Wish You Were Here: A Few Postcards from New York

1.

You arrive in an unfamiliar city. Of course, it’s not completely unfamiliar: you’ve heard about it, read something, seen a few postcards, flipped through a magazine called America.

Which means, you arrive in a not-completely-unfamiliar city.

Before the punks came along with their multicolored rooster mohawks and leather jackets, you remember being a kid and catching sight of respectable-looking older women in their soft blue chignons and their lit cigarettes all done up in bright lipstick. These were tourists from the Bronx or Arizona, spilling out of their tour buses in a thick-thighed herd in front of the Black Sea Hotel. Proto-punks is what they were. Like some sort of cockatoos, but with chewing gum and ballpoint pens–which you begged for shamelessly, forgetting about Pioneer’s pride.

Once upon a time, Lorca arrived in New York and headed to Harlem to hear jazz. Mayakovsky arrived and telephoned Burliuk. And Ilf and Petrov arrived and met Hemingway. And you–you arrived and what? Nothing. The famous are always being led around: to meet so and so, give a talk at such and such. But nobody leads the un-famous anywhere. The un-famous must lead himself. And is often led astray.

(Papa could never navigate the subway system and that’s why he was always getting mad at everybody.)

In Moscow–another city not your own–during winter vacation everything was opposite. You opened the curtains in your hotel room and instead of a savings bank and a sausage shop, outside your window the arrangement was different. You become aware of the different when something familiar (let’s say, a gesture) precedes something unfamiliar (let’s say, a view). You step across that threshold and everything is different: the temperature, the trolley number. And the milk you drink before you go to bed is from a weird-sounding dairy. You want to remember a strange city down to the finest details because you know you’ll never live there. But the city where you’ll settle–well, you’ll still have time to capture all the minor details, so what’s the rush? Empire State Building? There’s always time. Yeah–and you still haven’t been.

Before your arrival, and for a period after, the not-completely-unfamiliar city is for you the sum of all the references you’ve come across. In due time they materialize, reality introduces its corrections, but the aftertaste of the reference remains. Lennon yelling “Down in the Village!” on his album Some Time in New York City ceases to be a misinterpreted appeal for the back-to-nature movement, and becomes–after your arrival–what it was for the songwriter: a reference to a neighborhood in lower Manhattan. And it was there, too, in the Village, that another reference wandered: Salinger’s Holden Caulfield.

This referential perception of the city is a particular example of a tourist’s method of existence. The city you arrive in is no city of supermarkets and bank lines, but the city of Sister Carrie and the heroes of O. Henry. And Central Park is not the locus of sleeping bums and mischievous teenagers, but the setting for Woody Allen’s lovestruck heroes in Manhattan strolling through, and for Holden, too, trying melancholically to figure out where the ducks go in the winter when the pond freezes over.

“Over there is the pond where Holden…” the female carriage driver said to you during your midnight ride through Central Park in that summer of ’78. “And there”–she pointed to a tall building on the West Side–“is the Dakota, where Lennon lives, and where they shot the movie Rosemary’s Baby.”

Two years later Mark David Chapman left his dog-eared copy of The Catcher in the Rye on the wet sidewalk near the entrance to the Dakota. Two references canceling out each other, merging gruesomely into one. And so the city forever lost the aftertaste of someone else’s lines, became a city unencumbered by quotation marks, became yours.

A city whose misfortunes were your own, no longer borrowed from elsewhere.

2.

That first job: Doubleday Publishing House. You packed books, manuscripts. The former you sent out to reviewers; the latter, to authors, along with a note: “Thanks, but no thanks,” or: “Not badly written. Thanks, but no thanks.”

Your first thrills: the Wednesday book sale for employees. Hardcopies, twenty-five cents. Paperbacks, a dime.

Those first encounters: Jackie O. in the hallway. No longer young but still quite something. She was an editor there. At the cafeteria, you tucked in line behind a frumpy old man with Goncharov-like sideburns. Turned out to be Asimov. That was nice, too.

During lunch you hurried to the peep show. Sticky floor, plastic cocks, vaginas of fantastical proportions, the smell of bleach and sperm. Big fellows in gray suits flipping through the picture magazines, then walking into private booths and spraying their elderly seed to the whir of the projector. On the cheap (you could settle in for three cycles at twenty-five cents a pop) and with no frills (it’s still coming out, but it’s time to exit).

Then a girl came along. Now there were lunches together. Kisses, sandwiches. Calling the fat pigeons near the library “stoners” since in the park nearby you could score anything the heart desired; sometimes, the pigeons also stumbled onto a fix.

One day you scored something, too. Spent the entire day working with your head in the clouds.

You got acquainted during the blackout. The heat that day was 100 degrees, and Con Ed went apeshit.

3.

You sat in the cool movie theater on 42nd & 7th and struggled to grasp the plot of Pop My Cherry, Dirty Harry. You’d arrived late: you’d lingered at the entrance for about five minutes, couldn’t work up the nerve to buy a ticket from the lady at the window with the sign saying “air-conditioned.” Usually there was a fat man with a shaved head in a leather coat, drowning in his own corpulence, or a runty black teenager who sat at the window and now, all of a sudden–a respectable, middle-aged woman.

A Puerto Rican guy with a document case under his arm sped things up. The man hurried on by and stopped for a second. Then he chirped up like a boy scout, trying to provoke the woman (it was clear he wasn’t going into the theater):

“They fucking in there, grandma?”

“Oh, they’re fucking alright, sonny boy!” the old woman shot back, and she naughtily smacked her lips.

The young Puerto Rican let out a laugh and ran on further and you took a confident step closer to the window and handed the woman four dollars.

You sat somewhere in the middle–equidistant from the back rows, where young couples helped each other empathize with the characters on screen, and from the front, where retirement-aged folk managed as best they could to please themselves. You learned this simple tactic–choosing a good seat–easily, since in your first six months in New York, you watched nothing but porn flicks.

All of a sudden the moaning of the writhing actresses became drawn out, then turned into a retching sound, as if at the worst possible moment they had decided to vomit into each other’s mouths. The screen went dark but they didn’t turn on the lights in the theater, and the howls of fire truck sirens penetrated from the street. For a second you thought war had broken out.

A minute later, in line at the ticket window, you calmed down, hearing the words “blackout”–which was indistinguishable to your ears from “lights out.” “Lights out” was a phrase you were familiar with, and “blackout,” judging from it all, was something semantically close. And the old woman at the ticket window wouldn’t be handing out tickets to anybody who wanted to finish watching the love story of Harry the San Francisco biker and three nudist nurses, if war had just broken out!

The uproar on the street was out of the ordinary. The crash of breaking glass. Somewhere in the distance a hot dog cart was burning. Shouts of “Loose joints, check ’em out” were louder than usual. People in pairs and by themselves ran across the street with boxes of different dimensions, from which one could deduce: television, small washing machine, lamp, vacuum cleaner. At least the criminal element and temporary proponents of free domestic wares believed that electricity would return and life would go back to normal.

A week later the newspapers compared the damage caused in the city on those days with the damage resulting from the blackout of ten years prior. It turned out that ten years before, everything had been relatively calm, and you said to her, “Did everybody really live better, has humanity gone downhill since then?” And she said, “Yesterday is always a lot better than today, even when you’re sleeping with the lights on.” And she also said, “A bright future is the promise of the present minus electricity bills,” and you thought, “She’s crazy, but she’s attractive.”

You first noticed her in the subway. It was hot in there, like on the street, but at least the subway had lights.

4.

Your private life for the most part took place at the movies. At first you groped each other in alleyways, and you already had your hand under her skirt, rounding the bases, when she told you this was childish, there was no way you’d ever fuck. That word grated on you. Back home, where you were from, they didn’t speak like that. People said, make it, or screw. The last one was vulgar, but you preferred vulgarity to crudeness. Fucking was crude. But you got used to her crudeness. And you got used to her casual ways. But with no car and the folks at home, what could you do?

It was a no-go at Star Wars because of the noisy special effects and the screeching children. Neither one was conducive. At the Waverly, watching Dylan’s Renaldo and Clara, the seats were too uncomfortable and the film was impossible to make sense of–go figure out who’s Renaldo, who’s Clara. And finally, oh, the desired moment, at the Bleecker Street Cinema, practically on her haunches, she nearly drove you through the roof. It was at a screening of The Conformist, and you silently came in a popcorn bucket during the famous forest scene. You were surprised at the theatricality of that scene, it was almost operatic. At the falafel place across the street later you played it out for her. “Damn!” She liked your telling of it but she wasn’t happy she’d missed so much. “Didn’t you enjoy yourself?” “How should I put it?” she answered, with a vague gesture. “It’s somehow more democratic…lying down.” “Lying down you need a bed,” you said. “Can we scrape together rent?” She repeated the same gesture.

You spent a long time looking for an apartment. Everything was expensive. She didn’t care for Brooklyn. “To stay in Brooklyn is to stay an immigrant forever,” she said. You found an agent in Jackson Heights, you thought you were smart but he stuck you with a lemon: he rented you a place with poor light (although, when you’d gone to look at it, it had seemed so bright), more expensive than you’d planned, and on top of everything, it was above a diner. The smoke from the hamburgers got in the way of watching the TV, the windows looked out onto nowhere. Literally nowhere: at the new place, after sex on top of the suitcases, on the third attempt you were able to open the window and…you couldn’t see anything. In front of your eyes was solid brick, and you really needed a drink.

(1998)

Bios

Pavel Lembersky

Pavel Lembersky came to the United States in 1977. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in comparative literature, did graduate work in film at San Francisco State University, and worked on film projects with Jonathan Demme and Spalding Gray, among others. Lembersky writes his prose and screenplays in Russian and in English. He authored three collections of short stories: River #7 (Slovo/Word, New York, 
2000), The City Of Vanishing Spaces (Drugie Berega, Tver, 2002), and A Unique Occurrence (The Russian Gulliver, Moscow, 2009). Lembersky’s work was included in The Anthology of Short Stories (ACT, Moscow, 2000). His short stories have been translated into English, German, Finnish, and Vietnamese, and have appeared in literary magazines in Moscow, New York, Munich, Jerusalem, and Helsinki, such as Solo, The New Review, 22, Little Star, Habitus, Calque, Kommentarii, Words Without Borders, and many others. Lembersky is a frequent contributor
 to Teatr, Foreign Literature, and Snob magazines as well as OpenSpace.ru. He is the author of several novels, including Aboard the 500th Jolly Echelon (Franc-Tireur, USA, 2011).

Ross Ufberg

Ross Ufberg is a writer, translator, and PhD Candidate at Columbia University in the Slavic department. His original fiction, translations, and other writings have appeared in World Literature in Translation, Modern Poetry in Translation, GALO Magazine, Words Without Borders, Heeb, The Jewish Daily Forward, Inventory, and others. His most recent translations include Beautiful Twentysomethings (Northern Illinois University Press, October 2013), the memoir of Polish writer and rebel icon Marek Hlasko, and The Good Life Elsewhere, by Moldovan writer Vladimir Lorchenkov (New Vessel Press, forthcoming in February 2014). Ufberg is co-founder of New Vessel Press, a publishing house specializing in literature in English translation. He lives in New York City.

The City of Vanishing Spaces. Copyright (c) Pavel Lembersky, 2002. English translation copyright (c) Ross Ufberg, 2014.