Through the Children's Gate

BOOK: Through the Children's Gate
9.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Acclaim for Adam Gopnik's

“Wonderfully wry…. Gopnik creates a Valentine for the city…. An affectionate portrait of a resilient city that will be cherished by anyone who has lived there or admired it from a distance.”

Rocky Mountain News


The New York Times Book Review

“Some of the best writing on parenthood I've read, by turns poignant, funny and wise.”˙˙

—David Takami,
The Seattle Times

“Draws former New Yorkers back to the serendipity of life in the city (with its frustrations and indelible memories) and perhaps fascinates those who opted not to live in the Big Apple—if only for Gopnik's straightforward style and the scope of his interests and insights.”

The Providence Journal

“Filled with variety, life and love…. Each essay is a jewel reflecting [Gopnik's] talent and love of his city.”

The Decatur Daily

“You don't have to be a New Yorker or even necessarily an enthusiast of the city to be alternately amused, touched, and charmed by Gopnik's well-crafted pieces…. One of the chief pleasures of
Through the Children's Gate
is the way it combines Gopnik's urbane wit with a kind of sweet vulnerability that seems to come at us from another century.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“[Gopnik] write[s] with wit and tenderness about the world of parenting and the specifics of life…. Comically touching.”

The Boston Globe

“A wonderful collection.”

This Week

Adam Gopnik

Adam Gopnik has been writing for
The New Yorker
since 1986. He is a three-time winner of the National Magazine Award for Essays and for Criticism and winner of the George Polk Award for Magazine Reporting. Raised in Montreal, Gopnik lived in Paris from 1995 to 2000, and now lives in New York with his wife and their two children.


The King in the
Window Paris to the Moon

Once again:

For Luke and Oliviay
For Martha
And for Henry Finder and Ann Goldstein

The world is never ready
for the birth of a child

Our ships are not yet back from Winnland
We still have to get over the S.Gothard pass.
We've got to outwit the watchmen on the desert of Thor,
fight our way through the sewers to Warsaw's center,
gain access to King Harold the Butterpat
and wait until the downfall of Minister Fouche.
Only in Acapulco
Can we begin anew.

—from “

Sir, how do you survive in New York
City? What do you eat?
Don't the pigeons object?
Only for a minute.

Your Show of Shows

Through the Children's Gate: Of a Home in New York

n the fall of 2000, just back from Paris, with the sounds of its streets still singing in my ears and the codes to its courtyards still lining my pockets, I went downtown and met a man who was making a perfect map of New York. He worked for the city, and from a set of aerial photographs and underground schematics he had turned every block, every highway, and every awning—every one in all five boroughs!—into neatly marked and brightly colored geometric spaces laid out on countless squares. Buildings red, streets blue, open spaces white, the underground tunnels sketched in dotted lines … everything in New York was on the map: every ramp to the Major Deegan Expressway and every abandoned brownstone in the Bronx.

The kicker was that the maniacally perfect map was unfinished and even unfinishable, because the city it described was too “dynamic,” changing every day in ways that superceded each morning's finished drawing. Each time everything had been put in place—the subway tunnels aligned with the streets, the Con Ed crawl spaces with the subway tunnels, all else with the buildings above—someone or other would come back with the discouraging news that something had altered, invariably a lot. So every time he was nearly done, he had to start all over.

I keep a small section of that map in my office as a reminder of several New York truths. The first is that an actual map of New York recalls our inner map of the city. We can't make any kind of life in New York without composing a private map of it in our minds—and
these inner maps, as Roger Angell once wrote, are always detailed, always divided into local squares, and always unfinished. The private map turns out to be as provisional as the public one—not one on which our walks and lessons trace grooves deepening over the years, but one on which no step, no thing seems to leave a trace. The map of the city we carried just five years ago hardly corresponds to the city we know today, while the New Yorks we knew before that are buried completely. The first New York I knew well, Soho's art world of twenty years ago, is no less vanished now than Carthage; the New York where my wife and I first set up housekeeping, the old Yorkville of German restaurants and sallow Eastern European families, is still more submerged, Atlantis; and the New York of our older friends—where the light came in from the river and people wore hats and on hot nights slept in Central Park—is not just lost but by now essentially fictional, like Narnia. New York is a city of accommodations and of many maps. We constantly redraw them, whether we realize it or not, and are grateful if a single island we knew on the last survey is still to be found above water.

I knew this, or sensed some bit of it, the first time I ever saw the city. This was in 1959, when my parents, art-loving Penn students, brought my sister and me all the way from Philadelphia to see the new Guggenheim Museum on its opening day. My family had passed through New York a half century earlier, on the way to Philadelphia. My grandfather, like every other immigrant, entered through Ellis Island, still bearing, as family legend has it, the Russian boy's name of “Lucie,” which I suppose now was the Russianized form of the Yiddish Louis, actually, same as his father's. The immigration officer explained with, as I always imagined it, a firm but essentially charitable brusque-ness that you couldn't call a boy Lucy in this country. “What shall we call the boy, then?” his baffled and exhausted parents asked. The immigration officer looked around the great hall and drew the quick conclusion. “Call him Ellis,” he said, and indeed my grandfather lived and died in honor of the New York island as Ellis Gopnik—though Ellis was regarded as a touch too New York for Philadelphia, and Lucie-Ellis actually lived and died known to all as Al.

For the Guggenheim occasion, my mother had sewn a suit of mustard-colored velvet for me and a matching dress for my sister, and we stood in line outside the corkscrew building, trying to remember what we had been taught about Calder. Afterward, we marched down the ramp of the amazing museum and then walked along Fifth Avenue, where we saw a Rolls-Royce. We ate dinner at a restaurant that served a thrilling, exotic mix of blintzes and insults, and that night we slept in my great-aunt Hannah's apartment at Riverside Drive and 115th Street. A perfect day.

I remember looking out the window of the little maid's room where we had been installed, seeing the lights of the Palisades across the way, and thinking,
There! There it is! There's New York, this wonderful city. I'll go live there someday.
Even being in New York, the actual place, I found the idea of New York so wonderful that I could only imagine it as some other place, greater than any place that would let me sleep in it—a distant constellation of lights I had not yet been allowed to visit. I had arrived in Oz only to think,
Well, you don't
in Oz, do you?

Ever since, New York has existed for me simultaneously as a map to be learned and a place to aspire to—a city of things and a city of signs, the place I actually am and the place I would like to be even when I am here. As a kid, I grasped that the skyline was a sign that could be, so to speak, relocated to New Jersey—a kind of abstract, receding Vision whose meaning would always be “out of reach,” not a concrete thing signifying “here you are.” Even when we are established here, New York somehow still seems a place we aspire to. Its life is one thing—streets and hot dogs and brusqueness—and its symbols, the lights across the way, the beckoning skyline, are another. We go on being inspired even when we're most exasperated.

If the energy of New York is the energy of aspiration—let me in there!—the spirit of New York is really the spirit of accommodation—I'll settle for this. And yet both shape the city's maps, for what aspirations and accommodations share is the quality of becoming, of not being fixed in place, of being in every way unfinished. An aspiration might someday be achieved; an accommodation will someday be replaced. The romantic vision—we'll get to the city across the river
someday!—ends up harmonizing with the unromantic embrace of reality: We'll get that closet cleaned out yet.

In New York, even monuments can fade from your mental map under the stress of daily life. I can walk to the Guggenheim if I want to, these days, but in my mind it has become simply a place to go when the coffee shops are too full, a corkscrew Three Guys, an alternative place to get a cappuccino and a bowl of bean soup. Another day, suddenly turning a corner, I discover the old monument looking just as it did the first time I saw it, the amazing white ziggurat on a city block, worth going to see.

This doubleness has its romance, but it also has its frustrations. In New York, the space between what you want and what you've got creates a civic itchiness: I don't know a
New Yorker. Complacency and self-satisfaction, the Parisian vices, are not present here, except in the hollow form of competitive boasting about misfortune. (Even the very rich want another townhouse but move into an apartment, while an exclusive subset of the creative class devotes itself to dreaming up things for the super-rich to want, if only so they alone will not be left without desire.)

went back to New York on many Saturdays as a child, to look at art and eat at delis, and it was, for me, not only the Great Romantic Place but the obvious engine of the working world. After a long time away, I returned, in 1978 with the girl I loved. We spent a miraculous day: Bloomingdale's, MoMA, dinner at Windows on the World, and then the Carnegie Tavern, to hear the matchless poet Ellis Larkins on the piano, just the two of us and Larkins in a cool, mostly empty room. (A quarter century later, I haven't had another day that good.) We were dazzled by the avenues and delighted by the spires of the Chrysler Building, and we decided that, come what might, we had to get there.

BOOK: Through the Children's Gate
9.52Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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