Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Paging Dr. Strandlove

The Strand is crowded this Wednesday evening, I’m late and find the one available chair, vacant because between it and author Ariel Sabar is a wide pillar perfectly obstructing my view. But no worry; the stories he is telling tonight don’t require that he be seen; they are the stuff of fantasy, movies and circumstance. Smiles snuck onto a subway car, hope littered around a park bench, and Sabar’s sharp eyes and ears bringing them to life for us. I lean back—the chair creaks—and listen.

Sabar’s book, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, stars that “natural love potion that is adrenaline,” that allows “two strangers with seemingly nothing in common” to share a moment witnessing something bizarre on a New York City street. Inspired by how his parents met in Washington Square—they’ve been married many years since— Sabar interviews 9 couples whose first meetings were chance encounters in New York City’s vast inventory of public spaces. The oldest story occurs in 1941, the most recent is a 2009 nuptial; the dazzle never dulls. Tapping into “beauty, density, adrenaline and spectacle,” Sabar concocts this anthology of “hopeful endings.”

Some stories include broken engagements, couples facing ups and downs before they “finally find their footing.” He enjoys the stories of couples who figure they were never “meant to be;” what would you say when your grandmother heard that you “picked up a guy at the park?!” Sabar doesn’t “sugarcoat the rough patches,” but maintains that the book is meant to be hopeful. It’s the pride— not vanity— and an “abiding wonder” about their own stories that Sabar wants to capture.

His methods are organized: he digs up potential stories searching catch phrases – “met in Central Park” + “married” – in newspaper archives; he tracks down characters on Facebook and turns up curious stories using Google. He is careful to interview each story’s spouses separately. “You know what happens when a couple tells a story,” he reminds us. “It gets political!”

One woman’s 50th wedding anniversary present to her dying husband is a short piece she wrote about how they met, published in Newsday; Sabar is not alone in wanting to celebrate chance. Yes, he admits, he is “shamelessly romantic.”

Sabar reads from one of his stories: the girl is a loner and tries to “discharge all social debt” with an annual Christmas party. This particular year she cooks a “traditional Dutch-Indonesian feast” and revels in her party guests—everyone from ballet dancers to anthropology students—milling about her apartment, playing records and keeping the December gloom at bay. Regardless of how the story ends, I’m already smiling at its fiercely cosmopolitan start, just the kind of eclectic New York City gatherings I’ve cherished in my time here.

The couple’s first sighting of each other is at the Met, a “kind of secular temple.” His first advances flop—she turns to him just enough “for him to see her roll her eyes.” And she is right to be cautious: Sabar describes her as “a loner with too much would-be company, most of them male.” But he persists and their conversation takes root, right there in the Met, at a tapestry exhibit. Here, he pauses. “As a non fiction writer you’re always happy when a factual story lends metaphor,” and he credits the exhibit, exploring history and religion, for the conversations and imagery it inspired.

One of Sabar’s finds that didn’t make it into his book is about 2 people getting “quietly drunk” on the Brooklyn Bridge, each equipped with their own bottle of champagne. Sabar tracks them down on Facebook to find out that their marriage lasted all of 18 months. The woman is re-married and tells Sabar, as she declines to be interviewed, that she and her second husband met under much more normal circumstances, and they’ve been married a lot longer. Hopeful, but not the way Sabar wants! They keep their story and he skips that chapter. Next.

How does Sabar recreate these intimate moments, how accurately can one reproduce their ‘how we met’ story, and how intact do the characters’ voices remain? Sabar is meticulous about recreating the whispers and wiles in each story, he assures us. He writes based on “what I knew of the couples…what I knew of their voices,” keeping in mind that his stories are about getting “something essential about [the characters] right.” One woman in his book thanks Sabar: “you saw into my soul”, she reflects. “Thanks for making an old lady happy.”

Like his parents, immigrants in the city spent a lot of time outside, keeping away from the prohibitively expensive restaurant and residential interiors. Navyman “Prince Charming” Willis and runaway Joey “Park Bench Cinderella” meet in Central Park back the 1940s, as journalist Helen Ward documents. Their meeting is serendipitous, their marriage serpentine—he is posted to Philadelphia the day after they meet. Sabar is as hooked today as readers were when Ward gushed about them—instantly dropped when the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and journalism opens with a drastically different lede. 70 years later, Sabar contacts one Mr. Willis off a Google search for the full story, asking, is he the Prince Charming who married Joey from Central Park?

“Yes, I am indeed the same party,” is the response he receives from 80-something year old Willis. And so that chapter is written.

Does Sabar have a theory on public spaces being such an aphrodisiac? Is there one public space that’s more effective than another? “I think beauty matters,” he says, it’s important that the space is “visually inspiring.” Crowds help, too; “you always have a plan B in a crowd”, feel a little safer, are less likely to have your guard up. “People are always pressed up against each other” in this city—duh—and the fact that “New York keeps both residents and visitors alike in this highly physiological state” lends itself to casual brushes escalating to something more. I agree; although I believe there’s an equal chance of such a chance encounter leading to something friendly and something highly irritating—even dangerous!

He describes the ideal public space, per an urban studies / architecture friend's perspective. The more complex the better: a variety of texture and levels, a clash of old-fashioned cobbled streets and modern architecture, for example. Such spaces have a sense of mystery to them; you don’t know what’s around the corner. A sense of enclosure, like a narrow European street, lends coziness and intimacy. Proximity to water induces reflection, pause, a penchant for beauty. The legibility of a public space, that sense of bearings on one’s surroundings, put you at ease, challenges you to extend your connection to it, and next thing you know, you’ve just given someone your number. “The best love stories start with a game of chicken, right?” Sabar asks us. It does if you’re one of the couples in his book who meet in Central Park (complex; mysterious; water bodies—check) who stared at each other in “wordless intimacy for a full half hour” until she went up to him and said, I’m hungry, want to get something to eat?

Sabar turned it over to us: what stories did we have to share? One girl in the audience described how her Vegas showgirl mother and flamenco guitarist got together. An Argentinian girl remembered her now-boyfriend gesturing to her with a nod from across a noisy bar. One of my good friends—at the reading with me—met her boyfriend at the start of a New York Road Runners race. What's your story? Comment if you like!

So keep your eyes out the next time you’re walking to the subway, on the subway, cutting across Central Park, sharing an elevator, being ID’d at a pub—oh, anywhere you might be in this lovestruck city. And when you’re not mobile, feast your eyes on these enjoyable reads online:

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