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Guest Blog: E. L. Doctorow in the Bronx

To kick off our new guest blog series, MAS guide Jean Arrington describes her interest in E. L. Doctorow’s work and the inspiration for her upcoming tour in the Bronx. We invite you to share your own tour adventures with us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and TripAdvisor!

E. L. Doctorow (January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015)

E. L. Doctorow (January 6, 1931 – July 21, 2015)

In 2012, in connection with an exhibit about the New York World’s Fairs, the Museum of the City of New York scheduled E. L. Doctorow to give a reading from his book, World’s Fair. Having some years earlier read Ragtime with delight and amazement, I went to hear him read, of course. The scene from the reading that I remember indelibly is when the family learns that nine-year-old Edgar, who unbeknownst to his parents had entered an essay contest on the topic of the all-American boy, finds out he has won Honorable Mention, the prize being a day free at the fair for the whole family. Edgar is doing his homework and his mother washing dishes when his father, in an armchair reading the New York Times, says, “How many boys with your name do you suppose live at 1796 Grand Concourse, The Bronx?” After some moments of consternation Edgar runs to the unchecked-for-days mailbox and there is the letter announcing his prize. Even though it’s 8:30pm on a school night, the family dresses up and walks to Krum’s for ice cream to celebrate. Few people in the audience were dry-eyed. After the reading, Doctorow couldn’t hear people’s questions, but after his wife repeated them to him, his answers were cogent, insightful, funny. He was 84.

I was inspired to read World’s Fair. Then I was inspired to read it again, underlining all the specific addresses and places. Then one Saturday morning I met a friend at the 174th-Street stop on the D train, my list of places in hand: Doctorow’s house at 1650 Eastburn Avenue, the apartment on the Grand Concourse they moved to during the Depression after his father’s music business had failed, his school PS 70, the ovals in Mt Eden Avenue, the Surrey Theater where on Saturday mornings for a dime Edgar would see the newsreel, two feature films, a serial, and a cartoon, the public library on the forbidding Irish and Italian side of Webster Avenue, the sites of the lying-in hospital where he was born, the synagogue his grandmother attended, the drugstore where she bought for her asthma a medicinal leaf legally available without a prescription. I had found a small enclave of the Bronx that hadn’t changed significantly since Doctorow had loved those streets as a little boy. Finally, I was inspired to lead a walking tour to share with others this Doctorow memorabilia.

Since that first walk in 2013, the 1920s brick house beside his has been demolished as has the garage against which he and his father played paddle ball. Now we’ve lost even Doctorow himself. Constant diminishment is the way of this world. How lucky we are that reality also includes art, a world in which experiences and truths aren’t subject to diminishment? For all these reasons and more, I hope you and yours can join me and MAS for the upcoming tour of “E.L Doctorow’s Bronx.”