There are so many famous novels and prolific writers covering New York that I kept away from using it in this series. I looked at the many movements, literary groups, neighborhoods, and key classics until I felt too stifled by the sheer weight of it all. As a result, I ignored New York completely.
And of course that didn’t settle too well on my own literary heart. I couldn’t let it pass, especially as one of my favorite books is all about it, and while there are hundreds of New York stories, what takes the cake for me is Ian Frazier’s Gone to New York: Adventures in the City\.
Frazier ruminates on a range of aspects of the city, from people, deep history, stark facts, and even bags in trees. It’s a collection of essays he wrote over the years for The New Yorker, the Atlantic, and other places, and it’s so thoughtful and self-deprecating that it embodies what I find to be a true relationship of a person and his city.
Because who wouldn’t want to meet an expert typewriter repairman or walk the length of a highway just to experience it?
Some Place in Queens
“Queens is shaped sort of like a brain. The top, or northern border, is furrowed with bays and coves and salt marshes and creeks . . .”
In this essay, Frazier walks through Queens on a whim as he contemplates all of the cultures and the history of the borough. He visits a Greek Orthodox Church and walks under the raised subway line—Queens having the most miles of elevated tracks than any borough. He talks about the death of a known journalist, the oldest house in Queens, and what was the current school system.
Like in many of the moments he recounts, despite living in New York, Frazier’s an outsider to new experiences—a man gently berates him for not removing his shoes on holy ground—but despite the momentary self-consciousness, Frazier continues on his way, exploring.
While Queens may not necessarily be a go-to on an adventurer’s to-do when visiting New York, the same curious motivation shouldn’t stop you from going to other boroughs.
The Brooklyn Museum
“The staff at the Brooklyn Museum left a blank book for visitors’ comments outside the exhibition . . .”
You do not necessarily have to go visit the Brooklyn Museum, though there’s always something interesting to see there. I reference this essay because Frazier supposedly takes a few of the comments from the guest book and lists them out.
That’s really it. One after the other, you read through the comments, which range from thoughtful to berating, bombastic to genuine.
It always stuck with me because when I see guest books now, I actually go up to it to write my name and a thought or something. That something doesn’t necessarily matter, but I do it with this mindset that someone has to read these. And maybe that someone will get a kick out of what I wrote.
While it may not be the Brooklyn Museum you head towards, if you’re visiting New York, you’re likely to end up at a museum. And if you’re at a museum and there’s a guest book? Sign it.
Take the F Train
“I have spent days, weeks on the F train. The trip from Seventh Avenue to midtown Manhattan is long enough so that every ride can produce its own minisociety of riders.”
Does the subway count as a destination? I mean it is an eventual necessity, and I always liked how Frazier described it as a “minisociety of riders.” You don’t interact with one another. You just go about your business and try not to look lost while reading the subway maps.
Frazier dredges up fascinating interactions he’s seen or been part of, and while seeing it listed out like that makes subway travel look almost appalling, the one-sidedness of all of it makes it interesting. Frazier is only experiencing the people on that train for a pocket of time in the grand scheme of their day.
Frazier picks up on the details. He’d probably be that guy to notice the tarnished penny on the sidewalk while still five feet away, and if you want to see New York for all it’s worth, isn’t that the perspective to have?
By Georgette Eva