I remember people staring dumbfounded at my parents when they heard they were raising two kids in New York City. "You raise them...here? With all the crime and the violence and...?" And my parents would nod and politely move on to another topic. But I always wanted to shout back at these concerned bluenoses: Yes, they're raising us here! With all the crime and the violence and. And we love it. Not in spite of the crime and the violence, BECAUSE of the crime and the violence. What do you think of that?
I loved growing up in New York City, in Manhattan. I loved the griminess of it. I loved the graffiti on subway cars, and the sense that there was danger around every corner. New York in the 1970s seemed to be not just a dangerous place but the world capital of danger. It was like a twist on that ridiculous song: If you can survive it here, you can survive it anywhere.
And why did I feel this way? Because of crime fiction.
There are crime novels set all over the world, of course. But many of them -- most of them, it sometimes seemed to me -- were set right here on my home turf, in New York City. If you read crime fiction, you'd come away with the sense that New York was home to the world's most devious criminals as well as the world's most honorable and toughest crime fighters, and that all the cleverest and most exciting stories happened here. Matt Scudder lived here, walking the dark streets of the neighborhoods I wasn't allowed to go at night; Bernie Rhodenbarr lived here, amusingly burgling the homes of the rich and powerful; Evan Michael Tanner lived here, cooking up his plots of international intrigue...and that's just counting the characters of one writer, the brilliant New Yorker Lawrence Block. (Though I think he actually moved to Florida around that time. Never fear. He moved back a few years later.)
Ed McBain's 87th Precinct stories officially took place on an island he called "Isola," but he and we knew what island he really meant -- there was no doubt about it. Donald Westlake's characters pulled off heists and got caught in Mob wars here. Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe sat in his brownstone on West 35th Street and sent Archie roaming from neighborhood to neighborhood, pursuing clues. Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer had bloody fistfights on our rain-slicked streets. Sure, Sam Spade was a Californian, but when the time came for Dashiell Hammett to unleash Nick and Nora Charles on the world in THE THIN MAN, what city did he plant them in? "I was leaning against the bar in a speakeasy on 52nd Street," the book opens, "waiting for Nora to finish her Christmas shopping..." 52nd Street! I *lived* on 52nd Street. I remember reading that opening line as a kid and thinking that maybe if I looked out my window I might see the bar where Nick was tossing back his Scotch and sodas.
"Everyone has to love someplace," she said defiantly. "And that's the place I love. Oh, let them laugh and let them sneer, with their 'to visit but not to live there.' Oh, I know it's big, and it's supposed to be stony-hearted, and it's hard to think of it that way. For others maybe, not for me. It's the place I was born, it's the place I was raised; I'll always be a part of it, and it'll always be a part of me. It's my hometown. It's my New York. There's no other place, in this whole wide world, that can ever take its place in my heart. New York-when I say it soft and low, it seems to bring it closer-New York. Just a whisper and it's here again-New York . . ."
"Sh-h-h-h," he tried to soothe her. "Close your eyes. I'll say the names that bring it back to you. I'll try to say the names you want to hear.
"Behind us-don't turn and look, or you'll make it go away -but over our shoulders, over that way, that's where Central Park West is. The Century Theatre. And Columbus Circle. Reisenweber's. Then you come back along this way, toward where we are, that's Fifty-ninth Street. There are the Spanish Flats. Remember the Spanish Flats? Or if you keep going west, you come to the San Juan Hill district, the colored folks' district. Then there are the roofed stairs going up to the Ninth Avenue El. See them? One on each side of the street."
"Fifty-ninth Street," she murmured. "Forty-second, Thirty-fourth, Twenty-third. Madison Square, and the Madison Square Garden. Fourteenth Street. Union Square. Luchow's. The green crosstown cars. The red and yellow ones that run on Broadway and Third Avenue. The Second Avenue El, and the Third, and the Sixth. With that lonely spur that runs as far as Central Park, and then has no place further to go. (Does anyone ever use it?) The subway trains, packed with salesgirls and stenographers, and businessmen and working-men and all the world. Always going so fast, but always going nowhere, I guess. Uptown, and down, and around, and back home again. The Bronx Express, the Van Cortlandt Park Express, the Sea Beach line to Coney . . .
"Say the names of some of the stations over to me. Let me hear the way they sound again. There's a kind of poetry even in the names of the stations. The poetry of the familiar-and the faraway. And if you miss one, I'll try to help you put it in."
Litany of the dispossessed. "There's Battery Place, and then there's Rector Street. There's Cortlandt, and there's Chambers. There's Fourteenth, Pennsylvania-"
"You left out Franklin, you left out Canal."
"But those are for locals, I'm giving the expresses."
"Go back to Chambers and start over," she said wistfully. "Go more slowly. Don't make them go by so fast."
He started over. "I'll begin at Wall Street this time, that was the branch I always took. Wall Street, Fulton Street-"
She turned suddenly and hid her face against his breast, and her sobbing was so close and hot it shook his own frame as well.
"Don't," he tried to console her. "Don't. Come on, let's get up now. I'll take you home."
She shook her head despairingly, even while her sobs were slowly lessening. "No," she contradicted with infinite poignancy, "no you won't. You'll take me back to a furnished flat in a faraway town. But you won't, no, you won't-take me home."
That was my New York, too -- source of sobs and longing, of terror and delight, and it was the secret star of every crime novel in which it appeared. Men and women came and went, lived and died, on her streets -- but she remained, and she was mine, and I loved her, in all her bloody tawdry glory.
I wonder about kids growing up on her too-burnished, too-clean streets today. I want to ask their parents: How can you raise them here, without the crime, without the violence...? And then I want to hand them a care package of my favorite crime novels, to read under the covers with flashlights if necessary, to remind them of what an interesting, dangerous, irresistible place New York City used to be.
What's your favorite crime city?
Editor’s Note: Charles Ardai is an Edgar Award-winning author and the co-founder of Hard Case Crime books.
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