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New York Living

MEET THE NEIGHBORS... living in Brooklyn Heights in the 80's
Sam North

On a perfect day you’d call your friends about it, meet for coffee and laugh. But that’s the hard part living in a new city, making friends. New York is a strange place. You’d think you’d make friends right away. It’s big, it’s 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 writer’s 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 looking in.

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 we’ll have a party with nametags and everything and we’ll meet in the the only place with a garden out back and we’ll all be friends".

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 kitchen table.”

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 couldn’t 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 he’s still working and I force myself not to quit until he does.”

“You’re a writer?”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“Me too, my husband’s 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 don’t have any money.

That evening wasn’t 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 didn’t need a friend. My roomate found himself cornered by the vicar. The trendy bearded jolly vicar who didn’t 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 fell asleep.

That’s 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 and rubbish.

“There,” one of the kids shouted. “I saw one there, it’s 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 didn’t 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 (it’s 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 Jena’s husband. But the book had already gone from the shops. There’s a lesson there somewhere, but I never learned what it was.

Jena wrote me a month later from Ithaca. She’d married someone else, they lived up country and I mustn’t write because her new husband wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 niece’s friends, but they all look very tense and lonely to me. Rich, tense and lonely.

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'

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