My daughter and I flew to New York City last week to visit my ailing sister. For the flight I had picked up Gone to New York, a collection of short non-fiction by the contemporary humorist Ian Frazier. Two-time winner of the James Thurber prize, Ian Frazier is a comic writer with a great heart, just what I needed for this trip. For me, Frazier elicits something richer than belly laughs. “Sink or Swim,” which you can read below in two minutes, is the shortest in the collection, but especially satisfying. In four paragraphs and fewer than forty sentences, Frazier captures a nearly indescribable but unforgettable New York City scene — unique yet quintessential. And to think the whole story revolves around an interlibrary loan request.
–Jeff Balch (Reader’s Services)
“Sink or Swim,” by Ian Frazier
This story begins in the New York Public Library on Forty-second Street. I was at the interlibrary-loan desk, filling out a form for a book I needed. The librarian saw my Brooklyn address, and he said, “Oh, you live in Park Slope. I live there, too.” I finished with that and then went home and began to load the car. My wife and two-year-old daughter and I were going to visit friends in Vermont. I packed suitcases and toys and presents and books and fishing equipment–wherever we go, we take a lot of stuff. As I was loading, the sky became so dark that the streetlights came on, and all at once it began to pour. My wife and daughter and I set out in the rain. A block from our apartment, as I turned from Eighth Avenue onto Ninth Street, I noticed that torrents of rainwater were running down the street along both curbs. Park Slope does indeed slope, and at the bottom of Ninth, just past Second Avenue, the rainwater had accumulated into a big puddle. Actually, it was more like a lake. My wife said maybe I shouldn’t drive into it, but the minute I hesitated, cars behind me honked. So I went ahead.
A city bus surged in front of me, leaving quite a wake. I followed it and immediately, water came through the floor of the car. Then it came up to the seats. My wife and I were saying various things to each other. As the water began to come over the seats, the engine died. The cars behind me honked. Terrified that I might impede traffic, I leaped out into the waist-deep water. Old tires and forty-ounce malt-liquor bottles were bobbing around beside me. I began to push the car, which was not difficult, because it was floating. I could have pushed it with one hand. I waded, propelling the car before me, until I got it to drier land. Then the car became almost impossible to push. I had to wait for it to drain. The rain had stopped so my wife got out and took our daughter and one or two suitcases, walked up the steps to the Smith Street station, and rode the F train two stops back to our apartment.
I called a garage in my neighborhood, and they sent a tow truck. The driver looked at the engine and said it was probably ruined (he was right–the car never really ran again, and I junked it soon after). Lots of local guys in low-slung shorts gathered around and joined in the autopsy.
The driver towed the car to the garage’s lot and said they couldn’t look at it until after the weekend. He said the lot was not very secure and that I shouldn’t leave anything in the car. I somehow managed to load myself with all our stuff, and as I was walking up the sidewalk, a slow-moving heap of wet suitcases and shopping bags and stuffed animals and fishing rods, I saw coming toward me the librarian from interlibrary loans. I remember the look on his mild face–surprised recognition, changing to mystification tinged with distaste. He didn’t ask, though, and I didn’t explain. Silently, we both accepted the possibility that I was insane and agreed to overlook it. We had a brief conversation about when the book I had ordered might arrive. Then I walked on toward home.