The book that launched a thousand subway journeys for me.
In my early twenties I realised that most young Australians are either New York people or they are London people. Kinda the same way people align themselves with cats or dogs. We differed in our city of choice, but we all seemed to dream of escape from our cultural backwater to either one of these meccas.
See, I come from a country that suffers from a great big case of cultural cringe. Our own urban centres were never thought good enough to aspire to. No one dreamed of a fabulous life or career in the arts in Sydney or Melbourne. Well, unless of course, you grew up in Wollongong or far North Queensland, then Sydney might sound exciting. But the rest of us looked beyond our own borders for the big dream.
But unlike our preferences for cats and dogs, we formed these allegiances before we’ve even experienced these places. Before we’d even acquired passports. It didn’t matter though, because these cities had been endlessly cultivated in our imaginations by books and media.
Most of my friends tended toward London. It’s not surprising for Australians, really. We have that shared colonial past, and we have that one-year visa England grants the colonies. Every year it send thousands of Aussies twenty-somethings to England to work in their pubs and terrorise the British with our broad accents and ability to drink even our sodden colonial masters under the table.
But London never caught my imagination. For me, it was always about New York. And the New York I imagined had been informed by all kinds of songs and books and movies. But it was one book in particular that wrote New York into being for me.
I discovered Emma Who Saved my Life in my mother’s bookshelf one day. I’d run out of library books again and, desperate, I’d turned to my mother’s shelves. A voracious reader, she like me subsisted on the transient offerings of library books and the constant factory line of loans that ran between all the aunts. Books never stayed anywhere in our house for long. The shelves were mostly relics from her reading past, and an endless collection of pastel-covered old lady tomes about land girls and marriage plots that she hadn’t bothered returning to grandma yet, unread.
And now, hunting for something to read, I was left with an assortment of cheap-looking eighties and nineties paperbacks. Finally, I plucked out one of them. It was a title my eyes had run over a zillion times on these shelves before without ever picking it up. I suspect that was mostly to do with the cover, an overly stylised, glossy red, white and blue rendering of the Statue of Liberty. But I couldn’t afford to judge it by its cover. I had nothing to read. It was a state of book-less emergency. it would have to do.
And this was the beginning of a love affair with a book I would read several times over the next decade. In fact I loved and loaned out that book out so many times in my teens twenties I had to replace it three times. Written by Wilton Bernhardt, this (very obviously at least semi-autobiographical) story is about a young college grad who moves from the Midwest into a New York apartment with a poet and an artist. An aspiring actor the narrator Gil is swiftly introduced to New York and its revolving cast of hipsters and artists and crazies by his new flatmates. In this world, he falls swiftly, and unrequitedly in love with his flatmate, Emma. The (very loose) plot related the next decade of their lives.
And this was the book that wrote New York for me. Because it was as much a love letter to that city as it was to Emma, the object of Will’s affections.
For my first trip to New York, when I was twenty-three, I gave myself three weeks to explore before I would go north to a volunteering position. I was young and broke and on my own because few of my friends had yet caught the travel bug. I didn’t go to museums and galleries. They were way too expensive. I didn’t go up the Empire State Building, either, and my only experience of the Statue of Liberty was a glimpse through the mist from the (free) Staten Island ferry. I wasn’t interested in those things I’d seen a million times on my screen.
What I did do, of course, was ride the subway.
I did it, of course, inspired by Emma Who Saved My Life. There is a point in the book where all three flatmates are broke, bored, unemployed, and sick of the stifling summer temperatures in their apartment. Then they realise they can figure out which of the subway lines have air-conditioned cars and begin to spend their days riding the rails. This eventually graduates into a project where Emma and Gill attempt to ride every subway line. Over the next ten years they chip away at the map, the novel ending when they finally reach the holy grail of subway lines, Far Rockaway, where the story and their subway project enters its denouement.
So that was what I was going to do with my meagre funds and empty days. Of course, what they did in ten years, I tried to do in three weeks. I didn’t get to all of them, but I took a lot lines to their bitter end, stopping along the way at places that sounded either familiar or interesting.
Thanks to Emma, I explored places I didn’t even know existed. I travelled through Brooklyn, well before it was cool even to darken the door of this borough, let alone gentrify it. I went as far north as I could, exploring Colombia and way beyond. I got lost in the Bronx. I discovered the sleepy fishing village of City Island, long before they made a movie named for it, where elderly citizens were taking the stroll to church on a cold Sunday morning and American flags flew in front yards. I stopped in at Flushing, Queens, expecting the land of The Nanny, but finding an enormous, vibrant, Asian population instead, and planes rumbled low overhead on their way to the airport.
I met up with some friends and we went to Coney Island and walked until we discovered Brighton Beach and its strident Russian citizens. We ate hot pastries stuffed with cheese and dill, and then cherries and cheese. We took photos of the elderly sunning themselves on the boardwalk, wearing their fur coats and shankas in the Autumn chill.
Alone again, I ate grits for the first time in a diner in Astoria. I walked from Spanish Harlem up into Harlem proper. I went to Van Cortland Park, Jamaica, Greenpoint and Pelham Parkway and found something or nothing in each of these places. I even caught a train to Hoboken and looked back at Manhattan from Jersey.
And then, of course, I finished the journey with far Rockaway, same as Gil and Emma.
The subway travelled over the water, just as described in the book, squealing along on rusty, saltwater-eroded rails past industry and shacks on stilts perched over the water, and onward to the vast Atlantic Ocean. And when I finally got there, I couldn’t reconcile that such an urban relic as a subway car could take me somewhere so elemental and beautiful. I couldn’t believe I was still in New York.
Taking the subways to the very end, I learned a New York so different from the one I would have if I’d just followed the tourist trails, or done as the Lonely Planet Guide told me. And I’m glad I did it while I still could. Back then I met and explored a city that doesn’t exist in the same way any more. When I went there four or five years later, and stayed in a friend’s hipster apartment in gentrified Brooklyn flat, New York was such a different place. I was astonished at the swift changes. My New York was already gone. But then Gil and Emma, my fictional friends would probably have thought the same of the New York I’d seen years before compared to theirs of the eighties. Such is the nature of cities.
I’m sure Emma Who Saved my Life not a great book in the literary sense. But it’s a funny and alive, vibrant kind of book. And it did achieve the feat of making a teenaged Australian nostalgic for a place she’d never even been.
And then I finally got there.
Note: the shonky photos are all my own.
You can also find Emily at:
Goodreads: Author profile
Amazon: Author page