A sense of place

(This post will be one of several about writing about place)

All cities have their mysteries, but it takes a while to find them. In Philadelphia's Washington Square, I know there's a soldier's ghost; in Queens Village, I can feel the slave graveyard, underground. In San Francisco, I'm figuring it out, one day at a time-- in search of what writer call "atmosphere."   

I first bought my condo in Mission Bay during the real estate fall-out. 

I think what sold me was the tiny bay or canal a few steps away. Especially the houseboats, which, to me, evoke the boat-dwellers of Dickens in Our Mutual Friend. Not many, but they glow at night, their inhabitants eschew shades; I can see them eating dinner.  A miniature city with a city, or a trace of what existed before Silicon Valley, before the antiseptic high-rises, before the coffee bars and power yoga, even before the dog-mania that seems to infect all of San Francisco. Not far, there's the South Beach Yacht Club, with its charming harbor, hundred of white boats.  

But truth is, I am living on landfill. It is all artificial, every bit of it, man-made.

My neighborhood is part of San Francisco's complicated history of filling up what were bays and lakes, to make room for shipbuilding, commerce. Two hundred years ago, South Beach was a warehousing district. The "real" Mission Bay was a body of water extending from the narrow creek that I walk along to over to Folsom Street.  Fresh water, yes, fresh, descended from nearby Potrero Hill. By the 1970s, the area had fallen into typical urban decay, ruined warehouses, open storage yards, unused streets—and only "development" rescued it.    

So, San Francisco was a city of water; and men made it what they wanted. Near Civic Center, where there was once was a lake, the seagulls hover: only they sense what's beneath San Francisco's inscrutable sidewalks. 

Why Write?

As a child, I rarely wrote.  I never had a diary.   

I made pictures out of numbers, I created different characters for all the digits. Poor 8 was pregnant, and 9 was a dandy. When I added or subtracted, I invented marriages, divorces, wars, babies. (No wonder I loved arithmetic.)

I created shoebox dioramas of the Seminoles, the Navajo, the Algonquin. Every box had its own little family.  I pasted gold stars on black paper to show the constellations against the night sky—I knew almost every constellation, I memorized every myth behind them. Oh, how I longed for a telescope!   

I stood on my mother's kitchen table and sang I'm No Fool to her astonished friends. I was a terrible ham. I played Puck in Midsummer's Nights Dream.

I collected rocks and minerals, testing each of my samples carefully on a hardness scale.  I labelled every index card. I was ecstatic when I found a piece of obsidian, the beautiful black volcanic glass.  I'd tell myself, this is part of the planet's history in my hands. Rocks were magical.

But words? They didn't have magic. Even now I don’t have one of those huge vocabularies that make writing easy.   

I never felt writing was my destiny, but I didn't believe in destiny.

Maybe it's because I was raised without religion: heaven is a kind of destiny, isn't it?  My dad mocked "morons" who prayed merely because their father or their grand-father or their great-grandfather had done the same. That's destiny, too, following the generations that came before you. You know where you're going, others have been there.  We were free to carve our own path.   

But where? I'd, somehow, become someone, maybe a housewife, maybe a doctor. It wasn't a dream, it was an obligation. Nothing pulled me in any direction.  When the time came, I didn't mind work, I ended up making good money.  It's not as if I'd sacrificed other talents, had I?

A few years ago, my brother-in-law showed me watercolors and pastels that he'd discovered inside a mahogany armoire that my sister had taken after my mother's death.  "A surprise," he called them.

"These are lovely," I said. "Who did them?"

"You did these," he said.

I couldn't imagine that I had painted them. Girls with balloons, lovely mountains, filled with joyful, explosive colors.

He pointed to my childish signature.  "You had talent. You should have them"

I began to remember. Hours alone in my bedroom, I painted, I drew; I lost all sense of time, I loved the feel of pastels, the fluidity of watercolors. I copied Art Nouveau drawings. I'd entered (and been a finalist in) a fashion illustration contest in my teens, so I must have sensed that I had talent.  Yet, I never felt I could be an artist.   Not once.   

But I don’t regret not painting. I don’t' regret not acting, not singing. They're all things I used to love, or things I never got to love. They're foreign places, they're dots on a map.
Yet writing, of all things, feels like home. Not a first love, but where I feel most myself, closest to my memories. Perhaps that is what destiny is, the thing that brings you full circle.

"The Wrong Time of Day" by Carla Sarett in Black Rabbit

A somewhat darker story, informed by darker times, but still set in Philadelphia.  "The Wrong Time of Day" appears in Black Rabbit.  Many thanks to the editorial staff for the wonderful illustrations -- such a pleasure to see in an online publication!

You can read it here:


"The Hidden Female Face of New York" published in The Inclusive Vision

Image result for emma stebbins
Emma Stebbins
Recently I have been delving into what I think of as the "lost and found" in American art, namely the public works created by American female artists.  Some of these works are lost in a metaphorical sense: they are actually in plain view, but oddly, ignored by scholars and critics as well as feminists.  Among these are two beautiful statues in Central Park, created by Emma Stebbins and Bessie Potter Vonoh)  as well as the stunning rondels of Radio City Hall (the last being the work of Art Deco's master, Hildreth Meiere.)  

Other works have a strange history of being applauded, then, in a subsequent generation, taken down and put into storage; this is true not only of paintings (New York's MOMA is a case in point, but there are others) but of important murals and mosaics as well.  It is only recently that these "lost" works are being "found" by a new audience.  For example, Hildreth Meiere's mosaics for the Prudential Building have been restored and can now be viewed (one at The Newark Museum.)  More on this issue, later-- it also affects female authors, whose "lost" works are not digitized, out of print and often unavailable at public libraries.

I discuss three female artists, Emma Stebbins, Bessie Potter-Vonoh, and Hildreth Meiere in "The Hidden Female Face of New York," published in The Inclusivion Vision:  Essays in Honor of Larry Gross.


Cause for Celebration: Virago

Those of us who are concerned with forgotten, neglected or generally under-valued female authors are grateful to Virago, the international publisher of books by women.  Through the efforts of Virago, we have been able to continue reading our favorite female authors like Daphne du Maurier, Muriel Spark, and others who, astonishingly, and frequently, are out-of-print or in watered-down editions. 

To celebrate its fortieth years, Virago is publishing special editions (with striking book covers) of several gems of the female canon:  Zora Neale Hurston's THEIR EYES ARE WATCHING GOD, Angela's Carter THE MAGIC TOYSHOP, THE DUD AVOCADO by humorist Elaine Dundy, FACES IN THE WATER by Janet Frame, THE WEATHER IN THE STREETS by the unjustly ignored Rosamond Lehmann, A VIEW OF THE HARBOR by elegant stylist Elizabeth Taylor, along with some better-known entries, like the wicked MEMENTO MORI by my idol, Muriel Spark, and HEARTBURN by Nora Ephron.  Even if you own a sad, dog-eared paperback, you might want to replace it with one of these lovely books, much as I've replaced my old Chandlers with Library of America editions.

But most enticing of all is a special essay collection, Writers as Readers: A Celebration of Virago Modern Classics.  I'm excited to hear what writers like Ali Smith and Claire Messud have to say about their favorites.  There's nothing quite as revealing about an author as the writers she admires -- whom do they compare themselves to?  who is on their bookshelf?  I fell in love with Muriel Spark when one of her characters admired Cavafy. Mystery writer Carol Goodman lured me with a mention of Muriel Spark. Yet, another author lost my affection when she confessed that she loathed Jane Austen.  Taste matters.         

International Cat Day: Chopin for Igor by Carla Sarett

In honor of International Cat Day.   This little cat tale first appeared in CONTRARY CATS, an anthology of feline stories, as well as my own SPOOKY AND KOOKY TALES, available on Amazon in a Kindle edition.  

Chopin for Igor

Carla Sarett
The Cat People might well have become, had the times been different, the premiere online community for all things feline.  At its launch party, the brash young CEO, Lily Gold, handed out sparkly pink cat t-shirts— but those souvenirs were all that remained of the company a year later.   
As it happened, I was wearing my Cat People t-shirt when I saw Lily years ago in a coffee bar downtown.  It was late on a pearly-gray afternoon, when the days become short and sad.  When she waved, I admit that I hesitated to join her.  I sensed how raw her defeat was, and her brand of ambition was foreign to me.  Besides, the only cat I had owned had been strangled by the rough boys next door, its neck cruelly broken, and its runt-like body abandoned in the street.  After that, I had never wanted another pet.
I knew nothing about Lily Gold.  For lack of anything better to say, I said, “You must miss working with cats.  You seemed like such a cat person.”  
She did not smile.  “No, I was never a true cat person—not like my sister, not at all.”  And that was when I heard the story of Lily’s younger sister, Rose.
Rose Gold rented a house in a small town called Narberth, about ten minutes or so outside of Philadelphia. Her house was no larger than an apartment—it was delicate in structure, with a tiny flower garden and a white picket fence.  It sat slightly behind a far grander house and, in an earlier century, had probably served as servants' quarters, but now was rented out to young singles like Rose. In the large house lived her landlords, Herb and Sally Taylor, who owned an antique store nearby.  All in all, it was an ideal situation. Rose was a quiet tenant, the rent was fairly reasonable and the Taylors were responsible landlords.   Rose and the Taylors saw little of one another.   
A few months after Rose had moved in, a dog-sized gray tabby showed up at her doorstep.  She immediately recognized it as one of the Taylors' cats—they had a few.  Even so, she allowed the cat to enter, taking great pains not to touch it.  The huge animal moved slowly through every room of the house, with complete freedom.  Then Rose prepared a plate of left-overs and watched as the cat nibbled a portion, as though extending her a courtesy.
Over the next weeks, the cat visited Rose at its pleasure – and Rose looked forward to its appearance.  She stocked her cabinets with gourmet cat food, just in case. Sometimes the cat climbed on her sofa while she read and permitted her to stroke its warm soft fur.  And one day, the enormous cat jumped in her lap and purred.  It rested with her for hours until Rose fell asleep.  Rose felt divinely happy.
The next day, Rose found it impossible to concentrate on her work.  Her thoughts were only of the cat and whether it would return that night. To her joy and amazement, the cat was waiting at her doorstep. The cat meowed and brushed against her as she walked through the door. Rose knew that the cat had decided in her favor. 
"It’s strange, but understand, it wasn’t my decision," she let Sally Taylor know.  "I’d never just steal your cat, or any cat. This just sort of happened." 
Sally Taylor was gracious if somewhat chilly.  “What can you do?  We have two other cats, they’re Siamese, and they’re both so sweet and loving, they’re wonderful.”  Her tone implied that this other cat was not as sweet, and, it went without saying, not as loving.  In any event, Sally insisted, “we cherish all of our cats.”
“Of course, I can return him right now,” Rose said quickly.   
“No, I have to respect his decision.  If you ever get tired of him, we’ll gladly take him back, no questions asked,” Sally said.   
Rose almost hugged Sally. “I’ll never get tired of him, don’t worry,” she promised.
“I’m not worried,” said Sally.  “But cats have a mind of their own, don’t they?” 
Rose named her cat, Igor, after her favorite composer, Igor Stravinsky.  She filled her house with catnip and toys and all manner of gourmet delicacies.  She sliced tiny pieces of melon for Igor’s dessert and watched him eat, slice by slice.
She learned the music that made Igor purr—not Stravinsky, but Chopin, especially the Ballades.  Tears streamed down Rose's face as she heard Chopin’s chords and Igor's soft purrs. 
If someone visited Rose – a rare event, to be sure --Igor hid in a large desk drawer, curled in a ball. As Rose entertained, she pictured Igor, waiting for her, soft and warm.  The moment she was alone, Rose opened the drawer, picked Igor up and clasped him to her as tightly as she could.  When she slept, Igor lay beside her, “not too close, just close enough.”  Rose's family became accustomed to hearing stories about Igor.
Their life together went on this way, for about two years, when Rose met Alexei Cohen—an IT consultant brought into her research department at work.   Rose’s family was relieved—Alexei had a natural charm and confidence, an ease with people, so Rose’s solitary ways did not matter to him. As for Alexei, he had no doubts about dark-eyed Rose.  Within months, he asked Rose to marry him and she accepted.
"I’m a cat person," Rose told him.  “My cat found me, I didn’t find him.”
“Cats always find people,” said Alexei.  He had his own cat story -- his family's cat had jumped from a speeding car, on a highway, and had, miraculously, found Alexei days later at his college dorm.  
“That’s the thing, you can never forget a cat,” he said.   
When Alexei stayed with Rose, Igor concealed himself in the desk drawer and only emerged when the stranger left.  “I’m worried, Igor’s so sensitive.  But maybe when two people love him, he’ll feel more secure,” Rose told her sister.
For the wedding, Rose wore her mother's white lace wedding dress, which touched many of her friends and family.  The honeymoon in Tuscany was perfect, or almost. Rose could not hide her fears about Igor.  More than a few times, she called the cat-sitter to check on Igor. She explained, “It’s complicated.  I’m not his original owner.  I never can be absolutely sure.”
Alexei paid little attention.  Everything about Tuscany and dark-eyed Rose pleased him.
Afterwards, they moved into their new house-- a large rambling house, fit for children, and not far from where Rose had lived in Narberth.  It was one of old stone houses on the Main Line, with a graceful circular driveway and rhododendron bushes lining the walkways. 
“Yes, it’s extravagant,” Alexei conceded.  “But I’m in no mood to economize, not now, not with everything ahead of us.”
Rose carefully planned for Igor’s adjustment to his new setting.  She laid down many strict rules: Igor could never be touched without first obtaining permission; Alexei must never play music that Igor might not like; Igor needed time alone with Rose; and Igor must be allowed to sleep with the two of them.   
 The restrictions did not faze Alexei.  After all, if Rose doted on her cat, what of it?  He laughed, "I'd hate to think if you had to choose between Igor and me!"  
Alexei himself loved Chopin and would play the piano for Rose and Igor, as Igor rested on Rose’s lap.  Alexei respected Rose’s rules—and he left them, undisturbed.
But soon Igor sickened. He ignored the pet delicacies that Rose prepared and lost weight. He became a mere shadow of himself, not the enormous cat he had been, but a thin and sad looking creature.  He slept in the closet. He stopped meowing
“We need to take him to a vet, there’s one in town,” Alexei said.
“No, I heard he puts animals to sleep, and their owners don’t even know about it” Rose said, terrified.
"Nonsense," answered Alexei, "How would he stay in business if he were killing cats?" 
Instead, Rose found a holistic animal practice out in Buck's County, over an hour away, who offered daily treatments.  Her trips to Buck’s County consumed Rose’s entire day – she had to give up her job. Following instructions, Rose administered Igor's treatment one drop at a time, with a tiny eye-dropper. She purified the house, discarding any toxic material that might contaminate Igor’s fragile system, which was smaller than a human’s.  Igor remained sick and unresponsive.
Alexei’s work took him to other cities—like many consultants, his work schedule was beyond his control.  When he called Rose from airports or hotels, he heard only about Igor.  Alexei was patient, but in truth, he knew that Igor was simply an ordinary cat-- and he knew that cats die, especially when they are denied normal medicine.  But there was nothing unkind about Alexei Cohen.  At airport gift shops, he searched for little cat gifts and souvenirs for Igor.
Rose visited a spiritual counselor for animals who was famed throughout the area for saving lost causes.  “It’s his past life that’s killing Igor.  He once lived with a family who beat him. He’s signaling his past life,” the counselor said.  “You need to assure Igor that the present and the past are not the same.”
Every night, Rose whispered to Igor, we love you--no one’s ever going to hurt you again.  “He’s traumatized,” she told Alexei.  “It’s natural that he’s so weak.  He needs our help.” 
Alexei said nothing.
For weeks, Rose sat alone with Igor.  She never turned on a single light.  Alexei left silently in the morning and removed his shoes when he returned home, in order to avoid any unnecessary sound.  But he still played Chopin for Rose and Igor.  Sometimes, the two of them fell asleep together. 
And then Igor vanished.  Rose searched everywhere – her desk drawer, the garden, the attic, everywhere, but he was gone.  Igor had been allowed to roam outside, but he had never failed to come home.
“Cats always come back,” said Alexei, as he stroked Rose’s hair.  “He’ll get hungry, and he’ll come back.” 
Alexei posted signs around the neighborhood, "Lost Gray Tabby"-- on telephone poles, at the local supermarkets, anywhere that signs could be hung.  Many kind people called about stray cats, but none of the reports fit Igor’s description.  
“Yes, Igor showed up for a day, but then he left,” Sally Taylor said when Rose called her.  "You never know with cats, do you?" 
Each long day of cat-hunting became the same as the long day before.  Rose woke before dawn.  She drove around Buck's County and around the neighborhood of her spiritual counselor. She walked through every park and past every house. At home, she stayed on high alert for the merest hint of footsteps or meows or a faint scratching at the door.
All of this made no difference to Alexei’s feelings about Rose.  She was what he wanted.
One night, when Alexei was out of town, Rose awoke and heard a meowing in the distance.  She must have suspected or hoped that it was Igor—and she walked down the narrow road to find him. It was pitch black and the road had no sidewalks.  Rose was invisible in the darkness—her back faced the cars.  The driver who hit her had no idea she was there, according to the police report.  She was dead by the time Alexei's plane hit the ground.
Alexei Cohen delivered his wife’s eulogy.  He spoke of all that he loved about Rose, of the impossibility of her early death and the hollowness that stretched ahead.  “But,” he warned, “The future is there, whether we want it or not.  We will do the best we can.” 
About a month after Rose’s burial, Alexei opened the door and discovered Igor, sitting very still.  He held the door open – Igor brushed against his legs and meowed until Alexei picked him up. Alexei sat down at the grand piano and played Chopin for Igor.
"He's a cat person, now," Lily Gold told me.

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