Thursday, October 2, 2008

Mean Streets and the Gritty City

Elizabeth Zelvin

I was pleased but somewhat surprised to be invited to take part in a panel on “The Dark Side: Gritty New York City” at the New York Public Library in September. My traditional amateur-sleuth mystery begins with Bruce, my protagonist, waking up in detox on the Bowery. If that doesn’t take it out of the cozy category, the use of the word “puke” in the first sentence alone surely disqualifies it. But my story is anything but dark. And grit is in the eye of the beholder.

Years ago, when I had just completed the first draft of my manuscript about a recovering alcoholic and his friends who find a murderer while romping through the church basements of AA, an elderly lady in my first critique group objected to the recovery theme, saying, “The topic is so sordid.” I had the sense to quit that critique group. Some agents and even editors found the subject “depressing.” Overall, I knew my story wasn’t everybody’s cup of tea. But I believed there were readers out there who would find Bruce’s journey back from the brink of self-destruction hopeful and inspiring. And so it has proved. Even better, I’ve heard from folks who got the humor that really exists in AA meetings. To tell the truth, I think my book is hilarious. I was relieved to hear that some readers chuckled and even laughed out loud along with me.

So here’s my question: to what extent do laughter and whatever happens when an alcoholic turns his life around—redemption? healing?—cancel out grit and darkness? How mean can a street be when not everything that happens on it is tragic? Having worked in addiction treatment programs for many years, I have perhaps a paradoxical view of it. On the Bowery before its recent gentrification, and even more so at another job up in East Harlem, I can remember looking around at treeless streets, broken pavements, the grimy buildings of “the projects” or the dinky bars and flophouses and thinking, These really are mean streets. But these streets also housed programs in which people were getting better. They also housed children and grandparents and people who loved each other and people who’d dig up a square of earth and plant a garden, just like anybody else. And for some of my clients, with their histories of abuse and violence and incarceration, a crummy, small apartment on these streets represented a longed-for second chance. Privacy. Freedom. Hope.

Another challenge to the concept of the gritty city is that New York is always changing. The notorious men’s shelter on the Bowery that I first entered as a scared counseling intern in the early 1980s had been turned into the setting for some model programs for the homeless by the 1990s. The agency I worked for also developed programs, including supportive housing for the formerly homeless—street people with histories of mental illness, substance abuse, prostitution, crime, and despair—in the Times Square area and Hell’s Kitchen. All three of these neighborhoods are now vibrant, fashionable communities. The social service programs are still there, a tribute to the fact that people really can be helped. But the grit is gone.


Julia Buckley said...

Liz, I can't believe your group would dismiss your work because they didn't like your topic. Then again, I guess I can.

I was in a writing group in which a woman objected to my German-American character and her family members, who all had German names. Her response to this was, "Must they be so ethnic?"

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

It was just one elderly lady, Julia. And I've found people bring their own perceptions to the topic of alcoholism and recovery. This is why "the booze panel" at Bouchercon that I'll be on next Thursday morning will be so interesting. :)