When we moved to New York from the UK in 2003, we found ourselves in a (relatively) sprawling semi-basement apartment in what was claimed to be the oldest brownstone on the upper west-side. It would be our base for around a year before we relocated here to Connecticut.
I was working on a project split between Manhattan and New Jersey, so spent most weekdays traveling out of the city – counter to the traffic flow – and getting home in the late-evening. Effectively, while Jane and Elise had the city all week long, I really had it for the weekends and, if lucky, a couple of days during the week.
Not that I was complaining; I’m the luckiest man in the world, blessed with a lucky career that allowed me to use my strengths much of the time, and that brought me across the pond to live slap, bang in the centre of the most exciting city on earth.
On the drive out to Jersey, I would listen to ‘Teach Yourself Spanish’ CDs, or formulate more ideas for my nascent novel, Family Rules
[which wouldn’t see full light for a further 7 years]
It was a fertile year – my stressful corporate life feeding energy into my creative pursuits, all over-amped by the ‘on-ness’ of living in Manhattan.
Of all the lucky things I experienced, when I look back on that year in NYC, I think about the books.
You see, the apartment we were in was lined with bookcases, and everyone who’d lived there had left behind books. All genres, all periods. I only wish we’d been there longer and I could have soaked up so many more stories and perspectives of the world.
One previous inhabitant had been interested in black history and literature, as a whole section of the bookcase were given over to books that I, a Brit steeped in contemporary fiction, hadn’t ever had on radar. Two books I remember particularly are:
These beautifully crafted stories of proud people confronted by change were beautiful. And I never would have had them without the luck of being in that apartment.
Living in the apartment was like an ongoing American history lesson, taught by novels that I knew of, but had never read:
- The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
- To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee
- The Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
- On The Road – Jack Kerouac
All of these stories grounding me in the history of 20th century America. Had I been there longer, I might have chosen any other period and dived in – there was a Mario Puzo section, Mark Twain, Herman Melville. Many, many others.
Oh, and Hemingway, of course – The Old Man and the Sea is one of my Dad’s touchstones
[more from the movie than the book, I think, but I’ve been known to be wrong!]
so when I found the book on the shelf, it got read :o)
In the years since, I’ve tried to build on my luck – and the gift those previous tenants gave me – by consciously going ‘off pattern’ and buying books I normally wouldn’t read – most recently, at the suggestion of some friends, stepping into Charles Bukowski; William Burroughs a while back.
There’s no grand point or learning from this reflection, just my acknowledgement of the luck I’ve experienced and the gift that unknown people gave me without even knowing they were giving it.
Stories are precious, they transmit our collective wisdom, they are told to be told again. Please, if you’ve read a book, pass it to someone who hasn’t; or at least leave it on a shelf where someone might find it years later.
Please make someone else as lucky as I’ve had the chance to be.