The Naked and the Dead

Maybe the People Would Be the Times by Lucy sante. portland, or: verse chorus press. 336 pages. $20.

The cover of Maybe the People Would Be the Times

IN 1998, Lucy Sante published The Factory of Facts, a memoir of her childhood in Belgium and the Sante family’s stuttering moves back and forth (and finally forth) to the States—ultimately, to Summit, New Jersey—when she was eight, in 1962. Toward the end of the memoir, she marks her story as a displacement, “as if I were writing about someone else.” Sante is talking, here, about the French of her youth contrasted with the English of America, and how “languages are not equivalent one to another.” Something else is in play, though. The eight-year-old boy that Sante speaks for would need to translate her English words, written much later in America, “and that would mean engaging an electrical circuit in his brain, bypassing his heart.”

The heart could be the same in both languages, yes? But this is not the case. In French, the young Sante feels “naked,” and putting on English is a betrayal. Young Sante pledges that she “would never become one of them,” the Americans who “eat soft white bread” and drink Budweiser. Sante goes on to make a list of what the family lost in the move: friends, connections, habits, belongings. But there is another loss, “a gulf inside me, with a blanketed form on the other side that hadn’t been uncovered in decades.” Sante has reinvented herself and “become a sort of hydroponic vegetable, growing soil-free,” while feeling “self-loathing and rage.” This sounds like more than just an aversion to American football. “Maybe some of what I thought I had lost was merely hidden.”

This all unfolds when you return to Sante’s précis. She writes early in the book that people are “made, less by blood or genes than by a process that is largely accidental.” Each of us is “an archeological site,” and The Factory of Facts is Sante’s reconstruction of childhood. Because emigration exposed her “foundation” at eight years of age, “when the ground was soft, laying open expanses of strata,” the past has been made more available. Those Belgian layers are examined, with particulars distinct from things American. (Belgians do not yell at each other across the street.)

What stuck with me, though, is Sante’s idea that “what passes for roots is actually a matter of sediment, of accretion, of chance and juxtaposition.” She also mentions—in 1998—that “research on genetic inheritance” has often been “deformed” and “made to serve old and often destructive notions of destiny, ethnic or racial or social or economic.” At the end of The Factory of Facts, there is a hint of what Sante thinks her destiny might be, away from fixed notions and beyond all inheritance. “I suppose I am never completely present in any given moment, since different aspects of myself are contained in different rooms of language, and a complicated apparatus of air locks prevents the doors from being flung open all at once.”

Sante flung those doors open in “On Becoming Lucy Sante,” published in the February 2022 issue of Vanity Fair. Inspired, a year before, by the ability to switch gender in FaceApp, she returned to the foundations and decided to transition. Studying “every image of myself I possessed, beginning at about age twelve,” she sees “the panorama of my life as a girl.” That condition of being a made person, connected to but not limited to those layers of sediment, comes back, twenty-four years later: “My desire to live as a woman, I could now see, was a coherent phenomenon, consistently just under the surface of my nominal life for all those decades, despite my best efforts to pretend it wasn’t there.” Sante goes on to say she isn’t changing her voice (“my instrument”) or wearing a padded bra, though she has come to depend upon a wig. She is bored “with ‘the discourse’ that afflicts the trans community—its stifling rules of language, its micro-territoriality, its insipid bromides.” Sante’s womanhood will be made, an edition of one with no editor that may write over itself and reissue itself at will. Sante writes in Vanity Fair that “gender is a concatenation of physical, mental, emotional, and cultural factors we will never master, because no one does.”

Lucy Sante, October 2021. Bob Krasner
Lucy Sante, October 2021. Bob Krasner

This all resonated not just because I’ve been reading Sante for more than thirty years, but because her constant attendance to New York as a subject relates directly to how she tells her story now. Sante’s New York made sense to me, as a child in Brooklyn with an English mother and a father who idolized the New York of old. Her ability to see the ghosts and the living at the same time is immensely helpful for anybody who wants to understand this city. The historical churn of New York is both specific and general. When I watched Sweet Smell of Success in the ’80s, only twenty-five years after it was filmed, I felt like I was watching footage of the pyramids. Men in coats and hats? Big, ham-shaped cars? Brylcreem? This feeling is also known to someone in Kansas or Tokyo or Lagos, because twenty-first-century culture is like that. Everything moves too fast, everywhere. But New York is an open casket that burps through waves and wears itself as drag. You live with the dead while you’re looking for the living. When the Roseland Ballroom was destroyed in 2015, Sante was who I thought of. She understands the palimpsest of New York, where the sediment talks back and your negotiation with yourself is an act of making peace with and, ultimately, friends with your dead.

Sante has never been a writer of the new, or the now. There are no TV recaps or camping-trail TikToks in her catalogue. Occasionally, some subject will still be alive, like Bob Dylan, but this feels accidental. The bulk of Sante’s work is committed to the parade of the dead, sometimes visibly so, as in the police photographs of Evidence (1992). If you’ve seen even one Weegee photograph, you understand the genre. Unidentified people slumped at the bottom of elevator shafts or propped up in hallways, dried blood haloed around them. More than a hundred years later, the people in these photographs feel more vividly dead than the Instagram selfie casualties caught tumbling into waterfalls. The long exposures needed for glass-plate negative cameras of the early twentieth century generate a whispery aliveness in the grays.

These scenarios are as much about class as anything else. What does it mean to have a Syracuse pennant on the wall in 1918? Why does this particular victim have a pocket watch when most don’t? All of the photographs in Evidence were taken between 1914 and 1918, most in tenements. Spend time with the book, and a specter will appear, a bit like the image conjured by the admixture of red and green in 3D lenses. That figure is one of a thousand workers, the person running from stable to market, or submitting to her grief and committing family suicide by gas stove, or meeting the end when another poker player decides he’s cheating. Sante examines each picture, reconstructing as much of the life as she can, even devoting a section to “contents of pockets.” The roll call includes an oysterman, detective, chauffeur, cabaret singer, undertaker, and dozens of people who probably worked in factories or on the waterfront. This project doesn’t seem prurient to a native New Yorker, since we still live with the linoleum and wainscotting in these photos, and the tenement hallways, while having little to no idea what a dumbwaiter looked like when it could move. The rate of change in New York is such that the dead are often not even buried. They are simply shoved to the side as the march of commerce continues. And this is Sante’s gift, to see all of this happening, in motion even when it is still.

Sante, let’s pause here, is a Belgian. Her consciousness was formed there, no matter that her teens happened here in this most teentastic of countries. Her father worked in a foundry in Verviers, and a Teflon factory here in the States. In The Factory of Facts, Sante describes herself as “three-quarters peasant,” an opinion slotted in between many pages of Belgian history. Finding the author is sometimes tricky in Sante’s work, if you’re looking for confessional. But look at how she tags events, and a story emerges. In the same way that she keeps imagining seeing her father in cheap Belgian postcards taken years before his birth, she can see the working class of New York walk through walls.

Appended to the 2003 reissue of Low Life, originally published in 1991, is an afterword called “My Lost City.” (It was later compiled in the 2007 collection Kill All Your Darlings.) It’s a story about the young-adult Sante making her way uptown, and then downtown. Her ’80s New York is “crumbling” and “regressing.” An empty building on Canal Street was taken over by pigeons, “a literal rookery in a neighborhood dense with the metaphorical sort.” And there, in 2003, was something denoted that she had been connoting for years.

The benefit of a decaying city was that it preserved its history like tree rings. The stuff was just there, uncleaned and unretouched. The businesses on any given block of most neighborhoods were pretty much the same ones that had stood in 1952, and more often than not in 1932, and when the owners died unsucceeded by heirs, the places merely became vacant.

This vibrant tangle of mulch and seed is, of course, not limited to New York, and a native is seeing it that way because it suits him, and the author. The industrial decline of New York is not unlike what happened to Verviers in the ’50s, which precipitated her relocation. The tightly knit nature of the village is always at war with the scale of industry, and the victory of the former is the intermittent renunciation of the latter.

For Sante, that village was Manhattan, and more often than not the Lower East Side (the term she prefers to East Village). In her most recent collection, Maybe the People Would Be the Times, the lower-right corner pocket of Manhattan sets the harmonic overtone for the pieces. The LES was where buildings burned as often as not and you could educate yourself just by hanging out at bookstores. Sante’s tribute to Joe Brainard, “I Remember the Fabled Rat Man,” takes the structure of Brainard’s famous poem and runs with it. Over the course of twenty-five sentences that begin with “I remember,” Sante delivers a concise history of New York at the end of the Twentieth Century. “I remember leaving a showing of The Atomic Café at the Waverly and seeing Andy Kaufman in the exiting crowd, wearing a neck brace,” Sante writes, jamming three different totems into one sentence. (The Waverly is still a movie theater, now known as IFC.) She also notes that the Thalia—a repertory-film theater on the Upper West Side that provided my film schooling in the ’80s—“ran an unannounced third feature around noon,” a fact whose newness to me stung! Years later, you can still be knocked out of your own sediment.

Lucy Sante, The Parliament of Fowls, 2020, paper collage, approx. 24 x 14".
Lucy Sante, The Parliament of Fowls, 2020, paper collage, approx. 24 x 14″.

“Almost everything of interest in New York City lies in some degree of proximity to music,” Sante writes in the title essay of Maybe the People. The second piece in the book is one of her most luminous, “E. S. P.,” a six-layer décollage that takes place in the most Santean of states: a New York filled with a “palpable nothing,” reggae, and doo-wop.

Two friends are coming down from a drug high, and each is hearing “Florence,” a doo-wop tune by the Paragons, though neither is talking about it. When they get off the train, they are in Santeland, with nothing moving but the garbage trucks, the pre-dawn phase also described in “My Lost City.” If “liminal” hadn’t been rubbed into dust by overuse, it would be a word for the states Sante lives and writes in. And why this song? “It’s so ghostly you can’t imagine it ever sounding new.” The perfect music, then. And doo-wop itself is “a spectral genre” that “happened on street corners.” For Sante, recorded doo-wop “might sound posthumous.” We’re being serenaded by the dead, literally. We don’t know anything about the couple on the train, other than them hearing the same doo-wop song in their heads at the same time.

Sante imagines a woman disembarking from a bus at Port Authority, amid the hustlers and undercover cops and “translucent figures who came to the terminal just because they liked the smell of people.” This woman trailing her “ten-ton bags” who caused “grown men to tiptoe around her” seems to be the same person who writes from California about an earring that makes her look “vy fem(me)?” and an “outrageous calligraphic scar” on her ass she’s gotten by leaning against a heater. She is almost certainly E., whom our narrator dances with at Isaiah’s, listening to the bass and slackness of General Echo.

And then it seems E. has declined rapidly, in a nursing home, and died. The narrator writes a letter about letters. She goes to collect her correspondence with E., “probably the closest thing to a diary I ever kept, in the key years 1979–1983.” This is described as “exercising my usual dodge, which is to turn all of life into research materials.” E.—who brought takeout food to a club in 1987—ends up “looking like someone who’d hit you up for spare change in Tompkins Square Park.” Our narrator wonders if they should maybe never have met.

We move backward, suddenly, and our friends from the train are up on the roof, talking “at cross-purposes.” “Sally Go Round the Roses,” by the Jaynetts, is playing on an unseen radio as the sun rises. The song (or simply the lyric) loops, and our roof tourists have “no purchase on it, no more than they have power over the sun.” This state, between all the known worlds, where music comes from above, with no physical trace, is where the living and the dead commingle and mist us. Sante writes that the Jaynetts song, “whatever it might be, will continue beginning and ending, over and over and over again, per omnia saecula saeculorum.” This will be the case, as the dead come back to life, stillborn or reborn at sixty-seven or frozen into the gargoyles looking down from a church become a deli become a club become, as all roads indicate, a bank.

Sasha Frere-Jones is a writer and musician living in the East Village. He is working on a memoir.