What Joan Didion Told Me—New York Chronicles by Pedro Plaza Salvati was awarded the 16th Annual Multi-Genre Prize in the Concurso Anual Transgenérico de la Fundación para la Cultura Urbana (Annual Multi-Genre Award of the Urban Cultural Foundation), one of Venezuela’s highest literary prizes. What Joan Didion Told Me is a frank, complex, multi-genre personal essay chronicling a few years in the Venezuelan author’s life as he lives and studies in New York City.
The chapters of What Joan Didion Told Me comprise a series of interlocking essays that are as wide ranging and multi-faceted as New York itself. With a careful eye for detail and a smooth conjoining of description, observation, and commentary, Pedro Plaza Salvati discusses and contemplates a rich variety of experiences seen through an outsider’s eyes: making friends and sharing movie nights with his landlords, a Jewish financial expert and his Japanese wife; partaking in mass outdoor yoga and visiting Harlem during a brutal summer heat wave; a chaotic but inspiring 4th of July fireworks show; traveling on the New York City subways, including a journey to the end of the line in The Bronx; finding Herman Melville’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery; riding a hectic party bus to a sold-out Rammstein concert at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island; the bureaucrats of the Venezuelan embassy in Manhattan; a visit to the offices of Barron’s magazine in Rockefeller Center; seeing Paul Auster read at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and the author’s enigmatic encounter with one of New York’s most iconic writers, Joan Didion.
And while he visits familiar landmarks like NYU, Washington Square, the subway, the Public Library on Fifth Avenue, the Strand bookstore, and Poe Cottage, this is not a book of travel essays or a tour guide: it’s a chronicle of a tireless intellect coming to terms with a new, fascinating, sometimes troubling world. Thus we also follow him into tighter, darker corners of New York’s history, literary and otherwise: student suicides in the plunging atrium of NYU’s library; how Washington Square was once a potter’s field; Joseph Mitchell’s 1940 column about McSorely’s tavern; the myth of Joe Gould; a mental health clinic in the Bronx; and Melville’s whisper of an obituary in 1891. He also contemplates his personal journey to establish himself as a writer while processing the tender and haunting memories of his own departed parents. Even for New Yorkers and experts on the city, What Joan Didion Told Me will shed new light and offer fresh insights on the great metropolis and life itself.
Pedro Plaza Salvati takes nothing for granted. The whole city fascinates him, from the subway rats to the great institutions; the cafés, libraries, and cemeteries; the bums, the panhandlers, the suicides, the artists, and the overwhelming architecture. What Joan Didion Told Me combines anecdote, history, humor, criticism, literary analysis, symbolism, and reflections on the expatriate life, all bound together by incisive commentary on writing technique and the discipline itself, and what a strange and lonely pursuit it is. This is a spirited book, a stranger’s pulsing quest for meaning in a strange land, driven by the certainty of uncertainty, the visitor’s redoubt of requisite humility, and the power of questioning, informed by the frustration and fascination that a city as great as New York is no less imperfect and quirky, a fact that the outsider sees and feels immediately and intimately. This seeing forms, and informs, the pages and textures of this book in chapters which initially seem familiar or innocuous but always lead the reader to things overlooked and unappreciated, showing that the journey, not the destination, matters most, and the seeking never ends: whether or not you complete the college course, finish writing the book, survive a long hot summer night, snag the ticket for the sold-out show, meet famous authors and get their autographs, ride to the end of the line, or commune with the great spirits of the departed, you are still one soul among millions, and the road goes ever on.
Pedro Plaza Salvati’s clear, mature, and measured voice offers a bridge between the USA and Latin America. An established author in Venezuela who now lives in Barcelona, his work, and this book—a wry, funny, curious love letter to New York City—deserves a place among the translated literature offered to American readers. He recently published his acclaimed fourth novel, Broadway-Lafayette: el último andén, and is emerging as one of Venezuela’s most prominent contemporary literary voices. Americans will find him intellectually challenging, entertaining, intriguing, and rewarding.
Song of the Beggars
Pedro Plaza Salvati
Bum City. Beggar City. I’ve come to the inevitable conclusion that everyone who lives in New York City, to a greater or lesser degree, becomes converted to the Bum religion. Except for a handful of multimillionaires, living in this city makes it hard for your clothes not to get shabby, for them to not get impregnated with the stench of the subway and the grease from the food stand grills selling fried pork, beef, or any other unidentifiable animal. People carry leftovers with them everywhere they go, and some of that food gets eaten on the subway. And there’s nothing more gross and disturbing than the smell from someone eating inside one of those dirty, stinking subway cars. The cruel wintertime suppresses certain odors. But when the cold recedes, the warmer weather accentuates the wide variety of smells. And it’s almost impossible not to be infected. And so, even if you have a job and don’t have to stand around begging for money on street corners, bum culture ends up invading everything.
Beggars are like springtime in New York. If one season could define how I feel about the city, that season is spring: one day it’s sunny, another day it rains, the next day it clouds over, rain and wind, castrating winds, sun again, wind and rain, the temperature plunges, the temperature rises. Like a false spring, that’s how I feel: one day on the very top floor (well, not quite so high), the next day down with the rats on the subway tracks, like a bum. Then I climb the stairs up out of the station and see the blue sky, not as blue as in the winter, a pale blue. A slight smile sketches itself on my lips. To be in New York is to live in the uncertainty of the unforeseen. It’s not knowing how you’re going to feel from one day to the next. Like the changing springtime. From exaltation to repugnance. Detesting and admiring at the same time. Feeling grateful and wanting to run away. How lucky to be here! my common sense tells me. My soul is shaken by the insidious winds and sometimes it’s lost to me, it hides from me, it burrows deep inside a beggar’s rags.
Joe Gould, the most famous of all beggars, was immortalized in Joseph Mitchell’s book Joe Gould’s Secret, considered by many to be the best nonfiction work of the twentieth century. Joe Gould, Harvard graduate, born into a traditional, wealthy family from Boston, had to recite poems, make extravagant performances, beg his bohemian friends for some money just to be able to buy something to eat: In winter I’m a Buddhist / and in summer I’m a nudist. I’ve just finished reading Joe Gould’s Secret for the second time, a one-hundred-fifty page profile of this man who supposedly wrote a collection of sayings, speeches, idiomatic expressions, jokes, commentaries, and everything he picked up on the street, all of which he called Oral History. This document, which would have been longer than The Bible, never really existed. Gould was an intellectual beggar masquerading in his own character, deeply caught up inside his own ego within his misery, famous in the world of The Village. In that book one feels palpably the dynamic of the bum’s life, dedicated to obtaining handouts to survive. He always wrote about the same thing again and again, but rhetoric rang with the conviction that he had something very important in his hands to offer. Just like Joe Gould, the same thing happens to people who have a steady job but don’t turn their noses up at a free meal or the value of some leftovers. In one way or another, this city belongs to the beggars and bums. A bum city. A bum culture. Oh my God: It’s so trendy! Perhaps we all carry a touch of Joe Gould in our hearts.
Joe Gould came to New York City to become a writer. I think about the beggar on the corner of Green Street and West 4th, with his few square feet of real estate, that rectangular grating that releases heat onto the street, where he sits for hours at a time, like some shaman with his brown cape and his cap, as if he were on the verge of some kind of enlightenment. I’ve heard that the air from the grating only warms the lower half of the body; the upper body remains ice cold. He crosses his arms, rests his head, and seems to sleep with his eyes open. I never see him in a bad mood or showing a bad attitude. He’s black and dresses like a shaman. He wanders around the streets between the university buildings and talks as if he has to make an academic presentation in a few minutes, about to pull out his purple card and enter one of the buildings at NYU, and he repeats what he seems to have memorized, as if by speaking to himself he were revealing some formula or philosophical theory. He walks as if lost deep in thought. His eyes are charged with some unreachable wisdom. I’ve got to talk with him someday. I think that he’ll have important things to tell me. I don’t know if I’ll have the nerve. He is a sacred man. I wonder if what this shaman has to say to himself doesn’t have something to do with the invention of appearances. Unlike Gould with his endless stream of words, this bum doesn’t really talk to anybody. If we make a strict comparison between the two men, everything is a fraud. Is life itself a fraud? Who’s got it right? Left to themselves, can people and their affairs achieve some kind of moral superiority or does one have to pray and beg? Is it possible to be a starving shaman?
Among other things, New York is synonymous with loneliness. Today is my last day of my first year in this library. It’s Memorial Day weekend, a celebration of longing and respect for those who have given their life for the nation. I enter the 9th floor at Bobst where I have been working these last months. Not many people here today. Certain cycles are coming to an end. Ana has already had to leave the country, before me. I’ve stayed behind alone to tie up some things, to turn the apartment over to our landlords, Gene, and his wife, Hisako, and to secure our belongings in a Mini Storage for the summer. When we return, our friend Sonia will put us up at her place while we try to find an apartment to rent. She’s told us that we can stay with her as long as we need. That’s life in New York City—always changing addresses, for some reason or other, the way beggars change street corners. Some friends gradually fade from view as if they never existed. The city subjects me to another test: absolute solitude. Always writing alone. Eating alone. Working out alone. Alone, like a bum! Coming home late, alone, waiting to be sufficiently tired so that I don’t fall into the trap of insomnia, something I’ve never suffered from before but which, in New York, has possessed me like some chronic flu. Getting a good night’s becomes a random experience. I’ve hardly spoken with anyone for days, except for a few brief exchanges: in a café while ordering coffee, at the university gymnasium, at the Health Center, where I went thanks to the damned spring pollen that’s turned my left eye completely bloodshot; like when the torero plants his sword into the bull’s hump, a sharp horn buried in my retina; my eye opens in the morning and sees the new day looking like a building on fire. The only thing missing is the fire truck reflected in it. I ran into Gene on the street. I see the city in a different way now. Before, I used to see the bums and I wondered how they could survive without having anyone to talk to. Now I’m duplicating that experience. I’m starting to understand why the bums talk to themselves. I’m at home and I resolve problems in my head and I find myself, without realizing it, talking to myself. I understand the lonely old people who abound in the city: if they find someone to talk to they don’t stop talking, and you think that they’re friendly but it turns out that they’re lonely: it’s the song of the beggars, beggars for company. That’s why there are so many dogs in the city, so that the people have some company. I read an article in The New York Times claiming that 47% of New Yorkers live alone. Today I ate lunch at Così and there were about twenty tables occupied, almost all of them by people eating alone. I’ve already eaten at Così ten times. My next meal there will be on the house. Then I look closer and become aware of the New York City that is so solitary; the paradox that there are so many people but each one walks the streets alone, as if they had found themselves a zone of antisocial comfort. Then I see people alone everywhere in this city as if I’ve discovered a new race, a sect whose expressive symptoms and qualities I’ve now learned to recognize. My perception expands as I find myself among them; ashamed to recognize myself among the lonely ones, like foreigners from some distant nation. In the restaurants, on the streets, in the parks, on the subway; everywhere: I am one of them. The days become tiresome and endless. I start to abhor the city a little bit more. The loneliness is like a transparent woman who walks the streets.
I remain all alone on the 9th floor of Bobst Library. Not even the Asians show up today. It seems that people take this Memorial Day business rather seriously. The city starts slowing down starting on Friday and the party lasts until Tuesday; it starts to feel like some Third World capital with its excuses for not working. And the weather is nice for the first time in many days. After this interminable winter and false spring, early summer suddenly shows its face. Immediately, people are out walking the streets, filling the café terraces; others get drunk, the beggars seem agitated, the crazy people shouting harder: all thanks to the sudden arrival of the nice weather. Vulgarity abounds and the city doesn’t seem at all like the glamorous town of Uma Thurman, whom I happened to see at the Angelika Cinema. Some Americans never stop walking around in flip-flops, as if they were on a beach in Florida, everything seems ridiculous and banal. The elderly ladies walk around showing their twisted, calloused, and deformed toes, and I think about just how ugly toes become with old age. Perhaps it all looks worse to me because I’m by myself, but I don’t think that I’m being very unrealistic. Then, waving goodbye to cold weather, New York embraces the orgy of hot days and nights, the unbearable heat that seeps down into the subway platforms, a brutal heat that I know will still be here to greet me when I return in late August. Tomorrow the library will be closed. This is my last day here. Tonight I’m catching a plane. What a way to say goodbye; with this solitude that weighs as heavy as all the steel I-beams of the Empire State Building.