Bibliophiles: Alone, Together

Bibliophiles: Alone, Together


I came to the city to write. I hoped to find a bustling literary community to feed my spirit and offer me some kind of identity in a dizzying mass of humanity. One might think that in New York City, all a bibliophile needs to do is step outside. Better yet, as an NYU student, the whole place should be crawling with people correctly using “whom.” However, in the time of Covid-19, the city has snoozed in a restless slumber devoid of in-person events. Easy, as with the rest of the world—go virtual. Well, the issue there was that I was new and didn’t even know where to “go” virtually. I had just moved to the city, yes, in the middle of a pandemic, yes, in the middle of a dumpster fire of a presidency and general disintegrating of the state of the union. But I came nonetheless because I had wanted to come to New York to write since I was a little girl. 

Of course, you may think: All Americans love New York, who gives a hoot about your silly New York dream? Well, probably no one. But the popularity or probability of one’s dream has little to do with its nurturing. I learned this truth and about the beacon of New York City through my great-grandmother. Her name was Elizabeth Haramach. She was living in Bohemia before she arrived in New York in April of 1911. She was sixteen years old. She had nine dollars to her name. She came alone. So, in the depths of a pandemic the likes of which the world had not seen since my great grandmother was a young woman in the city, I decided to buck up and make some damn literary friends. 

Attempt One: Virtual Open-Mic Night 

I must first say that I am not an “Open-Mic Night” kind of lady. According to my friends, I can be a bit of a snob and a hefty bummer. It would be one thing if open mics were curated, filled with writers who have at least read their work out loud before or promised to not talk about when they learned that their father wasn’t their biological father and how their mother was a bitch, bitch, BITCH for not telling them sooner. 

I guess that would technically be a showcase. But this was something else altogether. 

While no family members were chastised during this open mic, there was a distinct distance, mostly because it was over Zoom and people were logging in from all over the country. But also, the mood was off, even after my second glass of wine. I couldn’t get into the rhythm. I couldn’t figure out if every performer was an idiot or a genius, leaving me the idiot. I logged off and read out loud to myself to fill the silence of my tiny apartment. 

Attempt Two: Virtual Book Reading 

Off the bat, this seemed more my style. Zoom is not made for the talking stick to be passed around haphazardly; here, there were two designated speakers who were themselves writers: an interviewer and an interviewee. Finally, some order to the internet. And while there was order, there was not the pizzazz and comradery one hopes for from a literary event. From what I could surmise, these women could not wrap their heads around the fact that they were the center of virtual attention. In their confusion, they swapped inside jokes for the better part of an hour. After they managed to steady themselves, we were able to learn about the book in question, a title I imagine filling grocery store shelves for months to come. 

Attempt Three: Virtual Close Poetry Reading

This reading was of a Middle-English poem. Not a scholar but a woman with a lute broke down the cultural significance of words like “wod” and “frith.” I have not studied poetry extensively and wanted an opportunity to do so. However, on the fourth round of this very nice woman—who looked like she spent all her free time at public libraries—singing the aforementioned poem while playing the aforementioned lute, I started to look for a common thread between these events.  Like all of those who self-identify as socially awkward I had begun to think it was me. Or maybe, I thought, maybe it’s just Zoom, there’s no way my awkward aura could transpose itself over the world wide web. Anyway, to be sure, I cut both factors out of the equation. 

Attempt Four: Pre-Recorded Audio Poetry Slam 

The poems were curated, edited, certainly collated. The applause wasn’t muted or broken when the Zoom gods chose one person as the overlord of sound. I did not worry if my lighting was bad or if I interrupted someone or if I misread the mood. But I felt alone. After months of communing with humanity through the internet, I was still alone. 

Attempt Five: Back to the Source 

I began my morning at the Tenement Museum. We learned of the first German and Irish, then Jewish, then Italian, then Puerto Rican, then Chinese immigrants who called the Lower East Side home. The tour was run by a nice woman about my age whose parents came from Puerto Rico before she was born. Two young Chinese men seemed proud of their conversational English and asked a question at every stop. A young man who was a recent immigrant from Uruguay hoped to know the history of a country of immigrants. We looked at tenement buildings and synagogues and the street that used to be a bustling market. When it was over, I grabbed a bagel with lox from Russ and Daughters and began the slow march uptown. 

I had wanted to walk all the way to Sixty-First street. I felt something had to be paid for in blood. In the forties my feet started to ache, so I took the subway. The plan was to head straight to the address I had scribbled down on a piece of paper, but fate intervened. A beautiful, shining lighthouse called to me: Shakespeare and Co.: books, coffee, and a chair. 

Maybe it was reckless to take a seat and buy a book others could have touched and to move my mask on and off to take sips of tepid coffee, but it felt like the tiniest bit of the New York I had dreamed of. Even though it wasn’t an event and I only talked to the store clerk and the barista, there were other readers there. We tend to be a quiet bunch with a love language of reading separately, together. And so we did until my feet ached a little less, and my belly regained warmth, and my heart felt enlivened by Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler.   

When I felt fully and totally revitalized, I walked nine blocks. The single-family house had been torn down in 1940. Anna Haramach placed the address on her entry papers to Ellis Island, as did her younger sister when she came a year later, Elizabeth Haramach, Lizzie for short. The two women or girls, depending on how you measure such things, worked as live-in maids. A few years later, Lizzie would marry Martin Burszky. On his World War I draft card, he would write “Burky,” one wife, and one child. Three more children would come, the last being Edward. He was my grandfather and attended NYU with the money his mother had saved since she came to this country. 

Truth be told, I know very little about Lizzie. She did not speak about her life before New York. She did not speak much at all according to my grandfather. She worked and instructed her children to do the same. I do not know what she would think of me taking three generations of hard work to pursue writing of all things, a roll of the dice in the best of times. I do not know if she would be proud or horrified. But I do know that she would understand taking a risk and relying on yourself, and trusting that while things may be dark, if you keep showing up, something is bound to turn your way.

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