my heart beat more quickly, and my newfound freedom seemed nearly impossible. A token cost fifty cents, and as long as I didn’t take an exit and climb the stairs, I could change from one train to another without paying another fare. I chugged uptown and downtown on the IRT, and ew express on the A, and I crossed from the West Side to the East on the Shuttle and investigated the curious route of the L, and when the F rose up into daylight at Smith and Ninth Street and I had a sudden view of steam- ing Brooklyn with its jazz of jutting cement blocks, warehouses, and billboards, I found myself smiling out the window.
As I sat or stood in one of the cars, jostled and jolted by its stops and starts, I paid homage to the ubiquitous graffiti, not for its beauty but for its insurrectionist spirit, one I hoped to imbibe and emulate for my own artistic purposes. I rejoiced in the screeching trains and in the voice of the man whose announcements turned to an unintelligible but sonorous scratch over the loudspeaker. I celebrated the press of the crowd as I was pushed out the door in a collective swell of movement, and I recited Whitman’s lines “myself disintegrated, every one disintegrated, yet part of the scheme.” I wanted to be part of the scheme. I wanted to be everyone. I listened to all the languages spoken, some of them recognizable—Spanish, Mandarin, German, Russian, Polish, French, Portuguese—and some that I had never heard before. I reveled in the varieties of skin color near me, having been sated in Webster, Minnesota, by enough Lutheran pallor and its inflamed shades of pink to red to burnt farmer brown to last me a lifetime.
I studied the bums and panhandlers and bag ladies at various stages of descent into the indignities of the street. Years before my arrival in New York City, the powers-that-were-at-the-time had opened the doors of psychiatric wards and released their patients into a dubious freedom. Mad people skulked on the platforms, picking at their sores. Some shouted verses. Some sang or whined or preached about Jesus coming or Jehovah’s wrath, and some sat silently in black corners, reduced to husks of despair. I inhaled the stench of their un- washed bodies, an odor wholly new to me, and held my breath.
The rhyme and reason of Manhattan’s streets would have to wait. How one neighborhood related to another could be traced on the map I carried around with me, but it still had no carnal logic. When I leapt up the steps into the sun and the crowds, and my shoes hit the baked asphalt and melting tar, and I heard through the talk and traffic and general roar the cacophony of music from boom boxes hoisted on shoulders or swinging at thighs like suitcases, my skin bristled, my head felt light, and I prepared for the coming sensual assault. I remember my first walk down pushy, pungent Canal Street, the bronzed ducks that hung by their feet through greasy glass, the tubs of shining whole fishes, the baskets and cardboard boxes laden with grains and vegetables, and the fruits I would only later learn to name: star fruit, mangosteen, breadfruit, and longan.
There were the squalid pleasures of walks through Times Square—the signs that lured patrons with X and XX and XXX and burlesque, also spelled burlesk and bur_esk (due to fallen l), peep shows and the Paradise Playhouse and Filthy’s and Circus Circus with live girls onstage for just a quarter and “$10 dollars complete,” and the silhouettes of naked women with jutting breasts and long legs above the marquees, and views of pizza parlors and game rooms and grim little laundry shops with brown paper packages tied with string piled high and the litter that leapt and twirled when the wind blew and three-card monte cheats who set up on the sidewalk to scam the suckers and the men with their shirtsleeves rolled to their elbows in the hot air who paused on the sidewalk, held captive for a moment by the promise of jiggling flesh and speedy relief, before they either walked inside to get some satisfaction or turned left or right and went on their way.
I trekked to Greenwich Village for its Bohemian mythology in search of Dada’s brilliant company. I was looking for Djuna Barnes and Marcel Duchamp, for Berenice Abbott, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Claude McKay, for Emmanuel Radnitzky, alias Man Ray. I was looking for William Carlos Williams and Jane Heap, for Francis Picabia and Arthur Craven, and the astounding character who had popped up in my Dada research, a woman I had chased to the archives of the University of Maryland, where for three days I had laboriously copied out in pencil her mostly unpublished poems: the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, née Elsa Hildegard Plötz, artist as proto-punk, fuck-you riot, who struck poses with birdcages on her head and headlights at her hips and wrote poems like howls or burps that came from deep in the diaphragm.
“No one asks for these papers,” the archivist told me before she hauled out the boxes. I’m No One then, I thought. The Baroness’s papers arrived in Maryland in 1970 because Djuna Barnes, author of the intoxicating novel Nightwood, had saved her dead friend’s letters and manuscripts and drawings and stored them in her New York apartment. When the university acquired the Barnes papers, the Baroness came along for the ride. Hour after hour, I sat with Elsa’s yellowing papers, lined and unlined, studying one draft after another of a single poem until I became confused and my eyes hurt. After the day was over, I sat on my bed in my room at the Holiday Inn to read over what I had recorded and to feel the percussive jolts and jerks of the Baroness rock my body. She lived in the pages I took with me to New York, but there was no trace of her downtown. She wasn’t even a ghost. There was nothing left of her in the narrow, off-kilter byways of the Village.
Christopher Street was vibrant then, an open-air theater I liked to walk down incognito and peek in windows at erotic paraphernalia and costumes of a sort I had vaguely known existed but had never seen, and I wondered what my old friend Pastor Weeks would have thought of it all and what he might have said if he had been walking beside me, and I answered in the words he would have chosen: “We are all sisters and brothers in the Lord.” I admired the proud couples that resembled twins, lean and trim in matching blue jeans and fitted T-shirts and perfect posture with a little sway in their hips and maybe a dog on a leash between them as they strolled to show off their perfect beauty, and I liked the tall girls in plumes and heels, and I tried not to stare at the men I silently referred to as “leather threats,” the big muscle boys in black regalia with silver studs and spikes and in- tense expressions that made me look down at the sidewalk.
I loitered in bookstores, in the Coliseum and Gotham Book Mart and Books and Company and the Strand. In the Eighth Street Bookshop, I bought Some Trees by John Ashbery, and I read it on the train and then aloud in the apartment over and over again. And I discovered the National Bookstore on Astor Place, jammed with tantalizing scholarly books wrapped in plastic to prevent fingerly invasions from people like me, overseen by a tyrant with white hair who kept time with his tapping pencil and barked if you lingered too long over a volume, and I had to save my money, so I usually left empty-handed, but old man Salter, not so friendly himself, let me sit on the floor of his bookstore back in my own neighborhood just across the street from Columbia, and I would lean against a shelf and read until I knew I truly wanted this book or that one, mostly poets new to me, but before the year was over, I had bought the whole New York School and beyond, more Ashbery, as well as Kenneth Koch and Ron Padgett and James Schuyler and Barbara Guest and Frank O’Hara, the latter killed by a dune buggy on Fire Island twelve years before I arrived. And I still remember Guest’s words, the ones that prompted me to buy her book: “Understanding the distance between characters.” I am still trying to understand that.
And when I wanted the city to stop, I bounded up the steps between the stone lions and passed through the doors of the New York Public Library and walked swiftly to the grand reading room, fit for kings, and I seated myself at one of the long wooden tables under the vast vaulted ceiling with a chandelier dangling high above my head, and I ordered a book as the silent daylight from the great windows fell upon me, and I read for hours and felt as if I had become a being of pure potential, a body transformed into an enchanted space of in nite expansion, and as I sat and read to the dull sound of pages turning and to coughs and sniffs and footsteps that echoed in the immense room and the occasional rude whisper, I found refuge in the cadences of whichever mind I was borrowing for the duration, immersed in sentences I couldn’t have written or imagined and, even when the text was abstruse or gnarled or beyond me, and there were many of those, I persevered and took notes and understood that my mission was one of years, not months.
If I could fill my head with the wisdom and art of the ages, I would over time augment myself, volume by volume, into the giant I wanted to be. Although reading required concentration, its demands were not those of the streets, and I relaxed in the reading room. I breathed evenly. My shoulders fell from their hunched position, and I often allowed my thoughts to play in reverie over a single phrase, “The irrationality of a thing is no argument against its existence, rather a condition of it.” In the library I had wings.
Before I left the building, I would always stop by the Slavic Reading Room, open the door, and peek in at the old men who resembled ivory carvings of themselves, their skin the color of gray-tinted eggshells and their long beards a paler shade of the same color. They dressed in black and at first appeared motionless as they sat over the old books. Only their long forefingers moved with deliberation as they turned the pages, a uniform gesture that proved to me the statues were alive. The old men must be long dead now, and the Slavic Reading Room is no more, but I never failed to look in on them and inhale that special dry odor of aged scholar and precious paper, which together seemed to me to carry a faint whiff of smoking incense and the mystical philosophy of Vladimir Solovyov before the revolution. I never dared cross the threshold.
The library is an American palace, built by Lenox and Astor money to show snooty European money that it had nothing on us. But I can say this: no one measured me up and down or gave me an intelligence test or checked my bank account before I walked through the door. In Webster, Minnesota, there were no truly rich people. We counted a few turkey farmers and store owners as wealthy, and doctors, dentists, lawyers, and professors, however modest their means, were given a class bounce by their years in school and were often resented by the poor farmers and mechanics and myriad others in and around town who had no letters after their names.
But in New York, money was there to gawk at, money the likes of which I had never seen. It strolled down Fifth and Park Avenues, alone or in pairs, and it laughed and conversed behind the windows of restaurants at tables with wine bottles and pressed white linen napkins and low candles. It stepped out of taxis in shoes with soles that appeared never to have touched a sidewalk, and it slumped gracefully in the backseat of chauffeured limousines. It sparkled in displays of watches and earrings and scarves in stores I was too shy to enter. And I couldn’t help but think of Jay Gatsby’s beautiful shirts in many colors and stupid, empty Daisy, and the sad green light. And I thought of Balzac, too, how could one not, of the grubby, glittering human comedy and of Proust dining at the Ritz with the friends he robbed of their traits with such terrifying exactitude, and of Odette’s “smart set,” which is not so smart at all, vulgar, in fact, and I struggled to feel beyond it all, to be my own character, that noble, young if poor person with high, re ned literary and philosophical tastes, but there was power in the money I saw, a brute force that frightened me and which I envied because it made me smaller and more pathetic to myself.
I am still in New York, but the city I lived in then is not the city I inhabit now. Money remains ascendant, but its glow has spread across the borough of Manhattan. The faded signs, tattered awnings, peeling posters, and filthy bricks that gave the streets of my old Upper West Side neighborhood a generally jumbled and bleary look have disappeared. When I find myself in the old haunts now, my eyes are met with the tightened outlines of bourgeois improvement. Legible signage and clean, clear colors have replaced the former visual murk. And the streets have lost their menace, that ubiquitous if invisible threat that violence might erupt at any instant and that a defensive posture and determined walk were not optional but necessary. In other parts of the city in 1978, one could adopt the ambling gait of the flaneur, but not there. Within a week, my senses had gained an acuity they had never needed before. I was ever alert to the sudden creak or whine or crack, to the abrupt gesture, unsteady walk, or leering expression of an approaching stranger, to an indefinable odor of something-not-quite-right that wafted here and there and made me hasten my steps or dodge into a bodega or Korean grocery.
From Memories of the Future. Used with permission of Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2019 by Siri Hustvedt.