In an interview with the Paris Review, Monsieur Emmanuel Carrère offered his advice on writing:

“I’ll take a notebook, and for a few hours a day I’ll just write whatever comes, about my life, my wife, the elections, trying not to censor myself. That’s the real problem obviously – “without denaturalizing or hypocrisy.”

The interview itself is worth the read for its entertainment value: Carrère offers a unique and sharp focus of life and himself. (There is one story, in which his mother fails to grasp the importance of a connection to a childhood memory, but that’s for those who are interested in these sorts of things.)

Carrère’s advice about writing is much more difficult to accomplish than one would imagine, especially if the feelings that come about on one of these wild and crazy writing sprees makes one most uncomfortable with one’s self or life.

Being honest on paper is a lot different than being honest in one’s thoughts, because at least, as one works out the problems of the day (or, year) in one’s mind, the fear, the shame or the anger is contained.

Attempting to commit to the exercise about a topic which might make one uncomfortable or angry is not an easy feat.

There are some things in life so clearly egregious that to describe the thing or event or reality with anything other than a healthy dose of anger or indignation would essentially render one dead in heart or in mind. And those sorts of emotions are uncomfortable to the more proper and prim among us (myself included).

But, being a writing prompt – I’ll try to describe an event and will try to not censor myself (but, of course I will…it’s an exercise, not a test.)

I walked a little girl home this week. She lives in one of the city owned project buildings. I have never gone inside the building because I am aware of some incidents within the building itself, and because I do not particularly like walking into an unknown situation, especially at night, I felt need to feel apprehensive about a situation I was about to force myself into.

We were going to go into that building together and I was not going to be anything other than comfortable around her, doing it because why should she suffer the indignation of my apprehension? Why should she think for one moment a feeling of shame about where she lived, when most of the time she wants to be on her best behavior for me and she is so polite, I want to return that respect to her.

I see a gentleman at the door and in all my female whiteness, say, “Sir, excuse me. Do you know how I could get inside the building?”

The truth is I had already asked Jane (we’re calling her Jane) how she got into the building when she was walked home by someone other than her mother. She had told me her mother would not let her take the stairs, so that ruled out the stairs for us. She then told me that in her building, everyone could go through the back and walk in, which means that anyone who had that information could also do the same, which meant outsiders were possibly lying in wait for us at the back entrance.

The man turns around and he has dry cleaning. He was irritated by the question because I had made it known I was yelling for him before I reached the door – he tried to walk in and I said, yelling from afar,”Sir, I’m talking to you.” I may have asked that he actually not go into the door until I got there.

It wasn’t as bad as a “yahoo, you there …”. It was more like “hello tall gentleman with a key standing at the door, please do not walk into that building without paying attention to me.”

Finally, Jane and I get to the door and I repeat my question and then quickly say, “I’m walking Jane home and I need to get her upstairs to her apartment.”

This changed the dynamic of our conversation, immediately, which of course, I knew it would. Why wouldn’t a tall, professional looking gentleman take a moment to notice a professional woman rushing down the side walk with a child at her side? And, this being a writing prompt about honesty, I may have had a sense that he would be the sort who would take a moment to help a lady.

So, we follow him in and he checks his mail and begins talking to another gentleman who was walking out. They are relaxed and laughing, so I immediately begin to relax a bit. Then Jane says to me, “The 18th floor. We don’t go to the 18th floor. There are spirits there.”

Truth be known, I had heard about the ghosts in her building before. My daughter wants to investigate because of the stories she has heard.

So, she says, “Bad things happen up there and there are spirits. No one goes to the 18th floor. Bad people are there.”

Now, of course, I’m concerned for her feelings; and, suddenly, I am concerned for his feelings (it is the mind) and I’m a little embarrassed for everyone, except for Jane, whom I delivered the floor to. There is nothing to do, I would not think, than allow her to offer the story and to congratulate her in someway for the telling of it.

But while she was talking, I realized that in all likelihood, she or the building had turned the crime that occurs on the 18th floor into an oral history of sorts of spirits. The reality is probably easier to digest this way.

The elevator smelt of bologna. Where I come from bologna was fried, eaten cold and, cooked in baked beans. It was an inexpensive meat and is a very Southern lunch meat – with that spiced and distinct aroma.

So much of my deep respect for members of the black community come from my own connection to my Southern roots. I am tied to black community through our shared connection of that region of our country.

If one takes the time to ask people where their family members are from, the majority of black Americans in New York have current ties to the South, with family still there – some visit during summer, but they share the joy of the South, with me.

There is love among them for that land and there is that same kind of love in me for that land. So, the smell of bologna reminds me of home and I kind of liked the idea of being comforted that way, in an elevator. There is drug use in the building and there are needles about in the stairways and there are alcoholics and violent people. And, then there are also people like Jane and her mother and brother.

We reached  her apartment and we were fine. I talked to her mother, who always makes me laugh and then I needed to leave. As I’m waiting for the down elevator. I see a gentleman on the stairway and he was tipsy and I think, “God, I hope that kids are okay here.” And, I back myself against a wall, put on my leather gloves, remind myself that my foot is probably broken, and, convince myself that if I needed to, I could still kick with the left foot.

I’m on the elevator and I’m walking myself through the previous 20-minutes and I look over at a sign in the elevator. I’ll paraphrase, but the sign indicated that video footage (meaning not live) was monitored at times and that if one needed to phone 911, they needed to use their cell phone.

I didn’t have a cell phone with me and I thought for a moment, “what would someone do if they didn’t have a cell phone in an elevator and what would they do if they were in danger?” The impracticality of the idea for a population who is lucky to be able to purchase any telephone service, much less cell phone service, seems arrogant in its ignorance.

And, the impracticality of utilizing a cell phone in an elevator – if one had the luxury of being able to afford the cell phone – seems at odds with reality, because when I’m in an elevator and on my phone, most often the call is disconnected or the signal comes in and out.

Before anyone continues further and think that I am just an ignorant white woman myself, the little girl whom I was walking home had experienced a violent act in that elevator. She has a nine-year old brother and he was a victim of the same violent act, as was her mother.

The three were in the elevator and two other women, also in the elevator, pulled a knife and attempted to stab Jane’s mother. The knife fell to the floor of the elevator, Jane’s mother picked up the knife and started swinging the knife in the air because one of the women had grabbed her son and was holding him by his elbows and had moments earlier heard one of the women say, “get him” (meaning the nine-year old boy). So, she is swinging the knife in the air and I think she said she had cut one of the lady’s on the forearm and the hands. The doors opened, she grabs her children who had witnessed everything and she immediately takes transportation to New Jersey. She didn’t know what to do.

It turns out that the two women who had attacked her have a violent history. Yet she still has to go through the process of a trial because a D.A. hears that two women in a project house got into a knife fight. The idea of “two women” strikes me as interesting, because only Jane’s mother was charged (she was the only one who had caused physical injury to another); and, despite the fact that out of these two women, only Jane’s mother had no record; and, of these two women, only Jane’s mother is supporting two children with no support from the father (no multiple baby daddy’s – just one); and, of these two women, only Jane’s mother was awarded $25 per month in child support, which is currently thousands of dollars behind; and, only Jane’s mother is trying to get a certificate and training so that she can become a corrections officer. But some young D.A., who needs a few “easy” convictions on their record, only sees two women in an elevator who got into a knife fight.

That pisses me off Monsieur Carrère and because I do recognize the superiority of your talent over mine, I’m censoring myself once again. But really. Really. Does that makes much sense? It frustrates me because I’m just a woman walking a little girl home after a playdate at our house and I’ve made those connections, why hasn’t someone else?

And, because I do recognize that my connection to black community is not the equivalent of the experience of the black community, I also had to consider what it must feel like to be videotaped in an elevator at all.

As a female in New York, it has been my practice since I first moved here to only live in buildings with doormen. I’ve loved every doorman who has ever held a door for me, but the true value is their professionalism and sense of the building and their ability to help keep it safe from people who might wander in from the street.

I have lived in buildings where there were cameras in the laundry room or the entryways, but that footage is fed live to the doorman, whose job it is to monitor the building. I’ve even sat on the board of a co-operative in New York and while we did have video, it was live feed. We didn’t have need for video recording, but we did need our doormen to be able to monitor because our building was connected by the basement from one street to the next street (to another building owned by the building’s corporation) and we leased commercial space in our basement and there were elderly people and our job was to keep everyone safe.

People will suggest there are remedies to these problems, but the scenario I’m describing is a fairly complicated mess of needs and I’m angry that some wish to currently blame DeBlasio, as if he created the problem, when as far as I can tell, he’s really trying to address some of the underlying and fundamental injustices and inequality of the system. He may or may not be successful, but God bless anyone who does try.

I think I’ve settled somewhere near the Mayor, in that when it comes to children and women who are being forced to live in buildings which might be unsafe, I would tend toward more “security. Where I differ (or, maybe wander in thought), is that security is different than police. I’ve never lived in a building in New York in which police officers sat guard. That must feel odd.

But, because the security at a lot of projects, is often monitored with law enforcement presence, I get frustrated because that tension between safety and oversight must seem so thin. I don’t think anyone in that type of scenario would feel particularly at one with the community.

So, I think, why not security guards, who do not have weapons on their side, but come from the community and guards who are provided live feeds and who are provided cell phones, so that they might phone 911 in the case of an emergency? It seems a way to put some people to work, who are looking for work, and it seems easier in terms of alleviating stressors between law enforcement and black communities. Why wouldn’t the police be grateful for not having to respond to every minor thing and why wouldn’t a community begin to view the police as coming to rescue versus coming to arrest under these conditions.

Is there no room in the budget for thought this way? For meetings of needs and minds?

I wouldn’t know, but I don’t think that six-year old girls should believe that ghosts live in her building on the 18th floor.

And, I must admit that I did censor myself at every sentence. So, …. we’ll try again tomorrow (Carrère said one must practice the exercise for three days.)

Citations, Quotes & Annotations
Interviewed, The Paris Review and Susannah Hunnewell. “Paris Review – the Art of Nonfiction No. 5, Emmanuel Carrère.” 2013. Accessed January 15, 2016. http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6254/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-5-emmanuel-carrere.
1. “Paris Review – the Art of Nonfiction No. 5, Emmanuel Carrère,” 2013, accessed January 15, 2016, http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/6254/the-art-of-nonfiction-no-5-emmanuel-carrere. 

Featured Image:Français : Emmanuel Carrère au salon du livre 2009 by Raphael labbé

Editors, writers and members of the Fraternal Order of the Leather Apron Club.