Cara Marsh Sheffler
This map is special to me, but not because it maps anything particularly my own.
When I graduated from college, my first job was at Printed Matter, where I came across Paul Zelevansky's Book of Takes and the Jericho map therein. I loved the notion of a personal and narrative geography; I began to look through more of Zelevansky's work in the Printed Matter holdings. The interplay between maps, myths, codes, and wordplay astonished and delighted me—it was almost as though poetry had been let out of its book-bound cage, free to play on all sorts of papery surfaces. Zelevansky's sense of freedom was not lost on me as I turned to my own creative work and, eventually, to editing Works & Days.
I also did what one is inevitably supposed to do when faced with such a free-form narrative: I began to project my own life onto it. Certain things about the map made this especially easy and tempting. My father was Bushwick-born and Levittown-raised; he lived out the last four decades of his life as a voluntary exile in New Jersey, something he never let anyone in the Garden State forget—even though his Empire State accent did the legwork for him.
So much of Zelevansky's work exploits the appropriation of place-names. For instance Jericho is, firstly, found in Sinai, but Long Island's Jericho Turnpike is just as present in this landscape in which New York meets Judea. This is an especially American phenomenon, as anyone who has been to Paris, Texas, Rome, New York, or Florence, Kentucky could tell you. I myself grew up in Bergen County, which I spent some time explaining to one of this issue's contributors who lives in Bergen, Norway.
My father loved this sort of thing. As part of my patrimony, we did a fantastic amount of driving around the five boroughs and Nassau County. We never passed the Utopia Parkway in Queens without laughing; my father never tired of rolling his eyes at the town of Lynbrook, as he explained for the umpteenth time that its developers had merely reversed the syllables of Brooklyn as families—like our own—moved to the suburbs after WWII.
In reciting those names, in recalling those times, he told me about a fresh, green newness of Long Island that was entirely unknown to me, or to anyone in my generation. Nevertheless, the narrative of how my father's childhood home grew up out of an unassuming potato field is a part of my family's story. In a way, those day trips to cemeteries, to relatives' homes, and—above all—to local beaches, were how my family's history was transmitted to me: largely by road signs, highways, and oddball landmarks, like the county hospital where my father let the whole mental ward loose onto the Hempstead Turnpike when he was an 18-year-old orderly.
Throughout my adulthood, my father and I would take drive after drive, often visiting the same places, but sometimes taking different highways just to vary up the anecdotes that would come to life, like hitchhikers along the side of the road at the sight of an oncoming car. Music was as much the fuel of these journeys as gasoline. Recordings might set off any number of memories—from seeing Leonard Bernstein conduct when he was a child to watching Jim Morrison drunkenly careen off the stage when he was in college. Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young brought him back to the summer of Kent State, when he met my mother, the Talking Heads to when I was a little girl.
My father's side of the family has suffered many early deaths and separations to the point that a number of commonplace traditions have simply been broken or lost. Our largely improvised, day trip scholarship drew a certain map of significance that grew in depth, scope, and detail each time we retraced it. In a sense, I felt this scholarship was rewarded when I learned a couple of years ago—through family letters—that my great-grandfather's first address in America was only a stone's throw from my current Lower East Side apartment—in fact, above a bar I frequent.
New Yorkers like to complain that a lot has changed. But in Zelevanky's work, that change is the key to texture. Before my father died, I had the chance to take him over to Roberta's where he glimpsed Bushwick transformed. As we parked the car, my father pointed out the block my grandparents' starter apartment was on and pronounced it Maw-jer Street.
Simply hearing Maujer Street pronounced (or should I say puh-nounced...sorry, Dad) like that jarred me out of my own idea of that era in a funny, yet somehow deep way. It touched to the quick a living thing that had once been moored to a larger time and place now lost to recollection. Such small disruptions allow place names to truly come to life—to pop off the map—like a rivet holding together multiple layers of a larger construct. It's what taking ownership of a history not quite known, which is to say all histories, looks like up close.
Throughout our lives, so much of the mind's work is devoted to making distinctions that are largely temporal and geographical: past, present, future; here, there, elsewhere. A map, if you will. Art—whether that means fiction, music, painting, dance, or any other medium at all—might be defined as a mapping force just as powerful as time or place. It creates and celebrates the context in which we live the lives of our bodies and our minds.
We navigate our lives with an eye on some roadmap to significance. That, Zelevansky reminds us, is an art. I'm honored to feature his work here.