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L.E.S. Lit: A Super Sad Love Story (on Grand Street)

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As you may have heard, The Lo-Down is co-sponsoring this fun event at the Educational Alliance on Wednesday.  Writers Gary Shteyngart and Joanna Smith Rakoff happen to be friends from college and share a love of the Lower East Side. Their conversation will be moderated by New York Magazine writer, Michael Idov, who also wrote an L.E.S.-centric novel, Ground Up. We thought we’d offer an excerpt from Mr. Shteyngart’s book, Super Sad True Love Story, which is particularly relevant as it references, in loving and hilarious detail, our beloved neighborhood. Make sure to register for the event here.

In my trendy old- man’s getup, I ambled with easy grace down Grand Street toward the East River Park, stepping on each curb with the profound “oy” that is the call- and- response of my neighborhood. I sat on my favorite bench, next to the stocky, splay- footed realism of the Williamsburg Bridge’s anchorage, noticing how part of the structure looked like a bunch of stacked milk crates. I celebrated the teenaged mothers from the Vladeck Houses tending to their children’s boo- boos (“A bee touched me, Mommy!”). I relished hearing language actually being spoken by children. Overblown verbs, explosive nouns, beautifully bungled prepositions. Language, not data. How long would it be before these kids retreated into the dense clickety- clack äppärät world of their absorbed mothers and missing fathers?

Then I caught sight of a healthy- looking old Chinese woman ripe for celebration and, at the speed of half a furlong an hour, tailed her down Grand Street and then East Broadway, watching her feel up exotic tubers and slap around some silvery fish. She was shopping with suburban abandon, buying everything that came within her grasp and then, after each purchase, running over to stand next to one of the wooden telegraph poles that now lined the streets.

My fashion friend Sandi in Rome had told me about the Credit Poles, yapping on about their cool retro design, the way the wood was intentionally gnarled in places and how the utility wire was replaced by strings of colored lights. The old- fashioned appearance of the Poles was obviously meant to evoke a sturdier time in our nation’s history, except for the little LED counters at eye level that registered your Credit ranking as you walked by. Atop the Poles, American Restoration Authority signs billowed in several languages. In the Chinatown parts of East Broadway, the signs read in English and Chinese—“America Celebrates Its Spenders!”—with a cartoon of a miserly ant happily running toward a mountain of wrapped Christmas presents. In the Latino sections on Madison Street, they read in English and Spanish—“Save It for a Rainy Day, Guevón”—with a frowning grasshopper in a zoot suit showing us his empty pockets. Alternate signs read in all three languages:

The Boat Is Full

Avoid Deportation

Latinos Save

Chinese Spend

ALWAYS Keep Your Credit Ranking Within Limits

American Restoration Authority

“Together We’ll Surprise the World!”

I felt the perfunctory liberal chill at seeing entire races of human beings so summarily reduced and stereotyped, but was also voyeuristically interested in seeing people’s Credit rankings. The old Chinese woman had a decent 1400, but others, the young Latina mothers, even a profligate teenaged Hasid puffing down the street, were showing blinking red scores below 900, and I worried for them. I walked past one of the Poles, letting it zap the data off my äppärät, and saw my own score, an impressive 1520. But there was a blinking red asterisk next to the score.

Was the otter still flagging me?

I sent a GlobalTeens message to Nettie Fine, but got a chilling “recipient deleted” in response. What could that mean? No one ever gets deleted from GlobalTeens. I tried to GlobalTrace her but got an even more frightening “recipient untraceable/inactive.” What kind of person couldn’t be found on this earth?

Back in Rome, I used to meet Sandi for lunch at da Tonino and we’d talk about what we missed the most about Manhattan. For me it was fried pork- and- scallion dumplings on Eldridge Street, for him bossy older black women at the gas company or the unemployment office who called him “honey” and “sugar” and sometimes “baby.” He said it wasn’t a gay thing, but, rather, that these black women made him feel calm and at ease, as if he had momentarily won the love and mothering of a complete stranger.

I guess that’s what I wanted right now, with Nettie Fine “inactive,” with Eunice six time zones away, with the Credit Poles reducing everyone to a simple three- digit numeral, with an innocent fat man dragged off a plane, with Joshie telling me “future salary & employment = let’s discuss”: a little love and mothering.

Excerpted from Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart. Copyright © 2010 by Gary Shteyngart. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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