When my son Josh was about six, we found a children’s book at the library with short stories and he fixed on one, in particular, that fascinated him. It surprised us both because it wasn’t what you would normally call a “children’s” story.
Instead, it was about how a mother prevented Death from taking her baby. She did this by making a recording of her baby’s cry and setting up recordings in different rooms. Somehow or other, the time limit for Death ran out and the baby was saved.
We read this story over and over again. Josh was beginning to learn about death and had already learned about divorce, as his dad and I split up when he was five. While we talked about everyone being born and dying, and of course living in between, I think my son was most intrigued with the notion of defeating something undefeatable.
“You know books are different than real life, because the author gets to make up the story, and decides what happens to the characters in it,” I said. “I know,” he said, but still wanted to read the story with me every night before he went to bed.
I think of it now as his first introduction to the mind of an artist, and how art can sometimes triumph over harsh realities. As a boy, Josh’s imagination soared over the world as it was, making me remember the imaginary friends and animals I had as a child. I began to think if one could pass on traits like hair and eye color, maybe one could (and did) also pass on artistic inclinations and a certain way of seeing life.
When I wrote The Beat on Ruby’s Street, I began putting together bits and pieces of my own childhood and then glommed on to the one I’d always wanted. I was raised in suburban New Jersey but never felt I belonged there. The streets of Manhattan, pulsing with hippies when I was a child and punk rockers when I returned after college, seemed closer to the kind of world I was looking for.
Though I did not grow up during the “Beat Generation” era, I always thought the poets and artists of 1950s Greenwich Village paved the way for the hippies, rebels, punk rockers and rule breakers of the future. When everyone else was falling in step with two-car garages and Mad-Men lifestyles, Beats were trying to wean themselves away from materialism and superficial attachments.
They were accused of being spoiled children who refused to buckle down and work—but if you read their books and poetry, you see a different story. It recognizes that yes, life can be beautiful and joyful—but it also has all kinds of curve balls waiting to trip you up, and there is no real way to solve them. If you are here, on this earth, chances are you will hopefully have fun, but you are also going to suffer. And suffering is useless unless it is transformative—and that’s what art has the power to give us.
The Beat on Ruby’s Street brings us into the teeming, complicated life of a young girl whose world falls apart despite her frantic efforts to keep it together. Coming of age and coming out of it is only possible because she is able to find her own voice through the tumultuous, messy, artistic minds around her. It is a journey we all take in one way or another, but whether we are artists or not doesn’t matter. In the end, I think art can help us get through what might otherwise be unbearable.
Josh: family photo