New York, New York

In my life, the longest I’ve spent not sleeping in either New York County–which is essentially Manhattan–or Westchester County–which is the county due north of the Bronx (and the City) and is bordered by the Hudson River and Connecticut–is two weeks. One week in Paris, the second in London. That was forty years ago.

So nearly all of my stories take place in and around New York City, chiefly Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan and chiefly the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the east of Broadway and between 72nd and 96th Streets and close to the Park. Where I spent twelve years going to law school and afterwards. Alex Locus lives in my old apartment on West 85th Street. The characters in A Theory About Valentine’s Day are there, as is Suzanne Nelson before she moves to…Tuckahoe in Westchester, where I grew up. Etc., etc., etc.

I say this level of precision in my description because I just saw a well-written snippet about “New York,” meaning (I think) Manhattan. It treats New York as some kind of singular expression. It is how I’d likely treat, say, Los Angeles or Boston.

The thing about New York, and I assume LA and Boston and any other place anywhere (I can say this with more assurance about places I’ve spent (albeit tourist) time such as Paris and London), is that it’s just a bunch of little neighborhoods. Jane Jacobs‘s seminal works about Greenwich Village (with her efforts to prevent Robert Moses from having an interstate cross that fundamental part of Manhattan with an interstate as he did with the Cross-Bronx Expressway) centered on life on a single street, with its comings and its goings.

When I lived on West 85th Street less than 100 yards from the Park looking out over the street (as Alex’s apartment does), that’s what it was. A little street in a neighborhood that simply had no yards and a lot more people and cars passing by than a house I think anywhere else anywhere. Except those Stalinesque, gated communities one finds in certain wealthy parts of Florida and elsewhere.

I can be annoying. If I meet someone who says they “live on the Upper West Side” I’ll follow-up (as lawyers say) with a request for greater precision. “What street?” “East or west of Broadway?” Often, for the UWS, “do you have anything to do with Columbia” since many found themselves there (as I did) when they attended school there.

So as Upper West Siders (of whatever neighborhood) properly believe themselves superior in all regards (excepting perhaps money, which has always been a big thing in New York (as noted in my Gilded Age novels) to those on the Upper East Side, the latter mistakenly (except, as I say, about money) believe the opposite to be true.

All of this helps to explain the precision of my locations. In Coming to Terms, I needed a stoop on West 87th. One main character sits on a stoop in front of the other’s apartment thinking the latter is off doing a summer-associate gig in San Francisco and it changes both of their lives, sitting on that stoop. So I had to find a brownstone that had a stoop. And, voila, there it was on Google Maps Street View. Same with the description of Nancy Penchant’s brownstone on West 94th.

So the fourth “character” in my books is not some amorphous “New York City.” The place where a too ambitious woman in to-die-for outfits works while not in her loft-in-the-Village and plays too hard (and wins) at everything before some crisis or another forces her to return to the farm to find the three-day-old bearded guy with an F-150 and a manual-labor job who can play Mozart on the tuba and recite Shakespearean sonnets while cooking and who is, as an Upper West Sider is to an Upper East Siders (except, you know, for the money thing, which won’t matter because who needs Louboutins in Iowa?), superior in all respects to the Big Law/Harvard JD/Greenwich accented/clean shaven hunk who’s her fiancĂ©.

Still, as I say, it’s not just New York. Yet I have the advantage that readers think they know about it. They’ve seen the external shots in Friends and Seinfeld (“Tom’s Restaurant”? It’s on Broadway by Columbia) and the externals and internals of You’ve Got Mail, etc. so they think they know the place. My job is to populate that place with human characters. (Never dogs; one always wants to know who’s taking the Lab out for a walk or when did someone feed the KCS.)

It’s a big advantage, of course, this already established character. But, of course, as I say, being a New Yorker and especially one with years on the Upper West Side has its advantages.

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