Apr 022011

Kate Reuther is a former student of mine, a lovely writer. Between packets we used to exchange childcare horror stories, taking comfort in being wry and witty about stress and everyday domestic catastrophe. All our children seemed to have survived, so it can’t have been that bad. Now I just remember the camaraderie of those emails. This is an atypical “What it’s like living here” piece. It’s what Kate calls (apparently this is a new word, perhaps not an entirely new form) a charticle. Apparently, she tells me, there are also listicles, although I haven’t seen one yet. Kate is one of those rare creatures who enjoys teaching middle school.  She is a graduate of Yale and the Vermont College MFA in Fiction program.  Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in The Madison Review, Brain Child, Salamander, and The Ledge.  A life-long New Yorker, she lives in Washington Heights with her husband and two boys.



To live here is to constantly question my own sanity and I have lived here my entire life. It’s not possible to leave anymore.  I am permanently warped.  I am ruined for anywhere else.
The subway — the pee-soaked man sharing my bench, the garbage heat, the windy grit in my eyes, the milky plaster leaks, the rat tunnels, the crush of sticky skin,  the “Fuck you looking at?” The subway — ancient engine of democracy and speed, dog-eared paperbacks, roving Mariachis, warm stranger’s shoulder, rocking me home after three gin and tonics.
I worry about the children, what this soot and hurry and perpetual tightness are doing to their brains.  When they want to run, they run in a circle through the kitchen, past the table, past the television, and back into the kitchen.  “Light feet!” I yell.  They do not know what it’s like to run under an emerald canopy, or through a field, wheat without end, opening and opening and opening…. There are no children running through fields in the countryside.  There are children playing Halo in finished basements.  There are children drinking Malibu rum in the backseats of Dodge Durangos.   There are children smoking Marlboro Lights in Chick-fil-A parking lots.  There are children texting each other: MEET U @ MANIC PANIC.  My boys are better off.
Green — When I unexpectedly find myself before a windowpane of trees or an undulating mountain range or even just a square of lawn, the clamp inside my chest eases open.  Right now the only green I see are desiccated Christmas trees planted in dirty snow banks. I get my green in concentrated doses, Central Park doses, friend’s sister’s East Hampton’s house for the weekend doses.  And I appreciate green more this way, sighing like a character from a musical when the wind plays with with the winking leaves in the afternoon sun.  If I lived with trees all the time, they would look like work, like a mess to dig out of gutters, all wet and black and rotten.
The possibility, no probability, of a washer and dryer inside my own home. My parents failed to get out. When my mom got pregnant, they bought a house at the end of a dirt road inside a primordial pine forest in Warren, N.J.  Every morning, my mother would waddle along my father’s crunchy tire tracks, sighing tearily in the shards of sunlight.  No neighbors.  She would have liked to make her excursion into a loop-walk rather than an out-and-back but the intersecting pavement was miles away and the woods were featureless, like black crosshatches.  No elves.  My mother walked until she reached the splintery remains of an orange plastic cone, abandoned in the run-off ditch, then she turned around, walked back to the house, and got back into bed.
The endless schlep – sweating inside of a matted, down coat, lugging a stroller up a metal staircase, bags banging my shins, bags bruising my hips, bags inside of bags in case I buy something and I need another bag.  Sometimes I turn the bags upside down in the front hall of our apartment and litter the carpet with my burden: one mitten, a travel size bottle of Purell, a Ziploc bag of baby-wipes, a half-knitted scarf, an uncapped Cherry Chapstick, an aluminum water bottle (the earth!), a Ziploc bag of Pirate Booty, a Lawrence Block mystery, two chewed pieces of gum, a Lego alligator, a Ziploc bag of apple slices (brown), a plastic water bottle (the earth!), a wooden J train.  If I lived elsewhere, I would leave it all in my car. Where is “elsewhere” anyway?  Not Westchester or Long Island or Connecticut – I’d be bored out of my mind.  Not DC – bunch of wonks.  Not LA – traffic.  Yes, there is a middle, a big ocean-less middle, I’d get lost driving from the placeless place to placeless place to my women’s book club at Panera Bread.  I need my feet on a grid, landmarks in the sky.  And fuck Boston.
Scott – He is always so bruised, hunched, angry, disappointed, TIRED.  If he can’t make it here, there is something wrong with this place. Scott – He likes his supergeek job, his Muay Thai muscles, his Banh Mi bread, his collaborators from the land of jazz and gin.  Scott is digging into the city wearing purple Air Force Ones.
People are jealous because I pay only $317 a month to park my car in a garage. “New York City. Just like I pictured it. Skyscrapers and everything.”
Adventure!! A new color to the sky, new minerals in the tap water, new slang for soda pop and sandwiches, new tax codes, new friendly debates about the best route home. I’d still be the same anxious, angry person, only disoriented, lonely, and hungry.
It will happen again. It happens everywhere.
My sons running naked on a beach. When I find a local like me, I want to run my tongue up under his jaw line, taste the brack of blacktop and cloudy hot dog water.  “Do you remember ‘The G-Spot Deli’ on 86th and Amsterdam?”  “Yeah, what were they thinking?”
My mother said, “Never hang your purse from the hook on the back of the toilet stall door; robbers will reach over and snatch it while you have your pants down.” My mother said, “If you feel scared, go where there are people.”
There’s no nobility in pointless suffering.  Arrogance is a lousy reward. When I look at the sun through my closed eyelids, I see a ridge of red skyline.  I think it’s the West Side, as viewed from the reservoir, my fingers gripping the old chain link, my thighs pink and goose-bumped in the February cold.
Bruce Ratner Mariano Rivera
A porch, preferably a wraparound porch, with a pink jasmine bush, a string hammock and a weathered red stool we use as a table for iced tea.  Glass pitcher.  Plenty of ice. How much space do human animals really need?  Isn’t this better?  Isn’t this enough?
I could spend my whole life debating this and never leave. I could never leave.


—Kate Reuther


  25 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here (a Charticle) — Kate Reuther in New York City”

  1. Thank you, Kate! You made me homesick. (Almost.)

  2. Love, love, love, love, LOVE this. Love the form and what you’ve done with it – the push-pull of the internal argument. Love the city (of course). Love the voice – jaded, optimistic, wise. And love the RATner namecheck – most evil man this city’s seen since Robert Moses.

  3. I love this – a “charticle!” I grew up in the country, in Pennsylvania. While we did run through fields and hike through streams, we also were chronically bored and yearned for culture, smoked cigarettes in parking lots and talked endlessly about getting out. Great job capturing the universal tug-of-war of home vs. the often mythical “better place” elsewhere.

  4. This is simply wonderful. Oh, NYC. I miss it so. (I must do a “charticle” for Paris now, though. It’s another stay/go city).

  5. Wonderful and hilarious — I grew up in New York. Fuck Boston indeed. Same goes for Philly — years ago, my wife And I were lost there, and some local yokel was rude about out-of-towners. “Yeah,” she said. ‘BUT WE’RE FROM NEW YORK!”

    Judging from #6, I eagerly await your first listicle …

  6. Kate this is super fantastic. Beyond Beyond. This piece should be in the New Yorker. (No snub to #5). Keep it coming

  7. Love this final form. Cute picture, too!

  8. Wonderful, evocative piece. And yes, I also noticed you missed mention of Philly in your list of other (non-)locales. Gotta say, as a born & raised New Yorker, it has been the perfect alternative for me. The best of both worlds, the line down the middle of your charticle. But I do still like to visit 😉

  9. Very fine, Kate. You got me going back and forth.

    New York City sounds like an interesting town. What state is it in?

  10. Thanks so much for all the love and positive feedback. Your words have been bringing me smiles all day.

  11. You make my breath fall deeper into the pit of my stomach. How do you do that so quickly, so easily? I miss you like an old ache from a broken heart… experienced at the peak of youth in a small French village with lots of baguettes’, apple cider and a boy named Marcel. But instead her name is Kate…and it was at the peak of new motherhood, with lots of baby bottles, and a single Corona, looking at one another with grateful smiles…knowing ‘this’…’THIS’… was pretty damn good. I miss you

  12. Kate, I love this! Though I have left my native New York for life in the Jersey ‘burbs, this is a debate I still have with myself from time to time. Ahh, New York! I don’t think I’ll ever cease hearing its call.

  13. I want to leave NY. I want to want to leave. I want to not want to love this place because it fucking drives me crazy!

    Your piece, so beautifully, so heart-wrenchingly and so honesty written, reminds me why we can never, truly leave…We are forever indeed sullied by NY and no other place will satisfy.

  14. I almost visited New York once, but ran out of time on my trip. The closest I’ve been to a really big city is Pittsburgh and I remember being oppressed and lost, partly from the looming buildings and partly because this apple-eyed bitch stole my heart.

    I thought your form here was pretty inventive. Well done! Also, cloudy hot dog water. Perfect!

  15. Love this! I don’t even have kids, and I am with you on all points. I think your writing could even make someone living in New York homesick for New York. Great charticle.

  16. LOVE this. I actually heard my breath catch when I read the yang to the washer/dryer yin: “My parents failed to get out.” That whole section, her walking in his tire tracks, “sighing tearily”. Lord.
    After that I knew there would be no more debate, merely differences. Also loved how you follow that with the ‘endless schlep’ and how there isn’t less debris in other lifestyles, it’s just in the car.
    Gorgeous and powerful. All of it.

  17. Love the duality.

  18. You really nailed it! Why would anyone raise a couple of kids in this smelly, crowded, crazy, expensive, concrete mess? It makes no sense. I have lived all over the world and in several other places in the US, as has my wife. That was before we met in the East Village and had our kids blocks from the subway stop in your picture. We even tried a stint of larger square footed living in another major City down the turnpike for a few years.
    Your references to Panera Bread book clubs and Chik-Filet placelessness rings awfully true.
    We choose New York with full knowledge of all its faults and what else is out there. For our middle-class family with two kids in public school, we could not find a better place. Thanks for articulating so clearly what we talk about all the time.

  19. It means so much to me to read your responses to this piece, both as a writer and as a New Yorker who is genuinely struggling with her place here. It’s wonderful hearing about your versions of the same debate.

  20. Margie sent me this piece. Having never lived in NYC, have always wondered WTF? Why live there at all?
    I think that I sort of get it now. I can’t imagine you anywhere else.

  21. well, i suppose the fact that you (and and scott and the boys) are still there sort of answers all these questions. Life in the big apple is pretty addictive, actually i think that all really big cities is our civilization at it’s apogee and we are thrilled and accustomed to living in them. we are always examining our current situation and looking elsewherebut i would not be surprised to see you all flourish eleswhere, it is a big and marvelous planet

  22. This is inspiring. I am doing a “charticle” for one of my next blogs. And yes, it’s all true. It’s crazy and stressful and intense and exhausting and inspiring and endlessly interesting and engaging. AND when your kids are teenagers they are not driving home in cars piloted by their drunk friends!

  23. Kate,

    A little late reading this and responding … Love this, the charticle. And yes, fuck Boston. As a former transplanted New Yorker (early 90s), I get that push and pull of the place. I still yearn for it, miss it, drool for it knowing that I’ll likely never live there again, but cherish the time I spent there and also knowing that I really do need the green more than the concrete jungle.

    As Steve said, I too eagerly await the lipsticle!


  24. Wow! Kate, I am awed by the beauty here. By your raw look at the duality. I grew up in and out of NYC and ran away but always wonder what my life would have been like had I made another go. Your ponderings, your language, your insights are exquisite. You inspired me to ask my self so many questions, to think about why I left, why I live where I do. Thank you for this!

  25. Kate – We will always be neighbors, linked in New York City way as the two families in the small two bedroom line of the J building at 185th and Pinehurst. Each of us too busy to visit but our daily struggles to get our children out the narrow doorway, with strollers, with bags, late, running. We shared a baby sitter who cooked us dinner on different nights. Two floors away, yet distant with different schedules. Last year we moved to a small town in western Massachusetts. We have fresh air and laundry and parking. Our kids have their own rooms. You moved to the next building. I heard you have two bathrooms. Most days I can’t believe I left NYC. It shocked my friends. But I like it here. I can’t tell if it an adventure or a new home. I love your story. Come visit us when you can. Jennifer

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