A Shout in the Street
By Karl Whitney.
Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch, Ten Walks/Two Talks, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2010.
The first thing to mention is that this book is a lot of fun. As per the title, it squeezes into its 85 pages two conversations between Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch alongside descriptions of a series of solitary walks taken by Fitch around Manhattan.
In the process, it captures two sides of the city: the social dimension, and the solitary experience of the urban flanêur. Cotner and Fitch render urban conversational wandering extremely well, a mode of experiencing the city where one wanders the streets, talking excitedly as one goes. A mode in which the surroundings provide an atmospheric backdrop to the main event, so to speak: the conversation.
The conversational sections of the book are expansive and gesture towards the philosophical, but these movements towards a higher knowledge come from and return to reality, through reference to the everyday world, as in this example:
J: Oh I make adjustments all the time. That’s why I’ve carried this backpack. I had no idea I’d use a second sweater today, yet when I learned we’d cross through Central Park, took it out immediately. Also, this past summer, doing work in Santa Fe, I’d adjust the fan so it couldn’t blow directly on me, but a few minutes later I’d shift the fan back toward me, to cool off.
A: This was while attempting to sleep?
J: No this is studying. I think I’ve … well, I know I strained to understand Ptolemy’s astronomy, and if required to read his Almagest I’d turn warmer, yet could handle fan breeze only so long.
A: Sure. Have you noticed this man going at lampposts with what I’d consider a Thai boxing style – lots of knee, knee, knee-thrusts?
Elsewhere, reference is made to Japanese art – the book is illustrated with ukiyo-e prints by Hiroshige – but, as before, these references sit quite comfortably as the discursive, digressive conversation-text unfolds.
Occasionally, one of the speakers will elaborate an image of poetic precision, one which acts as a launchpad for further digression and discussion:
J: Do you like how backs of benches catch a glow from streetlamps?
A: I do.
J: And I love with wire fences, how separate strands glow from time to time. This past summer, hiking a mountain in Santa Fe, I’d watch sun gleam along strands of a spider’s web.
A: Hmm I wanted to say: I’ll appreciate when lamps and damp branches cause a spider-web…
As can be seen from the references to Santa Fe, elements of the speakers’ biographies edge into the narrative, and one gains some knowledge of their lives. Andy Fitch discusses the highly elaborate-sounding ‘three-dimensional notecard system’ he developed as an undergraduate student, which reportedly hastened a ‘slight nervous breakdown’. Jon Cotner talks about the apartment he shared with an eighty-year-old woman on the Upper West Side of Manhattan – it smelled of hip-cream and dead mice. Fitch also refers to his girlfriend, Kristin, whose apartment becomes a point of departure and return during his solo walks around the city.
The poetic precision which erupts every so often in the conversation texts is fully realized in Fitch’s highly compressed prose, capturing the fleeting images of urban life encountered on his peregrinations:
Shimmering lawns surrounded St. Luke in the Fields, restored my faith in the variety of birds. I got lost remembering songs by The Smiths. A sophisticated old black woman held up a coffee-stand line asking why she’d only been charged a dollar fifty. A prep cook shielded his gold-toothed smile. Construction guys turned to watch a redhead pass. The shortest carried bags of gears on his shoulder. As I crossed he said Except she’d only be wearing ski boots.
In Fitch’s descriptions, internal reflections rub alongside observations of urban situations. His walks bring him around Central Park, to Harlem, to Brooklyn and through the Lower East Side, and in the process he records with precision the appearances and actions of those he passes: the doormen in the lobby of his girlfriend’s apartment building, a West African ‘curling dumbbells’ who ‘spoke to his daughter in the prettiest French’, the gap-toothed smile of a Canadian trucker.
During one discussion, Andy Fitch remarks that ‘ever since I started caring about language, I’ve become someone who tries to transport his environment, to stay in the most lucid state.’ This lucidity and precision colours the whole book, which, although slim, contains multitudes.
One of the most memorable images comes at the end of the book, during a conversation between Cotner and Fitch. While walking in the city, Fitch ‘flipped off’ a mother and daughter in a car that had gone through the lights; Fitch wonders how they’d felt about it.
Cotner responds, and describes a similar experience:
C: at first she might have felt insulted, but when she recalls the moment, if she does, I’m sure she considers your response appropriate. I remember crossing Broadway (around the mid-80s) as as a girl learning to drive turned an enormous SUV, nearly killing me, and we made eye- contact through the windshield, and so I started whacking off. I mean in an… I I didn’t pull out my genitals; I’d simply, how should…
A: You gestured.
J: I gestured yeah, lewdly. […] Then after making my lewd gesture I crouched.
A: Did your hips rock as well?
J: I got totally into it. I swayed my hips. Pedestrians behind me started laughing. They too almost had been crushed. […] I then stopped gesturing, pointed and began to laugh loudly, and then I passed through the intersection and spanked my rear then pointed back at them – one final time, and kept walking. […] But I hadn’t left my apartment thinking Ah, the moment I encounter reckless drivers here’s what I’ll do. It came about naturally, and felt harmonious and continuous. I thank I thank the city for such episodes of maniacal grace.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Karl Whitney is a journalist, researcher and 3:AM editor based in Dublin, Ireland. He has written for the Guardian, the Irish Times and the Belfast Telegraph.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 27th, 2010.