Brooklyn, New York
It’s nearly midnight. I’ve just closed the book A Walker in the City by Alfred Kazin. Outside Flatbush Ave. pulses with movement and light in the rain. The wet streets glisten and double the images of white headlights approaching, red taillights receding, and green traffic light swaying above.
The Express Lube carwash sign glows brightly, but the flag in front of it flutters wanly in the wind, its thin sodden fabric no longer furling, Under the large scarlet letters CAR WASH the burnt-out remains of another sign are faintly visible. But the last two letters burn brightly. OIL CHANGE has become merely GE.
High above the street looms a huge billboard with Adam Sandler’s face inviting us to his Christmas movie Jack and Jill. And above the billboard a huge blue logo accompanied by a single word in white letters: CHASE.
A woman heading this way onthe dark street fights the rain with a flimsy umbrella. From a distance she resembles a pteradactyl, giving the contemporary urban scene a touch of prehistoric mystery. Thousands of windows have a view of this same street, so perhaps I shouldn’t imagine that I am the only one watching this one woman in this particular place at this moment of time.
I think about the connections and differences between the life I’ve just read about and my own. Just five miles from the high-rise condo building on Myrtle Ave. where I am staring out the window, Alfred Kazin’s Brownsville still exists. His memoir, written in 1946 when he was still in his early ’30’s, already described a lost place, a place of immigrants yearning to breathe free, a place the author both loved and hated.
I actually met Alfred Kazin in the 1980’s when he lectured at Goshen College and I was a professor there. He was at that time about 68 years old, only five years older than I am now. I thought he was ancient. The only one of his books I had read at that time was On Native Grounds. In graduate school it was considered an example of “old school” literary criticism.
Among New York Jewish intellectuals in the 1940’s-1960’s, where Kazin earned his literary and cultural street creds, his least honored work was his three-volume autobiography. Considered too personal to “count,” with his peers at the time they were written, the three books that begin with A Walker in the City (and also include Starting Out in the Thirties and New York Jew) may well become the most classic texts of his long and voluminous career. I now understand why A Walker in the City rates so well as a coming-of-age memoir even though it is basically a collection of essays rather than an integrated narrative. The secret lies in the layering of childhood and adulthood, the vivid sensory detail and the emotional intelligence of the narrating author.
How does a writer remember such vivid physical and emotional detail from childhood? Kazin is almost as gifted as Vladimir Nabakov in doing so. Here’s just one example. As he plays a game called Indian trail, “the greatest moment came when I could plunge into the darkness down the block for myself and hide behind the slabs in the monument works. I remember the air whistling around me as I ran, the panicky thud of my bones in my sneakers,and then the slabs rising in the light from the street lamps as I sped past the little candy story and crept under the fence.” Every child runs. Only a one in a million adults remembers running this way.
Flannery O’Conner once said, “The fact is that anybody who has survived childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. If you can’t make something out of a little experience, you probably won’t be able to make it out of a lot.”
The drama of childhood is all about newness, ritual, feelings expressed and unexpressed, attachment and loneliness. The experience may well be small, the space limited, and the information scant, but a great writer makes the most of quotidian materials.
I am awed by this ability. Sometimes, reading the work of really great memoirists, I feel very small because they seem to be able to remember and evoke such profound detail. Then I read an article in The New York Times last week about talent and its correlation with working memory. After that one, I feel like that woman on the street struggling against the wind, her umbrella offering no shelter.
Anybody out there know what I am talking about? I suspect that part of the solution to this problem is to write and write and write. Sometimes the detail comes back that way, the perfect metaphor flashes with light. The sidewalks of memory glisten in the rain. One thing is sure. If I don’t write a lot, I’ll never remember beyond the broad, sunny, surface. If I want to get to the double image, I’ll need to sing, a lot, in the rain.