I ♥ New York
I miss living in New York terribly. Although I try to convince myself I’ll only be staying in Los Angeles for a short time and should try to enjoy it while I can, I lay awake at night, hoping to hear the lullaby of car horns and sirens that remind me of home. When the silence becomes unbearable, I turn the light on and reach for a book. This week, my bedtime story was Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg, who captures the essence of New York City so well, I could almost hear the traffic rushing up and down Broadway.
Beg, Borrow, Steal is a collection of essays that have all appeared in Greenberg’s column for the Times Literary Supplement. I suspect the book was published due to the success of Greenberg’s critically acclaimed first memoir, Hurry Down Sunshine: A Father’s Story of Love and Madness. I was afraid that the new book would be a disjointed, slapdash effort by the publisher to simply capitalize on the author’s momentum and sell more Greenberg books, rather than telling a full story on its own. But I was delighted to discover that Beg, Borrow, Steal stands alone as a complete work. Greenberg’s short, simple essays focus on his life as a writer in New York, spanning nearly half a century and with an all-encompassing view of life in the Big Apple that I haven’t experienced since reading E.B. White’s romantic portrait of the city in the 1940s, Here is New York.
Greenberg writes about living in New York as if the city itself were an integral character in his stories. He describes the Greenwich Village high school he attended, where many of his fellow classmates were “Red Diaper babies, the children of blacklisted leftists.” Greenberg poetically describes the rundown apartment he moved into soon after the birth of his son, a Cherry Street public housing project with exactly “35 percent Hispanic, 30 percent Chinese, 30 percent black, and three other white people.” Projects like these are still in existence, and until we moved to Los Angeles in May, my boyfriend John would fill out forms every week, hoping to be drawn for the current low-income housing lottery. After winning a drawing for a low-income building on 2nd Avenue and 53rd street, John was told he made $200 a year too much to qualify, and for once, wished he had made less than the meager income he worked so hard to earn.
What surprises me the most about Greenberg’s perception of New York throughout his lifetime is how little the city really changes—it remains the same distinct character all through the years. Greenberg describes a 1983 exchange with his father, who has come to visit his son’s apartment: “Walking down the hall, he glimpsed the interior of my Chinese neighbors’ place, their door ajar, as usual, ten or more restaurant workers lying side by side on red blankets across the floor.” In my old 6th-floor walkup in the East Village, I had an identical set of neighbors, who always had a pot of something foul-smelling cooking on the stove, although this was never something I thought to write about. Greenberg highlights the oddities of the city while at the same time embracing them unconditionally.
The anonymity of the city allows him to do character studies on the people he meets, such as the man with sticky fingers who works at the coffee shop Greenberg frequents, and the unassuming travelers he documents while on the subway. This is the reason Greenberg’s stories seem authentic—because he writes about his characters not from a pedestal, but right there in the grime with them. He even relates to the rat problem in his apartment, believing that these fearless vermin, stronger in numbers, are acting the same way people do. “Dozens of them were hanging out like teenagers, copulating, browsing, completely at ease.”
Beg, Borrow, Steal illustrates Greenberg’s struggle as a writer, working long hours as an uncredited ghostwriter for projects that never work out, or as a street vendor, selling knockoff women’s cosmetics under the 6 train. Despite its subtitle, however, the book does not read like a how-to book for writers, which is what I assumed the essays would be when I first picked it up. Instead, Greenberg gives the reader a peek into his daily life as a writer, which mostly consists of going to the park and observing strangers, talking to his landlord, and going to the coffee shop, then writing about it all in a rented studio space. Most of the short slice-of-life essays in Beg, Borrow, Steal have nothing to do with writing, and range in topic from spending the weekend alone with his son, riding the subway with his train-conductor friend, visiting New York’s deserted Hart Island, and Greenberg’s admiration for his late grandfather, Louie, who encouraged him never to “slave for another man’s fortune.”
Greenberg follows his grandfather’s advice by not “slaving” at all, but carefully observing his environment and adapting what he sees into short anecdotes and stories. In one essay, he describes spending hours on a park bench in the rain, observing every person that passes him. The author describes a six-month period when he spent hours every day on the subway, painstakingly writing every last detail that occurred while riding the one train. “I was seeing things from another angle,” Greenberg writes. “Unable to break out of the monotony of my days, I focused with greater intensity on it, in the hope that there was more to the monotony than I had suspected.”
The authenticity and honesty of Greenberg’s constant, brutal battle for his dreams made me root for him to succeed so fervently, I was barely bothered when his essays took a more self-absorbed turn towards the end of the book. In the essays that were written after the publication of Hurry Down Sunshine, Greenberg talks about his own success, describing his obsession with checking his Amazon sales rankings and the “jarringly luxurious” hotel he stayed in during a book tour. At first I cringed, fearing oncoming stories about book tours and hotel rooms, (the terrible fate of the successful memoirist), as opposed to the rich life experiences that made the earlier work so interesting. But after reading essays about Greenberg’s struggles to make ends meet and his intense devotion to writing through observation, I felt relieved that the author was finally getting a taste of success after so much hard work. Maybe if I had read his last essay alone in the Times Literary Supplement, I wouldn’t have been so forgiving, but after reading about the struggles of an underpaid artist, I was happy for Greenberg’s new-found success.
Beg, Borrow, Steal was just what I needed to get through another week away from New York. Greenberg seems to have as big of a crush on the city as I do, and because of this, I felt an instant camaraderie with the author that kept me rooting for him throughout the book. The short essays in Beg, Borrow, Steal do not have to be read in order, so I look forward to rereading a few select passages when I’m feeling homesick. Greenberg’s observations of New York are so vivid in my mind, even his rats make me long for home.
Books mentioned in this column:
Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life by Michael Greenberg (Other Press, 2009)
Here is New York by E.B. White (Little Bookroom, 2000)
Hurry Down Sunshine: A Father’s Story of Love and Madness by Michael Greenberg (Vintage, 2009)
Win a copy of Beg, Borrow, Steal! Send us an e-mail with your name, your city, and a reason you love living there on or before Friday, November 27, and we will enter you in a drawing for a new hardcover copy of the book. Many thanks to Other Press for this contribution.
Lindsay Champion’s short stories and personal narratives have been featured in Time Out New York, The New York Press, McSweeney’s, Fray Quarterly, SMITH Magazine and Common Ties. She has written hundreds of articles for numerous internet publications. She earned her BFA from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied writing. She lives in Los Angeles with an albino goldfish named Betty White. New York Words is Lindsay’s website. Contact Lindsay.