Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Ariel Sabar's "Heart of the City"

Ariel Sabar covered the 2008 U.S. presidential campaigns for the Christian Science Monitor and is an award-winning former staff writer for the Baltimore Sun and the Providence (RI) Journal. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Monthly, Mother Jones, Moment, Christianity Today and other publications.  His first book, My Father’s Paradise, won the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Sabar applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Heart of the City: Nine Stories of Love and Serendipity on the Streets of New York, and reported the following:
You know the moment: You’ve just met someone new, and something deep in your gut tells you you want to be with this person. Your heart is thumping against your chest. The dopamine flooding your brain is so intense you feel high. Then, at some critical point — perhaps on your second date, perhaps later — chemistry gives way to caution. How well do I really know him? you ask. Can I really trust her? Will I get hurt?

The pivot point is particularly pronounced for couples — like those in my book — who have met by chance. They don’t share a circle of friends. They don’t work or go to school together. They don’t pray in the same synagogue or church or mosque. Their parents aren’t old friends. Nothing binds them but luck.

My new book, Heart of the City, tells the true stories of nine couples who married after meeting, by chance, in one of New York City’s iconic public places: Grand Central Terminal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington Square Park, the Empire State Building, the subway. The narratives unfold like short stories, and page 99 sets us at just such a pivot in one of the stories. Chesa Sy, a tourist fresh off a plane from the Philippines, comes to Manhattan to look for an old classmate who she is told lives in Chinatown. It’s near midnight, and at the subway station near JFK airport, she asks a stranger — Milton Jennings, a music reviewer from Brooklyn — for directions. They talk on the subway, and when she can’t find her friend the next day, she calls Milton in desperation. Milton worries he’s being set up for a con. But over his better judgment he meets Chesa for dinner to see if he can help. When she confesses she has nowhere to stay, he offers her the futon in his tiny living room.

They eventually marry. But Page 99 shows the doubts racing through their minds as the strangeness of their situation dawns on them.

First, Milton’s point of view:
The words came almost before his awareness of them. “I, you know, have a couch in my apartment,” he said. “It’s very uncomfortable. But you could sleep there for a night or two, if you needed to.”

Outside, a cold rain was falling. He bought an umbrella from a sidewalk vendor, and she moved under it to keep dry as they carried her bags through the rain. They rode the Q train to his apartment. As it crossed the East River, an arc of lights smudged against rain-streaked windows. “See the Brooklyn Bridge?” Milton
said. But when he turned toward the woman at his elbow, she was looking straight ahead. She was a total stranger. He raked his fingers across his beetled forehead and thought, I might just be the biggest sucker in the world.
Then Chesa’s:
As the door to Milton’s apartment clicked shut, Chesa felt unexpectedly vulnerable. She was no longer on a subway or in a restaurant—public places where people kept an eye on one another. She was in a man’s apartment, behind a locked door. She had called him because she feared for her safety. But now she was in close quarters with a six-foot-tall man about whom she realized she knew nothing, no matter how trustworthy he seemed. Was she really better off here?

She studied his hands as he jimmied the futon away from the wall, unhooked its latches and laid it flat. He pulled neatly folded sheets from a closet and spread them across the mattress, then returned from another room with a pillow.

He shrugged, as if perturbed or embarrassed. “It’s not the Hilton.”

“It’s okay.”

“Chesa, you’re welcome to sleep here for a few nights. But I just, well, I mean, I can’t give you a key.” When he left for work in the mornings, he told her, she’d have to clear out, too.

As I interviewed couples for the book, I saw that many of their stories had variations on just such a turning point. It’s a reminder, I think, that finding love requires us to take risks, to suspend a certain measure of caution. The downside is the hurt when the risks don’t pay off. But as I hope the stories of these nine couples show, you can’t win if you don’t play.
Learn more about the book and author at Ariel Sabar's website.

The Page 99 Test: My Father’s Paradise.

--Marshal Zeringue