A Book is a Door

via TimeOut

2021. Even typing it feels surreal, far away. Yet here we are. Here I am, anyway, alive and well and writing a blog only I read. I kind of like that. It’s like a diary hidden beneath the bed, except there’s no lock or secret code, and its contents are of interest only to the writer. So I suppose it’s true what they say: Sometimes, you have to be your biggest fan. (And critic, but we’re all naturally good at that, right?)

Since the beginning of quarantine, I have been dreaming about New York City, my one-time home. It’s been a few years since I’ve visited, but unlike other cities in which I’ve lived, New York always felt like home in ways my birthplace never did, never could. Night after night I dreamt of walking down Houston, ordering falafel at Mamoun’s, eating bagels from Kossar’s, eyeing the comical bronze sculptures at the 14th Street station, elbowing my way through Grand Central, staring, longingly, at the shoes and coats in the windows of Bergdorf, thumbing through dusty novels at The Strand. Even the East Village streets that smelled like piss in the heat of the summer when everyone’s scalps burned like hot plates and it was impossible to dry off after a cool shower…all that I missed, too. 

Scenes of daily life that other people, especially family members living in California or the Midwest, could not fathom. They would wrinkle their brows as their faces soured. New York was too expensive, too hostile. The latter was always on their minds. Aren’t New Yorkers, like, so mean? they would ask, cold beer in hand. There was a shirt for sale I would see somewhere in the Lower East Side, a tank top with the phrase in block letters, FUCK YOU YOU FUCKIN’ FUCK. Twenty three dollars! And yet they were always sold out. I never had the guts to buy it, let alone wear it. Oh my god, your mother would so kill you, one cousin said. I believed her.

There were, of course, certain things I did not understand about New York life. Even when I surpassed the ten-year mark of living in the city, I still did not consider myself a “real” New Yorker. (Whatever that means.) Never would I say “on line” instead of “in line,” never would I order a meal “to stay” instead of “for here.” I lacked an accent, a mental toughness, a sense of direction. (Don’t tell me it’s a grid system.) To present myself as a true New Yorker felt fraudulent, the kind of deception old-schoolers could sniff out in seconds. It didn’t matter, though—I would always have its architecture and piss-smelling streets; its citizens could define me however they wanted.

But although I cannot visit New York City right now, Netflix’s Pretend It’s a City has kept my spirit alive and in tact, one cantankerous quip at a time. The quintessential New Yorker, Fran Lebowitz was someone I always wished was my own mother, or at least someone I wished I knew. She wasn’t just a citizen of New York, she was New York. And like the city itself, she was seemingly everywhere at once, synthesizing a part of its culture from the fringes and the mainstream, at times rough and biting, other times tender, but always impossible to escape.

She talks about her friendship with Charles Mingus, who, after an argument, chased her down whole city blocks in a fury and then asks if she wants to go eat. And then there’s the snippet with Spike Lee where she admits, rather proudly, that she hates sports, and then later mentions that she was in attendance for the first Frasier/Ali fight at MSG in 1971. A “wonderful fashion and cultural event,” she describes it. “Unfortunately, there was a fight in the middle of it.”

And then, in the last episode—“Library Services”—there’s the business of reading. In a conversation with Martin Scorsese (who also directs the series), Lebowitz says she’s not the type of reader who seeks representation on the page: “A book is not a mirror,” she argues. “It’s supposed to be a door!” The topic of the “common reader” emerges in a past conversation with Toni Morrison (who is simply not featured enough in Pretend It’s a City), and Lebowitz concludes that the common reader has been replaced by “the common writer.” It’s a retort that receives laughter from the audience, and Morrison agrees that there are readers who hope to find “some replica of their lives” in novels.

Still of Morrison & Lebowitz from Pretend It’s a City

But is that necessarily a bad thing? Throughout her life, Morrison defended her work constantly from criticism that she was not writing enough about white people. “I am the reader of the books I write,” she explains to Lebowitz. Here, a book is both a door and a mirror. And though Morrison once said, “I’m writing for black people,” she welcomed readers beyond her intended audience. “Invite the reader in,” she tells Lebowitz, who responds, “But I don’t want to invite the reader in!” 

Once again, Lebowitz basks in the glow of her curmudgeonry, but through different approaches, both women wrote—for others, themselves, perhaps a bit of both—with a sharp social eye on the world in which they lived, amplified the voices and topics that interested them most. True, one is more than happy to tell you her opinions, while the other would encourage you to self-reflect. It would seem they made an odd pairing, but their years-long friendship is not really much of a surprise: Lebowitz revered the literary giant, and on-camera their camaraderie is engaging, sometimes playful. I love that Pretends It’s a City ends with an episode that features two celebrated authors who to this day inspire any writer to pick up a pen and get to work—native New Yorker or not.

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