"And here comes my grandmother, she's the oldest person by 40 years in that theater. And she gets so carried away, when the monster finally gets flamed-throwed, or immolated, or whatever, she would stand up and she was so carried away. I remember her standing up once and saying, “Good for ya, ya’ bastard. How does that feel?”
Richard Price is a writer’s writer, with novels that include The Wanderers, Clockers, Freedomland, and Lush Life. He’s also collaborated on such landmark television series as HBO’s The Wire, The Night Of, The Deuce, and The Outsider. Hear him talk with Kevin Burke about how New York City is better understood as a series of hometowns and how growing up in the Bronx shaped him as a writer of human drama and dialogue in stories set in the gritty landscapes of urban America.
SHARE THIS EPISODE
Original Composition: Sterling Steffen
Illustrations: Nick Gregg
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Part 52, Leaves of Grass (1855)
“I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles.
“You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, And filter and fibre your blood.
“Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
Richard Price, The Wanderers, Clockers, Freedomland, Lush Life
A special thanks, too, to our co-presenter on this special New York City feature series, the Museum of the City of New York.
Ep. 3 Richard Price – Parkside Houses, The Bronx
March 2, 2021
Intro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): This episode is part of a special feature series on New York City and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. With generous support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. Find us at yourhometown.org or on your favorite podcast app.
Richard Price: We’re in the theater. I’m like seven, eight, nine. All the other kids in the theater — it’s all kids — but most of them are older than me and they’re rougher. And here comes my grandmother, she’s the oldest person by 40 years in that theater. And she gets so carried away, when the monster finally gets flamed-throwed, or immolated, or whatever, she would stand up and she was so carried away. I remember her standing up once and saying, “Good for ya, ya’ bastard. How does that feel?”
Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): “Where did you grow up?” is a question we’re all asked a lot, but the answer is never as simple as a place on a map, is it? It’s about the kid inside of us. And what happened to them there before we met the world and the world met us.
My guest is the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. Writers I know talk about him the way actors do Brando and Denzel. Many consider him one of the greatest writers of dialogue of all time. His ear to the pavement. Painting the way real people really talk. You know it’s a Richard Price story by the way the characters he writes bang hard up against the walls of life. Cops, gang members, drug-addicts and dealers, bartenders, taxi drivers, and the like. There are no one-dimensional saints or sinners through the windows he opens for us. His books include The Wanderers, Clockers, Lush Life, and Freedomland. And, for television, he’s collaborated on such landmark HBO series as The Wire, The Deuce, The Night Of, which was incredible, and his recent adaptation of the Steven King novel, The Outsider, which was scary.
Now, you’d think from this list that he’d be the ultimate tough guy, a writer who runs with cops, but you’d be wrong – at least in the superficial definition of the word tough. No, Richard Price’s strength, I found out, comes from a different place, a different time, and different people.
When we sat down to talk at his home in Central Harlem, I was curious to know the extent to which the fictional worlds he’s created are stand-ins for the place where he actually grew up in the 1950s and 60s. I’m talking about the Parkside Houses of the East Bronx section of New York, a city, he told me, that’s really better understood as a series of hometowns than one giant metropolis. As he laid it out sitting across from me in his front parlor:
Richard: When people say New York, “I’m a New Yorker,” they’re talking about Manhattan. People live in Queens — the outer boroughs, those are different worlds. You know, they’re like satellites. The area is the world you live in. I live in the nation of central Harlem. I used to live in a nation of hipster Soho, Noho. I used to live in the nation of Gramercy Park. I used to live in a nation of Parkside Projects. There’s all these microclimates and there’s no passports. You just know when you’re not there.
Richard: That that you’re not there anymore. So, Parkside was built in 1950. I was an infant. My parents were one of the original tenants.
It was a two-bedroom apartment. My bedroom I shared with my brother. Whatever books I had was on some skimpy bookcase. I guess there was a desk. Until I hit puberty, I was really into wrestling. This is in the early ‘60s. And there was a magazine called Wrestling Review, and they always have some color centerfold of “The Wrestler of the Month.” And I would tape them to the walls. I remember that. It was like a bunch of beefcake on my walls and I had no notion of sexuality or anything. And as I look back, you know, I don’t know why I did that, but that’s what I did.
The other thing is my father was a window dresser in the Bronx and he worked in women’s and children’s clothing. Small stores, mostly in the South Bronx, you know, doing their windows. Depending on the season, he would have to get props. And at one time he purchased all these Ivy League pennants like Joe College. That part of the Bronx, very few people ever went to college, but…. And when that season was over, he gave me all these pennants, Yale, Columbia, Northwestern — I remember it was purple — and about a dozen of them and he pinned them to the walls. And those are the two memories I have. My brother had no choice. He was younger. He had no choice on what goes on the walls.
Kevin: You set the tone. And when you were growing up in the neighborhood, how would you assess the power dynamics of your neighborhood? Who had power, who didn’t have it?
Richard: Well first of all, my world was children, not adults. So, who had power were the tough kids. I mean basically it was a working-class neighborhood. It’s like… best athletes, best looking girls, the toughest kids. I mean, this is like a child’s eye view. There was a large central playground called Big Playground. It was called Big Playground — divided between handball courts, basketball courts, and the extended area that was more like swings for younger kids. And the basketball courts especially — which were sometimes used for touch football games because they were big enough — that was the gladiators pit. And that’s where legends were made, heroes were made, legendary fighters, [and] super athletes. In terms of adults, the only formal authorities in my life were my teachers, which I never questioned, and everybody had parents. The assumption was, well, if it’s a dad or a mom, they’re the boss of your life.
Kevin: And did the world up there feel circumscribed to you, or did it feel expansive when you were growing up?
Richard: It just felt like the world. In fact, Parkside — which only had 20 buildings, I spent 18 years there — but people were like yokels who never left their fourth of the projects. I was at the bottom of the hill. There’s a hill, which is White Plains Road. The El train went right past my window. I don’t remember going beyond the playground, which is at the crest of the hill to the other side, going down towards the Bronx Park East. It was like Xenephon. You knew your quarter and if you wound up in a diagonal opposite quarter, it’s like, “How the hell do I get out of here?”
Kevin: And were other places that you were told not to go?
Richard: Not really. Because the thing about Parkside and the appeal and the social engineering behind it is that you have a bunch of World War Two veterans — young, just coming out, marrying their high school sweethearts with no housing stock whatsoever — and so they’re forced to live like my parents with my mother’s parents in my mother’s childhood bedroom. I was born in my mother’s childhood bedroom. I didn’t think about it. This is where I live. And nothing was off limits because it wasn’t like, well, I’m going to go down to the bad part of the Bronx or I’m going to go to some swamp in the northern Bronx that turned out to be Freedomland many years later, then Co-Op City. It was a world. You lived in the world. It was like a village or a medieval village where they say people never went more than 10 miles from the spot they were born all their lives.
When I was writing Clockers, I was hanging out with the NYPD crime scene unit, which attended all murders. And this was in the height of the crack era. And there was a murder in the Bronx. Some guy was on a payphone outside a bodega. Some other guy had just gotten off, had a big fight with his girlfriend on the phone, was walking away — his back to the phone, fuming about his girlfriend — and he just impulsively decided to wheel around and shoot the payphone.
Unfortunately, some guy was on it and he killed him. And, so here’s the guy laying there and I asked the detectives, “How do you know, how are you going to find the guy? It’s like a mystery. A dead guy on a payphone. How many guns are there in the Bronx? How many bullets are there in the Bronx?” And he said, “We’ll catch him because deers are always born where their ancestors are born and they always walk in the path of their ancestors.” In other words, he’s in the neighborhood. He doesn’t have the imagination to run away. Ironically, when he took out the wallet of the dead guy and I saw the address, it was 492 Concord Avenue. And somehow, maybe five years later, I realized my grandfather before I was born, my great-grandfather owned that building and my mother and all my mother’s side of the family were raised in that building. How’s that for so what goes around comes around?
Kevin: That’s unbelievable.
10:40 [We hear 10 second music break]
Kevin: Cerebral palsy affected your right arm and leg when you were a kid, and I’m wondering how that shaped your expectations of what you could do, who you could be, versus the expectations that others had of you in meeting you?
Richard: Well, that was a big point of anxiety for my parents, not for me, because…. I remember they woke me up in the middle of the night — probably not the middle of the night — but I was six and they were worried. They woke me up to say, “You have to go to college, because with your hand — you can’t even dig a ditch” — which is not true. “But you have to go college,” and I’m six.
Kevin: That’s kindergarten, first grade.
Richard: Yeah. And there they were in a panic. Oh, what can I do? I can’t be a laborer. I have to go to college, so. The other time they woke me up like that, there was a guy, I think his name was Al Oerter, and he had a messed up right hand, much like myself — I don’t know it might not have been CP [Cerebral Palsy]. And in the 1956 Olympics, he was a thirty-pound hammer thrower. And they woke me up to show me a Life magazine, “Look what he can do. Look what you can do.” And I said, “Oh, great, now I got to be an Olympian hammer thrower just because I have a bad hand and a two-handed sport, are you kidding me.”
But other than that, I was very self-conscious. Once you get into teenage years you think of girls and my right side had always been skinnier. Of course, I was self-conscious. I would never wear short sleeve shirts. But other than that, I mean —
Kevin: And in your neighborhood, you mentioned that’s sort of the coin of the realm, with the gladiators who are these great sorts of athletes on the court and that’s the kind of a hierarchy with the tough guys, and then athletes that flow down from there. And you mentioned —
Richard: This is a child’s eye point of view.
Kevin: Yeah, absolutely. Which I can picture myself being right back in Newburgh there where I grew up. I was going to ask you just where you saw yourself in relationship to that coin of the realm, that kind of gladiator world?
Richard: They were generals. I was lucky to be in the army at all. No, these were people you were kind of in awe of. It was all about physical prowess. If you were a big brain and you wound up going to Bronx Science after everything —
Kevin: Which you did.
Richard: Which I did. That didn’t count as much when your glands are going crazy and you’re bugling like an elk. But I don’t remember anybody mocking me. This is a playground in a working-class neighborhood. These are knock-around kids. Nobody ever made fun of me. I was a good little athlete. I mean, basketball was hard for me because everybody knew which way I was dribbling because I couldn’t pass off to the other hand. But handball, which is to be good at handball, you really have to be ambidextrous. I was just the one-handed handball player who made my varsity team in high school.
I always… see, this is how Parkside accommodated me around gladiator sports. I always played first base in the softball game because everybody knew I can’t catch and throw with the other hand. If we had touch football games, I always played quarterback because I couldn’t catch with two hands and I could throw and I had a strong arm.
It’s so funny, in some ways it was such a mean place, yet, it was unflappable around — what they could have picked on me, and they just accommodated me. It was like it wasn’t even spoken. It was never somebody said, “Price you can’t play.” I would say I want to play first base. And everybody understood why. And nobody said, “No, you got to play shortstop.” Everybody understood why I always played first base. I always played touch football. Even though the world outside my apartment was a more brutal world in some ways — anything can happen at any time — I always felt just like everybody else. Nobody ever made me feel otherwise.
16:15 [We hear 5 second music break]
Richard: My mother had a very hard time with me in general when I was young. She had a lot of rage in her. So, I was born in ‘49. The doctor we had was very old. He delivered my mother in 1925. And he, like all doctors in the Bronx, he went on house call, house call, house call. And he was pretty old at this point. He had a lifetime of experience but I can’t imagine he was steely-eyed and steady. Anyway, it was a messed-up birth. Oxygen was cut off for 15 seconds, which affected the left side of my brain, which is the whole right side, my leg… I used to walk with a curled-in toe. And they also told me — and I know this for a fact — that if those 15 seconds were 45 seconds, I would have been so much more severely affected. And they had… A lot of time I’d go to hospital clinics. The therapy at that point was useless. Chiropractors just stretching or “Tell him he’s got to squeeze the ball. He’s got to stand and stretch his Achilles tendon.” So, my mother took me to a children’s clinic for CP once. I have no memory of it. And she said, “I felt ashamed there because all these other kids they looked like Stephen Hawkings, and there you were running around and I never went back. I was embarrassed.”
She’d always say, “Did you do your exercises?” The way I walked, the heel of my shoe would wear down at a diagonal. And I know that, “Uh-oh, if my mother sees my shoe at that angle, she knows I haven’t been doing what the chiropractor said to do.” And I never did. It was so boring. I was young. Who would hell want to squeeze a ball, right? Like an idiot, you know? And I used to look at the heel of my shoe all the time. So, you know, an anxiety, and that would send her off on a hair pulling tirade against me.
Kevin: And what was the source of the rage? That she wanted you to be better?
Richard: I think her rage was her rage. And I don’t know. I mean, I’m not her psychiatrist. I have my own thoughts but I’ll keep them to myself.
Richard: But I know in my house I knew that cerebral palsy was a trigger for my mother’s much more amorphous mega-rage. My brother wasn’t subjected to this at all. And she basically kept me in a state of semi-watery terror.
Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): It was clear that being inside as a kid living in Parkside wasn’t, well, a walk in the park for Richard Price. But when I asked him about his extended family, living in other parts of the Bronx, his whole face changed. Another major planet in his map of New York was his maternal grandparents’ apartment at 1522 Vyse Avenue, where his grandmother, Pauline, “his bubbe”, as he called her, acted as a very different force and influence on his young life.
Richard: The only thing I remember either of my grandparents ever saying to me about my hand — my grandfather never said anything; my grandmother, my doting grandmother, the one that I love more than anybody —
Richard: Yeah. She… I was her first born and she treated me like another girlfriend. And she was a very isolated woman. She was very heavy. She was like straight-up love. But it was more than love. It was like she was confiding in me. I remember I was little, but we used to have animated – I don’t know, I was a very precocious conversationalist, curious, you know, I was very uninhibited, sharing my thoughts. And so we were buddies. She was very lonely. I remember she looked at me once and she said to me, “All right, you’re a little cripple but, boy, you got a brain on you.” She said it very un– you know, she didn’t think about “how do you say to a kid with cerebral palsy –.” She just said it. And I just went check. Got it. Thank you. Moving on.
Kevin: Moving on. Exactly.
21:16 [we hear 45 second music break]
Richard: She was a secret eater. She was very high strung. She was short and obese. My grandfather was a little bit of a lady’s man. According to my mother, she was crazy about him, but she thinks he only married her because her parents didn’t think he was good enough for her. So that was Arty Rosenbaum. Rosenbaum was born in Russia.
Kevin: Truck driver.
Richard: He came here as a one or two-year-old. Grew up on the Lower East Side, was a little toughie. He wanted to be a member of this older Jewish gang, because the Jewish gangs were just as bad as any other gangs back there. And he got in trouble. He was arrested because he had a gun in a shoe box in his mother’s closet because the older guys — and again, they always used to hang around the pool halls and he was the little guy like Leo Gorcey in The Bowery Boys. And they said, “Hey, Arty, you want to be a member of the gang? Don’t open the shoe box, take it home.” It was used in a shooting.
Kevin: So, he was pinched for that.
Richard: He was a fighter. He was a fist-fighter. She came from a little bit of a more classier Jewish family. Her father was a furrier.
Kevin: That was a big deal back then.
Richard: He didn’t have a father. His mother took in borders in whatever tenement they were jumping around to.
Kevin: This is all the Lower East Side at that time.
Richard: All the Lower East Side. She was playing the piano at some party and he was there, “Oh I’ll show them, who the hell do they think are? Come here, we’re getting married.” He was a very attractive man in his own street way. I wouldn’t say that there were a lot of professors that would have gone for him. In his world, he was a good-looking guy, he had a way about him and a lot of women were drawn to him, according to my mother. He wasn’t at home a lot, let’s put it that way.
Kevin: And so your grandmother’s loneliness partly stemmed from that.
Richard: Well, he had no interest. You know, as they got older, they were inseparable. But when he was still in bugling season, between his job — which took him out of the house at four in the morning — or whatever he did after that.
I remember most of the time when I was little, where I had to spend Saturday night with my grandmother on Vyse Avenue — which to me was heaven — but when people say, “Ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning,” they’re talking about Vyse Avenue. It’s so funny in some ways, it was such a mean place, yet I think a neighborhood is judged by a child not, or an adult even, not by its statistics. This is where the love was. And that could be a mud hut or it could be a palace. Doesn’t make a difference. Where’s the love? Where did I feel safest? Where did I feel like I didn’t have to think about me in the world?
25:44 [we hear 30 second music break]
Richard: We’d go to a triple monster movie matinee. You come home, we’d watch Roller Derby on Channel 9, WORR Channel 9, on her black-and-white television, followed by wrestling, followed by a monster movie on, it was an old show Zacherley Shock Theater on Channel 11, where they played old Universal black and white horror movies. And that was paradise. That was the day in paradise for me.
Kevin: And was it just the two of you usually?
Richard: Yeah, but when I woke up on Sunday morning sleeping in my mother’s old bedroom, which was also my first bedroom, I’d come in and my grandfather was always there in bed. He had come home at some very late point. I’d get in bed with him and have a big stack of baseball cards. And I’d have my grandfather cover the names of the players. I was like seven or eight. And I knew every card, the player’s name, his position and the team.
Kevin: When you tell stories about your grandmother, which they sound incredible, the wrestling and the B movies, what are you seeing in your mind when you tell those stories? What are you seeing?
Richard: One of the anecdotes I always tell about going to horror movies with my grandmother in that part of the Bronx — which soon became Fort Apache but this is as it was nascent. We’re in the theater. I’m like seven, eight, nine. All the other kids in the theater — it’s all kids — but most of them are older than me and they’re rougher. And here comes my grandmother, she’s the oldest person by 40 years in that theater. And she gets so carried away, when the monster finally gets flamed-throwed, or immolated, or whatever, she would stand up and she was so carried away. I remember her standing up once and saying, “Good for ya, ya’ bastard. How does that feel?” She was so — I don’t know what was going on in her mind.
Kevin: Sounds like Pauline was a larger than life figure.
Richard: She was larger than life physically and smaller than life inside her own head.
Kevin: Right. One of the things I read you talk about before is how you guys would sit in the window and look out on her street.
Richard: Yeah. I mean, if you look in any neighborhood, in any urban culture, in a Black neighborhood, in a Hispanic neighborhood, in an Italian or working-class, you’ll always find older women sitting in the window with maybe a pillow under their arm looking down like the street was the television. So, she was one of those window color-commentators. She’d be sitting in a chair. And there was an old painted-over potato bin under the window sill. The building was constructed in 1917, and, so, there were old potato bins, they had a dumbwaiter. And she’d look out the window and I’d be next to her, and she’d say, “Come here. Look, you see this guy here?” And then she told me the whole drama of him and his mother, like “this guy, he was colored, but his wife was white.” And she’d say, “he’s such a gentleman and his wife is such a tramp. She goes out with anything in pants. But he’s the type of gentleman if he walks into a lobby and he sees there’s a white woman there, he doesn’t want to scare her so he’ll wait until she takes the elevator or goes up the stairs. But her, let me tell ya…”
So, she’d tell me these stories, but she’s telling me these stories like she’s talking to an adult. And I’d take them in, in the spirit of how I was being told. So maybe this is false, but I feel like I became a storyteller as much from her narratives, from her aerial narrative, from her crane-shot narratives as I did from my father’s father, who wrote — and was I think he worked in Yiddish theater, the 14th Street area theater.
Kevin: What do you feel you were learning about the human condition, the neighborhood, or whatever, from her vantage point and that window?
Richard: Drama. Drama. Suffering. Drama. It was like the Jewish Pietà. You know, like the story, there was one guy — there was starting to be junkies in the neighborhood, still late 50s, early 60s. And she’d look at this guy and she would say, “That junkie bastard. See that? He’s a junkie. Every time he sticks a needle in his arm it’s like sticking a needle in his mother’s heart.”
I’d say, Oh, my god. Cut. Print. I’m taking this in here and I am, I’m 70 years old and I’m verbatim telling you what she said. When she’s talking like that, I’m just like saucer eyes. And my brain, somebody is typewriting onto my brain.
32:12 [we hear music break]
Kevin: Going back to wrestling, what was it that was exciting you about that? I mean, obviously it’s physically very exciting. There’s the characters, there’s the drama of it. But what do you think was making you go all in on it, to the point where you had these pictures on your wall?
Richard: There used to be these Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books. You know, the weakling gets sand kicked on him by the bully. And it’s this fantasy of being all powerful, having big muscles, throwing a punch, taking a punch. I was not… when it came to fighting, I was not physically brave. And because my mother, yet again, was raised by this guy who’s almost like a cartoon of a tough guy — I mean, one of the most traumatic things in my life was when me and my friends were like 12 or something standing in front of my building at night. And some group from some other nether parts of Parkside came down and they just attacked us, and some kid sucker-punched me on the side of my head. My reaction was to leave, as opposed to fight back. And when I went upstairs, my mother had seen the whole thing from the window. And I felt so bad, somehow, I got in and I took a bath. I never take baths. I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I felt so scared and also self-conscious about the humiliation and how I let myself down by not fighting back. So, my mother comes in, I’m in the bathtub, she comes in and she says, “I saw that.” And then she quoted my grandfather, or this is her version. She said, “Someday, my son, you’re going to learn that two of the greatest joys in life is beating the hell out of somebody and getting the hell beaten out of you.” And once again, something… I think of all the books I write like cops and The Wanderers. I was not a tough kid. I was not a fighter. Clockers, all this stuff. And once I started writing — which required hanging out — I’m doing Clockers and I’m going to some very scary places and I just figured my whole life in a way, my whole literary life is like an “Oh yeah? Would you be in this crack house at 3 in the morning? Without anybody watching your back? Would you go in? Would you follow cops into an apartment and you’re the only one without a bulletproof vest?” You know, it’s like, “Oh, yeah? Oh, yeah?” And I feel like it’s crippled — you know, it’s made my psyche a little on the infantile side when it comes to masculinity.
And it drew me to — listen, I had an affection for urbanness. I grew up in a housing project. My grandmother lived on Vyse Avenue, the stories, urban outer borough, working class, was the water in my aquarium, and I was the fish. So even with that, on top of that, I had this burning desire not to be me, but be a tough guy that nobody would mess with. So I think there was a lot of compensation in my being attracted, you know, to people like that. It goes back to the wrestling pinups on my wall.
Kevin: I was just thinking yeah, but also, I had just reread The Wanderers. And the last, the coda of that book is Eugene’s mother saying the very lines you just said that the two joys of being a man are beating the hell out of someone or being beaten.
Richard: I knew I heard, I knew I read that somewhere, what I just said. I picked it up from a book. No, I wrote that book.
Kevin: You wrote it.
Richard: Yeah. Of course, as I get older, the more I know about myself, the weaker that part of me becomes, you know, in terms of like, are you serious? Come on.
Kevin: Yeah. And also, how did your relationship with these two powerful women in your life, your mother and your grandmother — they themselves are mother and daughter, they come from the same line, you identify with them in such different ways — how did you process that as a kid?
Richard: I didn’t. I was a kid. You know, my mother was this way. My grandmother was that way. I wasn’t thinking about them in another time and place. I didn’t know psychodynamics —
Kevin: It was light and dark.
Richard: from Psycho. You know, it’s just my grandmother’s my grandmother, fly around the world in a good way. My mother’s my mother, fly around the world and get blasted out of the sky 17 times.
Kevin: How did your relationship with the two of them evolve as you hit puberty and adolescence? Because we’re talking through the vantage point of a little kid, but as you get older —
Richard: So, I still, I never not loved my grandmother. I never not wanted to be in her presence, but I didn’t need to be reprieved by her. As I hit puberty, my mother’s power over me waned. I think with a bully, any bully, they realize, they have a genius for who they can bully and who they can’t. And they can turn on a dime. And I think once my mother realized she can’t get to me like she used to get to me, I’m not 6 anymore. I’m 13. And I mean, she still had her moments with me, but she lost power over me. But, you know, the thing is, I always say, we’re branded so early. And it’s like we got a tattoo when we were an infant, and just because we’re 70 now and the tattoo artist died 30 years ago, the tattoo is still there. It’s fading, fading, but it’s still there and it’ll always be there.
39:30 [we hear 30 second music break]
Kevin: Roger Angell of The New Yorker recently was interviewed in The New Yorker Radio Hour. Great writer. And he said that from his vantage point now, he looks back and you realize that so many writers as they age, they keep going back to the same stories when they were kids and they keep replaying them over and over again in their minds, and they take different cracks at writing them. As they evolve as writers, they keep going back, not necessarily trying to change the outcome, but to perfect their rendering of it —
Richard: Yeah to apply what they’ve learned.
Kevin: To the scene. And he said they keep asking themselves, was that the way it was? Was that the way it was?
Richard: Listen the thing is in my writing life, I’ve never left this fictional Jersey area, which is a stand in for the Bronx, Manhattan. But the only thing that evolves is how much I’ve learned, how much subtle nuance, and what new learning I can apply to these places. You tend to write about where you’re from. I mean, you don’t have to write about where you’re from. But, you know, listen, I grew up in the Bronx, so that’s my petri dish as a writer.
Kevin: What were you leaving behind? What did you want to leave behind when you left the Bronx to go to Cornell and Ithaca? And what did you bring with you?
Richard: Well, I think my parents were very conservative. They were very leery about Black people in that timid, know nothing, working-class white way. And I became obsessed with civil rights and what was going on in the world of race. I remember one of the last time I saw my grandmother — who was born in 1902 — and I told her all I’ve learned about race. My god, this woman was born in 1902. You know, she’s trying to be accommodating to me, but everything she says infuriates me. I remember getting so angry, I burst into tears, but who am I yelling at? My poor grandmother.
Kevin: This is the woman who you sat in the window with?
Richard: Yeah, see, but this is me at 18, not eight. I’m the one who did the massive amount of changing in those ten years. I was going against the grain of that. In a very selfish way that helps no one, it was part of my discovery of myself. It was a discovery of a passion that — I mean, look at the novels I’ve written. They’re all in some way about race relations.
Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration) [42:57]: As he was talking, I was thinking about how important race is in a lot of what Richard Price writes. But also time and place. There’s the seedy Times Square of the 1970s in The Deuce. Post-9-11 New York — especially Riker’s Island — in The Night Of. The fictional town of Dempsey, New Jersey, in Clockers. And the East Bronx in his very first novel, The Wanderers, published in 1974. The one glaring thing all these places have in common is that they’re not the world of the Ivy League he left for at the age of 18. Which got me wondering: Richard said that in enrolling at Cornell in the late ’60s, it didn’t take long for him to outgrow his hometown – socially, politically, culturally, intellectually. Yet at the same time, here he was making it the ground-floor setting for his fiction. In the case of The Wanderers, we’re talking about teenage, largely Italian-American boys who were rough-and-tough members of a Bronx gang – sort of like the Jets in West Side Story out on the streets and in their cramped, complicated homes. What was up with that?, I wanted to know.
Richard: Here’s the thing about being a Bronx kid in the Southern Tier of New York – surrounded by kids from all over America, mostly middle class, and some kids from other parts of the world – is that you feel lost. And once again, I didn’t realize being from the Bronx was kind of exotic to everybody else. To be from the Bronx became a way to make myself an entity in a world of — because I looked at everybody else and I was in awe of people. I mean, people come from like Upper Westchester, they come from Hong Kong, Barranquilla, Columbia, Nashville. I didn’t even know there really was a Nashville. And it’s a way of self-identity. And somehow when I went – at Columbia, I wasn’t, it was in New York, but still it was like, it just seeped into my writing. It’s like a way of saying, I am.
Kevin: And thinking about and picking up on that, you mentioned earlier that when you were growing up, you weren’t exactly the tough guy in the gang. You weren’t a leader of a gang —
Richard: Oh, never tough guy in anything.
Kevin: But yet, as you write The Wanderers, and you are kind of clinging to home, you chose the vantage point of kids in a gang, who are older than you, because it’s set like in ‘61/‘62.
Richard: But at the time I’m older than them.
Kevin: But as the author you’re older than them. Exactly.
Richard: The author is 24. They’re 16.
Kevin: So, time is an interesting element there. But how did you find the process of inhabiting their skin and being them.
Richard: It was easy because I grew up with these guys. You know, I wasn’t them. And on some levels, I wish I was more like them. You know, I wish I was tough. I wish I was Italian, like the crude association of Italian, like “tough kid.” “Jewish” with “meek, intellectual.” But it was easy. You don’t have to be the person to channel the person.
Kevin: You take the gang home, and that’s what really stood out to me and reading it again is that we go home with them. And a lot of the book is about —
Richard: Because they lived in my apartment.
Kevin: Yeah. We’re seeing them with their parents and with the gang.
Richard: You know what the division between me and them were? A wall. Every time I got in the elevator — you know, we went to the same schools, we watched the same TV shows, we played in the same playground.
Kevin: Music was a big thing.
Richard: Music. When I really started writing The Wanderers in earnest I was at Stanford — and I really felt like a fish out of water there, because as a grad student, you know, you have your seminar and maybe one elective and the rest of the week you’re in Palo Alto doing nothing. And so, you hold on to home. And so, I started writing The Wanderers to bring me home. And also, because I understood that part of my life, the Bronx part, I’m never going back there. And it’s a way of taking photographs for your scrapbook for old age. This was me.
47:41 [We hear 20 second music break]
Kevin: I like to end every interview by going back to that great New York poet, Walt Whitman…
Richard: I’ve heard of him.
Kevin: … who in the Leaves of Grass “Song of Myself” writes these words, “I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love/If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles//You will hardly know who I am or what I mean/But I shall be good health to you nevertheless/And filter and fibre your blood//Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged/Missing me one place search another/I stop somewhere waiting for you.”
I like to use that as a jumping off point to ask if 50 or 100 years from now, 10 years from now, someone’s coming along either in your family or someone who just loves your writing and wants to commune with or know Richard Price, where should that person look for you in your New York?
Richard: In a podcast.
Kevin: Let’s hope so.
Richard: You want to say hi to Lorraine?
Kevin: That would be great.
Richard: Let me just run up and see if —
Kevin: Oh, sure.
Richard: If she’s working, that’s the only reason she can’t.
Kevin: Totally understand.
Voices fading out…
Outro: Kevin Burke (Voiceover narration): OK, I know I can go on and on with that Whitman quote. That’s why I took Richard’s answer as his way of saying to me, Cut, print, it’s time to move on, kiddo. The reason we met in the first place was because I’d become friends with his wife, Lorraine Adams, the journalist. And I want to say a quick hello to her before packing up. Anyway, I hope you enjoyed hearing Richard’s story.
Your Hometown is a Kevin Burke Production. For more, visit our website at yourhometown.org, where you can find our art director Nick Gregg’s illustrated scenes and a hand-drawn map of Richard Price’s New York. You can also follow us on your favorite podcast app and on social media on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
And, please check out the show’s New York City series page, including information on live events on the Museum of the City of New York’s website at MCNY.org/yourhometown.
I’m blessed to work with a wonderful production team that starts with executive producer Robert Krulwich. Let me also give it up to our art director Nick Gregg, our editor & sound designer Otis Streeter, our composer/performer Sterling Steffen, and our indefatigable researcher, Shakila Khan.
Our branding and website design is by Tama Creative, and our social media team is led by CURE and Jessica Sain-Baird.
A special thanks, too, to our partners this season, the Museum of the City of New York
And a mighty, mighty thanks to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and our other financial partners for their support of our first season.
Until next time, thanks for taking this ride with me, and remember, everyone’s from someplace, and everywhere is somewhere.
New York City
Local engagement is vital to the mission of Your Hometown, with the series aspiring to visit a variety of iconic cities and towns for a deeper dive on each place as a hometown. This model is being launched through a first-season focus on New York City, and is a co-presentation with the Museum of the City of New York. Many think of New York as a place where people move to in order to realize their dreams, but it is critical to remember that it is also a place where young people grow up – a series of hometowns within the larger metropolis that shape rising generations through the day-to-day texture and details of family, neighborhoods, schools, and boroughs that will become the origin stories of their lives, creativity, work, and contributions to society as a whole. That is the New York this series seeks to illuminate and reveal.