new novel — prologue — feedback?

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new novel — prologue — feedback?

Post by firsty » January 28th, 2010, 4:39 pm

i'm shopping a just-finished novel to agents. this is the prologue. wanna read?

the pitch is this:

There has only been a handful of novels to make 9/11 a primary plot focus, and none of them were written by someone who ran from the collapsing towers, had to evacuate lower Manhattan, and went back to work six days later.

“The Light That We Can See” is the only firsthand account by a trained and published author who was present that Tuesday when the sky turned from a perfect blue full of promise to the ashen gray that seemed to linger for so long. In the tradition of “The Naked and The Dead,” by WWII veteran Norman Mailer, and Tim O’Brien’s groundbreaking work on Vietnam, this book will be a milestone in American literature — a debut novel by a promising, original writer who was there to witness a defining moment of our time.


i know i'm close, and i know i can write that amazing novel i just described, but i'm not sure exactly what it looks like to other readers (who arent related to me), so i'd love to get yr impressions in regards to whether or not you think it "reads" like the book i just described.

so without further ado, you've just opened "the light that we can see":



It started with a bunch of what looked like falling matchsticks and within seconds a great noise and violent flood of ash covered everything forever. I ran like hell back to my office building. I didn’t know what I would find there — what would happen next. It was the start of all that. I wasn’t running there to be safe, or to hide, or with any intention of doing anything once I got there. I had gone into the building so many thousands of times over the past few years that it was just the first thing that came to mind — to run upstairs.

Like being a child — after being bullied or coming in from the rain — running inside is an instinct. That’s what I did that day. Seven-hundred-thousand tons of dust and steel rushing down Broadway, and I ran inside. Funny how instincts can handle the most impossible and irrational situations. There’s an obvious advantage to not getting wrapped up and bogged down by any unnecessary thinking. But despite some of what turned out to be my best instincts, I had gotten myself into a pretty horrible mess.

Before you know it, you just fall into your life. It’s impossible to tell exactly when you fell into it, or when it fell into you, or when this part of your life even started. It’s only something you can look back on. Lots of people try to say — this is where it all started, or — the cause of all that is this here, this one thing. But that’s not reality, that’s just an opinion piece. People who focus on things starting and ending, clean causes and effects — those are people who never want to take responsibility for anything. So I say that it started here or there just to get things going. I’m aware that it’s a figment of my imagination.

Lots of things brought me onto the street that day. For a while, I remembered it as if my whole life had been lining up for just that moment. Sometimes I pretend that nothing ever happened to me before that day. That’s the way it always feels, and pretending it’s true makes it easier to believe that I am where I am now, that things turned out this way.

That late summer day we were waiting for autumn but not really wanting it to come. You may often hear the sunlight that day described as brilliant. That’s true. But on that day, it wasn’t just the sky. It never was. I loved New York City in those days and everything about it was brilliant to me. The streets, the sky, the people. And that started when I got a job in Manhattan. Brand new job, brand new life. I was 25 years old and finally getting on with things. I moved down there from Buffalo on Labor Day weekend, unpacked myself into my little Hoboken apartment and got started. It was a lonely weekend, that first one. After having nothing to do but sit around and watch coverage of Princess Diana’s awkward funeral, I couldn’t wait to get to my first day on the job.

Art’s Cards made baseball cards and it was a New York City institution. It meant the Bronx and the Yankees and ticker-tape parades and bubble gum and double-headers and the sounds and thrills of the scraped-kneed American childhood. I was going to be their proofreader. It was a minor job, but I put a lot of stock in it. My career itself was going backwards. I had worked as a proofreader and then an editor at a little newspaper in Buffalo for three years before finally getting up the guts to move to New York and stop fucking around with my life. Even though it was a backwards move, my income doubled. Most of it went to rent, but the raw real number of it bolstered my confidence.

The Tuesday after Labor Day, nineteen-ninety-something — years didn’t matter then. Just another thing to think about or to disregard. Numbers adding up and sometimes after drinking my worries would add up too, but back then, those worries caused grand moves, like finally getting on with my life. They don’t add up quite the same anymore, but there they go — they’re still piling up. Thank goodness for basic physics to keep things moving along. The idea of mind over matter is a good one if you’re trying to fuck with someone’s head, but it doesn’t really mean anything.

That first Tuesday too was very warm and sunny, but humid and stifling. If that’s not true, it’s my wobbly memory. I didn’t know then that I should have been writing things down, that these were the moments in the final pile — that it was all meaningful — that it had already started. The subway tunnels may overwhelm my recollection of that day — those first subway tunnels. I took a route downtown from the Port Authority terminal on the red numbers — 1 9 2 3 — after taking a bus through the Lincoln Tunnel. It embarrasses me to remember it now. In a matter of days (though it seems now like weeks), I realized that what I was doing consumed twice the amount of time that the trip needed to, including longer walks down tighter, hotter underground ramps than I’d nearly ever have to walk down again. It was a bad heat — close, intense. And me in my unnecessarily formal shirt and tie and jacket, struggling against crowds, not having learned to make my eyes and body twist to get myself on and through the oncoming bouncing mass of other commuters, sweating, slick, chafing and nervous — conscious of my wristwatch, and re-gripping my briefcase. Anyone could be a thief — that’s how newcomers often feel in this town and I was no different. The sounds were the sounds of thousands of soles of shoes slapping and slipping on the tilted floor, and of the raspy voice of the stooped and ragged bearded man performing Christopher Cross songs hunched over his amped-up keyboard.

I made it to work overdressed and melting, needing a shower, feeling hungry from the effort. I met a few people and they showed me the place. Then they sat me down at a cubicle with a pile of printed proofs about which I knew absolutely nothing. I reflected on its size. I thumbed through it after I had finished with my new-job paperwork, thinking of other things, feeling like my ducks were lining up, feeling very much like an adult, sensing the value of organization and planning and responsibilities fulfilled. I went outside at precisely noon, having started none of my work, understanding nothing.

The thoughts we have are rarely measured. And the things we do, those measured things, are largely common. I don’t remember much of what I was thinking that day. The day was a common day. I had nerves about being in the big city, doubts about the something genius in me I otherwise knew was coming. Mostly it was a day of doing new things and really thinking about them. Sweating in the subway tunnels, vigilant not to miss my stop. Moving carefully through busy hallways in the building, careful not to upset anyone or walk in the wrong direction. Trying not to knock over my enormous stack of papers. Trying to remain under the radar for as long as possible. My day was marked by what I did. Nothing happened. It was just me in a void within a fully operational world that was mostly oblivious to my being there at all.

I don’t remember much about what I was thinking that day until I got out to Battery Park with my lunch in the plain brown bag, and a book to read. The view was spectacular, even in the haze I may falsely remember. The harbor was busy with ferry and tourist speedboat activity. Tourists lining up for tours of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, tourists pointing at tourists from touring speedboats. Ferry captains talking with one another, looking strong and leaning on things like four-inch thick ropes and huge brown fibrous pilings. Bench musicians with open instrument cases drawing crowds of varying and mostly appropriate sizes as the camera-strapped and happily out-of-style out-of-towners walked through the park on the way to here and there, mostly between the Statue ferries and the South Street Seaport, I guessed. Or Wall Street, perhaps, or just inward. Moving here and there, sometimes stopping to hear the music of the sax players, harmonica players, guitarists, drummers, a flutist and a lanky younger man telling jokes to himself as he paced around a maritime memorial monument. I don’t know if he was a licensed performer, but I did see that people were giving him money.

As a kid, I had collected Art’s baseball cards for a minute or two, but the most appealing part of the job was that here I was in New York City. I thought my mistake was that I was overdressed for my office, but sitting in the park among the rest of the lunch crowd, I realized how off-the-mark even my dressiest fashion sense had been. Everything was black and white. This was Wall Street, as far as those of us who were working there were concerned — the financial district. There were old churches down here and revolutionary war-era architecture. People dressed up to work downtown. Art’s Cards was mostly casual, but they still dressed well. At least I had worn black pants. I had recognized black as the only safe color. My tie was blue, I think. It doesn’t matter. My shoes wouldn’t last a month, not with that walking, and their shape was all wrong anyway. My tie was too short, my collar not right, my belt the wrong width.

No one else in my office was wearing a tie — no one on my level, anyway. Of course the bigwigs were dressed real tight, with cufflinks, manicures, expensive haircuts and uncracked belts. But even though I was out of place up there in that building, from a distance, down here, at least to the tourists, I sort of fit in. I was another important business worker sitting on a park bench eating his lunch while they walked by, some taking pictures of us — just part of the scenery. Three years out of college it took me to get my fucking life together, but here I was, part of the Manhattan scenery. Part of the postcard.

The most immediate glamour of New York City is certainly vertical. That happy and gleaming and aggressive concrete and glass phenomenon. The statue out in the harbor seemed smaller than I had expected — further away — but still stood tall — even her. Lower Manhattan formed a towering semi-circle of glowing glass around and above me. Walking down Broadway, as my route took me to work, even relatively low buildings formed that canyon — a deep gorge taken out from the concrete evidence of this our great capitalism. Trinity Church launched into the sky unafraid, sharp and mean. And beyond the church, beyond the Broadway gorge, stood the stark, bright, directly vertical sprawl of the World Trade Center towers. Each of these buildings filled with legends and haunts and even new energies, and though I knew none of them, I felt them inside — like I knew them. It wasn’t yet a relationship, perhaps, but it was a familiarity, and a comfortable, welcome one. This is what I wanted.

Surrounded by overwhelming heights, and me this barely entry-level hopeful just sitting and watching, I felt attached to my environment. Working in New York, despite the specific shortcomings my career had to suffer, provided an immediate ticket. You’re either in or you’re out. Each cliché you hear is true. And even the rookies are in, because the city is made of rookies. There are old school New Yorkers, but the energy, the passion and the tragedy that make the city what we’ve made it, those things I felt when I was sitting there in the middle of those looming landmarks, are made from rookies — the ones you never hear from again, the ones who weren’t born here and probably won’t die here. Those are the real New Yorkers — the struggle and the stress — not the old timers straddling Central Park in brownstone mansions. And now I was one of those rookies. If no one ever heard from me again, at least I was making a go of it.

And that’s what I was thinking, sitting on that bench, feeling and seeing those visions of strength all around me, these great architectural dreams like elevators to God and money.

I don’t remember when the visions started, when I started imagining them falling, everything falling, but mostly the towers, those two twin towers that everybody thought about for a while in the early nineties when Islamic terrorism first introduced itself to this land — like some fucked up, out of place, scrawny party crasher from that part of town that nobody wants to talk about except to pretend to remember how it used to be. A blind guy trying to blow up the once tallest buildings in America. Nobody ever thought about Chicago anyway. The Sears Tower was a novelty, an amusement, a trivia quiz answer. The World Trade Center, though — now that was a symbol. My memory images of that event consist of weeping female office workers gagging through handkerchiefs and the shady robed ringleader in court, seeing Gotham tabloid headlines on the local television news upstate. It was a laughable attempt on mighty America, but it did thrust my imagination toward very bad things.

Now here, now seeing them, I imagined something deadly and sharp, something hacking at the towers from just above the foundation, and both buildings then toppling like thin, once sturdy trees into the underbrush below. First they came down south. Maybe sitting there that day, eating my lunch, considering my new place in the world, maybe some time vaguely “later,” I saw them possibly reaching the park, spreading a shaking rumble for blocks upon impact, scattering debris like torn leaves and dirt on the faces of stunned onlookers.

If they fell east, it would be onto Wall Street. North into Tribeca, bringing down studios, art lofts, men in black, women in heels and sunglasses and scarves. Sometimes, just for the splash, I’d crash them into the Hudson River, but it seemed like a waste.

Can you imagine those things coming down like that? Barely like trees — more like telephone poles. Perfectly straight and true. People watching as the sky blackened overhead, the shadow quickly widening and lengthening to encompass everything in sight, and then a thunderous stomp.

And then a silence.

What was it that brought my imagination to that horror, benign as it was — lacking in blood and death and stink? How did I get there? First I saw myself as an integral and necessary part of the reality of historic and forever Manhattan and then I was destroying people like ants under the weight of the most recognizable skyscrapers in the world. Was this my humanity? My shared humanity? Or an anomaly in me, a sociopathic flaw, or was it fear? Of course, it was none of that. Was I fucking kidding? Where did that image even get there? It obviously had nothing to do with reality — towers don’t fall like that — towers don’t fall at all — it was just their striking and lopsided height that, to my eye and to my brain, untrained in engineering or physics, made them seem unstable, like objects as benign as a tower of baby blocks wobbling in mid-air or a straw standing upright on a fingertip. They fell because they were supposed to fall, and skyscrapers just don’t fall like that. I was being stupid. And since it was not a real threat, it became a daydream, a fantasy, a musing, a meaningless photograph in the mind repeated so often that its very repetition becomes the stuff of sameness that provides comfort amidst the concrete chaos we can never stick in a frame.

But then there it was. And above and beyond all the guilt, fear, sadness and rage about what happened, what lingered was that it was real.
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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Post by judih » January 29th, 2010, 1:02 am

i won't try to be intelligent at this hour of the morning (before exercise, shower, pre-oxygenated brain) but i say: Yay! i'll re-read later. So respectful of your intense work.

thanks for bringing it here

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Post by firsty » January 29th, 2010, 5:36 pm

yay back at ya! :) this was the first place i thought to ask for peer feedback, of course. that this group of people, immigrated from another place entirely, is still together is quite a thing - this is the kind of group a writer can trust.

on tuesday i'm sending the first 3 chapters (including the prologue) to an author i met at a writers seminar for teachers this past summer. he's published poetry and textbooks, and he tours giving lectures on teaching writing in schools. when he said 'yes' after i asked him to read it, i thought, 'great!' but i've spent the past 2 weeks going over and over these first parts that my head is so far up my own head that all i see anymore are black marks on the pages.

it's good to see you, judih - hope you're doing well.
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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Post by Doreen Peri » January 29th, 2010, 9:21 pm

There has only been a handful of novels to make 9/11 a primary plot focus, and none of them were written by someone who ran from the collapsing towers, had to evacuate lower Manhattan, and went back to work six days later.

“The Light That We Can See” is the only firsthand account by a trained and published author who was present that Tuesday when the sky turned from a perfect blue full of promise to the ashen gray that seemed to linger for so long. In the tradition of “The Naked and The Dead,” by WWII veteran Norman Mailer, and Tim O’Brien’s groundbreaking work on Vietnam, this book will be a milestone in American literature — a debut novel by a promising, original writer who was there to witness a defining moment of our time.
Hey Sean... I'm a little confused. Is this a novel about a person who's writing a novel?

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Post by judih » January 30th, 2010, 1:40 am

wow.
took another examination.
sending you comments.

like this and it truly whets the appetite for more

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Post by mtmynd » January 30th, 2010, 2:12 pm

Firsty... first things first...

The 3rd paragraph I found to be a wee bit unnecessarily wordy... saying too much too soon, bogging down the rhythm set in the first two paragraphs...

but as the story continued, I regained the momentum and was taken along for the ride... and this line stopped me... no, make that 'gave me pause'... yes, I paused in flight here thinking this was a really good line...

"And that’s what I was thinking, sitting on that bench, feeling and seeing those visions of strength all around me, these great architectural dreams like elevators to God and money."

... and then the visions you had... good reading... I buckled in tighter enjoying the ride more...

unfortunately, it came to another pause... whoops! not a pause... you stopped... leaving me wanting some more. Are you teasing the readers here with wanting more... maybe purchasing a completed book..?

Will I invest in the book..? :) It has been a nice intro, Firsty.... except for that first (!) comment I made... not bad, but maybe the word is 'cumbersome'... a cumbersome paragraph..? maybe ...

Congratulations... it looks very promising.
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Post by firsty » January 30th, 2010, 4:51 pm

thanks so much! this is great feedback!

doreen — no — i think i know what you're asking and the answer is no — disregard the 3rd-person wording of the "pitch" — i just grabbed it from a draft of a query letter i was working on.

j — :D you rock.

c — to answer your question — yes — i want you to want to turn the page, because i've got another 300 or so that tell a story i hope people want to read. 5 straight weeks at the computer. that kerouac did OTR in 3 was tougher than i thought — granted, i'm editing, but i've read the original scroll edition and it's still better than my last draft. but i'm not aiming quite that high.

not quite.

those 2 paragraphs that follow the first — only a few days ago i actually struck an entire paragraph from right in the middle there. it's a holdout from an earlier, much longer reflection portion that i've since mostly rewrote and dramatized. you're the second person today to get stuck in the same general area, which is a place i think i was hoping i would get away with. so i'm going to work on that today.

the other spot i've recently revised is the last paragraph, and i've also been nabbed there as well. i've been torn, actually, between leaving the prologue dangling & "light" (it cant dangle if it aint light) — as it is here, or giving it more weight, as judih earlier suggested — i want it to lead immediately to the first chapter, because of the way the first chapter begins (and i like the way it begins), and i want to avoid over-emphasizing the prologue too dramatically — thru a trick of form, like a dramatic conclusion, because i'm going for more like an "jumpy-ominous" tone, not a "everything is dead, now come see how" tone — thats a bad way of comparing the balance i want to strike, but thats where i am on that.

if i have an intentional "tic" in this book, it's that i'm trying to write as straight as i can — to contain meaning in the words, not in the form. because there are one or two places, later, where i do hope i've earned enough reader trust that i get away with a few things. and for some reason, where i am right now in my approach is that, after reading some really good contemporary literature recently, i am trying to be really sensitive about trying to manipulate the reader. it doesnt mean i never try to, just that, first, i try to make sure i really need to.
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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Post by Doreen Peri » January 30th, 2010, 4:57 pm

doreen — no — i think i know what you're asking and the answer is no — disregard the 3rd-person wording of the "pitch" — i just grabbed it from a draft of a query letter i was working on.
Sean... well ok... but even if I disregard the first person, it sounds like you're saying that you (the author) were really there in NYC when 911 happened. Was that the case? I didn't think you were there.

I guess I just paused right there until I can understand whether this is supposed to be a fictional first person account or whether it's supposed to be a REAL first person account, in which case, it wouldn't be novel at all.

You asked for feedback so that's my initial feedback because the "pitch" confused me.

I'll move on to read the rest after I can get this clear in my head what your intention is. Sorry for the confusion.

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Post by firsty » January 30th, 2010, 5:23 pm

Sean... well ok... but even if I disregard the first person, it sounds like you're saying that you (the author) were really there in NYC when 911 happened. Was that the case? I didn't think you were there.
oh - yeah - sorry — yes, i was there. sorry — i thought it was common knowledge. i wrote a piece a few years ago about it but maybe i forgot to post it here.

but, yes — it's me.
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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Post by Doreen Peri » January 30th, 2010, 5:27 pm

Oh wow! I had no idea you were there! I'm glad you didn't get hurt!!!! ... OK... looking forward to reading this...

But doesn't that make this a first-hand account, a true story? And not a novel?

Or did you fictionalize it or something?

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Post by firsty » January 30th, 2010, 6:26 pm

it's fictionalized — my "philosophy" of the book, however, was to deliver a fictional story around the true events as i remember them — what i happened to witness, etc — so the account of the day is what i'm describing as "accurate and emotionally authentic" — as nonfiction as it can be, in other words.

and the subplots are based on true stories, too, but they are fictionalized significantly. i only used the seed of them to make the story. and just about the entire last third is entirely fiction.

it really was a case of starting with a true story and seeing where it led after the characters and opening events were set up, and my only limitation had to do with trying to describe events surrounding the disaster itself as accurately as possible.

one common response to that kind of event is to feel guilty for feeling upset because of the existence of people who we think are less upset but who have more reason to be upset. and it seems like we're still struggling, as a country blah blah blah, to figure out what 9/11 meant — how much should it still affect what we do, and how? — and i thought that, with that natural curiosity about what a possibly "heightened" version of our own common experiences looks like, and the fact that since it's currently missing, i really really wanted to emphasize that, while this is only one person's POV, it is still an authentic POV that might have meaning outside the novel, and the plot — that might have meaning in terms of the event itself.

(i know i'm being wordy but i'm practicing talking about it, because i kinda stumbled a bit with my prof last week when i was trying to describe what parts were true and what parts werent)
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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Post by Doreen Peri » January 30th, 2010, 6:45 pm

OK. I see.

Now that I understand, I have a problem with the intro because it's not clear. To me, it would be better if you just simply stated exactly what it was in your intro or "pitch" as you call it.

It's really a novel BASED on a firsthand account, not the "only firsthand account by a trained and published author." That suggests it's NOT fiction at all. Also, I have a problem with an author talking in third person about himself. It comes off as pretentious, especially when you're calling yourself "trained" and also referring to yourself as "a promising, original writer." I also doubt very greatly that yours is the ONLY firsthand account. How could that possibly be? I bet there are hundreds of firsthand accounts.

Why don't you just introduce it in 1st person, CALL it a novel, state that it's based your firsthand witnessing of the events on 911, then explain that you fictionalized it, and leave out all the accolades about your own writing?

If you want to include a quote from someone else who states that he/she thinks you're a "promising, original writer" that would be different.

.......

OK now that I know what it is, I'm going to read it. LOL! .. Sorry for the delay. I was confused, is all.

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Post by Doreen Peri » January 30th, 2010, 7:21 pm

Sean... all and all, I liked it... you kept my attention and I was interested in continuing to read. Just a few comments since you asked for feedback and since this is a writers workshop forum...

First paragraph -
"It was the start of all that."
It was the start of all what? Unclear.

Second paragraph-
"Seven-hundred-thousand tons"
misuse of hyphens ... hyphens are unnecessary here

Third paragraph -
"Before you know it, you just fall into your life."
GREAT line!
Matter of fact, might be a great line to actually start the novel with. This 3rd paragraph might make a really good 1st paragraph. Why? Because it's intriguing and makes the reader want to read on to figure out what the author's talking about.

Fourth paragraph -
I'd lose some of the "thats".
"Sometimes I pretend nothing ever happened to me before that day" is stronger than "Sometimes I pretend THAT nothing.... etc."
Last sentence in the paragraph is also a bit awkward. Had to read it 3 times.

Fifth paragraph -
First sentence... Suggestion .. remove "That late summer day" and just start it with "We were waiting for autumn but not really wanting it to come." (nice line!)
Same comment again... too many "thats" in this paragraph. Just saying, it would be stronger to remove some of them, rewording as necessary. To me, "that" can be an unnecessary word.
"I moved down there" ... wouldn't "I moved to NYC" be stronger?

Sixth & seventh paragraphs -
About your job... moving forward with the story... some background info. I like it!

I have to come back to this. I'll start with the 8th paragraph starting with "That first Tuesday too was very warm and sunny"

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Post by firsty » January 31st, 2010, 2:29 pm

great comments, doreen - thank you - dont get hung up on the wording of the intro — it's not put together in a meaningful way, i just wanted to give an idea about the approach.

this is fantastic! — i will try to post chapter 1 soon.
and knowing i'm so eager to fight cant make letting me in any easier.

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Post by hester_prynne » January 31st, 2010, 2:57 pm

Whetted indeed just as prologues are meant to do.
I can't wait to read this book, actually i've been waiting for a book like this to come out. From someone who was there, and how it felt and how it feels now.....
Lots of good thoughts in here, New York rookies, the slap of footsteps, you making your way through them on your first day....your innocence of what was to come well done, New York's verticalness, oh how I can relate to that, and wondering how they might fall these big tall buildings, how do they stand like that anyway, what holds them up, wonderings I can relate to.
You've painted an unfinished picture here, the soul of it is showing just enough to make me want to follow it.
And I will.
Congrats, I think this endeavor is huge, and, I think you can do it.
H 8)
"I am a victim of society, and, an entertainer"........DW

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