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Entries in elizabeth gumport (10)


In Which We Sleepwalk At Our Convenience

photographs by Yasmine Chatila

The World Inverted


It is impossible to describe insomnia to people who are sound sleepers. These are the people who trust that getting in bed will be followed by falling asleep, as surely as night follows day; these are the fearless people. Sleepless people are a very different breed. They know what insomnia really is: not just the failure to fall asleep, but the fear of that failure. For an insomniac, there is no such thing as a good night. Every evening – even if it eventually, mercifully comes to an end – is shredded by anxiety. To reach sleep the insomniac must first pass through terror.

The fearless person also fails to understand how easy it is to become one of the sleepless people. All it takes is one bad night. That bad night begets others: once you know you might not be able to sleep, you can't. Recognizing that staying awake all night is a very real possibility, something that could actually happen, is no different than realizing that your boyfriend might no longer be interested in you, or that the friendship you thought was indestructible is, in fact, as vulnerable as anything else, or that you could very well not succeed at doing the work you so badly want to do. When you imagine such scenarios, you seem almost to will them into existence. To see the abyss is to take the first step towards it. What made F. Scott Fitzgerald “sleep-conscious,” as he called it, was a mosquito: the bug bothered him all night, and after that he had trouble sleeping for years.

And while you can always find a new boyfriend, there is no substitute for sleep. Anyone who has ever had trouble sleeping knows that all treatments for insomnia are in some way inadequate. Melatonin stops working when you take it too regularly, and alcohol only postpones the problem. If you have a glass of wine, or two, or three, you will start awake in the middle of the night feeling feverish and fretful and maybe a little fat. Ambien works, but only if you can set aside eight or nine hours for sleep. Any fewer and you wake up thick-headed and heavy-eyed.

A cure that leaves you groggy or hungover is no cure at all. The point of sleep, after all, is that it is supposed to restore energy, and hope. It makes you alert enough to do things, and optimistic enough to believe they are worth doing. If you wake up feeling otherwise, what's the use?

The sleepless become superstitious. Once she has tried the standard solutions and found them wanting, the insomniac devises her own treatments, her own odd rituals. In order to exhaust themselves, Emily and Charlotte Brontë walked in circles around their dining room table. Teddy Roosevelt took a shot of cognac in a glass of milk, and W.C. Fields found he could only fall asleep if stretched out in a barber’s chair or on a pool table. If rest still remains elusive, you can at least force others to suffer with you: Tallulah Bankhead hired “caddies,” young gay men who would chat with her and hold her hand until she finally drifted off to sleep. Groucho Marx would pick up the phone, dial the first number that popped into his head, and insult whoever answered his call.

If pills and drinks and caddies don't work, all you can do is wait. When morning comes – when, as Philip Larkin put it in “Aubade,” the rest of the “the uncaring / intricate rented world begins to rouse” – some insomniacs are relieved. Now, at least, they can stop trying to get some sleep; now they have a reason for being awake. “Work,” Larkin wrote, “has to be done.” Others remain in bed. In one diary entry, William Wordsworth's sister noted that, as of ten o'clock in the morning, the poet was still in bed, hoping to fall asleep. Insomnia infects your whole life. It renders meaningless the distinction between day and night: if you cannot sleep, and you have nowhere to go, you will be as oppressed when the sun is up as when the sun is down.

Another option available to the insomniac is acceptance. This requires a slight rearrangement of attitudes, the editing of various terms: it's not that you “can't sleep.” You're simply “resting” or “cleaning” or  “working late.” Vladimir Nabokov called sleep “the most moronic fraternity in the world” and claimed that he often wrote better during periods of insomnia.

If you can't write, or clean, or even rest,  you can always do something else: “an ideal insomnia,” Joyce Carol Oates once said, “allows for a lot of reading.” The best books to read late at night are ones full of facts. Facts act as a kind of anesthetic: they numb you to yourself, the subject to which your thoughts would otherwise turn. The gratitude you will feel for these books, and their authors, will surpass your usual appreciation for a good book. It will be deeper, more personal, and more possessive. I have had more than a few long, bad nights, and more than a few good companions. Two of the best were Joan Didion's Miami and Eula Biss's Notes From No Man's Land, and I recommend both to anyone in need of a shot of novocaine.

Once accommodated, insomnia can provide certain pleasures. You are privy to the other, secret world, the one that begins when everyone else goes to bed. Being awake during these long, hidden hours is like taking the subway during the middle of the day or walking around Manhattan after a blizzard. All is private, silent, and still; for once the world is polite, and for once it belongs to you. Light, and its absence, command your attention: in Central Park, the shadows of the branches look like black bones in the snow. In your room, the movement of the moon shows itself on your wall, a patch of light that creeps from corner to corner as the hours pass. All night a streetlight shines into your window.

If you live in a city, other people's apartments are a matter of much concern. The lights in the building across the street go out, one after another, but in one window a television flickers, its invisible owner keeping you company late into the night. He is your first mate, your loyal fellow officer: together you sail into the vast night. Then, without warning, he jumps ship. The television turns off. You cruise on alone. The night is as deep and endless as the ocean.

This is when the bad feelings find you; this is when reading is something you do not just to keep busy but to blunt the pain. After a certain hour, even the best natures start to go bad. Once, while visiting a friend, Mark Twain threw his pillow at the window in a fit of frustration. The pane shattered, letting in the “fresh air” Twain needed for his rest, and he fell asleep. In the morning, he discovered what he had broken was not a window but a glass-enclosed bookcase. (Everyone knows time passes oddly in the insomniac’s bedroom, but space can shift, too.)

Acceptance might work occasionally, but a series of sleepless nights – and the hot sheets and aching hips that accompany them – will exhaust anyone's patience. In many poems, the ever-joyful Wordsworth manages to remain humble and hopeful, trying to coax the “blessed barrier” between days into existence. But eventually even he got angry: "Shall I alone, / surely not a man ungently made, / Call thee worst Tyrant by which Flesh is crost?" In another poem, sleep is personified as withholding lover whom Wordsworth must beseech: “Do not use me so but once and deeply let me be beguiled.”

Wordsworth was not alone in imagining sleep as someone who would not join him in bed. It's a common image, perhaps because when you can't sleep your thoughts often turn to those people who have refused your company, or forsaken it after many shared nights. One of Elizabeth Bishop's most famous poems concludes with the following lines: “So wrap up care in a cobweb / and drop it down the well / into that world inverted / where left is always right, / where the shadows are really the body, / where we stay awake all night, / where the heavens are shallow as the sea / is now deep, and you love me.” The title of the poem is “Insomnia.”

Bishop is describing second-stage insomnia, which takes over after the first thrill of inhabiting a secret, hidden city wears off. In the second stage, you mourn for the people who left you behind, the people who no longer love you, the people who did you wrong. If you are sharing a bed with someone else, this is the time to leave the room. Staying will only make you resent him: the silence of sleep will begin to sound like indifference.

What comes next is worse. What comes next is a catalogue of everyone you did wrong, everyone you betrayed, everyone you loved less, or worse, than you should have. This is third-stage insomnia, and if at this point you don't take another Ambien what follows is even more brutal. Why stop at listing everyone you've ever hurt? Why not see if you can think of every single thing you've ever done wrong in your whole entire life?

If you stay awake late enough, eventually you remember everything. All your usual defenses dissolve. Your mind is weary, and there is nothing in your white, silent room to distract it. Your exhausted brain can no longer apply the pressure needed to repress your memories, and they all come back, all of them, every one, and especially the ones that prove you are the worst version of yourself: the lies, the evasions, the unreturned emails, the shoplifted packs of gum. And, of course, every single ungenerous thing you have ever thought, no matter how fleetingly or how long ago, about the people you love most. Anxiety cascades: just when you’ve drained one disaster from your mind, another breaks the dam. The panic and shame that overcome you when you find a really old to-do list and realize you haven’t done a single item on it? Multiply that feeling by the number of minutes left until sunrise. You can tell yourself to be reasonable, to count your blessings, to get it together, but such reassurances will ring hollow. As Fitzgerald put it, at three o'clock in the morning a forgotten package feels as tragic as a death sentence.

There is a point after which it is no longer possible to be productive, a point after which you are too harassed by regret or simply too tired and brainless to work. Not being able to work compounds the agony of not being able to sleep: you feel useless, ashamed, fraudulent. Fitzgerald described his own sleepless nights as encounters with “horror and waste,” with “waste and horror – what I might have been and done that is lost, spent, gone, dissipated, unrecapturable.” Perhaps, he wrote, the restless night prefigures “the night after death. . . No choice, no road, no hope – only the endless repetition of the sordid and the semi-tragic. Or to stand forever, perhaps, on the threshold of life unable to pass it and return to it. I am a ghost now as the clock strikes four.”

Like Fitzgerald, Larkin heard death approach in the empty, abandoned hours of early morning. “Aubade” is one of the best descriptions of the final stage of insomnia, which, once you've experienced it, renders the other, earlier stages even more painful, because you know what's coming: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. / In time the curtain-edges will grow light. / Till then I see what's really always there: / Unresting death, a whole day nearer now, / Making all thought impossible but how / and where and when I shall myself die.” In the middle of the night, the insomniac weighs her remembered mistakes and finds what makes shouldering their burden so painful is the knowledge that some day she will have it, that burden, taken from her. How much better would it be to regret everything forever! “This,” Larkin observed, “is a special way of being afraid / No trick dispels.”

Sleep can't always undo insomnia's ill-effects: Fitzgerald's struggle with insomnia heralded his breakdown. “In a real dark night of the soul,” he wrote, “it is always three o'clock in the morning.” The bad things you think alone in your room sometimes turn out to be true. And, as with insomnia itself, sometimes it seems like they turned out to be true precisely because you thought of them: if you had been asleep you wouldn’t have felt like a failure, and if you hadn’t felt like a failure you wouldn't be a failure. Despair is a stowaway, hopping into our soul in the middle of the night and smuggling itself into our days.

Sleep is not like death. It is insomnia that is the first taste of death: dead, you will never sleep again. There will be no more soft beds, no more clean sheets; never again will you pile pillows around yourself, never again will you find contentment beneath a warm blanket on a cold night. In “Sad Steps” – which, like “Aubade,” unfolds at four o'clock in the morning – Larkin described the longing that overcomes the insomniac when she looks out her window, the desire she feels that is deeper than other desires, because it absorbs them all. In the middle of the night, the moon's “white stare / is a reminder of the strength and pain / of being young; that it can't come again, / But is for others undiminished somewhere.” You will never again be the person who made all those mistakes; you will never again be the person you once were, as foolish as she was, or even the wretched, sleepless person you are now. The only thing left to do is get older. And to sleep, if you can.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in Manhattan. You can read more of her work here and here. She last wrote in these pages about Dawn Powell's New York.

Photographs by Yasmine Chatila, which can be seen here and here.

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In Which It Is The Only Thing That Matters More Than Beauty

Manhattan in Middle Age


New York is a city that looks better from a distance. The gap can be temporal – the poverty of youth becomes, in time, one’s golden freedom – or spatial. A friend from Chicago complained that Manhattan lacked alleyways: in the summer, our garbage stunk and burned on the sidewalks. On the Brooklyn Bridge, the smell disappears, and all you can see are buildings massed at the edge of the island, the offices crowned with lights, glowing like bottles in a dark bar. The boundaries of other cities blur – at what point do the sprawling lights become suburb? – but Manhattan is an island, cut cleanly against the night. As pure image, New York is flawless: tidy, discrete, simple to hold in your mind, and for this reason particularly easy to romanticize. Emblem, icon, colophon: its skyline stands for a story.

It is this fantasy that makes the reality bearable. “There is really only one city for everyone, just as there is one major love” the novelist Dawn Powell wrote in 1953. “New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on – a bottomless investment of twenty-one years (I count the day I was born) of building up an idea of New York – so no matters what happens here I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy.”
Born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, Powell arrived in New York in 1918. The city was the largest in the Western Hemisphere: 2.3 million people lived in Manhattan alone. Her life sounds like the life of many new arrivals: she moved frequently, first renting on West 85th Street, and then West End Avenue, and finally a series of apartments in Greenwich Village. For a time she worked as a typist; once she appeared as an extra in a film. Before she became a novelist, she freelanced: American Agriculturalist, Southern Ruralist, Oil and Gas Journal, a piece on “Pekinese poodles” for Dogdom. She went through a phase of screaming in her sleep.

In 1920, Powell and Joseph Gousha took the ferry to Staten Island for their first date. That November, after addressing a brief letter to her aunt – "please come and give me away next Saturday" – she married Gousha at the Church of Transfiguration, known as the Little Church Around the Corner, on East 29th Street. In the following years, Powell would give birth to an autistic son, who once beat her so hard she had to be hospitalized. Powell drank a lot, Gousha drank more, and they were almost always broke or near-broke.

In Powell’s New York novels, scenes and images accumulate; parties propel, or stand in for, plot. Restaurants and cafes figure prominently in many of her novels; Café Julien, which serves as the hub of The Wicked Pavilion, was inspired by Powell’s beloved Hotel Lafayette, on Washington Square between University Place and Ninth Street. The hotel was demolished in 1950 and replaced with apartments.

Powell’s novels feature artists and editors, writers and failed writers, the "quartette of midnight friends (male) who would not know each other by day but view everybody’s business (particularly their catastrophes) with a philosophic pleasure" and the "completely New York people" who "only remember you when you’ve gone into your fourth printing." Her subject is the man who believes, or once believed, that "New York loved him as it loved no other young man."

“… spangled skyscrapers piled up softly against the darkness, tinseled parks were neatly boxed and ribboned with gold like Christmas presents waiting to be opened. Sounds of traffic dissolved in distance, all clangor sifted through space into a whispering silence, it held a secret, and when letters flamed triumphantly in the sky you felt, ah, that was the secret, this at last was it, this special telegram to God — Sunshine Biscuits. On and off it went, Eat Sunshine Biscuits, the message of the city.”
In many ways Powell’s life was what one imagines the life of an author to be, at once glamorous and sordid: drinks and debts, famous acquaintances (Edmund Wilson was one, Hemingway another), pithy asides ("I don’t make beds," Powell said. "I break them."), and perpetual professional dissatisfaction. Over the years, she bounced from publisher to publisher. For a time she worked with Maxwell Perkins, after whom she named her cat.
Powell saw herself as a descendent of Edith Wharton, and her novels as Menippean satires, but believed their subject matter caused critics to dismiss them as frivolous. “This is obviously an age that can’t take it,” Powell complained. "When someone wishes to write of this age — as I do and have done — critics shy off — the public shies off." No subject is in itself serious or unserious: whether something is drama and comedy depends not on the events of the plot but the attitude of the author.

“Thirty is really the most important age for women. . . They have to be started towards fame or a family by that time, and if they’re not, they’re done for. So you see it’s very necessary that I should crowd the next few years.” Powell often lied about her age.

People think New York changes, but it never does. It doesn’t matter whether the year is 1919 or 2009: the city has always been too expensive and too vicious. A letter Powell wrote to a college friend shortly after her arrival in New York touched on what would become the central themes of her novels. “Beauty,” she stated, “is after all the only thing in the world that matters — not mental or spiritual beauty or any of that lying rot, but splendid physical beauty. . . Let us not mention money — it is so obvious that it is money that makes beauty possible, so that very likely money is the only thing that matters more than beauty.”

What is true is not always nice, and it is true that happiness begets happiness. People who luck into money or beauty find more of it, and more; its early absence only makes its later arrival more unlikely. Money burns, youth melts away, and the failure of one person makes possible the success of another: in Turn, Magic Wheel, a young author uses his friend’s failed marriage to a Hemingway-like figure as fodder for his novel. To survive here, you must protect yourself: "I will be absolutely free," Powell wrote when a long-term affair ended. "No affections can touch me.” The city demands a novel as hard as itself: "Nothing will cut New York but a diamond."

Powell’s novels are like New York parties, where familiar faces – ravaged by alcohol, the hour good for going home having long past them by – appear again and again. A number of characters who figure or are mentioned in Turn, Magic Wheel return for A Time To Be Born, set in the early days of World War II.

“Drink,” muses one, “seemed the only protection against the lacerations of his mind, now that he was back in New York, his foot rocking away once more on the touted ladder of success. At this time the famous ladder was propped against nothing and led nowhere, and anyone foolish enough to make the world his oyster was courting ptomaine; yet the ladder tradition was still observed, and until the flames reached them young people were still found going through the motions of climbing.” Later, he tells another character, "Youth is all I demand of a woman."

A title Powell considered but never used: Promiscuity Recollected In Senility

The city that unduly privileges youth also extends it. Powell called Manhattan “the town for middle age. Elsewhere, middle age is surrounded by its grandchildren or young and chaperoned into discretion.” We become addicted to our endless childhoods. Trying to leave proves futile: if New York is bad, everywhere else is worse.

On a trip home to Ohio, Powell found in Cleveland “private homes as big as our public libraries, the beautiful country clubs, the glorification of material conveniences, the vast invincible Magazine Public that in New York we can thank God forget. . . I caught the language again quickly and the familiar combination of open hearts and closed minds that represents so much of the country except New York, where we have closed hearts first, and minds so open that carrier pigeons can fly straight through without leaving a message.”

While working at the MacDowell Colony, Powell learned Edward MacDowell had gone mad on the estate, and wondered if his wife “started this place after his death to see how many other artists would be driven nuts by it, too.” Once you get out of the game, it’s hard to get back in, and for some people this is reason not to play at all. Even those like Powell, who love the hustle, or are addicted to it, know a world exists across the river. Powell always retained an image of herself as outsider.

In the autobiographical short story “What Are You Doing In My Dreams?” she envisioned a split self, half of which lived by day in New York and “the other half by night with the dead in long-ago Ohio.” Edmund Wilson described Powell’s real theme as “the provincial in New York who has come on from the Middle West and acclimatized himself (or herself) to the city and made himself a permanent place there, without ever, however, losing his fascinated sense of an alien and anarchic society.”

Located to the north of the Bronx in Long Island Sound, Hart Island – accessible, like Staten Island, only by ferry – has served since 1869 the home of New York Cemetery, the largest tax-funded cemetery in the world. New York Cemetery is a potter’s field, and each year inmates from Riker’s Island inter over a thousand bodies in its mass graves. When the executor of her estate declined to claim her remains, Powell was buried on Hart Island.

She was lucky: those of us raised in New York have no other half, no dream-island to fall back on when the real city disappoints. We are all New York, and it is the rest of the world that seems unreal. Failure here means failure in full; a life lived elsewhere would be less than a life. In the end, of course, it hardly matters. Nobody wins the game: youth is all anybody demands of a woman, and we are not so long young. The best we can hope for is to die and be buried in New York.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. You can find her website here. She twitters here.

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In Which We Secretly Harbor The Desire To Be Looked At 

Escape to New York


Just as our first romantic relationships impress types upon us, so, too, do our early urban experiences determine if and how we will live in cities. There are people from whom we do not recover, experiences into which we try to fold all others, places we do not leave.

Born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1933, the photographer Bruce Davidson spent his adolescence on the train, riding the El into Chicago. "I’ve left Chicago," Davidson later told an interviewer, "but Chicago hasn’t left me."

The experience was "catalytic," he said; as an adult, he would go on to document New York’s transit system in the series Subway. On the trains he found "an iridescence like what I had seen in photographs of deep-sea fish."

Before Subway, he had submerged himself in South Brooklyn, where he documented the romances and rituals of a young street gang called the Jokers. After covering the Civil Rights Movement, he returned to New York, to its parks and streets, and, for two years the 1960s, its tenements. He set up on the block between Second Avenue and First, working with a large camera on a tripod to capture the street’s sidewalks, bedrooms, and the people who used them.

East 100th Street appeared at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970. Nearly twenty years later, my parents and I moved into an apartment a few blocks west, on 100th between Park and Lexington. Both streets belong to the part of Manhattan known as Spanish Harlem, which runs from 96th Street, where well-tended medians on Park Avenue give way to train tracks, up to the northeastern edge of the island and the Harlem River.

The neighborhood is largely Puerto Rican, and home to 24 public housing projects. Last year, the Department of City Planning designated the neighborhood a "food desert," which means its residents have little access to fresh food, specifically produce, and are therefore likely to suffer from diet-related illnesses.

When I was very young, I did not realize people considered my neighborhood unsafe; once I did, I thought they must be mistaken. It was not until after the building next door to mine burned down that I learned it had been a crackhouse. Nobody ever told me anything. If someone was admitted to the hospital, I was informed days or years after they were released.

Now this seems to me fantastical: how do you not talk about things? But my parents and I, we did not talk about things, so for a long time I pretended everything was fine. Then, when evidence to the contrary became impossible to ignore, I decided not to care. This is actually a choice you can make.

The images in East 100th Street do not disclose secrets like a diary, those subjective assessments of material experience. They hold only the brute, dull detritus of daily life: 15-cent pie, a flyer from a camping show, Hart brand bird food. Looking at Davidson's photographs is like visiting someone's apartment for the first time, or reading his blog: I eat a sandwich, I drink a beer, I do not make my bed.

To see the people Davidson photographs is to be reminded that people exist when we do not see them. These are not candids, or stolen shots of animals taken securely from safari caravan, but their subjects accept him without ceremony, as one admits not a stranger but a sibling, someone who has a key and does not care if you have cleaned your apartment.

At the Howard Greenberg Gallery, East 100th Street is accompanied by Davidson’s wide, expansive shots of Central Park. In the foreground of one lies the sweating, bathing-suited body of a woman; beyond her, more bodies, and trees, and beyond them the city, the buildings rising together like a great crenellated castle.

In comparison to his photographs of Central Park, the images in East 100th Street are airless and cramped. The exteriors feel like interiors. Rarely do you see the sky, or the spine of the Triborough Bridge, that big animal, lying across the East River. The city resembles a room, a closed space, a closet. The effect is counterintuitive; in Davidson’s work, narrow alleys and low ceilings serve as reminders of the city’s size, of how much it contains, and conceals.

If you believe people do whatever they can get away with, you might imagine his portraits of people peering out windows or sprawled on beds to be portraits of lust and false-heartedness. Manhattan's geography generates infidelity: ours is a capacious city, a vast island whose size permits isolation and therefore betrayal.

Davidson's photographs remind us that people's personal lives are mostly tedious. Everybody has dirty plates and families. Privacy protects us. Behind closed doors we shine our shoes and our personalities; we rest and then resume playing the roles of interesting people. We hide our worst selves, and our dullest: we would rather have people see us as bad than boring.

What is universal are chores, the failure to do them, and the desire to be looked at. From the way one girl turns her foot you can tell she has taken ballet. She is wearing church clothes; in another picture, a sign on a storefront church proclaims, "All are welcome!" Sunday devotional services meet at 12:30, and something abbreviated "W.P.W.W." gathers on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6:30.

A few of the buildings Davidson photographed still stand, but this church is gone. The northwest corner of the block has been cleared for a baseball diamond, and luxury condominiums now run along First Avenue up to 101st Street. In 2006, one of the new apartments on Lexington Avenue sold for $8.5 million dollars.

The protagonists of children's books are usually orphans. The family home is a prison that must be demolished before the book can begin. Only once they are freed from their cells and captors can the characters' adventure begin. Out of the cradle and into the boxcar, or boarding school; the best world is the one without parents.

My parents sold their house this fall. Like Davidson's subjects and storybook orphans, I am one of the lucky ones: I never have to go home again.

Elizabeth Gumport is the senior contributor to This Recording. She is a writer living in New York. She last wrote in these pages about the life of Maeve Brennan. You can find an archive of her work on This Recording here. You can find an archive of her work at n+1 here.

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