When I was twenty four and a chef in Provincetown, Scott and Robin, architects from New York City, asked me to draw a picture of my dream kitchen. I drew it in the sand at Herring Cove. They built it in one of the small, corner lofts in a former button factory that there were converting to residences in Manhattan. Ten years later I moved into that loft.
It wasn’t a big place, only a third of the size of Scott’s, which occupied the floor directly above and resembled the set for 9 1/2 Weeks. My loft, on the other hand, was washed with filtered, bright light. It was mostly kitchen with miles of white Formica. It was home. Hints of the homes that had proceeded it converged there.
In the decade between the beach and the loft, I’d lived in a big old house in Cambridge where I’d written a novel while staring out toward Julia Child’s front door. I’d lived in a parlor flat on Beacon Hill, learning to write about food and beginning to publish articles. I’d lived in a corner apartment in a former welfare hotel where I wrote my first published book.
The loft was the sort of place I fantasized, but it also shared things, primarily the light and a sense of remove, with every other place I’d called home. I wrote four books and at least a thousand articles in the little cubicle that abutted the little sleeping area on the back wall of the loft. I was at my desk early and wrote until the light changed from lemon to apricot. When the sun began to dip toward the Hudson, I’d head to the kitchen and start testing recipes.
Several hours later, Scott and Robin would wander in, sit on the counters and pick herbs, pit olives and peel garlic as I cooked. Dinner was usually a couple hours of yak-and-snack. After Robin died, Scott arrived alone. There were husbands and others in between, but basically, it went on this way for 23 years.I underestimated how seismic it would be when that loft became a casualty of a marriage-gone-wrong. It seemed like real estate, the sort of loss you shrug off and eventually replace. In fact, the tether frayed was one that stretched back to an era when we, Scott and I, were young and still test-driving selves; prepping dinner was a constant between incarnations. As our selfness-es each calcified into out-sized careers as well as other partnerships and marriages, our yak-n-snack connected us to the lives we might as easily have chosen, the ones we left on the beach.
Cooking together stopped time. It also gave a shape to urban days. In nearly a decade of divorce Diaspora, I haven’t been able to imagine another New York City.
I lived and wrote in my house upstate, an 1802 row house in a tiny town where my books and desk and kitchen reside. There, my desk is larger, the views spectacular, the light is filtered through pines and tall oak, the silence is profound.
But the solitude I’d lusted after like a stolen dessert when it was life-away-from-life didn’t taste as sweet when it was a way of life. Inevitably, after the summer community decamped and the weekenders’ visits became less frequent, my solitude smacked of solitary confinement.
Every winter, I tried on different New Yorks. The West Village, the Lower East Side, Harlem, Washington Heights — all wonderful, but none was my next New York. In fact, I couldn’t imagine any New York other than Manhattan, preferably Hell’s Kitchen.
Friends urged me to test-drive Brooklyn. No way! I’ve been a subway-phobe since first whiff in 1979. Besides, Brooklyn is not Manhattan. Then a friend who owns a row house not unlike mine upstate offered me a big room overlooking a garden and said: “bring the dogs.” Anything but “thank you” would have seemed more than surly. I left the upstate tundra a couple weeks ago with a suitcase, a laptop, a lot of books and two Bearded Collies who seemed bent on expressing every anxiety I was doing my best to ignore.
The subway! Living with other people! A brownstone instead of a loft!
The dogs slept on top of me the first night in Park Slope, panting, pawing, whining. They were, as my mother used to say “beside” themselves. As a child I would see a second her, jumped from her skin, hopping around in the midst of her six children, wringing her hands when she cried: “I am simply BESIDE myself.”
In recent years, the phrase has bubbled up from time to time. It seemed to ask for new meaning, but I didn’t hear it clearly until my first night in Brooklyn. Attempting to lull myself to sleep under 110 pounds of panting fur, I read Alfonzo Reye’s poem of exile, Ifigina Cruel and a line leapt from the page:
“I was another, being myself”
Reyes, a Mexican diplomat in the 1920′s, wrote poems in an effort to unravel the influence of the conquistadors on Mexican identity. Based on the play by Euripides, Ifiginia, who was about to be sacrificed by her father to Artemis when the Goddess pulled a fast one and carried Ifigenia off to her headquarters on Tauris, where she made her a priestess in charge of human sacrifice.
In a twist, Reyes’ heroine had lost her memory and spent her life yearning to go home. She knows that Tauris is not her home, but she can’t remember where home is. She is, therefore, neither here nor there. She is “beside” herself.
Carolos Fuentes quotes the poem in his essay, “How I Started to Write”and meditates on the importance of national and cultural identity in shaping a writer. Like Reyes, Fuentes lived for years in exile. In a way, one sees a place more clearly from a distance. Yet an essential part of the self is cleaved by separation from the familiar.At its best, personal narrative connects the there-and-then with the here-and-now and describes not just a life, but every life. Contextualizing is a particularly important stitch in food writing, where memory so often devolves into nostaglia.
I could, for instance, ride the nostalgia train to a poignant kicker right here simply by gesturing back to Hell’s Kitchen and cooking dinner with Scott. But it wasn’t merely dinner. It was dinner during the time in life when ambition and the appetite for recognition made street drugs seem dull. It was also the unlikely setting — the cheerful, June Lockhart kitchen perched ten stories above grimy Ninth Avenue with its diesel fumes and transvestite hookers and crack pipes. Taken together, the place and its rhythm made the solitude of writing feel like a constant choice, a wondrous stroke of good fortune.
In print we may ache to return, in fact we don’t go back. We move on, changing the place we’ve left merely by leaving, being changed in turn by the act of departure. We carry places inside us and are delighted when various elements — a particular veiled light, the scale of buildings against sky, the rise of a window or wall, the ambient noise and smells — conspire to make us feel familiar to ourselves.
I know who I am in Brooklyn. My room is every room I’ve ever written in, bathed in filtered light with a sense of remove from the throbbing energy of the street below. Through the tall windows, the muted city sound reminds me that I’ve chosen to be alone with ideas and words.The wild, loopy creativity of Brooklyn’s food scene and small businesses hearken back to Cambridge in the mid-70′s, to the Village in the late ’70′s, times when the culture was rabid for proof of purity as well for as the reassurance that life can be made by one’s own two hands.
There are, as well, little bits of my upstate in the way brownstones march up the quiet streets in Park Slope, in the way people amble along the sidewalks, in the potlucks and food coop, the baby strollers and reading groups, the dogs barking in the back yard. I needed rural exile in order to see and hear these things. Ambition, the freight train blazing toward a glorious future, needed to be turned into something closer to human, alive in the here and now.
You start by writing to be noticed. You end by writing in order to notice. Because the more you notice, the more you are alive, the less you are afraid of what you left behind or what may lay around the next bend, the greater your chances of giving voice to something larger than yourself when you reach back into your memory and latch onto, say, the golden moment that was your grandmother’s apple pie.
- The Guardian did a wonderful series on writers’ rooms and the images below are a few from that series.