In Conversation: Richard Price and Junot Díaz

Junot Díaz and Richard PricePhoto: Dan Winters

Richard Price and Junot Díaz are having a very nice year. Díaz’s first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, won the Pulitzer Prize; Price’s eighth, Lush Life, got some of the best reviews of his career. (He says he feels like “an overnight sensation 35 years in the making.”) Although their backgrounds are quite different—Price, born in 1949, grew up in a Bronx housing project; Díaz, born in 1968, grew up in the Dominican Republic and moved to New Jersey when he was 6—they have more in common than one might imagine. Both had cabdriver fathers; both studied at Cornell; both are obsessed with the metaphysics of Jersey. Most of all, they both like to, as Díaz puts it, “sit in voices.” Their work seems unusually determined to capture the rhythms of actual speech as it emerges from the pressures of urban life. And in person, they speak to a remarkable degree in the voices of their novels: Price cracking wise in a heavy Bronx accent, quoting the koans of drug dealers (“Money’s no expense, I keep my ear to the grindstone”); Díaz stitching together intellectualisms, hip-hop slang, and omnivorous cultural references while cursing like a sailor.

Junot Díaz: When I arrived in New York, in 1994, it was the golden era of the Dominican community in Washington Heights. Finally people had established themselves. There were enough people who could speak English, who were, like, multicultural, who’d been to college. And it was such a weird thing to have your community coming into its own at the same time that New York City was in some ways being transformed into a fucking playground. We were coming of age on limited time. All the cards were on the table, but no one could see it yet. We didn’t know that Washington Heights was going to be sold out from under us. About 2000, 2001, was when we starting realizing it.

Richard Price: What was it changing to?

JD: They were moving families out and putting, like, one person in an apartment.

RP: That happened on the Lower East Side too. I remember getting lost there in the eighties, and it was the only time in New York I ever felt scared. All of sudden I’m on Eldridge Street, or Orchard, and people were lined around the block to score heroin from an apartment. There was, like, a brick missing, and you put the money in the brick and you get a deck of heroin. Line around the block. Today, the same apartment’s probably going for a million and a half. In fact, there’s a billboard on the Lower East Side that says where did all the junkies go? Well, the answer’s “indoors.”

JD: The eighties were an incredibly dark period in Washington Heights for the Dominican community. I mean, just the amount of fucking crime, the amount of drugs.

RP: It was so bad that they actually took the Three-three Precinct and they split it into two precincts. There was just too much to handle.

JD: Yeah, no, my girl talks about it. She was born and raised in the Heights, and she was like, “When we got out of the eighties alive, it was such an exciting period.” It’s like the end of your first year at a new high school. People felt like, Wow, we finally made it through.

New York: Where did you grow up?

JD: As a kid, I lived in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, which is right across from Staten Island. I was living in the neighborhood that abutted the landfill.

RP: Smelled nice, I bet.

JD: Yeah. Smelled nice and …

RP: Drink a lot of tap water?

JD: And the dust from the trucks—beyond just the garbage. I felt that we were as far from the world as you could possibly get. I was so desperate to escape. I would step out of my house, and you would see the Verrazano Bridge. My neighborhood was the first stop on the bus from New York. But every one of my friends acted like the neighborhood was some sort of weird, thuggish Brigadoon, and if they left, it would fucking disappear. I have friends who are still there.

RP: When I was writing Clockers, I spent a lot of time in this housing project in Jersey City called Curries Woods.

JD: Oh, yeah, I know it.

RP: It’s kinda down now. And I was hanging out with this one family that had a bird’s-eye view of what’s-her-face. With the torch and—

NY: The Statue of Liberty?

RP: Yeah. I’m getting really bad—what’s-her-face. These people had the best view of the Statue of Liberty. These kids in the projects. They’d never been to New York City. It was like a hop, skip, and a tunnel. And they’re 15, 16 years old. And I find that’s also true in the boroughs—in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens. You got people who live, like, a medieval life, spending their entire lifetime within ten miles or less.

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.

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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In Conversation: Richard Price and Junot Díaz