“No one was interested in anything set outside of New York,” Janet Taliaferro writes in the introduction of her collection, Cityscapes. This collection of thirteen short stories written over a 25-year period showcases a New York that could be relatable to anyone. Her writing follows characters that range in age, race, personality, and even time periods, so whether you’re a native, a frequent visitor, or someone with passing familiarity, there’s at least one story inside this collection that could be your New York.
The book opens with the story “Last Civilized Act,” where Constance & Graham Steele have “The Discussion” about her illness over a birthday dinner, and what to do if it progresses. She’s trying to live in normalcy, while Graham can’t help but be overprotective. Taliaferro contrasts the heavy intimate talk, with a scene in Fourth Street Station’s robust imagery:
“Like a herd of gazelles, the knots of silence, waiting people raised heads in union as a rush of teenage boys with the faces of men poured through the turnstiles onto the platform. Their voices were loud, shouting in the intimate assurance of a private patois.”
Her language is fruitful, yet concise, creating tension by juxtaposing a serious tone with light hearted moments, and vice-versa.
In her third story, “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” Taliaferro uses subtleties to create tension, following Carmine and Angela DeSilva’s movements around their kitchen like a dance. He’s moving his cup of coffee; she’s smoking her cigarette. The tension is sitting in the air, existing in the bitter senses between them. She says, “Put creamer on it,” meaning the grocery list. “It’s on.” “Check. You always forget creamer.” But that’s only the beginning of the couple’s banter and journey of guilt, contemplation, and resolution.
Dialogue is used purposefully to bring characters together, and tear them apart. In “Mrs. Parkhurst’s Martini’,” we meet Margaret sitting alone at Barney’s Bar. She runs into her friend Peggy, who pries and prods about her husband. “Where’s handsome, debonair, untrustworthy John?” she asks. Margret throws back a drink and responds, “Still at his office. He has some sort of important meeting. He’ll meet me at the apartment around eight.” Despite Margaret’s attempt to be polite and move the conversation along, Peggy digs deeper, “I suppose Miss Goodbody is there, too.” Taliaferro deftly adds interruptions in their dialogue, as well as changes in the tone, in order to unfold the story, all the while distracting the reader from the awkward situation Margret is drinking herself into.
Taliaferro depicts people having relatable habits and doing relatable things on the shared ground of New York City, weaving their backgrounds together and revealing the beauty of their normalcy in these interactions. Some families turn a blind eye to those struggling. Some sweep their issues under the rug. She shows people picking up their loved ones when they are down, and others realizing their fortune in the eyes of others misfortunes. She transports the reader into the settings she’s molding. She takes the reader right into that child’s room, “cool and dark on the north side of the house. Purple violets and bright green leaves on white chintz reflected what light there was with the shades drawn against the summer heat.”
In addition to place, Taliaferro also creates a journey by weaving different timelines into the character’s narrative. In “White Kid Gloves,” Elena Yvgenskaya Miller flips between her anxious train ride to meet a mysterious businessman, and her voyage through the streets of Russia to get to America. I was no longer sitting at my bus stop when I began to read this story. I was inside that train, feeling the butterflies and hesitations alongside her. There’s not just an interest in these characters’ stories, there’s investment in each one’s wellbeing. Take a trip to New York with Taliaferro and you’ll find a lot more than the Big Apple.