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40th Anniversary

In Conversation: Richard Price and Junot Díaz

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RP: Well, there’s a lot of gold in them thar hills. But you want a place with ghosts, and you want a place with soul.

JD: And where you have fucking gay people and homeless people and black people and white people and pimps and people with money—all in one place. Times Square was a zone. And that’s gone. In my grandfather’s time in the Dominican Republic, the frontier with Haiti was a similar zone. My grandfather spoke Creole. The Haitian dollar, the gourde, was used as money. But the Dominican government was like, Yo, you know what? This is fucked up. This is very hard to control. You can’t sell shit to people when they’re too busy being human. And the Dominican government needed to sell the nationalist myth. And so the border culture was destroyed. I felt in some ways that the best part of the border—not the violent, horrible part but the best part—is the stuff that got eliminated in Central Square. I mean, in Times Square.

RP: Might as well be called Central Square—it’s something else, give it a new name. There’s a danger of romanticizing stuff. It’s easy to bemoan the loss of something that is no more. But I honestly felt like I lived and breathed Times Square. It was like being in a big Hindu temple town, in Tamil Nadu, and, like, you just sit there and let India come at you. My favorite part of Star Wars was the bar with all the Venusians and Neptunians. I mean, you want the Star Wars bar.

NY: Where’s the Star Wars bar now?

RP: I think the Lower East Side is the Star Wars bar. Everybody thinks it’s a done deal and it’s all yuppie. Man, that thing, I mean, there’s more afterbirth than rebirth. You go half a block, and you’re in China. You’re not even in China, you’re in Fujian Province. And then you go into the projects and you’re in black-and-Hispanicsville. And then you go over here and you’re in Orthodox Jewville. And then you got the kids that, it’s like they’re in Rent but they have credit cards. So they don’t have to say, “Ooh, light my candle.” They’ll go to Restoration Hardware and buy a fucking lamp.

JD: It’s so fascinating the way that—I hate to use these terms because people immediately roll their eyes—but the way capital tries to disfigure what is human, and yet the human always figures out a way to reknit itself. The Lower East Side now is definitely not the completed dream of the people who tried to turn it into a Disney World.

RP: There’s a lot of swirl. Chinatown keeps moving north. The yuppies keep moving south. You go onto Clinton Street—that’s not schizophrenic, that’s like octophrenic. There’s a Dominican bling store, next to WD-50, next to, you know, a pre-K school, next to a wine shop. You hit those windows where, I don’t know what kind of Latino it is, but everything in the window is orange and fried, everything is hanging, and there’s a film on the window that looks like duck grease—

JD: It’s the cochifrito place. Those are Puerto Rican.

RP: Yeah. It’s like, just rub it on your heart, man. Just bypass your mouth and let it do its work.

NY: But is that kind of New York cosmopolitanism, that swirl, in risk of dying out or leaving the city—at least Manhattan—for good?

JD: I honestly think that to understand New York, you have to go to places like Mexico City—the parts that have been transformed by the Mexican hipsters who lived in New York and returned, who imported New York. That kookiness is still present. I mean, go to the Dominican Republic—there are places that make you realize, yo, people who were living in New York came back and said “I wanna try to re-create that here.” We always talk about New York as a “global city,” but I think we have too much of a two-dimensional view of where it begins and ends. The same way that millions of people flooded into the city—for the first time, in a very concrete and dynamic way, New York has sent colonies to other places.

RP: Well, it’s like Alexander the Great conquered Persia and then he got all Persian. You can’t dominate something without—you get morphed a little bit.

NY: But in that same way, these big capitalist behemoths that moved into Times Square, are they also getting transformed by the old Times Square?

JD: No, that’s too good of a dream.

RP: There’s no Times Square to get back at them.

JD: But why I think I’ll probably be in New York forever, as a transplant, is because for me this city’s so fucking big—it’s too big for the powers that be to keep an eye on everything. Something always arises out of that impulse that I really love, that impulse of the frontier-border weirdness.


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