Poet in New York

When I was a teen-ager, my father drew his own map on the map of Manhattan–indicating where I was and was not allowed to go. He trusted me, and with reason—I complied. I was not allowed on the subway until I was fifteen. As a result, my path to mid-town or the West Village or Sheep’s Meadow looked like this: walk to the NJ bus that would drop me at Port Authority at the George Washington Bridge at 179th Street and then take the Number 4 bus from Washington Heights to Harlem and then downtown to wherever I was going to meet my friends.

The Number 4 bus was both an education and transportation–proof of Montaigne’s directive that the journey not the arrival matters. It was utterly fascinating. Hasids, black people, white people, Indian ladies in saris marred by winter coats, people speaking Spanish, hip and scary teen-agers, old people…all rode together.

Harlem was not technically on my allowed map, but I devoured its sights from the bus—churches, Nation of Islam storefronts, black power bookstores, Sugar Hill, and since the route was mostly Broadway—fruit and vegetable markets. Imagine me a suburban teenager in purple maxi coat and cute but not snow worthy boots, dangling screw on earrings, zits. At fifteen I’d be taking the A train and offering my seat to anyone infirm or pregnant, but at fourteen I was finding my urban legs.

The Number 4 bus always felt secure, no matter what block it was passing through. The bus drivers in NYC in the 1960s seemed a tough breed to me, captains of their ships. I knew nothing bad would happen to me in their presence. But I also made a point of sitting next to whatever kindly looking lady of any race or ethnicity I could find. I’d smile at said lady, and most often she’d smile back.

Enter Federico Garcia Lorca.

There was a wonderful bookstore at the Port Authority, heavy on the New Directions paperbacks. I read Kenneth Rexroth’s translations from the Chinese. Anais Nin. And then I discovered my life long love—Lorca. Forget that he was gay—and dead. I was madly in love with my first poetry boyfriend. Until I had the shock of reading “A Poet In New York.” A masterpiece, quintessential, revered…what upset me was that I thought of New York as MINE.

“How come Lorca gets to write about New York?” I asked myself over and over. At fourteen, I didn’t realize the question was ludicrous, or that the answer simple–poets get to write about whatever they want. I think what upset me was that I’d been BORN in Manhattan, and spent the better part of my life age 12-14 on the Number 4 bus. But Lorca seemed to know more than I did about what I was seeing. How was this possible?

My much younger self seems endearingly stupid now—Lorca was of course many things I was not—a grown-up, a genius, a full-fledged poet. But my later response to my seemingly foolish question has helped me immeasurably.

I felt I was given permission to write about anything, anywhere. I didn’t have to write what I “knew”—I could write from unknowing, or simple observation. It also gave me a goal I could strive for—to write a poem as beautiful as he did. These two things have given me as much pleasure as anything else I have found in life.

I do have to say, though, that I’ve never written a poem about the Number 4 bus. Yet.

Miriam Sagan is the author of 25 books, including Seven Places in America: A Poetic Sojourn (Sherman Asher, 2012). Her memoir, Searching for a Mustard Seed: A Young Widow’s Unconventional Story won best memoir of the year from Independent Publishers.