PRINT November 1995


Guy Trebay’s In the Place to Be

Guy Trebay, In the Place to Be, with photography by Sylvia Plachy (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1994), 367 pages, 17 black and white illustrations.

WITH ITS PERFECTLY FUSED connotations of fabulousness and flux, the title of this collection of newspaper columns, written for The Village Voice between 1981 and 1993, magnanimously invokes New York City, worms and all. The reportorial stance here is one of relaxed, often seemingly egoless suavity, sanguine and judiciously observant, yet full of the raking angles and astringent detail that bespeak a flâneur engagé. Guy Trebay’s interests run along ecumenical, eclectically inclusive lines, with high regard given to the particulars of age, sex, national origin, social background, financial status, and race. Animals and plants feature prominently, as well. His credo, expressed in the introduction, is a quote from the critic Wolfgang Binder, to “pay homage to those who run the risk of leaving this earth unrecorded.” And indeed, we find ourselves at the ASPCA in time for Friday morning euthanasia, as well as at Madison Square Garden for the horse show; the common ailanthus has its moment in the sun along with the roses; and if a well-publicized name turns up on a page, it is most likely as a figure of urbane speech.

“The young man produces a date book busier than Nan Kempner’s”—this from “Come Here Often?,” a cheerfully mordant sketch composed of conversational snatches overheard on a “Monday morning at the VD clinic.” Dated January 13, 1982, it is of course a period piece, one of several scattered about for punctuation and scale. It is perhaps a measure of our times, as well as of Guy Trebay’s subversive subtlety as a moralist, that he is able to provoke a pang of shock at the current state by eliciting something like nostalgia for traditional venereal diseases.

Although arranged thematically rather than chronologically, the book’s diverse and often highly entertaining aspects nevertheless conspire to reflect a single, terrible arc in the city’s recent history, beginning some 15 years ago and progressing inexorably, formed by the graduating effects of AIDS and crack. Trebay’s approach is typically oblique. In “Mixed Greens” (dated June 22, 1993), we are treated to a peripatetic, almost aerial overview of in-town gardening, eccentric as well as communitarian, wherein we meet a “big, bosomy” honeysuckle vine on Sixth Street between Avenues B and C, a “leggy” Golden Shower on the Upper East Side, and “a rare Zepherine Drouhin” by a Chelsea stoop, among other botanical specimens, before landing on the roof garden of Bailey House, a care residence for people with AIDS on Christopher Street, where we are at last invited to close our eyes and see: “Occasionally,” Trebay tells us, “Bailey House clients lose their sight, and for that reason the gardeners have filled several planters with tall ornamental reeds.” “It’s about texture and sound,” explains one “Green Guerrilla” gardener. “Every time I go up there,” says another, “I find that someone has pushed a chair between the boxes to listen to the wind in the grass.”

Many of the stories take place around the Mott Haven section of the Bronx and the similarly drug-besieged, if more elaborately tilled, Loisaida. These vignettes are often focused on children and their provisional keepers—ministers, teachers, day-care volunteers—and can be characterized by an ear for dialogue to rival Richard Price’s, along with an equally cinematic authorial lens. “Mach Schnell, Shortcakes!” (dated December 21, 1982), for example, my favorite title, is what an “exceptional” teacher says to an errant first-grader who is too “busy ripping out pages to write love notes to leasha” to do his arithmetic.

If Price’s forte, however, is the jump cut, Trebay’s is peripheral vision. He always seems to know what’s going on outside the churchyard playground, to see exactly what’s happening in the doorway next to Mrs. Olean For’s “proper, formal, gated” garden on Third Street east of C. He is ideally matched in this regard by the photographer Sylvia Plachy, whose work is as unusual as it is underrated. With their ghostly blurs, half-glimpsed figures, and impressions of perpetual uncertainty, Plachy’s pictures, too, are about flux—the opposite, you might say, of Diane Arbus’—and their artfully artless presence gives this otherwise plainly produced book considerable physical cachet.

Plachy’s back-cover portrait of the author is telling. In the photograph, a double exposure with panoramic illusions, are several ripe-looking Latino kids goofing around a public pool in bathing suits or trunks and towels. Off to the right, taking notes, stands Trebay, the very image of the nerdish dandy. Clean-shaven and tidily coifed, he is wearing glasses, what appears to be a white Brooks Brothers shirt, belted chinos, and an unobtrusive backpack (good for impromptu jotting). He looks determinedly self-contained, profoundly editorial, and at least as white as Max Von Sydow in Hawaii. There is, in fact, a bit of the missionary in Trebay. It tends to sneak up on you, deliver the sermon with a punch, and steal away under sanguine cover. His storytelling rhythms are sometimes rather like O. Henry’s.

A few other comparisons occur, among journalists who cover diverse urban terrain. Trebay’s writing perhaps most obviously recalls The New Yorker’s venerable Joseph Mitchell, whose collected works, spanning over fifty years, formed the contents of a well-received volume, Up in the Old Hotel, that came out in 1992 and may, I suspect, have helped prompt the publication of this one. But the wry Trebay is nevertheless more impassioned than the flinty Mitchell and, among closer contemporaries, he is less relentlessly decent than The New York Times’ Douglas Martin, and as hip as but less flip than The New Yorker’s Susan Orlean. So much for the competition as it stands. Would that there were more good writers on this beat—reading Trebay makes me want to be more of a flâneuse engagée myself.

Meanwhile, just put me down as a fan.

Lisa Liebmann is a writer who lives in New York. She is the author of David Salle (Rizzoli, 1994).