Prologue to All the Sad Young Literary Men

In New York, they saved. They saved on orange juice, sliced bread, they saved on coffee. On movies, magazines, museum admission (on Friday nights). Train fare, subway fare, their apartment out in Queens. It was a principle, of sorts, and they stuck to it. To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little; but to be young—to be young was divine.

This is an excerpt from Keith Gessen’s All the Sad Young Literary Men.

In New York, they saved.

They saved on orange juice, sliced bread, they saved on coffee. On movies, magazines, museum admission (on Friday nights). Train fare, subway fare, their apartment out in Queens. It was a principle, of sorts, and they stuck to it. Mark and Sasha lived on the 7 train that year and when they got out, out in Queens, Mark would follow Sasha like a little boy as she checked the prices at the Korean grocers, and cross-checked them, so they could save on fruits and vegetables and little Korean treats. They saved on clothes.

It was 1998 and they were in love. They were done with college, with the Moscow of Sasha’s childhood, with the American suburbs of Mark’s—and yet they’d somehow escaped these things with their youth intact. To be poor in New York was humiliating, a little; but to be young—to be young was divine. If you’d had more money than they had, that year, you’d simply have grown old faster. And so, with smiles on their faces, they saved.

It was 1998 and they were angry. The U.S. had bombed a medicine factory in Sudan. The U.S. had bombed the Serbian columns in Kosovo—possibly exacerbating the situation. The Israelis continued to build settlements on the West Bank, endangering Oslo, and the Palestinians continued to arm. Mark and Sasha went to teach-ins, lectures, protests in Union Square. They went to free readings, second-run movies, eight-dollar plays. The readings were miserable, the plays were horrible, the lectures were ill-attended. Some of the movies were good.

Their friends came to visit, from Manhattan, from Brooklyn, from further away. Val’s real name was Vassily and he lived in Inwood; Joel was a computer genius, but he wanted to write music; Tom was a fiery radical of the far left: in college he’d read Hegel’s Phenomenology; in New York he mostly read the political writings of Lomaski. Klara went out with Val, but did either of them have a job? Suzy was a sound-designer, in theory, who stayed with them when she was looking for an apartment. Toby came to visit from Milwaukee and wandered around the city, his head craned up to see the faraway tops of the buildings. He was gifted with computers, but wanted to write. Sam came from Boston and couldn’t stop talking about Israel: he even had an Israeli girlfriend now.

It was 1998. Mark and Sasha and their friends held down the following jobs: Translator, gallery assistant, New York Times copy clerk, web temp, investment banker, temp, temp, temp.

Mark had always been cheap, but in college he’d become a communist. Or anyway a social-democrat. He went to Russia to research a project and met a girl. She had enormous green eyes and held her back straight and walked like a ballerina, the heel just in front of the toe, and she spoke English with such a proper, old world reserve that Mark wanted to help, to put his arms around her, to tell her it was OK. One day after classes got out they’d gone for coffee, sort of—there was no place to sit in all of Moscow, unless you sat outside, which is what they did, and then as it was dark he’d offered to ride the subway home with her.

“I don’t believe this is something you would like to do, really,” she replied, properly.

Oh, but he did! She was tiny, with her big green eyes, and they rode the train for over an hour—she lived at the very tip, the very southern tip of the entire sprawling metropolis—and when they got out of the subway Mark had to catch his breath. The rows of houses, graying socialist high-rises, 9 stories, 13 stories, 17 stories, each with their crumbling balconies, each grayer than the next, stretched into the horizon like a massed column. Mark was terrified.

“You live here?” he said to the girl, to Sasha, immediately regretting it.

“Yes,” she said.

It was just a matter of time, after that, before he declared himself. Three years later, they were in New York.

So they saved! Mark in the grocery store was like a Zen master. The people of Queens ran around this way and that, wild with desire for all the things they desired. Others had coupons and carefully they held them, like counterfeiting experts, up to the items they hoped to save on, to make sure they were the ones. Mark had never to do any such thing. He had emptied himself of any attachment to specific foods. The only items he saw were the items already on sale. In this way he kept his calm, he tried new foods, and he saved.

They kept a budget. At the beginning of the week they gave themselves $70 for food and transport. Impossible? Basically impossible, yes, but not if you never for “drinks” at a bar, never walk into a restaurant, and never ever buy an item of clothing not at the Salvation Army on Spring Street and Lafayette. Sasha herself was perpetually amazed. “I see girls in there,” she reported, “they have 300-dollar shoes, but they are looking for a jacket, a blouse, they would like to look like me.”

“Whereas you already do,” said Mark.

Tak,” said Sasha. “Imenno tak.” Exactly.

And slowly, Mark’s Russian was improving. He made his meager living now by translating industrial manuals into English. Sasha helped. The rest of the time he read about Soviet history and wondered if he should apply to graduate school. Sasha taught Russian in midtown and painted water-colors. It was 1998 and the rest of the world was rich.

Their friends came over and Sasha fed them. All together they argued and argued—there was so much to argue about! Val looked through their art books and gave talks about the painters—about Goya, about Rembrandt. Sasha told him about the Russian icon-painters, about the darkness of the Russian soul. Tom argued for unionization, a renewed commitment to worker rights. Sam talked about Israel and the writing world: who was publishing in the New American, who was publishing in Debate. Mark listened and observed. It was clear what some of them would do with their lives; it was less clear about the others. In the case of Mark, for example, it was unclear.

Occasionally he and Sasha had terrible fights. She was so quiet; she was so small. One time they met up in the city to watch a free movie in Bryant Park. Mark was already at the library on 42nd Street, and Sasha was at home, so she was to bring some food. But she was in a hurry and forgot. For a while they wandered around midtown looking for a place to eat. Finally they walked into a deli. The salad bar was closed. The sandwiches cost six-fifty, seven dollars. Mark concluded to himself that he would have a Snickers bar, but Sasha should eat.

“That’s all right,” she said. “I don’t need anything.”

“You need to eat something,” he insisted. “It’s a long movie.”

“No, I’m fine.”


Bozhe moi,” she said, my God, and without another word walked out the door. He followed her quietly and Snickers-less. They did not go to the movie.

Things like that. And sometimes Sasha would lie in bed for days and refuse to get up. But this passed, it usually passed, and anyway they were in this together. In an emergency, it was understood, Mark would be able to find a real job. They were pledged to avoid emergency. Or maybe only Mark was pledged to avoid it. There were other issues, of course. There are always other issues.

Most of all Mark and Sasha and their friends worried about history and themselves. They read and listened and wrote and argued. But what would happen to them? Were they good enough, strong enough, smart enough? Were they hard enough, mean enough, did they believe in themselves enough, and would they stick together, when push came to shove, would they tell the truth despite all consequences? They were right about Al-Shifa; they were right about the settlements. About Kosovo they were right and wrong. But what if they were missing it? What if it was happening, in New York, not a few blocks from them, what if they knew someone to whom it was happening, or who was making it happen—what if they were blind to it? What if it wasn’t them?

In their apartment, in their beautiful Queens apartment, Mark and Sasha knew only that they had each other. And they also knew—even in 1998, they knew—that this would not be enough.

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