Bookmarked Place: Francesca Lia Block’s Manhattan

St. John the Divine

Visiting the Upper West Side’s Peace Fountain in 2012

Fiction represents places in ways that resonate or inspire, validating our own experiences or giving us new perspectives on them. For this reason, I’ve been meaning to start a series of blog posts in which I relate books to places. This is my first attempt at such a post.

Francesca Lia Block is best known for her tales of a magical Los Angeles, but her knack for capturing the spirit of a place isn’t limited to her native city. Although a seasoned New Yorker might disapprove of turning to a California author for a representation of the city, as a fellow Californian with a connection to NYC, I relate to Block’s vision of New York.

Block captures a certain fantasy of the city. It’s a distant presence in many of her books, including Weetzie Bat. The iconic Weetzie, a quirky blonde pixie of a protagonist, knows NYC through her New Yorker father, who sends her “postcards with pictures of the Empire State Building or reproductions of paintings from the Metropolitan Museum, Statue of Liberty key chains, and plastic heart jewelry.” In I Was a Teenage Fairy, main-character Barbie (named after a doll she doesn’t want to be like) imagines a symbolic New York woman:

She is always carrying bags of clothes, bouquets of roses, take-out Chinese containers, or bagels. Museum tags fill her pockets and purses, along with perfume samples and invitations to art gallery openings. When she is walking to work, to ward off bums or psychos, her face resembles the Statue of Liberty, but at home in her candlelit, dove-colored apartment, the stony look fades away and she smiles like the sterling roses she has bought for herself to make up for the fact that she is single and her feet are sore.

This image may be romanticized or stereotypical, but it demonstrates Block’s fearlessness in delving into the aesthetics and associations of place and popular culture—all of which draw me to her work.

Although I am far from a naturalized New Yorker, I did live there, once, and that period of residency was about as formative as a stint of less than three years could be. Continue reading

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New York State of Mind

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn

Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, July 2009

Lately, I’ve been haunted by nostalgia for New York.

I am a person who arrives in a new location with wonderment, then looks around and asks where to next. Home is an evasive concept.

During my fraught teen years, growing up in a small city where people surf the waves and (for lack of better words) hang loose, I wanted something crisper, something cooler, something that matched my temperament. Uneasy during my visits in the East, I left home for an obscure college in the Midwest. Four years swept by, filled with technicolor falls, skin-numbing winters, and miraculous springs. I fell for Virginia Woolf and unrequited love.

After a memorably disastrous year in the city Nelson Algren likens to a woman with a broken nose, followed by a boomerang half-year, I moved to NYC. During the heart of the recession.

I can’t remember ever being so excited or optimistic about a new place. I weathered the tough neighborhoods, knowing there was more to this place. I passed Yoko Ono on the Upper West Side. I commuted to Lincoln Center.

In some ways my life there remained a half-life, or I probably would have stayed. What remains: K, whom I met in July of 2009, when I was living in the neighborhood pictured above. And my one other true friend made in NYC, a quirky, stylish girl who let me be her roommate in a crumbling little brownstone overlooking a hipster/jazz café on one side and a coterie of stoop-sitters on the other.

I’ve been losing myself in a blog called The Wild and Wily Ways of a Brunette “Bombshell.” Please peruse the entries about home, as a place, feeling, etc. They are beautiful.

This post is obviously inspired by those words. But the heartache for New York is real and unexpected.

Village Sips

courtesy of ceiling via flickr

201 Bleecker Street (the storefront closely resembles the St. Marks location), New York, NY by Ceiling, CC-BY-2.0

A small red shop with gold lettering adorning its quaint storefront window drew me inside. “It smells like heaven,” I said to my boyfriend, and pulled him inside with me.

Scents of espresso, hints of cocoa and coconut filled the cozy shop with an alluring aroma. Shelves lined with teas, and bins filled with beans glinted from every corner. I breathed deeply and let the aroma imbue me with a sense of wellbeing.

Moments earlier, I had gleefully dubbed a cup of Mud coffee the “dessert” to my lunch of challah bread-grilled cheese and lentil soup at the venerable B&H diner. Coffee in hand, I couldn’t justify another cup.

Luckily, K bought a portion of fresh-ground Ethiopian Yirgacheffe, a satisfying dark roast which we took home with us. The taste has been described as “wine-like,” and I agree.

After staking out a prime fireside spot at the local Starbucks on Friday, I enjoyed a leisurely read of the New York Times. Leafing through, I came upon an article about the very coffee company I’d stumbled upon at 40 1/2 St. Marks Place (like Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4!) in New York. Grown over generations by an Italian family with deep Lower Manhattan roots, Porto Rico Importing Co. is the stuff of storybook New York. Read about it here.