DIDN’T THEY NOTICE THE GARBAGE BAGS?: A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH JULIE HECHT by James Yeh
from print issue 4
 
This interview is an excerpt from "A Forum about Everything," published in our fourth print issue, Gigantic Everything, available for purchase here. The forum includes dialogues with Marie-Helene Bertino, Anne Carson and Robert Currie, Jason Diamond, Stephen Elliott, Rachel B. Glaser, Julie Hecht, Gideon Lewis-Kraus, Tao Lin, Robert Lopez, Deb Olin Unferth, Adam Wilson, and James Wood.

--


GIGANTIC: What do you dislike most about New York?

JULIE HECHT: Can I say everything?

GIGANTIC: Well, that might be too thematic—you know the theme of the issue is "Gigantic Everything."

HECHT: No, I forgot about that. What does that mean?

GIGANTIC: It means we're trying to evoke a sense of everything through what we publish in the issue.

HECHT: Oh, what a good idea. But it's not quite accurate to say I dislike everything. The main thing is the garbage bags, the black plastic garbage bags piled up high and wide on the street. Once a driver waited for me outside the building where I was living, on Washington Square North. He was waiting in his car, and he said he counted seventeen rats at the garbage bin. You know those wire baskets on the corners? The bags were open, and the rats were tearing up the trash. So that's what I dislike the most. And then there's the noise, the traffic, sitting in a taxi—forget about walking amidst all that—you can walk only in Central Park, but there are rats in the park. Anyway, sitting there among the hundreds of taxis and buses and trucks, to me, that's just a horrible feeling. I tried to go on Park Avenue, because there are no trucks or buses. But sometimes you get a taxi driver who refuses to go on Park Avenue because he says "it's all jammed up," and it's often jammed up because some president is there, at the Waldorf, or somewhere. But other times, it's jammed up because of the way the lights aren't timed… I can hardly stand to think about the traffic on Park Avenue, and the conversations I've had with drivers about why it's jammed up, and why they want to go on First Avenue or Second Avenue, even though those avenues are so much uglier, with all the trucks, buses, hideous buildings, and no trees. I also don't like riding buses or trains. I haven't been in a subway since—what year were you born?

GIGANTIC: 1982.

HECHT: I haven't been in the subway since '72. And then there are people smoking. The streets are filled with cigarette smoke. Is that still allowed?

GIGANTIC: Outdoors it is.

HECHT: So there's still the smoking, and the cell phones, and the girls in their twenties and thirties who yell "love you" into their phones over and over again, and then they're approaching the garbage bags. Didn't they notice where they were? Didn't they notice the garbage bags? It's not like there are just a few. So I wonder about David Letterman, because usually I agree with him, about so many things he says in the first part of the show. Not in the second part, when he interviews, I should say, is forced to interview Hollywood people. You know how David Letterman always says New York's the "greatest city in the world"? I don't know how he can say that. Because the greatest city in the world would have a way to pick up the garbage bags. I would like him to have Mayor Bloomberg on his show. He once had Bush on his show—you know which one, the one he refers to as "the imbecile son" in jokes on the good, first part of the show—and David Letterman said to Bush that Texas had the worst air pollution rate in the country. That was the best question I had heard anyone ask of him, even real political interviewers. And Bush said, "Well," comma, "we got a lot of cars." That should disqualify him from being president, or holding any public office. How could that answer be allowed without political rebuttals, from somewhere? I didn't see anyone write about it, and it didn't keep him from being elected. Of course he wasn't elected—he was, as they say, selected. Have you ever been on the block, on 19th Street, where they have all the restaurants, between Broadway and Fifth Avenue? You see all these fancy people coming out of these restaurants, and then standing and waiting for their taxis or limos, in between all these mounds of garbage bags. Another place is St. Mark's. We had to walk in the street, because the sidewalks are packed with garbage bags. They were in front of the restaurants and they were out on the curbside. And this was in the winter. I only go to New York in the winter. In fact, this is making me sick to think about it. I don't think I should try to remember it at this time. I'm picturing that filthy black ice, and those streets, and the walking in the road. Now, why do people live in New York? I guess if you're very rich, you can live uptown, on the Upper East Side. Do they have the garbage uptown, too?

GIGANTIC: It's New York. We have garbage everywhere.

HECHT: I heard that on the mayor's block, they pick it up constantly. I heard they pick it up several times a day. But he can't be oblivious. He must ride around, check things out. He's very health-conscious, outlawing things like trans fats and the giant size of sugar-filled drinks. Not that you never see anything good in New York. For example, I once saw two birds having a fight over some crumbs, out on 59th and Fifth Avenue, near the park. A couple was walking by, and the woman was watching the birds. And the man who was with her said, "Don't get involved."

GIGANTIC: That sounds like something out of a New Yorker cartoon.

HECHT: It seemed more complicated and deep. Of course, a cartoon can't be that deep, except for the ones Roz Chast had in her early collections, like Theories of Everything. I once saw an injured butterfly in the sand on Nantucket, and I wanted to take it somewhere. And my husband said, "There are no places for injured butterflies." So men really are dream crushers. Men are always telling you that you can't do these things, these things you have the instinct to do. I once was going by the park—I used to walk down Fifth Avenue at dusk, before it got as noisy as it is now—and the sky was all lavender. It was sort of a foggy, misty night. The lights were on from the park—maybe it was still the Plaza Hotel then—you could see the lights across from the West Side. But then you realize it was only beautiful from a distance. The life lived in the big city like that. I'd rather look at a tree. Because it's always a tree. Not to sound like Gertrude Stein. But a tree is a tree, that's what it is. The skyline appears to be a beautiful thing, but inside those buildings, it's all these people making money in illegal ways and these poor immigrants, cleaning offices at night. That's what's really going on: money. New York is all about money now.

GIGANTIC: But surely there are some things you actually like about New York, right? I remember you mentioning how you liked the architecture.

HECHT: I was remembering that last year I saw one beautiful thing in New York. It surprised me because I was walking down a side street on the Upper East Side at dusk, or after dark, and then I came upon the fence, or gate, of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. There was a big sign in front of it saying it was under construction—actually the sign said that in some sort of annoying way, I don't remember the exact way. You could fact-check it. [Ed. check: "Like many on Fifth Avenue, I'm having a little work done."] And then I saw the top of this beautiful gate, this rococo iron—I thought maybe it was copper, because it had turned that beautiful blue-green, I think it's called verdigris—and I just stopped and stared at it. I'd forgotten that there are all these really beautiful architecture details, all this beautiful architecture in New York, because you can never get close enough to see it unless you walk up and down these streets filled with taxis, garbage bags, and sometimes rats. So it probably was dusk, my favorite time, or the only time I can be outside in New York in the winter, and I saw this. And then I thought, Maybe this is why people want to live in New York, because they get to see these beautiful things. I know Woody Allen likes all this kind of thing. It's always in his movies, where he's pointing out to some hick girl he likes, trying to teach some girl from somewhere else all the great things in New York—of course I already know those things, from having lived there many years. So I'm not impressed. But I know what he means.

--

Julie Hecht is the author of two short story collections, Do the Windows Open?, The Unprofessionals, Happy Trails to You, and Was This Man a Genius?: Talks with Andy Kaufman. A chapter from her new book, May I Touch Your Hair?, will appear in Harper's Magazine soon.

James Yeh is coeditor of Gigantic.

 
 
© Gigantic. All rights reserved
website by Joanna Neborsky . code by Daniel Carvalho