Miriam Chaikin Foundation Writing Award was established in memory of Miriam Chaikin, a longtime Westbeth resident and prolific writer. Born in Palestine, Chaikin grew up in Brooklyn, and her childhood memories and life in a close-knit Jewish community are all themes represented in her writing. She worked earlier in her career as an editor of literature for young people, and most of her books are intended for them. Later in her life she published books of poetry about aging and beauty based on the haiku format.
Every year, a call for writing from the Foundation produces submissions from all over the country, which are then selected by the Foundation committee. The award is an honorarium of $500 and a public reading.
Due to the crisis and the cancellation of the reading, the winning entries by Suzanne Ruta, prose, and Matthey Corey, poetry, are published here, as excerpts and as downloadable pdf files.
Suzanne Ruta and her husband painter Peter Ruta moved into Westbeth when the building opened as artists’ housing in 1970. “It was a great gift to us and our generation. Peter was just over 50 that year, I was 30, and neither of us had had an ideal lodging in New York till then. At Westbeth Peter discovered the Hudson River and the Westside Highway, through his 6th floor studio window, and from the 13th floor roof. Later he painted downtown Manhattan from the 91st floor of the World Trade Center, losing his last best work on 9/11.”
Suzanne discovered from the outset, her wonderful neighbors at Westbeth, including many who, like Peter, had come to New York as emigrants from Europe, just before the Second World War. She has published two books, a story collection, Stalin in the Bronx, in 1987 (NY Times notable book of the year) and a novel, To Algeria with Love, in 2011. Both books deal with immigrants and exiles. Her story, WYSIWYG, set in the mid- 1990s, celebrates the vicissitudes of a refugee from Nazi Germany who finds a home in downtown New York.
You can’t step into the same river twice, the old Greeks said. Least of all the Hudson, south of 14th Street. Max knew better than to try. He began to paint the river from the window of his small apartment, ten floors up, in 1970 or thereabouts. Thirty years later, he was still trying to get it right. From his bed each morning, he studied the softened abstract forms on the Jersey side and planned his next canvas. In all those years he could have visited Hoboken but why bother? Distance mattered: warehouses, apartments, factories, a Bauhaus arrangement of rectangles and squares in the modest tans and grays of early Cubism. He pondered the giant neon signs beaming their messages at the city from the other shore. He studied whitecaps in midwinter and the river’s rusty sheen in mid October, just before the end of daylight savings, when every minute of the golden failing afternoon was money in the bank.
What he hated was the river’s asphalt edge, the traffic in bodies, substances, the late night whooping that could be pain or jubilation. Fires broke out inside the covered pier, two blocks north, where garbage trucks unloaded onto seagoing barges. Twice lately he had phoned 9ll and been gratified to see how promptly the firemen arrived. He also monitored drug sales from his tenth floor lookout. Sometimes he called the station house. Nothing happened. Weekends were worst. The pursuit of pleasure grew more strident, impossible to ignore, even with windows shut, and him in bed, eyes bandaged with a sleep mask.
They should all be shot, he muttered grinding his coffee one Sunday morning, after a hot summer night when loud popping noises that were either fireworks or gunshot, broke into his sleep again and again.
Shame on you,Max, his conscience chided him. You sound like a dictator.
“Oh dont give me that,” another voice, call it his unconscience, retorted. OK guys, cool it now. Let’s nip this in the bud, he warned the squabbling chorus. This was his American overself, keeping order with a well placed, Cut the crap, gimme a break, geddoudatown . The others were early, alien inflections. His father’s, peremptory, accusing, passing sentence from behind the desk in his study in Berlin. Where was that desk now? Burned for firewood in winter 44? Max imagined a woman slamming into it with a dull axe. Her husband was on the eastern front, or in a prison camp in Texas. She wore an overcoat and three skirts, for warmth. She didn’t know the name of the desk’s owner, didn’t want to know. She shared the house with three families bombed out of their apartments. The desk burned for three days in the kitchen, where his father never once set foot.
Max took his morning coffee to the window. His father’s ghost drank from the steaming cup, like a shade in hell, bowed and disappeared. It was his mother who used to chide, Don’t be a little Hitler. Of course, she had no idea what she was saying.
Matthew Corey is a writer living in New York. His work straddles poetry and prose, and sometimes when writing in one thinks he is more leaning towards the other. He was a runner-up for the 2015 Lascaux Review Short Story Prize, has been published in The Opiate, Two Cities Review, and Travel-tainted: Turtle Point Press Review.
He was first introduced to Westbeth not long after moving to the city for college. It was one of a few places at the time that hosted the kind of music he’d eventually form a circle of friends around, which in some shape or form is still a presence in his life today. He’s happy to come back nearly (unbelievably) two decades later to receive this prize.
OLD FAMILY PHOTO
A child might’ve taken it.
She didn’t like having her picture taken.
But no kids at the time.
to bust her chops.
Having it all ready.
Under the table.
Film locked, flash fired up –
One, two, three Say cheese!
Her glare back:
fixed, bold, burned.
HOLIDAY COCKTAIL LOUNGE
Just a regular night out.
Then some women walked in.
Late twenties, early thirties. Glanced around: no one else there except us and Stefan, the bartender.
(He didn’t own the place, the other way around.)
The women took off their coats, headed for the back room. Re- appeared again up front for drinks.
My friends and I were quiet,
waiting for our twenties to end (or begin).
Or for Stefan to close early, like he did every night.
He always drank too much and shouted at the jukebox
for Nick Cave’s “I’ll Love You (Until the End of the World).”
(Soundtrack courtesy of Bono)
Stefan tried to match its baritone.
Legend had it a photo on the wall
was a soccer team he played for.
Legend had it they made it to the World Cup.
Commotion: the women in the back moved the tables aside,
added money to the jukebox.
Then passed an invitation – just for us: just for tonight.
Brown Sugar, I Put a Spell on You, Let the Good Time’s Roll,
Hard Day’s Night, Immigrant Song, Suffragette City, Heartbreak Hotel…
It went on. They were glamorous.
Got close. Then left. Settled tabs. Put coats back on.
Went out in the cold. We were by ourselves again.
With nothing left but the mirage.
And for Stefan to disintegrate.