Something fast and controlled about running in lower Manhattan. I was doing my runs in the West Village around 2000, when The Hours came out, and I loved the book, so I hoped to see Michael Cunningham, the author, on my run. In a couple of his books, Cunningham traces Manhattan streets that I love with equal attachment. He carefully details spaces I know: a shop window on Mercer and Broome, the streets that form an empty edge between NoHo and Chinatown, a certain coffee shop.
It feels rich to run through a street someone else has mentioned, knowing he passed through here too. A reference that whizzes by as I run offers something partly communicated: A half-stranger knows that sidewalk like I do. My memories of some streets in lower Manhattan are layered like architectural digs: I remember a dinner I had at Café Orlin; a hug with a boss on Prince Street; a fight with a clerk to return something expensive on Houston.
One of the things I love about Cunningham’s writing is that his characters’ identities are embedded in this space that people who live around here know. Cunningham gets some of that technique—his environmental poignancy—from Virginia Woolf, whose characters also attach to each other by remembering each other in emptied rooms and familiar street corners. Woolf informs much of Cunningham’s latest book, By Nightfall, in which a married couple live on Mercer (the street where my old boyfriend’s girlfriend lives) and grow distant from each other while crowded in their loft, sometimes finding peace in lonely walks through the neighborhood.
One night, trying to re-attach to his daughter who has written him off, the main character leaves his sleeping wife to talk to his daughter on his cellphone, meandering in a six or so mile walk, from Mercer Street, to NoHo, to Chinatown, then, doubling back, to Tribeca, ending up below Battery Park, staring across the water at the Statue of Liberty. Anyone who lives in that part of town knows that’s an impossible walk to cover during a twenty minute phone call. It’s as if Cunningham wanted to tie a history of moments together in one walk, to collapse many people’s memories into one man’s lonely mind. I remember that scene as visual, too, with lampposts and light (why highlighting rain?) on the asphalt.
Cunningham layers known cities with fiction, which is something other authors have also done well. See Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City, which covers San Francisco beautifully, James Joyce’s Dublin in Ulysses, or Woolf’s London in Mrs. Dalloway.
There are a million other things I want to say right now about Cunningham’s fiction, like his ability to describe artistic effort and the way he plays off of Woolf’s plots in his own plots, etc.. But I’ll leave it with lower Manhattan streets for now—adding that he gave me the energy to run an extra mile in the morning today.
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.
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