Earlier this week, Julia Dahl explained why she writes about crime. Her debut novel, Invisible City (Minotaur Books), is now available. She will be blogging here for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning all week.
In October 2007, my husband and I were looking for an apartment in Brooklyn. We’d seen too many to count and none worth the price, so when a one-bedroom just off Prospect Park popped up for $1200 we jumped. On the way to the appointment, the broker gave us the news: The man who lived in the apartment until last month had committed suicide there.
We took it anyway and when I went to sign the lease at the landlord’s office in Borough Park, I could tell he was pleased to have unloaded the apartment.
“He was a very sick man,” said the landlord. “He stopped taking his medication. His family was devastated.”
After about a week, the woman in the apartment next door came to introduce herself. I asked if she knew the man who’d lived here and she said yes.
“His name was David,” she said. “He was a teacher. And he was really nice.”
I told her what the landlord said about him, and she had a different story.
“He was Hasidic,” she said. “And he was gay. His family abandoned him.”
Then she peered into the apartment and said: “They did a good job of cleaning it up.”
The first piece of mail addressed to him arrived about a month later. It was a post card from Spain. Judging by the handwriting, the note was from a woman. More letters arrived over the next few months: a flyer with a photograph of a man in lipstick advertising a performance in the Greenwich Village; something official from the Teacher’s Retirement System; a check-up reminder from the local hospital.
I didn’t open any of the letters, but I kept all the mail in a folder in my desk. As a reform Jew who grew up in Central California, I had only recently realized that communities of ultra-Orthodox even existed in the U.S., and, I have to admit, the people who lived in this world fascinated me. I saw them on the train, dressed in clothing that seemed from another time; clothing that separated them, that screamed, I am Jewish.
I started to read about their community, and the more I read, the more I wanted to know David. I listened for him, but never saw signs of a ghost. For a while I toyed with the idea of tracking down his family and bringing them the thick folder of mail. But I realized that that would be an exercise in selfishness. If they hadn’t wanted to hear from him, they certainly wouldn’t want to hear from me.
So, because I could only imagine him, I did what writers do when we get curious: I started to write about him. Well, not him exactly (although you’ll find a reference to him in my novel, Invisible City), but the world he came from.
And I still have his unopened mail.
Julia Dahl writes about crime and criminal justice for CBSNews.com. She was born and raised in Fresno, Calif. and now lives in Brooklyn, NY. Read more about her here.
- Essays: The Back Story, Inspiration, and Family Ties
- The Way Into the Varieties of Jewishness by Sylvia Barack Fishman
- Walls, Windows, Doors by Tova Mirvis
- Cut Me Loose: Sin and Salvation After My Ultra-Orthodox Girlhood by Leah Vincent