word craft


Lost in the Empire City

New York City 1911 Wikimedia Commons

Over the years I have writ­ten some­thing like eighty-five books, nov­els, short sto­ries, and even a few pic­ture books. Though I have lived for sig­nif­i­cant peri­ods in many large cities: Chica­go, Prov­i­dence, San Fran­cis­co, Los Ange­les, Philadel­phia, Den­ver, Lon­don, and Venice, my child­hood was spent in New York City. But when I vis­it — rarely now — I’m very com­fort­able there. What I most enjoy is walk­ing about and just look­ing, tak­ing it all in. As my grand­fa­ther used to say, “They will nev­er fin­ish build­ing the city.”

I loved (still do) to ride the Sub­ways. I was about sev­en years old when I began to ride them alone, often work­ing my way to the first car, so I could watch the end­less fas­ci­nat­ing tun­nels with their ever-chang­ing safe­ty lights and pass­ing trains roar­ing by. When in high school I rode them every day.

Although I have not lived there for some­thing like fifty years I con­fess, I still con­sid­er myself a New York­er. So it’s no sur­prise that ten of my books have mean­ing­ful New York City settings.

Lost in the Empire City

My forth­com­ing book — Lost in the Empire City — is set in 1911 New York. It treats of the love of fam­i­ly, immi­gra­tion, the Low­er East Side, the West Side, crime, and cor­rup­tion — often com­mon New York themes. [“Empire City” is but one of the city’s nick­names said to have been first coined by, of all peo­ple, George Washington.] 

The nov­el takes place in the first decade of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry when there were still more horse-drawn vehi­cles than motor cars. It also ref­er­ences the sub­way sys­tem, which first began run­ning in 1904, and was still rel­a­tive­ly new. That first decade was also a time of mas­sive immi­gra­tion. Indeed, the Low­er East Side was per­haps the most dense­ly crowd­ed city area in the world, with a gigan­tic and packed ten­e­ment pop­u­la­tion. There was also great wealth, extreme pover­ty, and bad health. Cor­rup­tion and crime were rampant.

The Low­er East Side was the area in which my immi­grant fore­fa­thers came and lived. After I fin­ished my mid-west col­lege years I returned to New York and eked out a liv­ing, of sorts, in that same Low­er East Side, along one of those alpha­bet avenues, A, B, C — I know longer know which. As I tried to be a pro­fes­sion­al writer — I was writ­ing plays in those days — I lived in a fifth-floor walk-up, tiny two-room apart­ment, which might well have been there in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The bath­tub was in the small kitchen, and when I put a board over the tub, I had my table. Why was I liv­ing there?

As I recall the rent was thir­ty-two dol­lars a month. At some point, one of my col­lege friends moved in. I would lat­er move uptown, where the rent was six­ty-five dollars.

So, all-in-all, the writ­ing of Lost in the Empire City was like a return to my old home, not with­out its stress­es, but con­sid­er­able com­fort and joy all the same. It has always been an adven­ture for me. It still is. Hard­ly a sur­prise this new book is an adven­ture, stretch­ing from rur­al Italy to the side­walks and fire escapes of New York City.

Here’s hop­ing you’ll visit.

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