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Jonathan Lethem, Novelist, b. 1964

“The Upper West Side was a museum of European refugees.”


Jonathan Lethem (left), with his mother, sister, brother, and great-grandmother on the Upper West Side.  

New York City’s one thing only if you behold it from afar, through a telescope. For a child from a quadrant of Brooklyn where every block was a fresh reality zone, no assumption safe to carry over from one to the next, the dark mosaic of neighborhoods and boroughs was the same, writ larger—a Disunited States of its own. My family’s voyages to Manhattan were to Soho and Greenwich Village and Chinatown, to attend gallery openings of my dad’s friends and rival painters, to revisit landmarks of my parents’ lives before children, the folk-music clubs, the Szechuan restaurants. The Upper West Side was terra incognita except for visits to see my great-grandmother, known to me as “Omi.” We’d be dressed up, wearing uncomfortable button shirts, and dark shoes that rarely left the bottom of our kids’ closet. Omi was a refugee from upper-middle-class Lübeck, Germany, where she’d been an opera singer and a neighbor of Thomas Mann’s family. She landed in a residence hotel on Broadway and Eighty-something, in a small apartment full of lace and Meissen china, evocations of her lost world. She spoke barely any English and expressed her affection for me by running her fingers through my hair while calling me “Yonatan”—so, for me, a drive to the Upper West Side might as well have been a voyage to Europe. If we went for a walk, nothing on the street much contradicted this sensation—we’d cross Broadway just as far as the traffic islands between the streams of traffic, there to pay our respects to other ­German-Jewish refugees sunning themselves on the benches, as I imagine we’d have done on the day of this photograph. In the years between the visit shown here and the end of high-school, the two women in this photo both died, though I did manage the strange trick of having a great-grandmother for a year longer than I had a mom. It was high school, specifically, that brought me back to the Upper West Side: I went to Music & Art, so I took the A train every day, up along Central Park West, into Harlem. As I began making friends with Upper West Side kids—there were a lot of them at M&A—I’d persistently find myself surprised to know that any children lived in that neighborhood at all, since for me it had seemed like a living museum of European refugees. To be truthful, I still can’t cross Broadway on foot, passing those traffic-island benches, little tulip beds stranded in taxi smog, and not be reminded of the Holocaust.


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