Sometimes I think that inside New York there is a Wooden Horse struggling desperately to get out, but more often these days I think of New York as the capsized city. Half-capsized, anyway, with the inhabitants hanging on, most of them still able to laugh as they cling to the island that is their life’s predicament.
Even after more than twenty-five years the long-winded lady cannot think of herself as a “real” New Yorker. If she has a title, it is one held by many others, that of a traveler in residence. As a traveler she is interested in what she sees, but she is not very curious, not even inquisitive. She is not a sightseer, never an explorer… She is drawn to what she recognizes, or half-recognizes, and these forty-seven pieces are the record of forty-seven moments of recognition.
My first Classics Club Spin (I joined back in February) was a mixed bag. The late Irish-born writer Maeve Brennan intrigues me, so I am glad that I read her collection of essays about living in New York City in the 1950’s and 1960’s, The Long Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker. These were originally published as pieces in the magazine for which she worked for more than 30 years as as staff writer. I found the experience of reading the collection in a few weeks’ time to be challenging, despite its short length. I tried to space them out by reading one or two a day at the most, but they still started to blend together for me. Many of them are set in restaurants, observations of the people eating and drinking and the staff. Many of them are about buildings being torn down in favor of “progress.” There is a palpable sense of transience about the collection as a whole, of a city in flux, a time of great social change. Most of the essays are indeed about small moments between two people, whether between people Brennan observes or between Brennan and someone else.
Brennan is a talented observer and chronicler of human foibles and quirks. She has a way with words. In one piece I liked, “Balzac’s Favorite Food,” she writes of peacefully browsing a book shop, just starting to read about something that Balzac would mix into sardines that he mashed on bread, when she was interrupted by a group of obnoxious interlopers.
…I took off my glasses to get a look at them. Cruelty and Stupidity and Bad Noise – there were three of them, a man and a woman and another, but I did not see the third, who was hidden behind the tall spindle bookcase they were all looking at and making merry over. They called out names and titles, and made a lot of feeble puns, ruining the place for everybody, and I paid for the books I had under my arm, and left. I walked over to Le Steak de Paris and asked for sardines and plain bread, but when I began to mash the sardines, I couldn’t remember what it was that Balzac used to mix them with. It didn’t matter. Sardines with plain bread are very good. I said to myself that there was no use thinking about the hyenas in the bookshop. Their capacity for arousing violence will arouse somebody who is violent one of these days.
She decides she will go back to the bookshop that night, find the book, and before the night is through she will know precisely how Balzac’s favorite food tastes.
Another essay I liked, one that sent me off the Google to do some research, is “The Farmhouse That Moved Downtown.” And old farmhouse, really old, like 200 years old, was about to be torn down for a nursing home, so the then owners decided to save it and move it by truck to the Village! (It still stands today, as far as I can tell, and you can read about it here and here if you like. Margaret Wise Brown, author of Goodnight Moon and other children’s books, once lived there!)
It was a very tiny house – much smaller than I had expected. That must have been a very small farmer who built it. It was sitting up high on a sturdy cage or raft, of heavy wooden beams, on a wedge-shaped, weedy lot, with the old brick warehouses towering over it like burly nursemaids. It was a crooked little house – askew on its perch but crooked anyway – and it looked as plain and as insubstantial as a child’s chalk drawing, but it was a real house, with a real door, and a flat roof with a chimney sticking out of it.
But by far my favorite essay was “I Wish For A Little Street Music” (1968) which starts out bemoaning the humdrum and depressing state of the people along Broadway. (“I thought to myself: All these people are sheep, and I am a sheep.”) But then she spies a middle-aged father and teenage son reunion that tugs at the heart strings (and me me absolutely BAWL, I might add!)
The father stared admiringly up at his son, hearing every word, and you could see that what he longed for was to have the chance, just once again, to pick his child up and walk a few steps with him in his arms. And it would have taken very little to cause that boy to embrace his father and whirl him around in the air. What a funny trick Time had played on those two – or was it a trick of Light that made the son so big while the father remained the size he had been? It was as thought some cameraman had enlarged a picture of the child and left the father life-size.
…Maybe they went to the Howard Johnson’s at Forty-sixth Street. That is a nice place, especially if you get near the window, so that you can look out at the crowd passing and see that at a little distance there are no sheep on Broadway.
So while I did enjoy the essays, and some of them very much, overall I felt relieved when I finished the collection. This is probably more to do with the time constraints of having to get this read and written about by the end of April for The Classics Club than flaws in the material itself. If I’d spread this collection out for a few months instead of weeks I may have ended up giving it a higher rating. So I hope that if you are at all interested in essays about New York City, if you want a glimpse into what it may have been like (for a professional white woman) in the 1950’s and 1960’s, if you are a fan of Brennan’s fiction, then please do give this one a try. There is much here to admire.