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The City and the Writer: In New York City with Jason Porter

By Nathalie Handal

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Can you describe the mood of New York City as you feel/see it?

When I first moved here, I was most impressed by all the compressed ambition. You have to believe in yourself to think you can keep up with the inflated costs and the amplified pace of everything. If you stop to look up, the person walking behind you is going to bump into you. And I am not really wired this way. I'm spacey. I daydream. I'm from the Midwest originally. We're not always in a rush. But like all things, you adjust. I know when and where I can duck aside, or how to avoid the competing throngs. And again, that's just one mood. This is also a hopeful city. And it's romantic. And it's sad. And cruel. It kind of bangs you on the head and shakes you about and next thing you know you are addicted to the place even though you know intellectually some ancestral mechanism is really stressed out by the lack of open greenery. You're afraid to leave, because you don't want to miss out on anything, but staying on is probably not good for your blood pressure.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

The poverty is hard to take. Homeless people are heartbreaking. As the financial capital of the world, we are exposed to the most heartbreaking contrasts of wealth. I saw a ragged man trying to push two shopping carts filled with things that were only valuable to him up the stairs from the subway platform, and he just couldn't do it, and he kept trying, and there was no way he was going to do it, so he was stuck in a futile loop. And we all stared at him and then the doors closed and we left him there. That broke my heart.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?

I know that I am constantly walking past the most extraordinary buildings without even paying attention. You really have to be disciplined to look above the street level and take in the detail. Or the churches. They're sandwiched between towers. But I'm more interested in all the people. The subway is the most diverse flood of human form. It's crazy to me that people—and I used to be guilty of this too—will arm themselves with distractions for their commutes. There is so much to take in. So many faces. So much eavesdropping. Why would you play a game on your phone when you could admire such an exhilarating collage of humanity?

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Yikes. That's a long list. Too long. I'm still trying to get through all of them myself. Off the top of my head, you might consider Grace Paley, Stanley Elkin, James Baldwin, or Don DeLillo. I think they are all native New Yorkers. I feel like time spent with any of them is well spent. But again, there are too many to count.

Is there a place here you return to often?

I live near Prospect Park. I go there with my dogs. I play soccer. I ride my bike around it. I attend concerts there in the summer. I don't know if I would stay living here if it weren't for that park. I'm a fan of parks in general. I can't think of a case where they make a place worse.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

I am more inclined to think of literary places as internal—the personal stages we each create in our minds to make room for a story. That sounds fairly highfalutin as I read it back, but it's true. I like literature because of how private and unique the experience is for each reader. It's the same reason we like to make forts as children. It's a space you get all to yourself. As far as shared spaces that involve other writers, and this seems somewhat obvious, the main branch of the New York Public Library is magical. You feel it right away. The collected reverence for the written word and human experience. It’s what I’d want a church to feel like if I were one who went to church.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

Well, I guess I mentioned the subway. Maybe I should become a spokesperson for the MTA. It’s another reason I feel moored to New York. I love not owning a car. And I love how democratic the subway is. Everybody uses it. Everybody is equal. And to me that makes a difference compared to other cities where the car is the main mode of transport. Cars create a greenhouse effect where rage and disconnection are trapped in and build on themselves.

Where does passion live here?

In all the beating hearts. The young people. The pigeons trying to keep warm. The white-collar criminals. The artisanal picklers. The runners in the park. I don't know. I suspect it's here in all of us, dormant or active.

What is the title of one of your works about New York City and what inspired it exactly?

I haven't written anything explicitly about New York City. The locations in my fiction so far are patched together from pieces of everywhere. I can't say for sure why that is. It may be that I think nobody will be able to catch a mistake if it is unidentifiable, or maybe my imagination is driven by an urge to escape reality. This doesn't mean my experience of living in New York doesn't work its way into my work, but I have yet to lift anything so specific that you might locate it on a map.

Inspired by Levi, “Outside New York City does an outside exist?”

Do you mean, worlds outside of New York's self-centered gravitational pull? There are lots of those.

Novelist JASON PORTER has been an editor, teacher, musician, painter, and phone servant. He, his girlfriend, and their two mutts are gradually aging in Brooklyn. His debut novel WHY ARE YOU SO SAD has just been published by Penguin.

Published Aug 12, 2014   Copyright 2014 Nathalie Handal

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