Tuesday, August 3, 2010

New York. Fact or Fiction?

By Jay Stringer, Esq.

Firstly a massive thanks to Ray Banks for his blogs over the last two weeks. It was great to kick back and read someone who made sense on a Tuesday. So much so that Weddle turned up at my house with a dear john letter. Fortunately I wasn't at home, I was cunningly hidden thousands of miles away.

To celebrate DSD's birthday, I got married and went to New York. It was so nice of my fellow DSDers to foot the bill. So nice, in fact, that I knew they'd do it without even asking them. I can just picture the wonderful benevolent smiles that will hit them as they find the bills on their doorstep this morning. Such wonderful people.

But why New York? Why go there to celebrate?

Well, Manhattan seems to dominate much of my cultural upbringing. From music to comics and crime fiction, that one little concrete island has been a constant source of inspiration for the writers I read. I may well not be on this crime blog now if it wasn't for these writers. So you could call it a pilgrimage. You could call it a research trip for future tax deductions. You could call it an advance scouting trip before we move there. You could call it Bob, I'm not judging.

The result is that I've always had a very firm idea of Manhattan in my mind. Somewhere between the darkness of Matt Scudder and the all-or-nothing guitars of Johnny Thunders, in some space between the grime of THE FRENCH CONNECTION and the fun of CASTLE. One of the best ways to describe how I saw the place would be to talk about Daredevil (again.) Most people see Spidey as THE superhero of Manhattan. Hell, people that I talked to in Manhattan saw it that way, too. But for me it was ol' hornhead. There was something in his nature, in the make-up of a man who can be both blind and a rooftop daredevil, that cemented the character of my fictional city. Someone who is so good and so cocksure, that he will throw it back in your face if he needs to.

But these mythical cities that we form can play havoc with reality. Streets that seemed real in our heads can dissolve into cliche and stupidity when we walk down the real thing. So how did I get on?

I started with Matt Scudder's beat. I walked passed the sixth precinct and went in search of Armstrong's, the bar where he spent most of the early novels. Sadly the bar is no more, but I walked the right block of 9th Avenue (between 57th and 58th) on my last day, and tried to imagine what it would have looked like nestled between the taco stores and the morning star on the corner. There was a later incarnation of the bar, a block over, but I didn't go looking for it. Scudders apartment was on west 57th, just around the corner from Armstrong's, but i couldnt decide which of the many buildings it would have been. Less than a block away I found the Parc Vendome, where he lived in the later books. After reading him for 17 or so books, it wasn't hard to look up and imagine him still being up there, battered and scarred and taking one day at a time. I took a walk down to Bethune Street, which was the scene of the first crime we encounter in the series; a hooker got sliced up and Richie Vanderpoel ran out into the street covered in blood and shouting obscenities. It was a different New York to the one that I'd been exploring further up; this was very much a visit to Gotham, as opposed to the shining skyscrapers of Mid-Town's Metropolis.

The New York of the early Scudder novels is clearly no more, just as the streets that stank of desperation in THE FRENCH CONNECTION were long ago cleaned up. But there's still something there if you scratch away at it, just as there is in any city. Talking to a few locals seemed to confirm that the city I'd read about and carried in my head wasn't a fiction so much as it was a memory.

Next up came the comic book tour. Daredevil is one of the central obsessions of my geek side, so it was something special for me to wander through Hell's Kitchen. In the comics the neighbourhood is still wrapped up in it's roots, it's dark, dangerous and filled with crime. The modern day version, which is being remodelled as 'Clinton,' was one of the nicest places I visited on the whole trip. Like New York in miniature, it had a bit of everything. Yuppies, working class, interesting food and, naturally, a few dozen Starbucks. The modern kitchen felt a far safer place than Glasgow, so I guess Daredevil can retire.

After exploring record shops and street stalls in Williamsburg, we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, which the more geeky amongst you will know was one of the defining moments in Spidey's long history. His girlfriend, Gwen Stacey, fell to her death from the bridge after a tussle with the Green Goblin. It's one of the few comic book deaths to have lasted, and it carries a real weight in the marvel universe. Walking across it was a strange experience, to realise that it was built in the century before last, and to marvel (heehee) at the engineering. The walkway is made of wood, and you can look down through the cracks to see the cars moving. I was fine looking down, at the cars and the metal and the river, but hit by a sudden attack of vertigo when I looked up at one of its giant brick towers. We used to build things that would last.

As we explored the lower east side, home of the Bowery and St. Marks and about a million other musical touchstones, we hit Ludlow just north of Delancy, the area where comics legend Jack Kirby grew up. The neighbourhood informed much of his 1960's Marvel work, and sort-of gave it's name to the Yancy Street gang who showed up in Fantastic Four. Another strange thrill came as we sat in a Pinkberry (frozen yoghurt, for the fail) and I realised that directly above us would be the sanctum sanctorum of Dr Strange, the most powerful magi in Marvel.

Whilst slipping out of the hotel at night to buy a hot-dog from a street vendor at Grand Central, I slipped a few blocks further to the Daily News building, which has two comic book distinctions; It's Peter Parker's Daily Bugle (not the Flat Iron building from the films, which I also took a look at) and it was also the filming location for the Daily Planet in Richard Donners' SUPERMAN. Naturally, I also scouted the locations from GHOSTBUSTERS. If anyone reading this is in New York, and was annoyed by an Englishman stood outside their building and shouting, "nobody steps on a church in my town," well....it's your fault for living there.

I was on the wrong coast, in the wrong city and the wrong time, to be thinking of BLADE RUNNER. But, as we strolled through Times Square at midnight, the city still warm as an oven, it was impossible not to look up at the neon signs and the smoke escaping from the ground at roadworks next to us, and not see myself walking through the set of the film.

We did the music sights of course. Took a look at where Andy Warhol's factory would have been hosting the Velvet Underground, walked the streets that the New York Dolls had eulogised, and spent a week with Lou Reed's NEW YORK filling my head. The Joe Strummer mural, hidden away on the corner of East Seventh and Avenue A, is well worth a visit.

As much fun as all of these things were -and I soiled my geek pants for each of them - the trip would have been nothing for us without the people or the stories. We spent a day being shown round the lower east side by a local, and he told us a hundred stories about the local scene and the music and, of course, 9/11. I had a long talk with a couple of old guys on the subway, who wanted to tell me the best places to buy a hat and to try imitating my accent. Talking to people like this is important, especially for me as a writer. My wife snaps away with her camera, and can get far more art and craft into her lens than I could ever manage. But my thing is just to talk and, more importantly, to listen. The buildings and the streets and the heat are the geography of the city, they form the hard and fast of the world I'm in. But the soul comes from the voices I soak up, the memories I absorb. It's the way to learn a city from the ground up.

There was the very patient fella behind the counter at the MYSTERIOUS BOOKSHOP (on Warren and West Broadway, go there and spend big) who had to put up with me being an idiot with annoying questions, and the folks at ST. MARKS COMICS, who found me an issue of a comic that I'd never found at home. I've come home with a Don Winslow, who all the smart kids are raving about, and the busted flush reprint of Reed Farrel Coleman's REDEMPTION STREET. I'm also fetishist enough to have picked up a couple of Richard Price books that I already had, simply because the U.S. covers are so much better.

We met all the folks at the Maass Agency (damn, it seems like Donald Maass knows every restaurant in America) and finally got to do lunch with Super Agent herself, Stacia Decker. Over my meal, which was half a cow, I mentioned that it took four years before I felt comfortable writing stories set in Glasgow. That was the four years of waiting that it took before I could hear the voices of the city, and understand the streets and its characters enough to be writing with any degree of truth.

After five days in New York, the only thing I really know is that I don't even know 1% of whats there. At the same time, I've held a version of that city in my head all of my life, and those fictional locations now have a solid form. I've walked the streets that before I'd only read about. And the people, and their stories, have got me itching to write them something. I started work on a short story whilst sat staring out at the skyline from the Roosevelt hotel, and for the first time I started to feel i could actually write Daredevil rather than just reading.

So, I'm going to have a crack at New York before I return to book three of my Midlands series. Time will tell just how badly I mess it up.


pattinase (abbott) said...

I've been going there a few times a year my whole life and still get lost and hear about new things. Glad you had such a great time.

Dave White said...

Glad to hear you had fun. But where's the part about the NJ Turnpike and Newark airport? You know, the REAL parts of you trip.

Julie said...

This was excellent.

For what it's worth, I've lived in NC for 15 years now and still wouldn't be comfortable setting a story here. It seems in all of my imaginings I end up back in Jersey.

Oh, and my word verification is brest, and because I'm 12 I giggled.

Steve Weddle said...

welcome home

Ray Banks said...

Welcome back, Stringer - now how many major life events did you pack into the last couple of weeks? I dread to think what you're going to do for your 40th.

Someone Said said...

I love this entry. I grew up an hour from Manhattan. My parents walked across the Brooklyn Bridge, as did my grandparents and their parents. Your expectations are just as valid as my history.

"Talking to a few locals seemed to confirm that the city I'd read about and carried in my head wasn't a fiction so much as it was a memory."

Hammer. Nail. Head. Sadly, many of those memories are disappearing. You got to hold on to what you can.

Jay Stringer said...

Thanks for the comments.

@patti, it's only the start. My current obsession really is looking into work visas and immigration laws. Moving 200 miles from my home really helped focus the way i write about it. I can only imagine what moving a few thousand miles will do!

@Dave, well, you know, i couldn't do the awesome state the disservice of tacking it onto a blog about NY. My trip to Indiana Jones' birthplace would deserve a blog all it's own.

@Julie and S.S. thanks. Its good to hear that people more closely linked to NY than me found something enjoyable in the post. Thats the first step to trying to tackle something bigger.

@Steve, dude, where's my cake?

@MrBanks, well luckily i had ten years of planning. But the Moon better watch out. By then i'll be a reknowned author of crime novels and funny books...sooo....Hollywood?

Jay Stringer said...

oops. "have" ten years of planning, not "had"