International Writers Magazine: New York Living
MEET THE NEIGHBORS... living in Brooklyn
Heights in the 80's
On a perfect day youd call your friends about it,
meet for coffee and laugh. But thats the hard part
living in a new city, making friends. New York is a strange
place. Youd think youd make friends right away.
Its big, its got lots of people in it and some
of the greatest coffee shops in the world, but sometimes
to make friends, first you have to have some. Or a job.
Join a writers group someone suggested. But writers
are weird people and make lousy friends. No, I wanted media
people, advertising people, lightweight, bitchy, amusing
friends. People who have a pretty cynical approach, but
a huge appreciation of irony. Try putting that criteria
in the want ads. Try meeting them when you are on the outside
So when Nora came knocking on our door with an idea for
meeting people I was so astonished I immediately agreed.
Nora, a large bespectacled woman from Baltimore had just
moved into Brooklyn too and she was lonely. But Nora was
more organised than myself.
The way to do it,' she suggested, 'is that everyone
in our block will pay $15 bucks and well have a party
with nametags and everything and well meet in the
the only place with a garden out back and well all
This I liked. Here we all were living in Remsen Street brownstones
completely oblivious of each other, hardly daring to nod
at each other for fear of sexual harassment legal suits
or just plain fear and we should all definitely be friends.
It was set for a Thursday night. The name tags would be
at the door and there would be wine and cheese. I expected
a big crowd, I mean, there were four apartments per building
and hundreds of people living on this really elegant Brooklyn
street. You would expect they would all want to make at
least one friend, or at least be curious.
My roomate John and I turned up around half an hour late
and there were around five people. We put on our name tags
and were introduced to some socially dysfunctional people
with great jobs, like librarian, insurance salesman (on
the make) unemployed bartender (rare) actor (character actor)
and Jena. I knew Jena right away. She was the attractive
woman living right across the way from our apartment with
two kids. We had even waved. This was a good start.
I just want to know one thing, Jena asked me.
Why do you always stand on your kitchen table, actually,
why do you always make people who visit you stand on your
It is questions like that that make you realise that people
are watching you more closely than you think.
Well I looked at Jena and I couldnt tell a lie. Well
if you stand on the kitchen table crane your neck and look
45 degrees over the street, then you can see Norman Mailer
working at his typewriter.
It seemed like a perfectly normal answer to me, but Jena
just stood there open mouthed. You can see him working?
Yes, he seems to be doing a lot lately anyway. Everytime
I think about taking a rest, I notice hes still working
and I force myself not to quit until he does.
Youre a writer?
Me too, my husbands a writer. Writes for the
New York Times.
She moved onto someone else then. She instinctively knew
that she was wasting her time. Everyone knows writers dont
have any money.
That evening wasnt a total success. Only twenty people
turned up out of a total possibility of 250. Either they
thought $15 bucks was too much to pay for a new friend,
or they didnt need a friend. My roomate found himself
cornered by the vicar. The trendy bearded jolly vicar who
didnt believe in dog collars, or God. He did live
in a great converted horse and carriage building however
with exposed brick and grey slate kitchens. He invited about
five of us back, probably hoping for converts. We drank
homemade wine with him and his wife who made shawls for
a living. She showed us about 20 shawls until someone actually
Thats the great thing about New York, you could never
guess what anyone does for a living.
The next day I met Jena in the supermarket. One of her kids
had been traumatised by the biggest cockroach in the world
crawling out of the chilled cabinet where they kept the
cakes. It was truly gross, but not unusual. This was the
year of the great garbage strike and as I helped carry her
shopping Jena made soothing noises to her kids. We stopped
beside one of the garbage heaps at the end of the road where
rats were moving in and around the mounds of fetid food
There, one of the kids shouted. I saw
one there, its huge
Weirdly they didn't seem to mind the giant sleek and a big
slimy rats, but the roach was not a subject that could be
mentioned without invited mass hysteria.
Jena invited me in for tea. My first invite anywhere since
getting to New York. The apartment was amazing with long
maple wood floors, lots of plants and a great view over
the Hudson River, if you squinted from the bathroom window.
The kids showed me their Muppet collection, Jena produced
peppermint tea and I promised to give her a copy of my novel
when it came out. I had a new friend. The best $15 bucks
I ever spent. The husband I learned was an unfaithful wretch,
but since he was the New York
Times book reviewer, I didnt comment or take
sides. You never know.
A month later, during which we had waved a lot at each other,
I finally let Jena in, to stand on the kitchen table so
she could see Norman Mailer working at his typewriter. She
was impressed. She called her friends at Vanity Fair to
tell them and they told their friends and someone (but not
me) wrote an article about it. (Which is why I think Normal
Mailer moved upstate) Later I gave her the proofs of my
novel (my first, 209 Thriller
Road - St Martin's Press)
and she took it home to give to her husband (or throw it
at him I think she said). I took her kids to see the Muppet
Movie and they loved it. It was great, I had a new
friend and a kind of family to play with. New York suddenly
felt friendly and full of possibilities. I was beginning
to think of staying, writing another book there.
My novel came out two weeks later, no one bought it, there
were no reviews and I think they sort of remaindered it
about three weeks later (its a short book life in
New York booksellers). Ironically that last weekend there
was a good review of it in the New
York Times by Jenas husband. But the book had
already gone from the shops. Theres a lesson there
somewhere, but I never learned what it was.
Jena wrote me a month later from Ithaca. Shed married
someone else, they lived up country and I mustnt write
because her new husband wouldnt like it. I discovered
that I was very upset by this.
The same day I got a call from London. A possible new book
deal. I had to go back. I found that I didnt really
mind. Maybe you have to grow up in New York to have real
friends. I have been back many times. I even have family
living there now and I have met all my nieces friends,
but they all look very tense and lonely to me. Rich, tense
Sometimes I remember Jena, her beautiful kids whisked off
to Ithaca. I wonder what happened to all of them. Then I
remember the instructions not to write. I can just wonder.
© Sam North
author of 'Diamonds - The Rush of '72'
World Travel Stories
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