To walk Manhattan is to walk the world
Joseph O'Connor contemplates a return, family and all, to the heaving streets of New York
Published 24/05/2009 | 00:00
A book of mine called Sweet Liberty was first published in 1996 and is a chronicle of a journey undertaken by a smitten young fool to all the towns called 'Dublin' in the United States. There are 11 such towns -- most of them named by the early Irish immigrants whose only luggage was their memories and their place-names. The journey took me through fabled places: Memphis and Nashville, New Orleans and Atlanta, down the lost and beautiful highway once known as Route 66. And since work is soon to take me to New York for six months, America has been on my mind.
We lived there before, in 2005, my wife and I, with our two young sons. I've mixed feelings about living there again. It's proving difficult to get ourselves organised, but my wife's way of dealing with difficulties is to pretend they don't exist. This trait is proving useful when negotiating the Atlantic of bureaucracy involved in making our immigration a reality.
Before we were parents, we could decide on a Tuesday to bunk off to New York the following weekend. But those times had passed. Invasions have needed less planning. Security clearance, visas, health insurance, a school, a creche and an apartment with an office: these are only some of our new requirements. God be with the days of the overnight bag. We're like the Rolling Stones on a world tour.
We'll be living in the East Village, my favourite part of Manhattan. I lived near the area in the summer of 1992, in a one-room kip infested by spiders. It was directly above a shop that sold religious paraphernalia, so I felt protected from malevolent spirits, if not from arachnids, but this did not make my tenancy an entirely pleasant experience.
The old lady who lived next door to my scuttlesome pit was, without exaggeration, the noisiest neighbour I've ever had. I don't know what she was doing in her apartment every night, but the noise was like two sumo wrestlers with Tourette's Syndrome abusing an asthmatic. For me, as for ole Blue Eyes, and for others before and since, it proved to be the city that never sleeps. We're hoping to have a less haunting experience this time around, but we're packing earplugs and a family-size pack of Valium just in case.
But the noisiness of New Yorkers is the thing I love best about them: the storm and colour of their everyday speech. Indeed, a strange thing began to happen as I walked New York in those months when it was our home away our home. Somehow the city began to percolate into my writing. The Spanish phrase, "Si ves algo di algo" (If you see something say something), is used by the New York transit authority in its security posters on subway trains. I borrowed it for the motto of a family in my novel Redemption Falls. A church in our neighbourhood, the old St Patrick's Cathedral on Mott Street, became the place where the central characters marry. Elizabeth Street and the Bowery, where I walked every day, became the locations for other events in the book. More even than this, the texture of the city seemed to be seeping a way into the novel.
At home in Ireland I had spent many hours wondering what America must have sounded like in the past, as refugees came flooding from the failed countries of the world, bringing their dialects, their slangs, their songs and tattered stories. Now I came to see that to walk modern Man-
hattan is still to walk around the world.
And so I walked the East Village and Soho, Midtown and Tribeca, Chinatown and Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. Every step brought another word, another image. I walked the forlorn streets around that gaping space where the World Trade Center once stood, the East River pathways, Times Square at midnight. Words in French, Italian, Spanish, Gaelic and German all began to appear in the book, as did various regional dialects of English. Almost by accident, parts of the novel started to embody how the American spoken language was actually formed: by the processes of immigration and internal migration, the same exchanges and intermarriages of culture and sound that still animate New York today. To swim in that sea of words again will be as bracing as ever, a return to the cross-tides of language.
The great memoirist Joan Didion once wrote: "Few New York stories end with a double ring ceremony," beautifully acknowledging that this island has surely the world's most intense concentration of young people far from home and out for a good time. I heard so much of their music on those nightly walks. From the doors of bars and little cantinas and cafes; from the windows of 1,000 apartments.
Only, perhaps, on the Lower East Side of New York could you walk for half an hour and hear within that brief time: reggae, calypso, punk, Cajun, a medieval English ballad, fiddles shrieking a Virginia reel, the blues, a howling gospel, a Spanish Civil War song, a choir practising Handel in the beautiful old church that is known as Saint-Mark's-in-the-Bowery.
New York taught me to write, by its music, its soundscape. Manhattan was a beautiful teacher. It will be fascinating to live there again, in the world's capital city, in a country rediscovering its better angels.
And behind all its noise, its delirium of neon, there still walk the shadows of our ancestors and voyagers: the people who imagined Dublins on the prairies and the plains, and who named their new homes out of love.
Joe O'Connor's book 'Sweet Liberty: Travels in Irish America' is republished this week, with new material, by Vintage paperbacks. His weekly radio column is commissioned by RTE Radio One's 'Drivetime' with Mary Wilson