“Remember what I’m saying, Michael: more important than what you do for a living is who you do it for. Are you slaving for another man’s fortune? Or can you hold your head up and call yourself your own boss?” That’s the advice Michael Greenberg heard from his grandfather Louie while growing up, and it sounds sage, especially when you consider that Greenberg grew up to make his living as a professional writer. But like many things in life, the advice is not always what it first seems to be.
Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life is also not what it seems upon first glance. You might think for instance, based upon the title, that it’s perhaps a guidebook explaining how to survive on one’s literary impulse alone. Or you might think it’s a biography of its author, particularly if you recognize Greenberg’s name from 2007’s critically acclaimed Hurry Down Sunshine or from his columns in the Times Literary Supplement. It’s a bit of both, really, as Greenberg relates his personal experiences and his professional insights through 44 succinct, yet beautifully detailed journalistic essays. In fact, all of the pieces included in this volume have appeared, in earlier incarnations and other forms, in his column between 2003 and 2009.
The essays are not necessarily chronological, but they do have a rhythm and a flow that suggests their placement is anything but haphazard. A story about how his high school girlfriend’s family introduced Greenberg’s budding poet to folk music, which led him to befriend guitarist Danny Kalb blends nicely with “Love in the South”, which turns out to be a recounting of the conception of his first son after the same girlfriend had been wrongly imprisoned during a trip with Greenberg to Argentina. But, even when they don’t follow each other directly the essays are tied together by recurring, deftly woven themes.
Tales like “A Tailor’s Fortune”, “$493 in Singles and Fives”, and “Tycoon” focus on the money-or-lack-thereof aspect of Greenberg’s chosen profession, while chapters “Brotherly Love”, “Memory and Expectation”, and “Another Way of Starving” among others, deal with his family and formative impressions. Many, if not most, of these stories touch on Jewish identity (Greenberg’s, his immediate family’s, and that of his ancestors), and all of them incorporate New York City.
New York is as much a central character in these pieces as Greenberg himself, sometimes more. Whether describing an unusual adventure with a motorman friend on the subway in “Lobster Shift”, documenting the wildlife of Central Park in “Owls”, or comparing the common brown Norway rat that often overruns the city to a sex-crazed, anxiety-prone, gluttonous teenager in “Oh! Oh! There He Goes!”, Greenberg’s New York lives and breathes (and sometimes stinks) like a larger than life hero. It grows, decays, it changes.
Indeed, as you read and re-read the sometimes tragic, often funny, always moving true-life tales in Beg, Borrow, Steal you’ll come to realize that the protagonist in these stories isn’t who it initially seemed to be. It isn’t really the struggling writer at all, but the city he loves.