My father grew up in New York City. He spent most of his boyhood living in a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn, and that experience shaped his taste in movies. He loved movies set in New York, and he especially loved the New York movies written by Neil Simon. He felt a special bond with Simon in part because they shared a birthday. My father was born on July 4, 1928, and Simon was born on July 4, 1927. I remember going with my father to see Simon’s The Out-of-Towners as soon as it came out in 1970, and I have loved the movie ever since. The movie stars Jack Lemmon and Sandy Dennis, and it deals with a middle-aged couple (Gwen and George Kellerman) who leave their home in Ohio and go to New York so that George can interview for a new job. What follows is a series of hilarious mishaps that tests the couple and changes their perspective.
I thought about The Out-of-Towners when I discovered In the Key of New York City: A Memoir in Essays by Charlotte writer Rebecca McClanahan. Published by Red Hen Press in September 2020, this book is Rebecca’s eleventh book and her second memoir. Like Gwen and George Kellerman, Rebecca and her husband, Donald Devet, left the security of their comfortable home and headed off to New York City to explore new possibilities. Rebecca and Donald were about the same age as the Kellermans when they went to New York in 1998, but unlike the Kellermans, they ended up staying in the Big Apple for eleven years. Rebecca and Donald, like the Kellermans, approached New York from the perspective of outsiders, and this perspective helped them notice details that native New Yorkers often ignore as they bustle about their business. Rather than provide a chronological record of her years in New York, Rebecca writes focused essays in which she delves into particular moments and events. I recently contacted Rebecca and asked her for more information about In the Key of New York City. Here is what she sent to me:
When my husband and I moved from Charlotte to New York in 1998, it was a midlife leap into the unknown. We’d talked for decades about living in the city someday and had visited New York whenever we could. Then one day, while we were walking on 8th Avenue celebrating Donald’s 50th birthday, I surprised myself by saying, “If we’re going to make the move, we better make it now.” That was in May, and by August we had put our house on the market, stored the possessions we had not given away, found a furnished sublet, left our jobs, and said goodbye to family and friends—and even to our cat! Neither of us is impulsive by nature, but I guess the urge was strong. We figured that with the sale of the house and our savings, we could make it for two years if we didn’t find jobs there. We ended up staying for eleven.
In the Key of New York Cityis a memoir-in-essays about the first several years of our time there. We were newcomers, outsiders, and, as is the case with most outsiders, our senses were heightened as we struggled to navigate an alien landscape. Despite my training as a military brat who moved often during childhood, I was extremely lonely at the beginning, or maybe homesick is a better word for it. We’d been comfortable in our North Carolina lives and I missed that easy comfort. I missed my home and garden, my friends and family, my students and colleagues in the writing community.
Making a community in New York was a tough learning experience, but little by little we made connections—through our new jobs, mostly, and by reconnecting with New York area friends we’d lost track of over the years. But much of the growing feeling of connection came from the constant interaction with strangers. This was due in part to street activity—with walking rather than driving, encountering diverse faces close-up and personal, hearing the broth of languages on our walks, sharing subway seats or park benches, and learning how to give each person we met their own valuable space. It may sound strange, but I discovered a new form of intimacy in those encounters. I felt part of a world much larger than myself, my neighborhood, or my circle of friends. I hadn’t expected the intensity of this feeling and it surprised and comforted me. So, sprinkled among the longer essays in the book are brief moments that suggest these connections: an encounter on the subway involving two sleeping children, the drunken young man on 8th avenue holding a dying pigeon out to me as if I might save it, the post 9/11 park scene where I see a Muslim woman in a headscarf running toward a child who is in danger. All of these encounters, and more, forced me to imagine what New York—or, indeed, our nation—might look like if we all, horror of horrors, went “back where we came from.”
The book opens and closes with scenes of Central Park. The park bench was such an important part of my experience of New York—not only as my own physical (if temporary) stake on the landscape and a place from which to view the scene, but also as an opportunity for conversations with strangers who were always eager to share their stories and their odd but intriguing wisdom. A park bench is where public and private meet, which echoes my experience of the city. The book moves between the public and the private, the joyous and the sorrowful (9/11, my cancer surgery and recovery, moments of loneliness and regret) and the present and the past.
The title (“In the Key…”) is of course related to music, and music weaves its way throughout the book: in sounds heard through apartment walls, the cacophony of the streets and subways, the music I hear during the 9/11 prayer service, and even in the hospital essay when I hear the dying man’s wife echoing his cries—an opera of shared pain. Music touches the deepest parts of our experience; it transcends language. Which is why music is such an important part of the book.
In another way, though, the “key” to New York could also be seen as an object, something that opens the door into a new experience. That is what I hope the book might do for readers, not only those readers with connections to New York. I hope that the book’s reach extends to anyone who has ever been uprooted or who has felt like a newcomer or outsider, who has longed for connection, and who has been lucky enough to experience a place that changed them in remarkable ways. Maybe that’s reaching too high, but that was my aim in writing the book. I am grateful to each and every reader. Readers make books possible. Thank you, Mark, for the opportunity to talk about my book.
Rebecca and Donald, like the Kellmans, have returned home. Rebecca is maintaining her connections in Charlotte, including teaching in The Queens MFA program, and Donald is working as a video producer here in Charlotte. Rebecca is having great success in her writing career, the details of which can be found on her website: http://www.rebeccamcclanahanwriter.com
Rebecca still sees herself as a Charlotte writer, but her experinces living in New York have rippled through her writing career in a variety of ways. Her embrace of both Charlotte and New York is reflected in the fact that she is the recipent of fellowships from both the North Carolina Arts Council and the New York Foundation for the Arts. As I see it, Rebecca’s new book adds an appealing New-York-City vibe to Storied Charlotte.