Tuesday, July 6, 2010

My Literary Home

Last October, as the end of our second year in our apartment approached, we—my boyfriend, my roommate, and I—decided not to renew our lease. The roommate wanted to “live in a place [he] didn’t hate” (I’ll keep the neighborhood anonymous) for the rest of his time in New York, before he left for grad school, and off he went to Brooklyn. My boyfriend and I moved north, to Inwood, home to a plethora of delightful things: the only road in Manhattan with “Road” actually in its name (Indian Road), the only remaining natural forest and the only remaining salt marsh in Manhattan, the Columbia stadium, two great parks (Fort Tryon, bridging Inwood and Washington Heights, the location of the Cloisters, and Inwood Park, unlit and possibly full of the ghosts of unhappy teenagers) and one okay one (Isham Park). It’s where we play trivia and go to the greenmarket and eat delicious burgers, and there was no doubt it was where we wanted to live.

Anyway, speaking of possibly being full of the ghosts of unhappy teenagers—when we looked for our new home (a whirlwind tours of approximately fifteen apartments in two weeks), we had dangled in front of us one odd piece of information about one of the last apartments at which we looked (and the one we finally decided to take). It had its original hardwood floors, bedroom windows that looked out into the park, a fairly big kitchen with a sealed dumbwaiter—and hey, Jim Carroll lived there! (Other features of the apartment that we discovered one at a time, and which still left it an improvement over our old place: poor paint and grout jobs, an upstairs neighbor who moves with all the blitheness of a dumptruck, and roaches.)

The broker told us that Jim Carroll grew up in this apartment. In The Basketball Diaries, he expresses some dislike of the apartment and the neighborhood, but—she said—he returned to the owner of this building in recent years and asked to live there again. The apartment he’d grown up in was taken, but another apartment was available, and that was where he died in September.

She showed us the caution-taped front door of his last home.

After we moved in, I asked her to confirm that he lived there while growing up, but she never responded to my email. But I found it strange, strange, that we were getting email addressed to Carroll. Tax forms, even, which I returned to the IRS. Had he in fact died in our apartment? Some searching online turned up the closest approximation to the truth: I believe he lived in the building next door as a youth, lived in our apartment for some chunk of the 80s and 90s, and died in the building next door.

In the last five years or so, I’ve visited a number of literary residences: Arrowhead (Herman Melville, the Berkshires, twice, once by candleight); the Mount (Edith Wharton, also in the Berkshires); the Edgar Allan Poe Cottage (the Bronx); the Homestead (Emily Dickinson, Amherst); Rowan Oak (William Faulkner, Oxford); the Vladimir Nabokov House (Saint Petersburg); the Alexander Pushkin Museum and Memorial Apartment (a rather morbid one, Saint Petersburg); the Jane Austen House Museum (as well as Chawton House, where her brother lived, Chawton); the Keats-Shelley House (Rome). Museums too, including the Jane Austen Centre in Bath and the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow. And there are places that I’ve just seen from the outside—the house where Austen died, in Winchester; the house where Nabokov lived when he was teaching at Stanford; the Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum (this when I was 14, actually, and we didn’t have enough money for admission, Key West); the reconstruction of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s house near Tanglewood; the Jack London Yukon Cabin (Oakland). This fall I’ll hopefully make my first trip to Boston, where I’ll have a full schedule of sights to see in Concord, and I'll hopefully blog about some of these museums in the future.

Now I live in one of these literary homes myself. And when I saw today that one of Carroll’s novels is being published posthumously, it seemed as though my apartment was home to unseen commerce, as though a ghostly manuscript had made its way from one of our desks to the publisher, and I was just hearing about it now. It was thrilling and a little unsettling—the price one pays, I suppose, for the story behind your shelter.

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