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Favorite City of the Mind


Do I have a favorite city? When I was 10, 12, 15 and even 30 years old I would have said, "Of course. New York."

I was born and raised in a leafy section of Brooklyn, a borough which at that time also had sections with the aura of suburb. My father's passion was landscape gardening, and he had built a magnificent nursery in our back yard from which he sold architecturally designed lawns, garden plans, and exquisite trees and shrubs. We had roses which flowered in December, in the snow...gigantic blots of red on the wintry landscape, so that my first love for location bloomed out of the magical colors of nature, the forests or beaches to which we escaped every summer, the mystic, misleading paths of the botanical gardens we visited, and our own back yard.

But my magic city was Manhattan. Early on I was sent to school there and I crossed the Manhattan bridge on the roaring subway filled with its magic, at twilight watching the lights come on as if they were creating the atmospheric background for my future life. A future without The City was impossible for me to conceive; it was not only my home, it was my oasis, my paradise, the future in which my life would bloom like a huge neon flower suspended like crystal against the skyline.

As it almost did.

In my mid-thirties, however, for the oddest of reasons, I left. I had something else to do, new skylines to scale and in which to lose the aggravating self, the Brooklyn kid who had been trying to lose herself in her father's apple tree since she was eight. She had never left me, not through the entire New York odyssey. From slums to skyscrapers and back again. To a five-room condo on one of the most beautiful streets in town, in the East Village, my part of town, where I thought I was perfectly happy. My cross-the-street neighbor was the poet Auden, whom I had met at Columbia. One of my favorite novelists, Djuna Barnes, lived less than a mile away. The skyline was lower than in midtown but rich with art and literature; bookstores abounded, street musicians played, there were loft parties everywhere and I danced or took the subway with everybody. Kate Millett, Allen Ginsberg, Mark Strand, Lyn Lifshin; names dropped from me like fireworks, my own first novel won kudos, I thought I had reached an ending which was really only a beginning..

I went to San Francisco to live in a spiritual commune and meditate. I was dressed in the shame of a new acolyte, and failed at everything, which I suspect is what a true acolyte is meant to do. In a garden in Santa Rosa I came in touch, alone and without any provocation beside my own desire, with the energy of understanding that I'd sought, I think, since I was born. Since then I've traveled to a dozen cities and loved them all, small and large, crowded and empty, mythological and all too real. Paris and Delhi. Portland, Oregon, and Rome. All had a power over me: the power of immediacy. In the moment and in my memory I compare none of them to any other. I know only the decisive customs each city demands: long skirts and covered shoulders in Northern India; dark clothes and insouciance in Paris; warm coats and clear eyes in Northern California, where the winds are brisk and full of rain but the views are as spectacular from the cable cars as from the bridge.

One city I have never visited, and possibly never will; my mother's city, the place where she was born. Odessa, Southern Russia, a land, like the part of California in which I live now, of wine and ocean, of beneficent but changeable climate and incendiary, gregarious, and noisy people, each bearing its own culture like a banner of liberation, which in a sense, all are.

It was in Odessa that the Russian Revolution actually began, although the more politically serious Petersburg soon took it over, creating barricades to defend, mythic heroes to accelerate the battle for the people's rights, and incidents to record in all the history books. Odessa's only claim was the small war surrounding the rebellion of the starving crew of the battleship Potemkinm, and the passion with which the people of the city, intellgentsia and proletariat, defended that rebellion themselves.

Many died. One of them was almost my grandmother Rose Rochester, my mother's mother, who was incarcerated and sentenced to be hanged, according to family lore, for her role in the insurrection. And it's about Rose and her Odessa that I have most recently been writing, dreaming, imagining: putting myself there in her place and understanding exactly why it was so important for her to find, for the first and only time in her life, her truest voice.

I have never actually seen this city. Eisenstein's film Potyemkin brought me to it, and so have many years of study and looking at pictures of that place which I have come to love as if it were my own. I've had good fortune; met people who told me just what the tiny sweatshops in that city must have been like; a tailor in the Northern California town of Cotati who had lived there and who brought me his books of photographs so I could see how beautiful, and how ugly, the 19th century city really was. The Yiddish theater bloomed and proliferated there; one might say that it was one of the birthplaces of what we now know as the modern musical comedy. The Odessans, when they flooded New York City on the steamers and freighters that brought them here, brought with them a history of cooperative living and social justice. Their descendants -- of whom I am one -- would have rooted wildly at the inauguration of Obama, as I did. And their intelligentsia would be theatre-and-concert-goers, lovers of the ballet and the museums, and salonistas, much like their counterparts in our own Bay Area.

So I might now turn around and say that of all the cities I have visited and lived in during my lifetime, Odessa, is my favorite. The most prized, the most idealistic, even if I never get to see it with more than my inner eye, the eye with which I write.

--Mimi Albert, October 21, 2009.

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Nice post. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

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interesting article

I loved reading your accounts of places you have visited as well as Odessa. Feeling exiled in Long Island suburbia, I lived for my Saturday dance classes on 43rd Street and Sixth Avenue, and for me, too, Manhattan had a magical allure.