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Room to Write

Carolyn Ferrell '84

Like many New Yorkers, I began by saying that I would never leave Manhattan. My last address was in Hell’s Kitchen, where my boyfriend Linwood and I were living in something resembling a dorm room in a tenement brownstone. We lived there for a few years, attending graduate school and finally launching ourselves into lives we had only dreamed about: Linwood began his postdoctoral career working on a MacArthur Fellowship project in psychology, I suddenly got a contract for a collection of short stories, and in 1997 we were both offered faculty positions at Sarah Lawrence. Then came marriage, then a baby. Though Sarah Lawrence felt connected to Manhattan in many ways—connected to this dream of a life we were living—the move closer to the campus felt like a good idea. Our home was too small, and a shorter commute was enticing. Thus we said our last goodbye to our apartment, packed our futon and new glider chair, and started looking for those proverbial greener pastures.

Moving to Riverdale never entered our minds.

We said our last goodbye to our apartment, packed our futon and new glider chair, and started looking for those proverbial greener pastures.

What I knew about this Bronx neighborhood was gleaned from my stepfather, who taught piano from his home in neighboring Kingsbridge and loved the place. Lots of old people lived there, and Jews (like himself), and Russians (like his forbears). You had the subway but you also had the express bus into Manhattan. Wave Hill was a plus, but on the downside you had the private school kids, who ate lunch in the diner and bragged about weekend trips to Vail. And so on and so forth. My stepfather characterized Riverdale as a culturally dynamic place, but from my view out the Number One train window, I didn’t exactly get that. As we moved into the station, I saw a large gray train yard at 242nd Street; squat rows of discount stores that could have fit into any borough; carefully manicured brick townhomes sitting almost on top of each other. (Years later, a relative from a West Indian neighborhood in the Bronx would tell me that Riverdale was where all the white people lived; years after that, my very young son would tell me that Riverdale was where all the graffiti in the Bronx stopped.) I did not know Riverdale. I had no real desire to get to know it.

Linwood and I were looking for a home in Yonkers, but all we found were cramped one-bedroom apartments. One day a realtor surprised us with a trip to Riverdale, driving us along Fieldston Road, past the stable, past sprawling Van Cortlandt Park, down Johnson Avenue (the commercial hub), and out onto the Henry Hudson Parkway. Lots to see and do, easy to get around—this was his message to us. Lots of young people, lots of children, easy to get back into Manhattan. I was surprised by the blend of city and country—the architectural variety, the people out walking everywhere, the comforting rumble of the subway in the distance, the glimpses of Manhattan skyline from Palisade Avenue. The idea of Yonkers vanished into the air.

The realtor showed us an apartment in a building right behind Fieldston Road, and what ultimately sold us was the view from the living room window: leafy trees cascading down a steep embankment; raccoons scrambling along the old stone walls embedded into the landscape. Later I would watch red-tailed hawks perching watchfully on bare oak branches. Squirrels and birds quarreling in the thicket of trees. Feral cats roaming the grounds, on the watch for Animal Protection. This is where we would settle, I decided in my heart. This is where I would write my next book, a novel. There was bustle but there was also peace. This was a place that seemed somehow to lend itself to the job of being creative.

Many Riverdalians think of the neighborhood as being a lot like a small town, where news travels fast and people know each other’s business too well. Perhaps that’s what Linwood and I intuited during that first drive down Fieldston Road. Perhaps that is what kept us there. We liked the mix—the range of an urban community, the leafy quiet of a rural (or at least suburban) place. We lived in our first apartment for nearly six years with our son, Ben, and then moved to a larger apartment in the building for another seven years after Karina was born. Our neighbors included Africans, African Americans, Asians, Orthodox Jews, Italians, Siberians, Polish and Irish people … home was the picture of diversity.

I took time off from my teaching to write. I spent days gazing out my window into the wooded area behind our building and gathered my thoughts for the novel. I enjoyed the quiet; I wrote and wrote and wrote. Six years, seven years, eight. Early on a reporter from the Riverdale Press came to interview me; my collection of stories had won a large prize. She asked me how long it would take to complete the next book. I had no answer then, but by the end of many years—publishing stories, occasional essays, little things here and there—I thought the big thing was finally ready to be born.

There were a few drawbacks to the neighborhood. The house owners on our block could be rather uppity when it came to us apartment dwellers, making us feel strangely transient. The imposing Russian Mission near the playground (an ugly white skyscraper) was rumored to be expanding. The bagel shops were not great. The at-first inviting restaurant scene boiled down to one or two reliable sushi places and Salvatore’s Pizza. The libraries were cold inside and the supermarkets very expensive. Comfort was in knowing how close we were to the Number One train—a quick trip back to Manhattan was never far away—though in reality, life in Riverdale tended to drive us further into the arms of Westchester County.

And then my novel was rejected.

The place that engendered this new book had now failed me—or so I first thought, when I was looking for reasons to explain the rejection. I wanted to stop writing. I wanted to live like a “regular” person in Riverdale—just living, breathing, walking. It took a good Riverdale minute, but eventually I returned to my desk and looked back out the window.

When other things began to get seriously cramped—the apartment full of toys, books, a piano, etc.—we began again to dream: of more space, of trees, grass, windows. Linwood and I knew a house in Riverdale would be too exorbitant for our means, so we shifted our gaze back to Yonkers. I wanted a house with a room just for writing, for agonizing over that next book. For composing chapters as I looked out every window. For feeling excited about new pages.

Eventually we found ourselves a gracious old Tudor in a neighborhood not two miles from Sarah Lawrence, another city/country sort of place, though decidedly quieter than our Riverdale home. Would it sound too corny to say that I saw myself entering a new chapter of my life in Yonkers? The stories on my computer, the new novel tucked piece by piece into several computer files, the book I was encouraging Linwood to write—could this be a place for all that? (The room for writing was already there—wall-to-wall windows and a glass-paned door!)

My first impressions of life in Yonkers were tinged with a sense of longing for the tumble of Riverdale; this was much the same way I felt when I left Manhattan for the Bronx. How does one start over? How does place affect creativity? I suppose I will only be able to answer that after a life of writing and doing. The wonderful thing is that wherever I go, my writing follows. Surroundings are important, as is quietude for thought, the much-desired room of one’s own. The center of my writing, my subject matter, my voice—these continue to be revealed to me in all places, city or country, asphalt or garden, real or imagined home.

Carolyn Ferrell’s work was most recently published in Because I Love Her: 34 Women Writers Reflect on the Mother-Daughter Bond and This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers. She has taught writing at Sarah Lawrence since 1996.