Diary: Christopher Sorrentino, A Writer’s Childhood

From the illustrated weekly Hearth and Home (1873). New York Public Library Digital Gallery.

Tompkins Square Park was at the center of everything. It was where I made my friends, and it was where my mother made hers. The playground on the Avenue B side was where we went, where my mother sat on the benches and watched me as I played with my friends, while she talked with their mothers. All the bohemian mothers gravitated toward one another, some having met before becoming parents, others arriving at the park with their children and instinctively determining which group they belonged with. They were writers and poets and textile artists and activists and musicians and dancers and painters, or they were married to writers and poets, etc., and they more or less froze out, or were frozen out by, the neigh­borhood natives, the Ukrainians and Puerto Ricans. The only time I recall my mother speaking a word of Spanish in the park was once when she sharply rebuked a group of older boys who were up to some mischief. They stared at her in naked astonishment, so thoroughly had she turned herself, by then, into a white person.

Nowadays this sort of self-segregation would presage a neighborhood’s gentrification; the beauty salons, shoe repair shops, hardware stores, junk stores, newsstands, coffee shops, pizzerias, bodegas, and even the churches would gradually and then abruptly disappear, to be replaced by more suitably up­scale alternatives, and sure enough this did begin to happen on the Lower East Side in the early 1980s, sooner on strips like St. Marks Place. But in the 1960s it was a place where people lived because they could afford nothing better. Although the various groups of women stationed on the benches throughout the park dressed differently, often spoke different languages, raised their children differently, they all floated in a state of economic equi­poise. Their marginal household incomes were served by mar­ginal enterprises that everyone shared: the cheap neighborhood movie theater, the cheap neighborhood restaurant, the cheap neighborhood grocery, the cheap neighborhood clothing store, the cheap neighborhood laundromat, and, as a cornerstone, the cheap neighborhood housing. One made do: with a lack of heat and hot water, with splintered floors and crumbling walls, with shady neighborhood characters and sudden victimhood. For my mother and her friends, poverty was the imperative their deci­sions had imposed upon them; it was not an ideal state but these were not people who confused bohemianism with entrepreneur­ialism, art with fashion, education and culture with a means to financial gain; they did not expect the benefits of capitalism in return for living their outré lives. And, likewise, capitalism did not mistakenly attribute to them an affluence that wasn’t there. If one lived there, one was poor, QED. Amenities meant schlepping across town.

But again, what did we need? You became, if you weren’t al­ready, an expert at frugality, at making food from scraps, from butcher’s bones. The hippies—whose presence in the neighbor­hood began rapidly increasing around 1967—simply mystified my parents with their institutionalized incapacity to tend to even the most basic aspects of self-care. Going hungry, being dirty, getting lice, allowing the electricity to be shut off, per­sistent sniffles and coughs, torn and soiled clothing, unsanitary homes, blowing money on things you couldn’t afford—to my mother, that was for stupid people, people insensible to the re­quirements of life. She recognized their behavior for what it was: a middle-class gesture, an empty performance of noncon­formity, a performance that engulfed them when they began to take heroin.

When, during the early eighties, stock images of the 1950s began to resurface, appropriated for ironic purposes—grinning housewives presiding over spotless suburban kitchens, and so on—my mother could only roll her eyes. For her, the menacing prospect of her young womanhood was not that she might be brainwashed into living a bland domestic situation comedy, but that she might willfully defraud herself, end up like so many of the girls she’d grown up with, stuck in the Bronx with a petty domestic tyrant, begging him for money, reading nothing, see­ing nothing, knowing nothing, going nowhere, dreaming of new drapes. Defending themselves, their right to live undisturbed and unmolested, was something they had learned to do: they had defended themselves against the onslaught of disapproving parents, in-laws, siblings, hometown boyfriends; of judgmental physicians, clergymen, teachers, social workers. Self-defense al­ready came naturally by the time they arrived on this inhospita­ble ground, where the limits of this ability would be tested and  finally reached: every one of these families eventually left as the neighborhood deteriorated.

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On May 13, 1968, shortly before my fifth birthday, my parents got married. I imagine it as a nice day, a day I spent with my best friend, Drew Bailey, in the company of his mother, Lillian. The wedding ceremony was performed by a deputy city clerk with a pronounced speech impediment, the source of much hi­larity when the story was told and retold. It was witnessed by Mort Lucks, a painter friend who, summoned to the Municipal Building at the last minute, attended the ceremony wearing his soiled painting clothes and left immediately afterward to return to his studio. My parents had lunch at the Cedar, the new Cedar at Twelfth and University, and then my father went to work at Grove Press next door, while my mother, presumably, went home to Thirteenth Street, or to Lillian and her husband Mel’s apart­ment on East Third Street to pick me up. I wasn’t aware that my parents had gotten married that day. In fact, I was unaware that my parents hadn’t been married to begin with. I’d assumed that you had to be married in order to have children.

Class presented itself, in our daily lives, as a set of internally lived contradictions. My parents lived a bohemian life, but they were not especially bohemian in their approach to it, and our house­hold ran with a clockwork regularity that any workingman of the time might have appreciated. At the same time, my father—and, by extension, my mother—had ideas about art and culture, and their relation to it, that can only be described as elitist. My father had disdain for the idea that what he did, being a writer, was craft, an act of skillfully performing a useful task with the materials and tools at hand. Art was distinctive in its uselessness, not its utility; it was transcendent, not practical. The moment that it began to concern itself with appearances, with prevail­ing tastes—the moment, for that matter, that it began to desire to appear creative—art became bourgeois. And so my parents lived in the area suspended between the blue-collar (the solid basis from which they met life’s obstacles) and the aristocratic (an exalted ideal of permanent values); more than anything, they wanted to avoid falling into the middle-class pit they imagined yawning below.

And yet the world of the artist—with real wealth mostly in­accessible to it, and the cultural expectations of the unsophis­ticated anathema to it—has more in common with that of the educated middle class than with anything else. No matter how many abstract paintings hung on my parents’ walls or how many volumes of poetry were ranked on their shelves or how many LPs of Morton Feldman’s or Albert Ayler’s music spun on their turntable, they found that sooner or later they needed to buy a new pepper mill or some coffee mugs or a comforter for their bed, and when they did it was to the same selection of goods favored by any reasonably stylish housewife in Westchester or Bergen County that they turned. Despite themselves, my parents discovered that the middle-class world had begun to catch up with their tastes and habits to the exact extent that their tastes and habits had begun to seek gratification in a middle-class way. For my father, living this contradiction was reasonably easy to finesse: he simply transferred his identification to those books he was reading and writing and the rest of the world fell away, gradually at first and then precipitously. My mother, though, had no such outlet through which she could assert what she saw at the absoluteness of her difference. It couldn’t have occurred to me that her race—whatever it may have been officially or otherwise—was the odorless, colorless agent spurring her on: she did not want to be a Puerto Rican like the Puerto Ricans who lived on Avenue C. But she could not bear to be white, either.

And yet “white” was precisely the identity that the girl with a birth certificate labeling her “black” had cultivated. As a very young woman she may have felt that she’d escaped it—being “black,” being Puerto Rican, being other, being working-class, being Bronx, being anything; may have felt that the Manhattan cosmopolitanism in which she draped herself armed her against judgment, that cosmopolitanism itself was to be beyond such judgments. But it was a trap. It was a trap whose dimensions became apparent to her only once she had taken on the role of wife, the wife (legally married or not) of the author Gilbert Sorrentino: mother of his child, cut off from travel, from evenings out, from lavishness of any kind; living in a drafty, insecure tenement apartment in a neighborhood that rapidly was turning into a nightmare; expected to make common cause with a group of women whose uniting characteristic was that all of them were expected, in good weather, to spend the bulk of their days sitting on a bench in Tompkins Square Park overseeing their kids—after finishing the housework, of course. Like con­victs in a prison yard. Here again she was her origins—running the vacuum, running errands, putting supper on the table. To me, it was life; to her, life had ended the day I was born.

When I myself began to show signs of adopting the writer’s life my mother was less concerned with whether I would be fulfilled or disappointed as an artist than with whether I would be fulfilled or disappointed as a human being. She knew better than anyone the limitations that my father had imposed upon himself, and upon her, in dedicat­ing his life to writing. She knew the model I was working from. I had no other. The images of my father that I retain from my—as they say—formative years appear to me as a series of tableaux, a Via Crucis: my father rises and prepares himself to work; my father drafts his work in longhand; my father sits at his type­writer; my father scoffs, over lunch, at the rejection letters/bad reviews that have arrived in the mail; my father returns to his desk; my father sits in the battered easy chair, reading under the lamp until early in the morning. Even the way he handled un­wanted mail—tearing it briskly in two before dropping it into the wastepaper basket—played its irreplaceable role in his days, and became something I assimilated unconsciously. My mother surely knew that there was no good reason to pursue that rou­tine, a protocol devised to stabilize and soothe one and only one person. But I couldn’t be dissuaded—not by her, anyway. I had only one model, and that model was a god, so why would I proceed otherwise?

Christopher Sorrentino is the author of four novels, most recently, The Fugitives. This post is drawn from his memoir, Now Beacon, Now Sea, out next week from Catapult Press.

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Copyright © 2021 by Christopher Sorrentino, from Now Beacon, Now Sea: A Son's Memoir. Adapted by permission of Catapult