The ProsenPeople

Back to the Bronx

Friday, June 19, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about New York as a crime novel and growing up Jewish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx and has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Whenever I feel “a damp, drizzly November in my soul,” I don’t go out to sea, like Herman Melville. I go back to the Bronx. It wasn’t always that way. For a long time I avoided every trace of the Bronx, disturbed by its random chaos—drug lords shooting at one another from the roofs of the Grand Concourse while half the borough was on fire.

And then I did go back. The BBC was shooting a documentary on the Bronx. It must have seemed like an ideal movie set to the British, all that rubble reminding them of the London Blitz, and they wanted a novelist from the Bronx to accompany them. We roamed the badlands, and I felt a kind of delicious vertigo, as I realized that I had been shaped as a writer by that little paradise of ruin. I’d filled the void with my own imagination.

And now, when I stand on the corner of Sheridan Avenue and East 169th Street, a valley with hills on three sides, I feel like an explorer reinventing the sinews of his own past. I can still see the “crown” of the George Washington Bridge rising above the Grand Concourse like some magical moonscape. The apartment house where I had lived during World War II—a deluxe tenement one block east of the Concourse—is all gated up like a fortress, with a bold sign above the doorway: TRESPASSERS BEWARE!

Perhaps I am a trespasser now. I move on. I arrive at an abandoned lot on Marcy Place, where I encounter a wondrous form of cave art—a mural in brilliant color that covers the exposed side wall of another deluxe tenement, right near the lot. The mural depicts a Bronx garden with some tenement palaces in the distance. The garden is equipped with three multicolored cats, two musicians, a flowerpot, three birds and their birdbath, a kind of urban cactus tree that looks like a surreal ladder, several dogs, and a young girl in a yellow dress, sitting in the lower left corner of the mural, as a queen might sit, glancing at her own creation. The drizzly November in my soul has disappeared while I glance as the surety of that design on the wall. The muralist, Tova Snyder, who was raised in Israel and Provincetown, has imagined her very own Alhambra in the heartland of the Bronx.

I walk one block west to the Concourse, once a middleclass Jewish mecca, and now a maze of pawnshops, dental offices, and beauty salons, with the same Art Deco imprint of its apartment houses that had enthralled me as a little boy. I arrive at the Concourse Plaza. Sixty years ago it was the borough's classiest hotel, where a number of Bronx Bombers used to live during the baseball season. Now it’s a center for seniors, with a guard sitting in a cage inside the front door. He scowls at me, trying to establish his own sense of order. Smile, I want to say—laugh a little. Whatever music I have inside my skull has risen from the bedlam of the Bronx. I could be one of the creatures in that mural on Marcy Place. A musician perhaps, or a multicolored cat.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan. Read more about him here.

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New York as a Crime Novel

Wednesday, June 17, 2015 | Permalink

Earlier this week, Jerome Charyn wrote about growing up Jewish in the Bronx. He is the author of the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx and will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Sometimes it felt like the end of the line. There was no place to go beyond the East Bronx; you couldn't even drown yourself in the shallow waters of the Bronx River; you had to learn to survive on your own prowess.

I sort of lived in a comic book universe, because I was surrounded by maniacs and misfits - egg candlers who had lost the art of candling and lived out their days mumbling to themselves; Jewish baseball prodigies who had spent a month or so in the minor leagues years and years ago and still walked around with a baseball glove; victims of polio -beautiful girls - who would do entrechats in the street and stumble all over themselves, dreaming of a lost career . . .

This was my Bronx. Violence was the key to everything. Violence could erupt at any second; I would have ten fights every morning on my way to school. I threw someone off the roof once to save my own skin; I watched him plunge from one clothesline to the next like a boy on a trampoline. I might have killed him, but he landed in a great knot of laundry. I didn't rejoice. That's how it was living around defeated people.


Bronx, New York. 1947. Photo via Andy Blair.

I was only able to survive because my older brother - Harvey Philip Charyn - was feared in the neighborhood. He would later become a homicide detective, an expert on the Mafia. A tough guy once put a gun to Harvey's head, and my brother didn't panic. He clutched the barrel in his hand, and whoever was trying to kill him couldn't pull the trigger. There was no point in fighting with Harvey, because in the end you were going to lose.

This kind of chaos was a tremendous advantage, because it allowed me to see things that other kids didn't see. I'm used to chaos. I know how to dance with it, how to make love to chaos.

The only way I could survive the barren landscape of the Bronx was with words, and I had to teach myself. Language has always been a kind of weapon - a sword - and you're constantly scratching at things. Those scratches provide the rhythm for a writer, a fundamental music. And once you find the music - pull it right out of the chaos - language comes alive. Something within your soul urges you on, and you bounce from here to there. Your life becomes a series of picaresque adventures as you move from catastrophe to catastrophe, hoping that you'll be able to climb out of it. That's the only way I know how to write. Otherwise I would have become a crazy egg candler, mumbling to myself until the day I died.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan. Read more about him here.

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The Land of Aardvark

Monday, June 15, 2015 | Permalink

Jerome Charyn is the author the recently published short story collection Bitter Bronx. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council's Visiting Scribe series.

Has anyone ever really dealt with the Jewish underclass of the Bronx, where I grew up, next to the trolley tracks of Southern Boulevard and Boston Road? Some of us might look back with a kind of nostalgia, talk of a golden period, when families rambled around Indian Lake in Crotona Park, before Robert Moses ruined the borough with his super expressway. People ask me if the Bronx had ever been my playground. It was a little paradise of empty spaces, a garden where nothing would grow, except bitterness and regret. I had one book in the apartment where I lived with my parents and two brothers. It was the first volume of an encyclopedia that must have been sent to my parents as some sales gimmick—it was a treatise on the letter “A.” And so I memorized that book, starting with aardvark, and could sing out to you all the manifestations of “A.” Then my language stopped. And years later, when I read Walter Abish’s avant-garde novel, Alphabetical Africa, where every chapter begins with a different letter of the alphabet, I wondered if he too had started life with the same encyclopedia, but had been privileged enough to have more than one volume, since he could go all the way to “Z.” And here I am, like some wily pirate, trapped inside the letter “A.” Well, that’s the Bronx.

I began to wonder why the apartments I have in Paris and New York resemble barren, nondescript closets. Both apartments are in luxurious buildings in classic neighborhoods—Montparnasse and Greenwich Village—but they’re absolutely sparse, without much furniture at all. Does this void recall the void of growing up in the Bronx, where there was little “furniture” in the street—that is, nothing that could ever catch the eye? Is this “desert” more comfortable for me, and did it force me a long, long time ago to live inside my head? I must have been a novelist at five and six, or perhaps I was a walking, talking text, sucking in the movies I saw, the stories I heard, and the adventures of my older brother, Harvey, one of the boldest boys in the East Bronx, a Casanova at nine, prepared to take on any gang, a knight guarding his own turf, while I was frightened of anything beyond the reach of my nose, and lived only to imagine, to invent out of the nothingness I knew. Harvey would become a homicide detective, a catcher of cases, and I was the one who killed people off, the prince of an altogether different realm, a tumbler of words, who could only be adventurous on the page.

Jerome Charyn's stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Paris Review, American Scholar, Epoch, Narrative, Ellery Queen, and other magazines. His most recent books include Bitter Bronx and I Am Abraham. He lived for many years in Paris and currently resides in Manhattan.

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