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New York’s Bard of Grime

A trip through the underbelly of the Big Apple with novelist Richard Price, its foremost chronicler of crime, cops, and clockers.

Harlem, New York — Fifth Avenue

“What do I write about?” the novelist Richard Price asks himself as we push north from his Harlem brownstone in a rented gray Hyundai. “Why would I not wanna live here?” What Price writes about is cops and criminals. And he does so better than anyone alive.

He also writes about the Bronx and its native sons, a club to which he belongs, not without pride or complications. Not coincidentally, it’s the Bronx — just a hop over the Third Avenue Bridge from Price’s home — that we are heading to now.

The plan is a quick trip through the past. We’re skipping the Parkside housing projects where Price grew up — he’s been back there plenty. We’re going even further back: the old home of his beloved grandmother Pauline Rosenbaum, who’d take him to horror movie triple features and wrestling matches. And then the home of her parents and their brothers and sisters, the Jankolowitzes, Romanian and Russian immigrants who shacked up together, a dozen of them in the building. Three generations spread over three floors.

Price says his new novel, The Whites, is “all about people haunted by things of the past.” Today, at least, he’s happily calling out to the old spirits.

For the first time in seven years, Price has published a new book. The lag isn’t out of the ordinary: Price famously takes his time between release dates, spending his life engaged in live-action research — you know, hanging out with the police. “I don’t do ride-alongs,” he says. “I just make friends with cops and I drive around with them.” Then he sits down at his desk and unspools his epics of American crime.

There are no mobsters in his books, no RICO, no intricate conspiratorial hierarchies pushpinned on a tackboard somewhere and yarned together. Price likes the bottom end. The fresh-faced corner boys in baggy Champion hoodies. The haggard night-shift cops living off garishly branded energy drinks, 24 ounces at a time. The bodega sandwich-counter guys who just got here from Ramadi or San Cristóbal.

For their breadth and depth, his books are called “literary crime fiction.” This suggests a disdain for the genre that Price never expresses. In fact, in its original conception, The Whites was straightforward genre fiction. Under a pen name, Harry Brandt — a nod to his first agent, Carl Brandt, who died two years ago — Price had planned on writing a series of more conventional thrillers.1 This was, he readily admits, largely a financially motivated decision: He was trying to get the prime placement on your preferred airport bookstore’s paperback spin rack.


1.

When the series was first announced, the pen name was “Jay Morris.” Price changed it, he says, because “it was so bland that I fell asleep halfway through saying [it] out loud.”

The first pen name book had been planned for the fall of 2011; it was supposed to be delivered quick, nice, and easy. But his process took over. “You care about the mystery, but there’s so much more going on that’s peripheral to the mystery,” he says. “It just became … sprawling.”

Price’s regular contract is with Farrar, Straus and Giroux, but he’d signed the pen name deal with Henry Holt. So as silly as it is, and as much as he’d rather not, he’s obligated to publish The Whites under a pen name.2 “A thousand times, I’m gonna be asked, ‘Why the pen name?’” he says. “And a thousand times, I’m gonna say, ‘I don’t fucking know. It seemed like a good idea at the time.’”


2.

In a strange concession, the book is being credited to “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt.”

When he sat down to write, he found that he couldn’t shake his lack of interest in the genre’s central propellant: the whodunit. “I don’t even care who did it,” he’s said. “It’s an excuse to get into the world. I would rather say who did it in the first sentence and get it out of the way.”

Once Price has built a world — typically crumbling, in one fashion or another — he fills in the nooks and crannies. There are stories about the director Terrence Malick hauling off from a day’s planned shoot to chase a butterfly fluttering in a tender ray of sunlight. Price is kind of like that, too, except his butterfly is more likely to be a pet carp — left unattended and overgrown and so now, horrifyingly, unable to turn around in its own tank in an illegal Fujianese flophouse on the Lower East Side.

The apartment building at 1522 Vyse Avenue

Richard Price The apartment building at 1522 Vyse Avenue

The Bronx, New York — 1522 Vyse Avenue

In the backseat of the Hyundai is Price’s twentysomething daughter Genevieve, a TV actress (as Price himself notes, she’s played a lot of drug addicts and prostitutes). As we drive through the Bronx, Price peppers us with commentary. Waving a hand at the 99-cent shops and cell phone spots: “This used to be all small women and children’s clothing stores. My father worked them. He used to dress the windows.” Previewing our destination, his grandmother’s house at 1522 Vyse: “The street parallel to Vyse is Hoe Avenue. H-O-E. When I was there with the cops during the crack epidemic, it really looked like hoe avenue … ” Pointing to a particularly junky church decked out in corrugated tin: “This was built by the guy who did St. Patrick’s Cathedral, as you can tell.”

Price was a 24-year-old Columbia MFA student when his debut novel, The Wanderers, made him a hot-shot lit kid. Quickly approximating a fast-and-loose vision of his projects childhood, he created an eminently readable grab bag of dick jokes and small tragedies. Forty-one years later, he’s still got a thick head of wavy black hair. And he’s still got the eternal instincts of the sad little kid with a fast mouth. Except now instead of the Parkside crews, it’s his beloved daughter whom he’s trying to make laugh. As we roll on past the charmless storage centers and loading docks of the South Bronx: “This is not fit for humanity.”

We park on the corner, hop out, and Price points up to the third-floor window that belonged to his grandma. “[Once] she threw a pot of hot water out the window ’cause I was in a fight. And I was actually winning the fight!” He switches to the high-pitched shrill of his nana: “Get outta here, ya bahstahd!” Then he expertly drops into an approximation of his own, resigned little kid voice: “Shit, grandma. Why you gotta do this?”

Over the decades, Price has made a few attempts to come see the old place, including during the peak of the drug-ravaged ’80s: “Utter devastation. Like, apocalyptic. Everything looked like the moon. They were in the process of ripping everything apart. And, in typical Bronx fashion, you don’t bother to lock the door, so anyone can go in there and break their neck.”

He returned about 10 years ago, during the shooting of the movie adaptation of his novel Freedomland. He had a driver, and he’d heard the neighborhood had been getting better, so he rolled by. There was crime scene tape everywhere. Someone had been murdered in the lobby a half-hour before. “All these people were pissed,” he says. “Because they couldn’t get in the building. They didn’t give a shit about anything. ‘Another murder. So what? It’s cold out here and now I can’t get upstairs.’”

the-whites-richard-price

Shut out, Price eventually chose to re-create Vyse Avenue himself. The Whites was inspired by a short crime story Price read in the tabloids about a tragic case of mistaken identity. In his book, he reimagines it as the trigger for a decades-in-the-making disaster.

A young girl is sitting on a stoop of a Bronx building. Men with guns approach. They ask where they can find their mark. For reasons that will eventually be explained, but never justified, she gives them the wrong apartment number. The men murder the wrong guy. The young girl grows up and becomes a nurse and a mother and a wife. And her actions have ramifications that haunt her, her cop husband, and her kids. That Bronx stoop, Price explains, is the one at 1522 Vyse.

On this visit, Price gets luckier. Out of a pack of kibitzers across the street, a tall man — his blue work coat sporting the word “Porter” in yellow script on the breast — sees us milling around and approaches. Can I help?

“I was actually born in this building,” says Price, who turned 65 in October. “My grandparents lived here from the ’30s to the ’60s. Is it OK if I just take a look? I’ve never been back in this building.”

The man takes a second, looks us up and down. “As long as you don’t come and lock me up, you’re all right!”

His name’s Willy, he says. My name’s Richard Price, Richard Price says.

We walk in, and up a few landings. Price takes inventory. “These were all tiles. The doors were wood. These were all marble stairs. My grandmother was 350 pounds, and we used to walk up these stairs, and it took about 20 minutes.”

He looks around, soaks it in. Can we actually see an apartment, he asks? Willy thinks again. Ah, OK.

Willy knocks on 2B and ventures in first, then signals to Price that it’s cool to follow. “How you doing?” Price says to the exceedingly courteous woman of the house. “My name is Richard Price. I was born in this building a million years ago. And I always wanted to see if I ever remembered anything.”

“Of course!” she says, waving us in. We walk past a fellow whose hair-braiding session has just been interrupted halfway through the scalp. On the TV, the syndicated daytime talk show host Bill Cunningham is interrogating a young lady named Shanice, who is fighting back tears. A pot of cabbage cooks on the stove. “You want a plate?” Willy cracks. “We West Indian, so we do a lot of that stuff here,” the woman of the house explains.

“Cops are cops,” Price says. “They’ve always been a combination of the best and the worst. I wouldn’t tattoo everybody in blue with the same brand, and I wouldn’t tattoo everybody in the poorer communities with the same brand.”

The building conjures stories from Price. There were three movie theaters — the Freeman, the Simpson, the RKO Chester — to which Pauline used to take young Richie. “It was a couple of blocks away. But she’d be loaded down with food bags.” At the wrestling matches, Pauline was a “Hatpin Mary” — the name for the women who’d prick the villains, literally with hatpins, as they walked to the ring. The rest of the time, “she would sit in her kitchen window and look down on the street and give us all the commentary on all the junkies and all the old ladies whose hearts were broken ’cause their sons were shooting dope.”

Arthur, his grandfather, worked as a truck driver at the Hunts Point Terminal, delivering chickens to Chinese restaurants. Artie and his guys used to steal chickens by taking them out of the coops, pretending to drop them off, then bringing them home instead. “What you do is, you grab the corners of the burlap sack and you flap the chickens out. Except in each corner you’re hiding onto the feet of two chickens. And then you throw the bag back in the truck.”

Eventually, Artie got caught, fired, and blackballed. “He freaked out, beat the crap out of the guy that fired him. He was arrested, then got out because he knew a cop. It’s a long story.” Price’s grandparents eventually left the neighborhood after one final unhappy incident. “These two junkies held a knife to [Artie’s] throat. One guy cut the fur collar off his coat. It was so stupid: Why don’t you take the whole coat? It wasn’t even real fur! He had a knife cutting around his whole head and he said, ‘Oh, that’s it.’ So they moved. To a slightly less shitty neighborhood.”

“This is insane,” Price says, surveying the apartment. The layout’s all different from Artie and Pauline’s. He winces. “This apartment looks nooothing like … can I take a look out the window? The view doesn’t change. 1962. I remember.”

Back downstairs, Price grabs a few pics with Genevieve in front of the old building to send to his mother, who lives in an assisted-living facility for the elderly in Pennsylvania. He thanks Willy, telling him he’s been “dying to get into this building.” Willy either doesn’t understand the intention, or decides to needle a bit: “I’m full here now. This Section 8. Low income, middle income. You gotta wait.”

Price takes out a folded $20: “This is for your troubles.”

“Nah, nah, don’t worry about it … ”

Price insists. “You did me a huge favor.”

Willy takes a furtive look around. And then he answers, patting at the front of his thick blue coat and completing a little scene that resembles something out of a Richard Price book. “If you wanna give me something, you put it in my pocket. You know, look, you got a camera looking at me in the front, you got a camera looking at me behind … ”

Willy laughs, and Price slips him the bill, grinning.

“Must have been the wind.”

After The Wanderers, Price knocked out a series of Bronx tales: To varying degrees, Bloodbrothers, Ladies’ Man, and The Breaks are all about scrappy young men attempting to make peace with their lives in or away from that looming borough. They’re sharp novels, clever and full of punches. But page to page, you can’t shake the feeling that behind them is a guy who’s been blessed with the ability to open his mouth and crack up the room, and so has never bothered to stop and think before he speaks. The contrast between what was there and what was to come is remarkable.

Price was fortunate to have his first two books adapted into movies. By the mid-’80s, he was writing for the movies himself. He adapted Walter Tevis’s The Color of Money for Martin Scorsese, then got to watch prickly ex–pool hustler Paul Newman and young Tom Cruise — in full, glorious toothy-grin mode — do dance numbers with his script. Newman would win the Oscar; Price got a nomination.

Richard Price Portrait SessionCatherine McGann/Getty Images

He scripted Marty’s portion of New York Stories, wrote Sea of Love for Al Pacino, wrote Mad Dog and Glory for Robert De Niro and Bill Murray. He even did the script for the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Bad,” which was directed by Scorsese. He’d go on to write for The Wire, along with crime writers George Pelecanos and Dennis Lehane, the triumvirate at the head of the genre. Next is his own John Turturro–starring HBO miniseries, Crime. Price cameos as a bootleg Viagra salesman who works out of a bathroom.

As a standalone gig, it’s a remarkable career. But when I ask if he holds his script writing in the same regard as his books, he’s perplexed that I’d even ask such a thing. “Whatever I’m doing,” he says, “I’d rather be writing a novel.”

It reminds me of a reading I saw Price give years ago. During the Q&A, an earnest young fan asked what it is that Price got out of writing screenplays. The fan was hoping, presumably, to hear some highfalutin writer talk — how his fiction and screenwriting informed each other and all that.

“What did I get out of writing screenplays?” Price sniped back. “Checks.”

In the early ’90s, Price grew bored with writing about himself. Seeking a different kind of hood story, he traveled across the Hudson to Jersey City, New Jersey. He hung around the drug benches, nervously at first. “I got out of the car and I heard, ‘He’s a cop!’” he told The Believer in 2008. “I thought, Oh, oh. This is it. I have two daughters and I’ve finally gone too far.” Eventually, he found his bearing, his way into the byzantine world. The result was Clockers.

Released in 1992, nine years since his last book was published, Clockers announced an almost unrecognizable Richard Price. In the fictional town of Dempsey, New Jersey, with the immaculately intertwined narratives that would become his trademark, Price introduced us to our unlikely heroes.

There’s Strike, a fidgety 19-year-old who treats his undiagnosed ulcer by chugging vanilla Yoo-hoo while buckling under the formidable pressures of drug ring middle management. There’s Rocco Klein, a homicide cop taking early retirement who grows blindingly fixated on a case. Eventually, the two are bound to smash into each other. But it’s not hokum fate. It’s the inexorable grind of this particular reality.3


3.

David Simon has basically said The Wire wouldn’t exist without Clockers. He’s called it “The Grapes of Wrath of the crack epidemic.”

Freedomland and Samaritan, the novels that followed, again plumbed the social stratification and racial fears of his made-up kingdom of Dempsey. Then, in 2008, Price returned to New York City for Lush Life, his late-period masterpiece.

In the mid-2000s, the gentrification of the Lower East Side began to fascinate and inspire Price. The same neighborhood that was once the trash- and people-choked bastion for legions of penniless Eastern European Jews, much like his own forefathers, was now where his young daughters went partying on Friday nights?

He plotted a murder and kept it simple: A cocksure young white man, fresh to the neighborhood and out on the town in the early hours of the morning, is robbed, shot, and killed. It’s enough to trigger a collapse, bringing the neighborhood’s spheres of influence on top of one another. The vestigial Hasids, the Latino projects kids, the Irish cops grinding it out until pension eligibility, the slick restaurateurs, the Israeli landlords, the new-in-town corn- and coke-fed Iowa kids, the beautiful boys and girls with wonderfully asymmetrical haircuts and world-changing passions and service industry jobs — all vividly, thrillingly present and accounted for. That New York City is a thousand worlds jammed together is not a novel observation. Price’s trick was making us actually feel what that means.

In the screaming crime sections of New York City’s tabloids, Price’s characters are given short shrift — name, age, occupation, quote — and flattened. They are blank representations of good or evil. Price imbues them with a little humanity and some benefit of the doubt. They have ex-wives, second jobs, ex-step-siblings, debt, and favors to repay. They’re tragically flawed, but, hey, they’re dealing with a lot right now.

Eventually, both the perps and the police are somehow made sympathetic. Recently, with the nation’s anguished reaction to the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Tamir Rice, it’s the police that could potentially be more challenging subjects

Price points out that tragedies like these have occurred regularly for far longer than we’re comfortable admitting, and that they’re the product of a fundamental police mentality.

“Cops see a black kid running, they’re gonna stop him,” he says. “He could be late to see his therapist. They’re gonna stop him and pat him down and assume the worst.”

He says the difference is the wide dissemination of information available via our phones — it’s not just guys like him who are privy to this information now. “Can you imagine what they were doing a hundred years ago? Fifty years ago? Thirty years ago?”

But he says a struggle to compassionately write about cops has never entered his mind. “Cops are cops,” he says. “They’ve always been a combination of the best and the worst. I wouldn’t tattoo everybody in blue with the same brand, and I wouldn’t tattoo everybody in the poorer communities with the same brand.”

He’s not interested in moralizing; in his books is what he sees. For a novelist, he sure does talk like a reporter. “Hopefully, when this settles down, they’ll be savvier. Hopefully, they’ll have better community relations. Or it’ll just go back to the way it was.”

The Bronx, New York — 502 Concord Avenue

Back in the Hyundai, I try to get Price to discuss the writing process. “My need to write about these mooks kicked into high gear — it was all tied into homesickness and disorientation,” he’d once explained to the Paris Review, quite nicely. “I was writing in the same manner and for the same reason that someone would whistle a tune as they navigated a dark and creepy forest.” This afternoon, though, between the squawking GPS directions and his daughter in the backseat, he’s a little preoccupied. So instead we chat.

They tell me a story about the first time he took her back to the Parkside projects. “She freaked out.”

“I was 9.”

“We saw an old family that I knew. We were living in Gramercy Park and all of a sudden I’m in the projects and she said she never saw me so happy.”

They tell me a story about religion. “He got kicked out of Hebrew school for pushing a kid down the stairs.”

“I had a protection racket. If you didn’t pay me a quarter you were gonna get thrown down the stairs. Somebody didn’t pay me a quarter and I don’t know what came over me — I actually pushed them down the stairs.”

When we arrive at 502 Concord, Price marches us past it and down to the bodega at the corner. Then he kicks into storytelling gear. He’d been prepping for this one, and he wastes no time in setting the scene.

“OK, so the year is 1991. And there was over twenty-two hundred homicides in the five boroughs.4 I was hanging out with the Crime Scene Unit. They get a call on Concord Avenue. And this is what happened. This bodega here had a pay phone. Some guy had a screaming fight on the phone. He hung up the phone, you know, ‘Fuck you, fuck you.’ Still fighting with his girlfriend in his head. He takes out a gun, turns to shoot the phone.”


4.

Just under, actually: 2,154, to be precise. By the way, in 2014, says the New York Times, only “328 killings [were] recorded … the lowest figure since at least 1963, when the Police Department began collecting reliable statistics.”

Unfortunately, the pay phone had acquired a new customer. Unfortunately, the troubled paramour was quite accurate in his shot. Unfortunately, he dropped the new caller dead.

The detectives go through the victim’s pockets, see he lives at 502 Concord. “In my head I’m going, Why is that address familiar to me?” Price says. He realizes: That’s where the Prices began their life in America. We walk up the street, back to 502. The block is uniformly gray, and the day’s crusted and muddied snowbanks aren’t helping the dour mood. 502 is a skinny four-story building, chipped and nicked. It needs a new paint job. But it is red. A nice splash of color.

He addresses Genevieve. “In the 1930s, my great-grandfather owned that whole building. Twelve family members — my great-grandparents, and all my grandmother’s brothers and sisters — were here.” He stops and thinks and looks up. “My great-grandfather made wine in the basement. He was from Romania. They make their own wine.” He stops and thinks and looks up some more. “They were all in their twenties. Now they’re all dead. And that’s how I was reintroduced to this building. A stupid-ass pay phone murder.”

Price used this for The Whites, too, for another pivotal scene. The little girl from the stoop has grown up and married a cop. The cop is in some trouble that he doesn’t quite understand. He finds himself interrogating a very stoned man who may or may not have been witness to a murder. The cop is trying to figure out who shot a volley of bullets into the trunk of a car. The cop is trying to figure out who was maybe inside the trunk of the car at the time. The stoned man’s apartment is inside the fictional 502 Concord.

Back in the real world, Price is directing his daughter in a little iPhone production for his mother. “Say, ‘Hi, Grandma, I’m at 502 Concord.’ OK, now blow Grandma a kiss. OK, here’s Gen coming out of the building. Here’s 502! Here’s your bedroom. Somewhere.”

He turns to me, giving me some suggested copy: “See the places where Richard Price almost lived! But he didn’t! ’Cause he wasn’t born yet!” I laugh and point out that usually when I do these kind of “back to the projects” interviews, it’s with rappers. “Yeah, well, before the rappers came the Jews,” he says. “Before the Jews came the Irish. Before the Irish came the Dutch. Before the Dutch came the dinosaurs.”

It’s been a long time since Price has written thinly veiled memoir. But he never stopped using the Bronx. He turned to crime, and it’s kept him as necessary and relevant at 65 as he was at 24. And throughout, a familial weight has continued to weigh heavily.

“I always wanted to go back and have one last conversation with my grandmother and grandfather,” he says as we walk down the avenue. “It’s your life, and you’re doing it every day, and you don’t even think about it. You’re just … doing it. And now that you’re curious, they’re dead. You can get really curious. You can get obsessed. And you think — if I could only have one more day.” He pauses. “Anyway, we can get back in the car.”