Michael Greenberg is the author of Hurry Down ­Sunshine and Beg, Borrow, and Steal: A Writer’s Life. 
(February 2016)

Scorched by Murder

Richard Price, New York City, 2009
Richard Price published his first novel, The Wanderers, in 1974, when he was twenty-four. It’s a propulsive, plotless bullet of a book whose story is its teenage characters’ lives. It has much in common with Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby Jr.’s sordid gale force of a novel about dope …

Dislodged in New York

Mark Reay in Thomas Wirthensohn's Homme Less, 2014

A new documentary, Homme Less, opening on August 7 at the IFC Center in Manhattan, is a reminder of how far the homeless population now reaches in New York. Mark Reay, fashion photographer and former model, has been living on the fire-escape of a private building for three years. With Promethean effort he has managed to hold the dooming signs of destitution (the odor, the accreted grime) at bay. Though he is isolated in his double life, he is far from alone.

Catching Hold of the Devious City

Saul Leiter: Red Umbrella, circa 1955
New York street photographers were among the great flaneurs of the twentieth century. These weaponized observers with their loaded metal boxes (so much more conspicuous than reporters with their pocket-sized notebooks) did their most striking work in the 1940s and 1950s. One thinks of Helen Levitt’s image, from 1940, of …

The NY Police vs. the Mayor

Law enforcement officers turning their backs on a live screen of Mayor Bill de Blasio as he delivered a eulogy for NYPD Officer Rafael Ramos inside Christ Tabernacle Church, Glendale, Queens, December 27, 2014
When Mayor de Blasio took his place at the pulpit during Officer Ramos’s funeral in Queens on December 27, the shiver of hostility from the police was astounding. So abruptly did they turn their backs to the mayor’s image on the screen that for an instant I thought it must be some kind of religious ritual, a turning to the East perhaps, toward Bethlehem, in deference to Ramos’s devoutness.

‘We’re Not Going to Stand for This Anymore’

A protester outside City Hall in New York City, December 10, 2014

The decision of a Staten Island grand jury not to indict NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo for the death of Eric Garner has thrust the city into the center of a rapidly intensifying national debate. Many New Yorkers seem to be just becoming aware of the fact that a huge number of their fellow citizens live daily in a state of high alert, if not outright fear of the police and have been doing so for decades.

A Beautiful Mosaic of Filth

Steven Hirsch: Rhode, 2014

Steven Hirsch’s photos of the Gowanus Canal are solely concerned with the surface of the water—the gonorrhea, coli, and putida bacteria that cling to one another there in a mosaic of filth. In fact, these images are a microscopic record of an ecological disaster.

In the Cage of Memory

Kathryn Hunter in Peter Brook’s The Valley of Astonishment

I was twelve years old when I saw my first Peter Brook production, and the effect of entering his concentrated world, of experiencing the actors as a personal presence, of feeling myself to be part of a spectacle rather than the watcher of one, has never left me. It remains an artistic ideal: spare, attentive, incendiary, mystical.

Leftists in Jeopardy

Jonathan Lethem is a writer of enormous energy. His mind appears to be constantly ticking—digressing, racing—in a kind of writer’s fibrillation. His restless, slightly pedantic style seems to have been forged by a drive to lasso the stampede of associations provoked by nearly every thought or occurrence in his fiction.

The Daggers of Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges, Palermo, Sicily, 1984
Swords, daggers—weapons with a blade—retained a mysterious, talismanic significance for Borges, imbued with predetermined codes of conduct and honor. The short dagger had particular power, because it required the fighters to draw death close, in a final embrace. As a young man, in the 1920s, Borges prowled the obscure barrios of Buenos Aires, seeking the company of cuchilleros, knife fighters, who represented to him a form of authentic criollo nativism that he wished to know and absorb.

The Stunned Days of Sandy

Deirdre Galvin: Untitled (Breezy Point), Queens, November 10, 2012

In February 2013, the Museum of the City of New York sent out a broad invitation, to both amateurs and professionals, to submit images of Hurricane Sandy——photographs snapped on cell phones, film, digital cameras or whatever else happened to be at hand. Culled from these submissions is the exhibition “”Rising Waters,”” and it confirms an impression I had in the days and weeks after the storm: that still photographs and written language, both imbibed in silence, convey the spirit of the catastrophe more truthfully than moving images.

The Next Mayor?

Bill de Blasio with his son Dante, daughter Chiara, and wife Chirlane after addressing supporters on the night of New York City’s primary election, September 16, 2013
Bill de Blasio’s victory on September 10 in New York City’s Democratic primary for mayor is a reminder that through some inexplicable emanation, certain New York mayors have caught perfectly the gestalt of the city. Who can forget Abe Beame, the five-foot-two-inch Polish Jewish accountant, subsumed in the fog of …

How Different is de Blasio?

New York City mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio, May 15, 2013

If Bill de Blasio is elected mayor of New York, what can reasonably be expected to change? As a councilman his policy was much the same as Michael Bloomberg’s: to work with real estate developers to ease the way for large-scale projects. De Blasio was a staunch supporter of the enormous Atlantic Yards development in downtown Brooklyn. He also helped to push through the City Council two development-friendly rezoning laws in the Gowanus neighborhood that included no affordable housing. But only de Blasio, among the major Democratic candidates for mayor, strongly opposed the NYPD’s stop and frisk program from the outset of his campaign. And it seems certain that New York police chief Ray Kelly will be replaced if de Blasio wins.

The Hallucinators Among Us

Oliver Sacks, New York City, 2002
Oliver Sacks is the scientist-as-artist, a rare species nowadays but one that flourished in the mid-nineteenth century and that almost single-handedly he has kept alive. His sensibility is Victorian in the best meaning of the word: reformist, literary, historical—empirical of course but speculative as well, in the tradition of the …

Occupy the Rockaways!

The Rockaway Peninsula, New York City, much of which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Sandy at the end of October 2012
I grew up in Belle Harbor, on the western part of that fragile leg of New York City’s coastland called the Rockaways, and witnessed many spectacular storms there as a boy. In September 1960, when I was six years old, Hurricane Donna inundated the streets from Jamaica Bay to the Atlantic, the entire width of the peninsula. The storm tide crested at eleven feet and during the days that followed my brothers and I floated ecstatically through the neighborhood on ruined wooden furniture that we turned into rafts.

After the Storm

The remains of a house destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, Rockaway, New York, November 10

I made my way to New York’s Rockaway peninsula in early November, a week after Hurricane Sandy, and it was immediately clear that the entire eleven-mile strip had sustained a mortal, earthen wound. In the neighborhoods of Edgemere and Arverne, residents wandered the streets, dazed and broken, in mismatched boots, donated woolen overcoats, and hats with dangling ear-flaps. Some pushed what appeared to be all their belongings in shopping baskets and carts, followed by children and derelict dogs.

The Problem of the New York Police

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, District Attorney Cyrus Vance, and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly at a press conference announcing the arrest of Ahmed Ferhani and Mohamed Mamdouh on terrorism charges, May 12, 2011
The New York Police Department’s Intelligence Division appears to have assembled a kind of municipal CIA—an NYCIA, if you will. The full extent of its activities, and the cost to civil liberties, will probably not be revealed for many years, if they are ever fully known at all. By then, the damage may be irreversible. And yet it is far from clear whether any innocent lives will have been saved.

New York: The Police and the Protesters

An Occupy Wall Street protester at Zuccotti Park before it was raided by police, New York City, November 13, 2011
“The police can see the defeat in our eyes. They know they’ve beaten us,” an Occupy Wall Street organizer told me a few days after the 2012 May Day demonstration that marked the movement’s fizzled attempt to stage a spring resurgence. “They used to look at us as adversaries. There was a certain respect. Now we’re objects of contempt, an excuse for them to get paid overtime. A safe, live-action game.”

What Future for Occupy Wall Street?

Occupy Wall Street protesters entering a vacant lot on Canal Street and Sixth Avenue owned by Trinity Church, New York City, December 17, 2011
As Occupy Wall Street enters its fifth month, dislodged from most of the public spaces it had staked out around the country last fall, the movement seems weakened, its future uncertain. It sometimes appears to be driven by a series of tactics designed to maintain its public presence with no discernible strategy or goal—a kind of muddled, loose-themed ubiquity. The movement has proven adept at provoking media attention, but one may wonder what it amounts to, apart from its ability to reaffirm its status as a kind of protest brand name.

Occupy Wall Street Turns a Corner

Occupy Wall Street protesters gather in Zuccotti Park after marching around Wall Street in New York, November 17, 2011

At around 1 AM Tuesday morning, police arrived to evict the occupiers from Zuccotti Park. It was a surprise attack, planned with impressive secrecy, and launched from Peck Slip, a relatively desolate stretch of the city, under the FDR Drive between the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges. For more than a week, hundreds of blue-shirted police officers—the force’s proletariat rank and file—had been receiving training in crowd control. Monday night, they were told to report to lower Manhattan with “hats and bats”—riot helmets and batons—without being informed why. The action was so unexpected that, after lamps from dozens of Emergency Service Unit trucks flooded the encampment with light and officers swarmed into the park dragging occupants out of their tents, members of the protesters “self-defense team” didn’t have time to chain themselves to the locust trees, as planned.

Zuccotti Park: What Future?

An Occupy Wall Street protester in Zuccotti Park, New York City, November 8, 2011
For weeks, organizers had demonstrated enormous skill in keeping the occupation going, steadily expanding while outfoxing Mayor Bloomberg in his attempts to evict them. But what end did it serve if their status as ethical defenders of the 99 percent was being damaged? It was, after all, their major asset. The complicated logistics of holding the park (and providing food, clothing, and warmth for a floating army of hundreds) was draining resources and forcing the most talented activists to narrow their focus to matters of mere physical survival.

The Mania of Love

Jeffrey Eugenides, 2002
Jeffrey Eugenides’s third novel begins with the despair of a broken-hearted twenty-two-year-old woman. The setting is Brown University, in Providence, Rhode Island, where it is graduation day for Madeleine, as the young woman is called, and her literary circle of friends. The tone is satirical, but gently so. Eugenides also …

In Zuccotti Park

Clergymen carrying a papier-mâché effigy of the biblical golden calf to the Occupy Wall Street camp in Zuccotti Park, New York City, October 9, 2011
The Occupy Wall Street movement that began in Zuccotti Park in New York’s financial district on September 17 has grown to a degree that seems to have stunned even its organizers and most ardent supporters. From the first days, most news outlets, if they deigned to cover the movement at all, ridiculed the protesters for lacking a specific political agenda or concrete demands. They were “leaderless,” “directionless.” But less in this case has proven to be more: Occupy Wall Street’s vague, open-ended character has been crucial to its success.

Four Weeks on Wall Street

Clergymen carrying a

At 7:30 PM, near the people’s library, the General Assembly convened. There were about five hundred of us and, as far as I could tell, we were all members for as long as we hung around. From their perch atop the wall on the northeast section of the park, two young women moderated the meeting. “Mike check!” one of the women cried, and with a unison roar the crowd repeated her words. This was “the people’s mike,” used in lieu of bullhorns, megaphones, or other amplification devices that were prohibited because the protesters had no permit. When the crowd has to repeat every word, it shows; for example, during a speech by the Nobel Prize economist Joseph Stiglitz, things slowed down. But in the large crowd the repetition created a kind of euphoria of camaraderie. It also put you in the oddly disturbing position at times of shouting at full voice something you neither agreed with nor would ever have thought on your own.

Fear and Longing and Freud

Drawings by Edward Gorey
Like many psychoanalysts, Adam Phillips has an ahistorical view of humanity. What interests him is frustration, helplessness, sexual desire—the eternal psychic tides that overwhelm us and drive us on. Phillips likes to remind us of “how fantastically ignorant we are about ourselves.” For him, political culture, wars, and economic upheavals …

The Novelist Who Can’t Be Stopped

César Aira, Buenos Aires, October 2010
Since 1975, the Argentine writer César Aira has published about seventy novels—it is difficult to arrive at an accurate count, and the number continues to grow at the rate of two per year. They are usually no longer than one hundred pages: dense, unpredictable confections delivered in a plain, stealthily …

On J.D. Salinger

J.D. Salinger reading from The Catcher in the Rye, Brooklyn, November 1952
Rereading J.D. Salinger after his death on January 27, I am struck by an improbable connection between his work and that of Jack Kerouac. Both were writing in the late Forties and Fifties, from opposite ends of the social spectrum, but with a relentless ethos of nonconformism at the center …

What Babies Know and We Don’t

Three-year-old Eileen Dunne in the Hospital for Sick Children, 1940; photograph by Cecil Beaton
The most elusive period of our lives occurs from birth to about the age of five. Mysterious and otherworldly, infancy and early childhood are surrounded later in life by a curious amnesia, broken by flashes of memory that come upon us unbidden, for the most part, with no coherent or …

Salinger

Rereading J.D. Salinger after his death on January 27, I am struck by an improbable connection between his work and that of Jack Kerouac. Both were writing in the late Forties and Fifties, from opposite ends of the social spectrum, but with a relentless ethos of non-conformism at the center of their fiction. Salinger, however, has none of Kerouac’s easy American Romanticism, much less his patriotic celebration of the open road. Salinger’s world is one of constricted New York spaces: bathrooms, restaurants, hotel rooms, buses, a tiny obstructed table in a piano bar where one barely has room enough to sit down. The high cost of not conforming is far more palpable in Salinger than in Kerouac. For Salinger’s characters, to be different isn’t a choice but a kind of incurable affliction, a source of existential crisis rather than social liberation.