Bourbon Cowboy

The adventures of an urbane bar-hopping transplant to New York.

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Location: New York, New York, United States

I'm a storyteller in the New York area who is a regular on NPR's "This American Life" and at shows around the city. Moved to New York in 2006 and am working on selling a memoir of my years as a greeting card writer, and (as a personal, noncommercial obsession) a nonfiction book called "How to Love God Without Being a Jerk." My agent is Adam Chromy at Artists and Artisans. If you came here after hearing about my book on "This American Life" and Googling my name, the "How to Love God" book itself isn't in print yet, and may not even see print in its current form (I'm focusing on humorous memoir), but here's a sample I've posted in case you're curious anyway: Sample How To Love God Introduction, Pt. 1 of 3. Or just look through the archives for September 18, 2007.) The book you should be expecting is the greeting card book, about which more information is pending. Keep checking back!

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Neighborhood

On a happier note, I love my neighborhood. With the slight caveat that it’s a good hour by subway from the main nightlife of Manhattan (Chelsea, The Village, The Meat Packing District), there’s a lot to love about Washington Heights. (If you ask a real estate agent, apparently she will refer to it as a subcommunity called “Hudson Heights,” but everyone else says Washington.) From asking around, I’ve ascertained the following facts about the area: It’s currently populated by a very diverse mix of people: there’s a genuine Indian restaurant down the street (warning! This is the real non-gringo deal, so don’t order the vindaloo unless you’re already under local anesthetic), a breakfast shop run by a young Greek couple, and a bank that seems predominantly Latina-influenced, though I can’t tell how much is Puerto Rican, how much is Cuban, or any of that. All I know is, I’m hearing a lot of Spanish.

But the main ethnic type is old German Jewish ladies who have lived here for decades. According to one woman I met at the coffee shop (and who, by the way, spoke fluent Russian), this area was heavily populated after World War II by Holocaust survivors. “Of course, there are fewer of them every day,” said my informant. But I was elated. What better place for an aspiring comedian than a region suffused with Yiddish?

The most amazing thing about this region is that it really does have a sense of community. I’ve become a regular at the breakfast place already, and whenever I’m there, a regular cast of characters files in, grabbing coffee, chatting and gossiping, and showing genuine concern for each other. (“How’s your mother doing?” “Did your sister get over that cold?” etc.) I like to think that at least part of the reason is that the neighborhood was settled by Jewish mothers and other yenta types. But there’s such a spectrum of languages, skin tones, ages and lifestyles that I really feel like I’m at the snack bar in the U.N. I’d heard this truth about New York for years, but it’s quite something else to experience it. After my very first day of this—when a middle-aged Haitian woman asked about a German shopkeeper’s grandson in New Orleans—that I realized, “No wonder everyone says Friends is fake!”

I’ve never been much of a joiner of any group or community, preferring to keep my membership on the outskirts----close enough to make knowledgeable jokes, far away enough not to be implicated in any absurdity. But this is the first time that I’ve actually understood what people value about a sense of community, and why so many people in New York (and other large cities) identify themselves by their neighborhood. I could suddenly see why, if the place was on fire, people might actually choose to stay and die rather than lose their memories. It’s still not my thing, but it feels to me the way I felt when I first noticed children are actually cute: I’m not one of those normal people, but I could see myself being converted. I think I get it now, and it’s quite a thing to learn.

I live, by the way, right across from a monument to Fort Washington, which was established during the Revolutionary War and has a plaque that mentions, alluringly, that it was briefly lost to the British and then taken back “after a fierce battle” that I’ve never heard of. There’s also a place called The Cloisters about ten blocks up the street, which apparently used to be an operating cloister and is now some kind of park or museum. And in between them is the coffee shop, the bank, the supermarket, the local bar. Again, I’m getting a sense of what it must be like to live in a place with actual historical resonance, like Rome or Paris. So now, for the first time in my life, I’m actually interested in the history of the place where I live. This never happened in Tucson or Kansas City, and certainly wasn’t an issue in Tallahassee. But now I have the bug. Now all I need is money to support my research habit . . .

Dang, but I’m happy.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love me the diversity of a big city. I will frequently try to begin negotiations at work in English, and if that doesn't work, Spanish. Then I come to find out the shop owner speaks Armenian, Tagalog, or Farsi. If I'm lucky they may also speak Spanish. If I'm not lucky then it's alot of hand pointing and head nodding. What is amazing is that we all speak the universal language: money. I can get my point across by adding or subtracting money until we reach an agreement. Welcome to the big city...

3/06/2006 1:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually, the Cloisters started out as what they remain today—a showcase for the medieval art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art—and in fact, the buiding was constructed in the 1930s. The Met’s web site describes it as “paraphrased medieval style.” The interior is a delightful mish-mash of various periods of art, with entire church interiors lifted from France and brought to Fort Tryon Park. In fine American philanthropist fashion, the artwork inside is essentially stolen from Europe, snuck out of varioius countries of origin (mostly France) before the goverments had a chance to find out what they were losing.

The Cloisters make a great destination in pleasant weather, because it encloses several courtyards and integrates beautifully into its surrounding (more easily admired when one isn’t freezing one’s ass off outside). Rockefeller donated some 700 acres of land in New Jersey across from the Cloisters, just to make sure that it remained unsullied and didn’t spoil the view from the other side of the Hudson. Gotta keep up that medieval veneer.

3/06/2006 10:55 AM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Tristram, you must be one of those New Yorkers I just mentioned who reads all that history and stuff. I want to be just like you someday, but you'll have to give me a few years research time.

By the way, do I know you, or did you just come across this site sideways from a search of some sort? The screenname "Tristram Shandy" sure sounds like a name one of my friends would have . . .


3/06/2006 12:04 PM  
Blogger Cowboy Dave Dickerson said...

Okay, I feel silly now. I was about to add, "And your writing reminds me an awful lot like that of a dear friend of mine named Ryan Wyatt." I should have just looked back a few posts to figure that fairly obvious thing out. Hi, Ryan! Isn't it nice to have a distinctive style?

3/06/2006 12:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Distinctive? But I was trying to write like Laurence Sterne… [Insert smiley here.]

3/06/2006 1:54 PM  

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