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.
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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.