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40th Anniversary

In Conversation: Richard Price and Junot Díaz

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NY: And of course Manhattan residents famously have a bubble mentality too.

RP: New York City is its own country—you move three blocks, and you’re in a new city. New Yorkers don’t know shit about America. They go five miles outta Manhattan, and they don’t know what’s going on.

JD: One of the other big disconnects is how little New Yorkers, especially in Manhattan, feel the war. It depends on the neighborhood, but in general, the average New York kid does not know someone in Iraq. The average American kid does. Washington Heights, half the Dominican kids are out there fighting. You know, my two nephews are in Iraq.

RP: And they probably don’t have an issue with the politics of it.

JD: Oh, no, of course. They’re like, “Yeah!”

NY: Richard, what was your relationship to Manhattan, growing up?

RP: I don’t know about Washington Heights, but if you lived in Brooklyn or the Bronx, where I grew up, even to go into Manhattan, you might as well come from like Podunk. I mean, I remember I’d go into the Village to play handball on West 4th Street. I’d always go play handball for money.

JD: Oh, shit! To be good enough to play handball for money is fucking nasty. For the record.

RP: I wasn’t that good. I broke even.

JD: It doesn’t make any difference. Good enough to go down.

‘All those guys with the popcorn pimp hats. I loved that.’
— Richard Price

RP: Anyway, I’d go down to West 4th Street, that legendary playground. Until one time—it was in the sixties—I saw a guy with a ponytail and an earring walking his dog. And I was so frightened. It took years for me to go back to Greenwich Village. Also I used to go down to Times Square. That’s where the latest James Bond movie always premiered. You’d get ready at 9 a.m. with your friends, you’d take a backpack, some food—you know, it’s like, we’re going across the desert. I remember goin’ down there to see From Russia With Love. It was like we were going camping. My first fantasy when I was a kid was, I wanna get real rich, and when I get rich I’m gonna get me a penthouse in Times Square.

NY: Which is obviously no longer the shining dream.

RP: All the places that I associated with affluence when I was a kid are today’s shit-holes. I mean, LeFrak City, in Queens, next to the gas tanks and stuff. Somebody moved from our projects in the Bronx to LeFrak City when it was brand new. And I remember going to this kid’s house in 1960, and I thought it was like a palace.

NY: What were the projects like back then?

RP: In the fifties to the mid-sixties, the projects were great. They were doing what they were supposed to do. They were putting people, working-class people, people struggling financially, in a nice apartment, for 80 bucks a month. The only type of person that I didn’t ever meet there was a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant. If somebody’s name was Worthington, or Johnson, they were black, you know? People were either Jewish, black, Puerto Rican. I didn’t know any Dominicans, but—

JD: Sure, no, we came later.

NY: You must have seen neighborhoods evolve in all kinds of ways over the last 40 years.

RP: When you go to Harlem now, all the franchises are there—Starbucks and Linens ’n’ Things. It’s the same eight stores that are metastasized everywhere. And in neighborhoods where people have money, they’ll say, “Oh, a Starbucks, another fucking Starbucks.” But in Harlem, it’s like, ‘Hey, Starbucks, man! Häagen-Dazs and Baskin-Robbins! Yowee!” We’re all thinking There goes the neighborhood, and they’re thinking Here comes the neighborhood.

JD: Me and my girl beef about this. I know this is a weird thing to desire, but when you feel locked out of the larger culture, even if it’s a consumer-capitalist one, that’s a lot, bro. You know, there’s not a bookstore, and there’s not a place you can go if you wanna spend $5 for coffee. It weighs on people, man. It feels like you’re isolated, and you are. My girl loved it when a Starbucks opened up. But I’m one of those fuckers who’s like, “Naw, man, it’s corporate!” I’m like an idiot.

RP: The biggest thing for me, the most blatant thing, is I hate Times Square so much. It’s like the triumph of some kind of fundamentalism. I miss those all-night movie houses. All those guys with the popcorn pimp hats. I loved that.

JD: I know this is a reach, but I always think that there are these zones where really cool, non-formulaic shit is happening. And for all the fucked-up dinge of those places, we’re our best selves there. And no matter where these zones are, people want to get rid of them. Anyone with any kind of power.


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