May 22, 2013
Short story stamp catches “the essence of Dublin”
by Kirsten Reach
Dublin, Ireland has unveiled a 60¢; postage stamp printed with the full text of a short story by Eoin Moore (cue headlines with puns related to “licking“). Moore’s story was selected from Dublin’s Fighting Words creative writing program for primary and secondary students; he was seventeen when he submitted this work. At 224 words, his story aims to capture “the essence of Dublin.”
The stamp was commissioned to celebrate Dublin’s designation as a UNESCO City of Literature in 2010, and it was designed by the Stone Twins, two Irish designers based in Amsterdam.
Ireland has honored its literary history in stamp form before, proudly adorning envelopes with images of William Butler Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Seamus Heaney and Samuel Beckett, but this is the first time they’ve printed an entire story on one stamp.
How do you capture the essence of a city in 200 or so words? I’d like to see other cities release short story stamps, like Yalta or Galveston or New York. Should New York post offices consider releasing a stamp that captures the essence of the city, I wonder which authors they might pick.
Rebecca McClanahan’s “Signs and Wonders” would make a lovely stamp for the spring:
When we first moved to the city, we couldn’t believe how cheap the flowers were. “What a city,” we said. “We can buy flowers every week, fill the apartment with them, the bathtub. What a city!” Then we went to the grocery store, and when I saw the prices I started to cry. “How can we possibly afford . . . we’ll have to give up . . . oh my God,” I shrieked, “what will we eat?”
“We’ll just have to eat flowers,” he said.
Last week I would have signed a hundred-year lease. After all this is the best city in the world, and I was just coming off one of my New York highs, the kind that hits when you least expect it and suddenly it’s like first love again, first lust, and you wonder how you could possibly live anywhere else. Then a steam pipe bursts, the couple in the apartment above you straps their steel-toed boots back on, you step in a puddle of urine on the subway platform, and some guy with three rings in his nose calls you Bitch and spits on you because—who knows?—you look like his second grade teacher, or some president’s wife, or his mother, and you think, Live another two years in this jackhammering, siren-screaming, piss-puddling city? In someone else’s apartment—because who can afford their own? Someone else’s bed, plates, forks, spoons?
And O. Henry’s “The Pride of the Cities” could be sold in the summer:
Said Mr. Kipling, “The cities are full of pride, challenging each to each.” Even so.
New York was empty. Two hundred thousand of its people were away for the summer. Three million eight hundred thousand remained as caretakers and to pay the bills of the absentees. But the two hundred thousand are an expensive lot.
The New Yorker sat at a roof-garden table, ingesting solace through a straw. His panama lay upon a chair. The July audience was scattered among vacant seats as widely as outfielders when the champion batter steps to the plate. Vaudeville happened at intervals. The breeze was cool from the bay; around and above — everywhere except on the stage — were stars. Glimpses were to be had of waiters, always disappearing, like startled chamois. Prudent visitors who had ordered refreshments by ‘phone in the morning were now being served. The New Yorker was aware of certain drawbacks to his comfort, but content beamed softly from his rimless eyeglasses. His family was out of town. The drinks were warm; the ballet was suffering from lack of both tune and talcum — but his family would not return until September.
Then up into the garden stumbled the man from Topaz City, Nevada. The gloom of the solitary sightseer enwrapped him. Bereft of joy through loneliness, he stalked with a widower’s face through the halls of pleasure. Thirst for human companionship possessed him as he panted in the metropolitan draught. Straight to the New Yorker’s table he steered.
Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” could be released when the weather turns:
That Friday, their son’s birthday, everything went wrong. The subway train lost its life current between two stations and for a quarter of an hour they could hear nothing but the dutiful beating of their hearts and the rustling of newspapers. The bus they had to take next was late and kept them waiting a long time on a street corner, and when it did come, it was crammed with garrulous high-school children. It began to rain as they walked up the brown path leading to the sanitarium. There they waited again, and instead of their boy, shuffling into the room, as he usually did (his poor face sullen, confused, ill-shaven, and blotched with acne), a nurse they knew and did not care for appeared at last and brightly explained that he had again attempted to take his life. He was all right, she said, but a visit from his parents might disturb him. The place was so miserably understaffed, and things got mislaid or mixed up so easily, that they decided not to leave their present in the office but to bring it to him next time they came.
Outside the building, she waited for her husband to open his umbrella and then took his arm. He kept clearing his throat, as he always did when he was upset. They reached the bus-stop shelter on the other side of the street and he closed his umbrella. A few feet away, under a swaying and dripping tree, a tiny unfledged bird was helplessly twitching in a puddle.
Perhaps that’s too bleak. How about a cozy excerpt from Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking?
For eight years I lived in a one-room apartment a little larger than the Columbia Encyclopedia. It is lucky I never met Wilt Chamberlain because if I had invited him in for coffee he would have been unable to spread his arms in my room which was roughly seven by twenty.
I had enough space for a twin-sized bed, a very small night table, and a desk. This desk, which I use to this day, was meant for a child of, say, eleven. At the foot of my bed was a low table that would have been a coffee table in a normal apartment. In mine it served as a lamp stand, and beneath it was a basket containing my sheets and towels. Next to a small fireplace, which had an excellent draw, was a wicker armchair and an ungainly wicker footstool which often served as a table of sorts.
Instead of a kitchen, this minute apartment featured a metal counter. Underneath was a refrigerator the size of a child’s playhouse. On top was what I called the stove but which was only two electric burners – in short, a hot plate.
Many people found this place charming, at least for five minutes or so. Many thought I must be insane to live in so small a space, but I loved my apartment and found it the coziest place on earth.
My cupboard shelves were so narrow that I had to stand my dinner plates on end. I did the dishes in a plastic pan in the bathtub and set the dish drainer over the toilet.
Or just about any passage from Teju Cole’s Open City:
At first, I encountered the streets as an incessant loudness, a shock after the day’s focus and relative tranquillity, as though someone had shattered the calm of a silent private chapel with the blare of a TV set. I wove my way through crowds of shoppers and workers, through road constructions and the horns of taxicabs. Walking through busy parts of town meant I laid eyes on more people, hundreds more, thousands even, than I was accustomed to seeing in the course of a day, but the impress of these countless faces did nothing to assuage my feelings of isolation; if anything, it intensified them. I became more tired, too, after the walks began, an exhaustion unlike any I had known since the first months of internship, three years earlier. One night, I simply went on and on, walking all the way down to Houston Street, a distance of some seven miles, and found myself in a state of disorienting fatigue, laboring to remain on my feet. That night I took the subway home, and instead of falling asleep immediately, I lay in bed, too tired to release myself from wakefulness, and I rehearsed in the dark the numerous incidents and sights I had encountered while roaming, sorting each encounter like a child playing with wooden blocks, trying to figure out which belonged where, which responded to which. Each neighborhood of the city appeared to be made of a different substance, each seemed to have a different air pressure, a different psychic weight: the bright lights and shuttered shops, the housing projects and luxury hotels, the fire escapes and city parks. My futile task of sorting went on until the forms began to morph into each other and assume abstract shapes unrelated to the real city, and only then did my hectic mind finally show some pity and still itself, only then did dreamless sleep arrive.
I don’t think New York capture the city’s “essence” in a single stamp. As E.B. White points out in “Here Is New York,” there are at least three New Yorks going on at any given time:
There is, first, the New York of the man or woman who was born there, who takes the city for granted and accepts its size, its turbulence as natural and inevitable. Second, there is the New York of the commuter—the city that is devoured by locusts each day and spat out each night. Third, there is New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something. Of these trembling cities the greatest is the last—the city of final destination, the city that is a goal. It is this third city that accounts for New York’s high strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts, and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness, natives give it solidity and continuity, but the settlers give it passion. And whether it is a farmer arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh yes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company. . . .
Collectors or those interested in mailing letters in Ireland can find Moore’s story in Dublin’s post offices and online.
Kirsten Reach was an editor at Melville House.