A walker in the Big Apple

Writer and teacher Vivian Gornick searches New York’s streets for human connections.
Writer and teacher Vivian Gornick searches New York’s streets for human connections. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES
The Odd Woman And The City By Vivian Gornick
The Odd Woman And The City By Vivian Gornick

American essayist Vivian Gornick finds solace in walking the mean streets of New York

BOOK REVIEW

THE ODD WOMAN AND THE CITY

By Vivian Gornick

Farrar, Straus and Giroux hardback/175 pages/$37.95 with GST from Books Kinokuniya

Most people laud the timeless call to love one another.

But having a heart for others is a big ask when one is caught up in trying to get through each harried day. And days do not come much more vexed than when one is wending through New York, known for its mean streets full of, it is said, mean folk.

Yet the Bronx-born writer and teacher Vivian Gornick finds solace in walking 10km a day through those very streets because every beggar, straggler and peddlar she meets along the way reminds her that she is only human and so should not be so hard on herself.

Musing on the current age, she writes in the book: "Never before in history has so much educated intelligence been expended on the idea of the irreplaceable - the essential - self; and never before has aversion to the slightest amount of psychological discomfort allowed so many to be treated as the contingent other."

The bottomline: Most people are giving lip service to "love one another".

Gornick, a first-generation American, started out by reporting on feminism for The Village Voice magazine from 1969 till 1977. She has since written 13 books, including her critically acclaimed memoir Fierce Attachments (1987).

She specialises in discussing life's big issues based on her own experiences. For Gornick, who is twice divorced and childless, her daily strolls through the teeming hordes of her stewing city is her way of loving others through consistent, if small, acts of kindness.

She marvels at the dignified vigour in an old man's voice when her hand shoots out to steady him on a rickety plank. Of that, she writes: "He was recalling for both of us the ordinary recognition that every person in trouble has a right to expect, and every witness an obligation to extend… for 30 seconds we had stood together, he not pleading, I not patronising - the mask of old age slipped from his face, the mask of vigour dropped from mine."

Gornick is not mawkish or maudlin, and has a steely side to her that keeps things real. Her Ukrainian- born socialist parents drummed it into her that nobody is entitled to handouts. So, she notes in the book, she would rather chat daily with Arthur, a handsome 30something panhandler who hangs out near her home, than give him money.

In the book, she recalls: "Arthur is smart and he has words, but so do I. I stood there arguing with him. Then, in the middle of a sentence, he said sharply: 'I'll decide when the vacation is over.'"

There are also a few thigh-slapping moments, such as when her poor but music-loving mother wickedly strings a public relations man along when he brown-noses her for a donation, not knowing that she gets by on a meagre pension.

She calls herself "odd". From a very young age, she "required the company of mind attuned to my own", which resulted in most of her peers sidelining her for her imagination, which they neither understood nor bothered about. At home, she was an only child whose widowed mother mourned her late husband permanently.

This led her to be lonely and forever searching New York's streets for the deep joy of seeing the simple, universal ways in which people connect. She recalls neighbours roasting a whole pig in the middle of the street after one of them won a lottery. Her eyes crinkle when a father and his deaf, deformed son communicate joyfully through exuberant gestures. She does not know whether to laugh or cry when she sees a beggar refuse a passer-by's offer of a hot slice of pizza because what he really wants is hard cash.

The English diarist Samuel Johnson, she notes, found such walks an antidote for depression and it was in that context that he said whoever is tired of London is tired of life.

Her idea that walking is salvation is not new and the idea of writing about it is old hat. Scribes such as Alfred Kazin and Edmund White made it fresh again with their respective memoirs, A Walker In The City (1969) and The Flaneur (2008); others, such as The Spirit Of Cities (2013) by Daniel A Bell and Avner de-Shalit shed less light on the experience.

The thread of continuity in her tapestry of foibles is a character she calls Leonard, who has been her confidant and sparring partner for the past 20 years. Leonard embodies the two greatest longings of one who lives in a city - to speak freely and to be heard without judgment.

In ruminating on how many can mine beauty from the cold, hard and grey cityscape, Gornick cites American enfant terrible poet Frank O'Hara: "I can't even enjoy a blade of grass unless I know there's a subway handy, or a record store or some other sign that people don't totally regret life."

In exacting prose, she surveys with much wit and warmth a swathe of difficult subjects such as the search for self and the search search for equality.

So, you might ask, to where does all this walking and writing lead?

Well, for a start, to ways to love one another:

  • Love yourself first: To be a friend, you have to respect and be at peace with yourself first. You can do this most effectively by standing up to those who are unkind or unjust to you, in the spirit of understanding the sadness which has them behaving badly;
  • Remind everyone of the big picture: A friend of Gornick's once broke up a squabble over the sharing of food by stating simply that life is unfair. Being treated unfairly sometimes, she pointed out, is really proof that one is still alive;
  • It's not you, it's them: People who seem like they are distancing themselves from you behave like that because they are unsure of, and do not like, who they are. Reach out to them by being genuinely interested in what they like about themselves;
  • Realise how little time you have left: Turning 60 shook Gornick, who is now 80, out of her long reverie. She went on to write eight of her 13 books in the past 20 years.

As she notes early on in the book: "There are two categories of friendship: those in which people enliven one another and those in which people must be enlivened to be with one another. In the first category, one clears the decks to be together; in the second, one looks for an empty space in the schedule."

You will likely clear the decks to read her.


FIVE QUESTIONS THIS BOOK ANSWERS

1 What is the first and most important quality you must have if you want to be contented?

2 What is the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to lift your spirits?

3 How might you best communicate deeply and meaningfully with others?

4 What does being a good neighbour mean?

5 How might you benefit most from living in the city?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'A walker in the Big Apple'. Print Edition | Subscribe