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.

Relat­ed Content:

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 the short sto­ry col­lec­tion Bit­ter Bronxand then­ov­elI Am Abra­ham. He lived for many years in Paris and cur­rent­ly resides in Manhattan.