When a book’s title is a place, it signals the importance of that place to the characters and draws in readers who already have a stake in that place. Those familiar with Staten Island may read Claire Jimenez’s Staten Island Stories to confirm their connection to that place. Those unacquainted with it may read to satisfy a curiosity about it and the people who live there. How different are they from me? How have their lives been affected by the place they live in? This, after all, is why we read, isn’t it?
To this lifelong West Coaster, New York City has seemed almost fabled, seen through the comedic angst of Neil Simon and Woody Allen movies, the grittiness of West Side Story, the trendiness of Friends. But that’s Manhattan: a foil and a reference point for many of the Staten Island residents in Jimenez’s book. They ferry to Manhattan for jobs, for social encounters, and to find the justifiable outrage over the failure to indict Officer Pantaleo for killing Eric Garner in front of a Staten Island store.
Without moralizing and through the thorny, everyday lives of Staten Islanders, or at least a particular subset of them, the book addresses in subtle ways the terrors in our society — gun violence, a biased police and penal system, economic inequities, the compassionate response to the suburban and rural heroin epidemic as opposed to the mass incarceration of urban crack users. In these first-person narratives, the reader doesn’t just observe, but joins the characters in their search for autonomy and recognition as human beings, a search carried by prose that captures the complexities of inner fears and the outer behaviors that attempt to mask them.
Jimenez’s characters are working class, often cynical and weary, but dogged and determined. Staten Island is both reviled and beloved by them, the exploited, the forgotten, the ones who know what it means to hold the short end of the stick, who tell their stories with self-awareness but without self-pity. In Jimenez’s hands, character, place, and language combine organically to engage the reader in the story without any one element waving its hand and shouting look at me.
Making more than a cameo appearance in these stories is the Staten Island Ferry. It’s the way off the island. And the way back on.
I myself rode the ferry during my first visit to New York a few years ago. Because there wasn’t enough time to visit the Statue of Liberty, we took the Staten Island Ferry to just sail past it. We disembarked at the terminal and walked right back on the ferry to return to Manhattan with the blitheness of the tourists we were, on vacation from our workaday lives, amid those immersed, even inundated in theirs. Jimenez’s book opens with a story of one of the inundated. Lauren in “The Tale of the Angry Adjunct” is a frazzled adjunct who is phone-stalked by a loan collector, while frantically seeking a full-time faculty job with benefits. The bus and ferry seem to conspire against her as she commutes to her various jobs and interviews. She is too weary for tourists.
“In the terminal, I sat down next to a family of French tourists. They didn’t know that they were destined for Staten Island, not the Statue of Liberty, and I was too tired to tell them otherwise, because that is always the way it is in life: you hope you are headed somewhere important and memorable, then end up landing on some strange, fucked-up island.”
If Staten Island is not the island of the Statue of Liberty, it reflects the sentiments behind the statue.
“At night, the last S62 leaving CSI was usually loaded with students from everywhere: Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, the North Shore. And their families were from Sri Lanka, Ukraine, Nigeria, the Dominican Republic, Palestine, Mexico. There were kids from India, Albania, Haiti, and Jamaica. From Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco. And all of us masses tired, huddled on the 9:00 pm bus darting home through the black rain.”
In more than one story, we find that Staten Island makes scrappy people. In “Great Kills,” Toni invites her friend Lisa to accompany her to her high school reunion. She says of her hometown, “It’s a dump. Literally.”
Indeed, the island’s landfill was one of the largest in the country, though it has since been closed and the land reclaimed. Toni remarks, “The island over the past few years had been trying to upgrade itself, maybe trying to look more like Manhattan — which when you think about it is such a fucking Staten Island thing to do.”
Toni and Lisa are in search of the party and anticipating a good time, their awareness of their outsiderliness in full geek mode and their emotional wounds part of their banter. But after finally arriving at the house where the party is in full swing, their radar for trouble is alerted “because sometimes when you’re a little bit off yourself you can notice it in other people, even when they’re trying their very hardest to hide it.”
They both react with alacrity and fierceness to the danger and with a visceral anger at the malevolent intentions of one of the guests. Toni explains: “You can say whatever you want about people like me and Lisa, but what a lot of folks don’t realize is that when you’ve gone through the things that we’ve gone through, it makes you scrappy. Most folks go about their days and operate under the impression that bad things cannot happen to them.”
These Staten Island characters can and do actively defy the bad things that come their way, even when, or maybe especially when, the bad things threaten someone else. In “The Knight’s Tale,” high-schooler Arlene tries and fails to catch the interest of cool kid Alex. At a Halloween party, Arlene, dressed as an earth goddess, and her friend Katie, dressed as a daisy, find themselves in a game of spin-the-bottle that includes Alex dressed as himself. Crushed at the sight of Alex and Katie kissing, Arlene nevertheless performs an act of fearlessness, later admonishing a bystander when he questions whether she’s having fun because she’s not smiling. “I’ll smile if I want to smile,” she tells him. Young Arlene is not to be diminished.
Jimenez’s themes of class, race, and residents’ complex connections to Staten Island are most closely observed in “The Grant Writer’s Tale.”
Luis is a grant writer, as the story’s title indicates. As a boy, he is teased by his classmates for his Puerto Rican origins. “Hey, Luis,” someone tells him, “You’re on the wrong island, man.” Counseled by his father to keep his head down and stay out of gossip, he does so and roots himself on the island. “I had been one of the few people who had stayed and felt strangely proud of it, even though part of me hated the island, really hated it.”
When he lands the grant-writing gig, his mother says, “You make us proud.” But Luis walks off the job one afternoon, the day a grand jury declines to indict the police officer who choked Eric Garner, killing him — for allegedly selling cigarettes. Failing to find anyone to commiserate with on the island, he hops on the ferry to Manhattan where “hundreds of thousands of people who would have scoffed at ever stepping foot on the Island now were animatedly marching for Garner.”
When the crowd reaches the ferry terminal to take their protest to the scene of the crime, police block their entry, leaving Luis to shout in strangled tones, “Fuck you, I live there. That is where I’m from.”
It’s a poignant moment.
Perhaps an even more apt encapsulation of how the characters in Staten Island Stories feel about their hometown comes from the young woman in “Underneath the Water You Could Actually Hear Bells,” who finds evidence of her husband’s infidelities. When Beatrice’s childhood friend comes to visit from L.A., rather than taking her to the apartment she shares with her husband in Jersey, she takes her to Staten Island where they both spent their youth. When Beatrice’s husband calls to ask “Are you going to stay there or come home?” she answers “No.” A definitive uncertainty. A resolute dithering. A perfect snapshot of the dichotomy of who we are and who we might — in a different place — otherwise be.