Friday, July 29, 2011

A Friday night story

{Photo by rocketlass.}

I suspect that Friday night is the best time to read the title story of Harvey Swados's Nights in the Gardens of Brookyln. An adult Friday night, that is, spent in, not out; at home, perhaps alone, or, if with your spouse, quietly. For it is about remembering, with nostalgia but realism, the city of one's youth, half real and half the product of your hopes of the time. The opening sets the scene:
There was a time when New York was everything to me: my mother, my mistress, my Mecca, when I could no more have wanted to live any place else than I could have conceived of myself as a daddy, disciplining my boy and dandling my daughter. I was young, the war (the one that ended in 1945, the only one that will ever be "the war" for people my age) was just over, and I was free.
It's about being young and in love--with a city and with a person--and having friends who are in the same situation, and of feeling like the city is a stage for your explorations and adventures. Even those of us who are homebodies by nature remember those days.

But it's also about how a city is a perpetual reminder than you can't stop change: you can't hold a city still or make it be or stay what you want any more than you can do that with your friends. So that even a scene like this, of recalled mornings of pleasure, contains the implied sting of loss:
It started with late breakfast at our place on Remsen Street; then around noon we'd meander over the little Penny Bridge at the foot of Montague Street and on through the broken-down bars and vague-eyed derelicts of Myrtle Avenue and Sands Street (all gone now, replaced by handsome characterless courthouses and office buildings), on to the great bridge. So there are pictures of Barney and me cavorting, of Deelie and Pauline strolling like models on the promenade, of us all lined up before the struts with the marvelous skyline and the springtime sun behind us, our faces half in shadow but leaning forward to the camera's eye in hope and expectation.
In "hope and expectation": what Swados does in just forty pages is remind us of what that felt like and map out the difference between those who, as the years pile up, trade expectation, profitably, for contentment, and those who keep looking, sometimes to their detriment. In its ability to distinguish emotionally between youth and age it's as good as anything I can think of outside of a favorite passage from William Maxwell's Ancestors, which I quoted in this post a couple of years ago.

Are the compromises worth it? Should we lament the passing of youthful expectations? The beauty of Swados's story is that he shows us their allure without luring us, shows us their poisons without preaching, and leaves us--as we sit at home on this Friday night with our piano, the ballgame on quietly in the background--for tonight, at least feeling as if the trade-off was a good one.

1 comment:

  1. I guess I'm fortunate they I never had any grand expectations during my youth. All that I looked forward to, vaguely non-specific, was just the sort of domestic contentment that my parents had, and that I am lucky to have now. Sure, there are things I still want to accomplish, particularly with my writing, but I'm happy with life right now.