Leopoldine Core’s new collection of short stories, When Watched (Penguin; $16), immediately throws readers into the underbelly of Lower Manhattan. The first tale, “Hog for Sorrow,” opens with two prostitutes “waiting side by side on a black leather couch, before a long glass window that looked out over Tribeca.” The pleasures and perils of New York living lurk just beyond the window for most of Core’s characters: They walk multiple blocks in the rain; wallow in dark, dirty, and overheated apartments; and stroll out of their homes “past an ice cream truck and a pile of dog shit and an old man selling batteries.” Throughout the collection, Core introduces readers to a diverse group of characters that includes a schoolgirl plotting to run away from home, a middle-aged academic couple who embark on a road trip, and a pair of 25-year-old friends who just lie around “gossiping and looking at the walls.” Along the way, New York becomes a steady presence and a character in its own right.
A graduate of Hunter College on the Upper East Side, Core was born and raised in the East Village, where she still lives. Before publishing the collection, she held a variety of jobs, from law-firm receptionist to stints as a salesperson at a bakery and a gift shop, which have given her myriad vantage points from which to view the city’s diverse population. While attending college part-time, she worked at a restaurant. In 2015 (the same year Coconut Books published her poetry collection, Veronica Bench), Core won the prestigious Whiting Award for fiction. The $50,000 prize allowed her to “wake up every day and write, and for that to be my job for a little while.” Nevertheless, she says she values her time at all her “awful” jobs.
“You’re around people who you wouldn’t be otherwise,” Core told me by phone the day after a reading at McNally Jackson, the Nolita bookstore. “I really like that forced intimacy…. I’ll just assume things about people and be so wrong. Or be right and start to love them anyway.” She’d sometimes run into customers who’d been nasty to her at readings. “I liked having that dual gaze…being able to kind of be invisible and be watching things and then…enter society sometimes.” These assertions also reflect back on the crucial role of New York’s possibilities in Core’s stories. The city is, notoriously, the place where a job waiting tables is often a means to supporting a creative pursuit; people’s fortunes can change one day to the next; and a morning working a menial job can be followed by an evening at a high-profile cultural event.
* * *
Of course, New York’s deeply felt presence in the work is more than just a natural product of the author’s background—Core evidences a serious concern with not just what happens in a story, but also where it occurs. The portrait she evokes of New York is less tied to a specific moment than to a cumulative experience. The first story references Judge Judy, and readers get the feeling that it could have taken place any time during that show’s 20-year run. In another story, a character listens to the 1960s singer-songwriter Nico on her stereo, a throwback to the New York of past decades. (Along the same lines, a character imagines speaking to George Harrison in the final tale.) Core hardly mentions laptops, cell phones, particular New York institutions, or contemporary pop-culture details that could specifically date the stories. They linger in a kind of nebulous time frame tinged with the city’s past. Moreover, the New York outside the characters’ windows is in constant flux, often mirroring the complex shifts in relationships that occur behind closed doors.
In “Historic Tree Nurses,” one of the collection’s strongest stories, Core writes, “Peanut had lived in the same apartment on the Lower East Side since childhood but in the last year, the building had changed hands and since the sale, it kept morphing…. after months of misguided upscaling, the building wound up looking like a pizza chain with pretensions.” Peanut’s much-older girlfriend (there’s a 24-year age gap), Frances, sneers that it’s “very Epcot.” The city’s vicissitudes become an apt backdrop to the relationship’s fluctuations as the characters struggle with their jealousies, resentments, and insecurities: Peanut worries about Frances flirting with other men and women; Frances contends with her aging appearance and begrudges Peanut for her inability to drive. New York’s demands both force characters into conflict and distract them from larger issues.
Core explores these tensions as she designs a road trip as the central narrative engine for the story (a car is even smaller than a New York apartment, and more likely to bring a couple’s issues to the fore). The pair sets out from New York to Ohio to pick up an adopted dog. And along the way, the farther they drift away from the city, the more existential their concerns become. Core dips in and out of both characters’ points of views, leading to a shifting sense of perspective. Thus, the reader alternately sympathizes with Peanut and Frances. Peanut eventually concludes, “The problem with their relationship wasn’t moral at all. It was biological. It came down to the bodies they happened to have and the looming fact of death.” Though the outside world may denounce their age difference for different reasons, Peanut recognizes the innate challenges for two bodies separated by a certain number of years. She wishes that “her sense of time could be sped up and Frances’s could be slowed down.” Yet the idyllic space outside New York—of dogs and hotel stays, sans occupational concerns and friends’ judgments—leads to a sort of reconciliation. At the end of the story, the pair sits on the grass outside a roadside taco chain, playing with their new dog. Passersby come up to them, asking to pet the dog. “Never before had the two been so tenderly observed,” writes Core. With the dog, they become objects of affection. They’re relatively at peace with each other and the world around them. The reader doubts whether the harmony will persist back in the city, but Core ends the story before the couple returns.
In “The Hitch,” Core presents a similar portrait of an ever-changing, ever-more economically stratified New York. As in “Historic Tree Nurseries,” the description reflects the interpersonal conflict at the story’s heart. The main character, Dawn, is coming to terms with her father’s aloofness. Her parents are divorced, and her father has remarried into a new family. He refuses to introduce his daughter. Inheritance, the past, and stability are natural concerns to Dawn, who feels that both her father and the city have left her behind. “Just past eleven a.m.,” Core writes, “the Lower East Side was already crawling with shoppers of a particular sort. People with money…. She had grown up in the neighborhood and felt increasingly like an outsider. Her rent-stabilized apartment was one of a remaining few and she joked that it was her inheritance, a shaky one.” At one point, Dawn’s roommate Laurel tells her she belongs “in the eighties,” and at another, she imagines the evening of her conception. As she refuses to let go of her neighborhood and its public past, she attempts to reclaim her private history by developing an interpretation of the event that shaped her. Dawn’s desire to protect the past manifests itself in a very literal way as well: She works at a gift shop that sells “themed goods like CBGB T-shirts and mugs made to look like the iconic Happy to Serve You coffee cups of the nineties.” It makes Dawn “grimace to sell these fragments of her past.” For her, possession (of parental affection, objects, and a home) is always necessary, but it’s tenuous. The city both reflects and exacerbates her fear of loss.
Core repeats the structure and tropes of “Historic Tree Nurseries” in her story, “The Trip”; again, a New York–based couple embarks on a road trip, and relationship tensions arise throughout the journey. The trip amplifies the problems, particularly when one character runs a car into a ditch. The story begins as an aging academic couple, Susan and Henry, leave Tribeca for Missoula, Montana, and immediately begin quibbling. Throughout the journey, the pair makes observations one might expect of exiled New Yorkers. Susan marvels at graffiti on a billboard, wishes they could just take a train, and wonders what people in La Porte, Indiana, “do here.” Henry compares a hotel’s front-desk clerk to a man who killed his roommate in the East Village in the 1980s. Their former urban life shapes their perception of the rest of the country and its inhabitants, but, especially compounded by the repetition of the other stories, it also creates a sense of chauvinism. In a filthy bus station, Henry remarks how depressing it is to see people there “with a little beauty.” “She’s too pretty to be here,” he says. “She could go to Manhattan…. She could be a cocktail waitress…. Isn’t that what pretty girls do while they’re figuring things out?”
* * *
The people and places they see never advance beyond foils to them and their city life. Core’s characters never really, mentally, leave New York behind. The city is something by which the characters develop their identities, unifying them more than any other factor (gender and sexual identity, age, socioeconomic status) may differentiate them. Susan and Henry have more in common with Peanut and Frances than anyone they encounter outside of the five boroughs.
Before concluding that this represents a limitation of Core’s imagination, though, it’s worth noting that if New York serves as When Watched’s primary territory, its second-most-visited geography is of the mind itself. Entire stories take place in characters’ heads. In “Memory,” a woman named Alice stands by the stove and begins thinking of a man named Joe. She remembers particular moments with him for four pages. Only in the final two paragraphs does Core return to the story’s present. Alice turns off the burner and pours herself a cup of tea—the only real actions that occur in scene. In “Polaroids in the Snow,” an unnamed woman sits in bed thinking. It snows outside. She reads a bit of her book, and finishes her wine. This is all that happens. The meat of the story, again, is in her memories, this time of her ex-husband. To lesser degrees, Core’s other stories also explore the landscapes of characters’ memories, desires, and inner conversations. The mind becomes a retreat from a busy city. Alternately, the city is also a distraction from the mind.
In its parochial setting and exploration of young, connection-seeking characters adrift, When Watched bares similarity to some of Ann Beattie’s earlier work. In her 1978 story “The Vintage Thunderbird,” one character says to another, “You know what happened to you? You got eaten up by New York…you can be happy. For instance, you can get away from New York.” But for Core’s characters, in contrast, no world really exists outside the city. When characters travel beyond its borders, as in “The Trip” and “Historic Tree Nurseries,” the outlying land is more of a device than a fully realized setting. If this can make Core’s scope seem limited, she makes up for it in her range of characters and her explorations of their psyches. While the city becomes an incubator for tensions both internal and interpersonal, it also becomes vital to her characters. Opportunities for new connections, employment, and adventure always exist just beyond their doors, whether or not they take advantage of them. For characters that spend much of their time in their own heads, these possibilities, and the fantasies they inspire, can be invaluable. While relationships and individual identities shift, New York remains a constant. Despite its grit, gentrification, and emotional drain, for some it’s always home.