Crushes on Cities

Northeast Philadelphia
Northeast Philadelphia

The way some writers obsess about relationships — whether it’s poets reading poems about how they want to sleep with another poet in the audience, or novelists writing thinly-disguised (or not-disguised) accounts of their trysts/flings/marriages — I obsess about cities.

I don’t think it’s just me. After writing a novel and a memoir that, admittedly, were about me having crushes on girls, but were more like covert love letters to San Francisco, the city where I was living then, I wrote Candy in Action, a novel that was really just a book-long chase scene between the mafia and a supermodel who happened to know kung-fu, a fantasy about having a lot more money to buy plane and train tickets than I had. Oh well.

I don’t think it’s just me. Predictably, I can find more to back myself up in music than books. To wit: They Might Be Giants’ excellent cover of Cub’s “New York City,” ( the Magnetic Fields’ “Come Back from San Francisco” and “W.A.S.H.I.N.G.T.O.N. D.C.” (both on the same album, at that), even Matisyahu’s “Jerusalem.” I know there are a bunch more famous songs that aren’t occurring to me. These are just the most recent ones that take my heart and grind it into cakeflour and make me get all mushy about my latest city of choice. Wherever my body isn’t, there I am.

In November, after being away for eight years, I came back to Washington. I wrote a screenplay, and a film production company was shooting it, and although most of the scenes were being shot in New York, they were doing a week in D.C. to do the scenes that couldn’t be camouflaged — they might be able to make Washington Square Park look like Dupont Circle, but there was no way they could shoot behind the White House, or Ben’s Chili Bowl, or the Einstein Memorial, which used to be my favorite place in DC to hide. I had my day job, but I took off one day to follow around the camera crew, get everyone coffee, and flirt a little with my old stomping grounds.

Being there was weird. I guess it wasn’t any weirder than writing a memoir about the place, walking across the city on Shabbos to see a They Might Be Giants show and the first time I woke up in a girl’s apartment, but it had the same kind of feeling: that feeling of hooking up with an ex, the feeling of you’re not supposed to be here. I wasn’t. I found that out quickly enough: the old office building I used to work in that had been converted into a parking lot; the 24-hour bookstore where I asked for someone by name and got a blank stare in return. I shouldn’t be surprised. Even the managers wouldn’t have lasted that long. You’d think I would’ve learned my lesson, but I stopped at the Smithsonian museum where I used to work, too, while waiting for the bus home, and asked to see my old boss. The guard told me he’d died four years ago. The guilt I felt at not sending Christmas cards suddenly felt stuffy and irrational; he’d taken care of me when I was couch-surfing and eating pizza I’d stolen from official school functions. I sucked in the biggest way. But none of that really prepared me for writing my newest book. Writing Losers wasn’t at all like writing about a girl I had a crush on. It took place in Northeast Philadelphia, which was the one place I’d never fall for: it was the neighborhood where I grew up.

Northeast Philadelphia — in Losers, I called it “the Yards” — was the most un-me-like neighborhood you could imagine. Conservative, ghettolike, football-obsessed, it took me a while to learn that not the only people who wear ties were teachers and that lifting weights was not a rite of passage throughout all American culture. I went to high school downtown, at a special-admissions school for geeks and academic overachievers, where there was a football team, but just barely. It really felt like I’d made it. I’d escaped.

To that, I added Jupiter Glazer, my protagonist. I think there’s a common theory among authors that our characters are supposed to be either the person we wish we could be or the person we wish we weren’t. Jupiter was both of those things to me: clumsier and more socially maladroit than I ever was, and still saying all the things that I never could. While I was likely to fall in love with a girl sitting across from me on the train in seven seconds flat and never do anything about it, Jupiter had the potential to trade shy looks, say a quick “hi” on the way out, and then trip on his shoe and land on top of her.

That’s why we love writing — because of the limitless possibilities, and because anything can happen. And that’s why we love living in cities, too, I think. Because they’re so big, and there are millions of people crammed into them, potential friends and crushes and collaborators and enemies, and you never know which of them you’re going to get when you encounter a new city. Oh, there are hints — waify beautiful people gravitate toward L.A. and San Francisco gets all the flaky ambiguously-gendered artists (don’t worry, I’m one of them) — but, like a person, there are always secrets and lies and things you don’t plan on. And, like a crush (some of the time, not always) you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

So now I live in Brooklyn. Where’s it going to go next? I don’t know. Maybe next month, when we move to Flatbush (which, by the way, I’m selling all my books really cheap so I don’t have to move them all) I’ll start pining for Crown Heights, where we are now, and I won’t be able to stop writing about that. For now, I’m still crushing out on Philly, and on Jupiter, neck-deep in the sequel. I’ll let you know.

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