Cities I’ve Never Lived In: A Story By Sara Majka

“These stories are a marvel and will break your heart.”

Sara Majka | Longreads |  October 2015 |  23 minutes (5,561 words)

Our latest Longreads Exclusive is a previously unpublished short story by Sara Majkaas chosen by Longreads contributing editor A. N. Devers, who writes: 

“This short story, about a woman who decides to travel to from city to city, working and eating in soup kitchens, is the previously unpublished title story from a collection I have been wishing and longing for for almost a decade. I first met Sara Majka in a fiction workshop at the Bennington Writing Seminars, where we both were enrolled as students. At the time, I was a new assistant editor at A Public Space and I brought Majka’s work to the attention of editor Brigid Hughes. If I recall correctly, her story was the only story I brought from my workshop directly to the magazine for consideration. It was a quiet and considered story with a singular voice. I was struck by how certain and precise the language was—how unusual and full of unspoken yearnings. She was able to convey so much disorientation, doubt, and pain through small observations and deceptively simple memories. Majka’s characters read as if they are feeling their way through a room with their eyes closed even though the lights are on—the reality of what is in front of them is difficult for them to process, the choices they are faced with confusing—despite their sincere attempts to find their way.

The story I showed Hughes ultimately did not end up in the magazine, (I later found it a home at Pen America), but she was more than intrigued, and later published another story and began a working relationship with Majka that led to the forthcoming publication of Cities I’ve Never Lived In, as a part of A Public Space Books, their imprint with Graywolf Press. These stories are a marvel and will break your heart. Majka’s debut is breath-stopping.”

* * *


During the trip, the lover I had left behind in New York had stopped calling. I was glad to be traveling, for the movement it gave me, but I was uncertain how my life would be when I got home. I didn’t want another period of instability, and I felt the suspension one feels when you’re fine, but you’re worried it won’t last, and there’s nothing you can do to make it stay.

I had come up with the idea years before—when I first became interested in soup kitchens. I made the plan to travel the United States, going to small interior cities and going to kitchens there. I had volunteered in kitchens in the past and had found it comforting. I would work for a few hours and then would sign my name and get in line and eat, scrunched over, not poor enough to eat there if I hadn’t worked, but not a volunteer doing it out of goodness. Lost, probably, in ways that made me more comfortable in places like those—the church halls, the Styrofoam plates, the trays, the gentle feeling of caretaking and cafeteria lines—and lost perhaps in ways understandable to those around me.

Cities I've Never Lived In

Cities I’ve Never Lived In

I didn’t get far in the trip, however, before I became unsure why I was doing it. My first city was Buffalo and I arrived late, by train, taking a taxi to the hostel. The next day I walked to a mobile kitchen that was supposed to be parked outside the library at 7:00 pm., but it was already gone when I arrived. I decided to stay an extra night so that I could go to the kitchen the next day, at the time the kitchen now arrived. The next day I stood in line to get the plastic bag that held dinner. A woman carried a box with more food—Baggies filled with granola bars and crackers—and people took those as she passed. When she came to me, I said that I only wanted the food there, pointing to where dinner bags were being passed down. I was surprised to hear my voice, that vulnerability that was of such little help usually, but it was honest in that line, honest and understandable. No, it’s okay, the woman said gently, this is food, too. I took the bag of snacks, and, when it came time, took the plastic bag that held dinner.

I carried the food into the library. Holding the bags changed how I felt about myself. It made me feel more vulnerable or exposed or fragile. For a number of years I had been struggling to hold myself together, though I had worked to disguise this, and now carrying the thin bags made this visible, made people look at me. I walked around the library until I found the café. I asked the man working the register if I could eat there, and he said yes. Dinner was bland macaroni with tomato sauce and meatballs. There was also a turkey sandwich and cookies for the bus the next day.

After, I stood in the foyer. Windows overlooked the street where the mobile kitchen had been. It was gone now, and I felt the loss of it, as if I had not done it properly and wanted to try again. Others waited there. An older black man asked if I was waiting for a bus. No, I said. He then assumed I was waiting for a ride. No, I said, I’m just here.

I walked towards the hostel. It was overcast, rainy, and cold. The streets were mostly deserted. There was much about Buffalo that was difficult to put into words. It felt like a city that had been deserted and then, years later, been repopulated by the poor. Or maybe the poor had been in the city all along, but had waited to emerge. The main street was being ripped out and a metro ran through the rubble. Though the streets were deserted, there were always people in the metro car when it passed, so it felt like they, too, were leaving. All the metro stops—and there were many, every block or so along that street—piped music, and at first, walking the street, I didn’t know where the music was coming from. Then the metro passed and disappeared under the street. One man on the sidewalk said to his friends, There goes our metro to nowhere.

What struck me most were the decorations: a sweeping arch over one metro stop, a gold globe on a roof, the opera hall sign that lit up six stories into the sky. This had once been another place. And the signs made me lonely because they were built for another time and for someone else.

I thought of the cab driver who had picked me up from the train at one in the morning. He said I would know him by the dice. His name was Ed. Ed’s taxi service. He never turned around, just talked and drove facing forward. Blue light hit the sharp line of his cheek. I’d found that people who worked those jobs—the picturesque and hard jobs of the cities—were aware of what they were and were aware of what you were after, and often told stories as part of the service.

The signs made me lonely because they were built for another time and for someone else.

All drugs in here, he said as we drove through a boarded­-up neighborhood. Last week a taxi driver, he said, in one of those white taxis you saw waiting by the train, was found murdered. It won’t be solved. What someone does—someone who needs money—is hail them—the taxi drivers or pizza drivers, because they know they have cash with them—the drivers need to be making change, so they’ll always have cash with them.

I imagined, as he talked, the fragility of those men, of Ed coasting through the quiet early morning, lit in blue. Got robbed one night, Ed said, then I became friends with a couple of black drivers to learn some of the tricks. Now you think about who to pick up, who not to pick up. He showed me where they were building the new houses, the new developments. All the old houses are past repair, he said.

Later, I read about the cab driver who had been shot and left in his backseat. Most articles were the same—giving the details of the death, and then the details of the funeral—but one writer interviewed several taxi drivers, calling them a close band of brothers. One man had rushed to the scene thinking it was one of his drivers, but it had been a different company. Another man talked about the additional security that people were calling for. He said that you could put in cameras, you could track the people, but in the end, the man in the article said, I walk in faith.

All day I sat in the lower bunk in my hostel, the only one in the room. A heating vent blew and from time to time I heard the sound of rain. Otherwise it was quiet. It was a relief whenever the vent turned on.

In Detroit I took a picture of a man on the street. I thought a lot about this. I wanted to take pictures of what I was seeing, but it didn’t feel right. Poverty was everywhere and was overwhelming. People lived in this poverty, and this life was filled with details that I wanted to hold on to, but I found it was passing too quickly. I walked the outskirts of Detroit, and black men wandered past as if drifting or lost in the landscape. I sat and waited for buses and people came up to me. They said simple things—good day, or don’t get hurt, or would I like a bag to sit on. Or they would ask if I knew where the Salvation Army was, or if knew where the Greyhound station was.

In Cleveland, I was walking down a street filled with bistros and shops when a man hailed me. He was selling beauty products from a plastic bag and walked a block with me. He said he was from Detroit, but he meant Detroit Street in Cleveland. I bought body wash for five dollars—a bottle of expensive, local bodywash—then he walked away. It occurred to me that I could have taken his picture. He had sadness deep in his face, but the surface of his face was buoyant, lit. It was too much to have the moment and then have the moment pass, and to be the only one who saw that face.

It was that way in Detroit when I passed a row of abandoned apartments near the hostel. Two long buildings faced each other across an empty field. White children played in the field, and parents stood in a sliver of doorway watching them. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t want to disturb the quietness of passing them.

When I finally took a picture, it was of a man begging near Slows Bar BQ. I had eaten and was carrying leftovers. A man sitting in a lawn chair on the sidewalk told me to be careful, to not bump into the garden. He was in front of a brightly painted wall, and before I could ask, he said, You want to a take a picture? He moved out of the way. At my hesitation he said, Or you want me in it? You in it would be nice, I said. As I took the picture, he energetically held up his sign. I wanted to tell him that he didn’t have to do that, but instead I gave him change and asked, Do you mind that people take your picture? He said that he didn’t. People want a picture of the homeless, he said. Then it was clear that he wanted me to move along.

In Detroit, I ate in the Capuchin kitchens. They ran two places. One served people in extreme need, mostly men, many homeless, and many with mental illness. The other fed working poor families, many with children. I picked the second kitchen, though it was an hour away on bus. When I arrived for lunch, I was cold and shaken. I felt that fragile feeling again. There was no sign­-in or token system. I walked right in—past a listing of places where you could get a free shower—and stood as volunteers passed my tray down. The last one set a drink on it and said it was real Coke. There were no open tables. I asked a man if I could sit at the table with him and he nodded yes. Many of the people there knew each other. In one corner hung a mix of Christmas decorations and St. Patrick’s Day decorations, though all were green, as if to work for either holiday. Cartons of milk were piled on the table, and the man asked if I wanted them, and I said no, so he took them. I gave him my milk. Another man sat and said, I wish there was cheese on this. I said, I think there’s cheese on it. He took a bite and said I was right.

Eventually another man sat next to the man with the milks, and they had a conversation about drugs, and pills, and oxycontin, and where to get the different things. I looked at the people volunteering, at how hopeful and kind they looked, and at the thin, spare wood cross on the wall behind them, and also at the people eating, who were kind in their own way. I thought that those few people passing out food—with their hands in little plastic gloves, and their cross behind them—should not be our major defense against this kind of poverty; as a defense it felt hopeful, frail, and largely hidden.

Because I spent a lot of time on the street, I met other people who spent time on the street. If I was traveling between cities and had my suitcase, these people asked for money, which I tried to give each time. I felt I was giving a lot of money, but this money—a handful of change from the bottom of my bag, or a dollar bill from my pocket—didn’t add up to much. I had bought the body wash from the man on the street, so that was five dollars. But it was also the best body wash I had ever used. It felt like honey that cleaned you instead of making you sticky. So there was five dollars, and maybe I had given out, to others, another ten dollars, so that was fifteen dollars. Many times I was blessed by the people I gave money to. In Detroit, I gave money to a man on the street and afterward thought he was asking for more. No, I said, that’s what I can give right now. He said he was only saying thank you. He told me a story about a new kind of hearing aide, one so small that others can’t see it. Do you get what I’m getting at? he said. Yes, I said, though I was looking at the gray building behind him and imagining a pale ear over it. Also, I was thinking of whether I could take a picture of him.

At the Chicago train station, a stand sold tacos for two dollars. I stood in line while a man asked people for money. He kept pointing to food and asking the cashier how much it was, and then looking at the money in his hand, which never amounted to enough. I gave him a dollar. I thought of how little I was giving. I could have bought him what he wanted. Or, when I took that picture, in Detroit, of the homeless man, I could have given him the leftovers I was carrying, but I found I wanted them. More than a dollar would be giving money I felt I needed. Of course, none of this would add up or matter. Except that I didn’t give people something that wasn’t easy for me to give. I paid for my tacos and gave the man the change. Bless you, he said.

In Iowa City I walked through a park. It was warm, or the air wasn’t warm, but the sun was. The night before, getting in by bus, was bitter. My throat had swollen and I felt weak, but at least it was warm enough now and nice to walk through the park. There was a sparsely attended fair going on. A man said something that I didn’t understand and reached for my hand. He seemed to ask what it was, what this fair was, and I said I didn’t know. He held on to my hand as I drew it away. Another man tried to get me to sign a petition, but I said I wasn’t from there. There was a table to legalize marijuana, a banner on free speech, and a sign against surveillance, mentioning both drones and what I thought to be strip clubs.

Those few people passing out food—with their hands in little plastic gloves, and their cross behind them—should not be our major defense against this kind of poverty; as a defense it felt hopeful, frail, and largely hidden.

I saw a couple sitting on a bench with a sign saying that they were homeless. I walked up and gave them a dollar and asked where they were from. They had come in from Wisconsin. The woman said that her sister’s husband had just received two life sentences. They were surprised that I hadn’t heard about it. The husband had lit the house on fire and his three boys had died. The wife had gotten out with third degree burns. I looked it up later, and it was true, and the wife’s picture looked like the woman on the bench. They were both large and both had pale round faces and red hair. Articles said the husband was tired of not having money and had wanted to start over. There was also a baby, and the wife had saved the baby, but the husband had tried to put the baby back in the fire. I told the couple I was very sorry. I also wanted to take their picture and thought of that while I was listening, thinking about whether it would be wrong to ask.

I sat on the grass near them. It was nice to tilt my face towards the sun. But it was more than that. I hadn’t asked for the story, and, given it, wasn’t sure what to do. Increasingly, the sadness of the people I met was creating the fabric around me, and everyday life was beginning to recede, to lose meaning. In this world that was gaining meaning there were also churches. They were everywhere and grew in number as I traveled. I wanted to have faith so that I could go inside the churches, hoping they could balance the story of the fire, to be the other side of the story, but mostly I found the buildings beautiful and liked to look at them. I liked best the ones with other buildings attached, so that they went further, deeper into the unknown, creating a cluster of buildings like a small village. Then you had windows and buildings and courtyards to look at.

At the Salvation Army soup kitchen in Iowa City, a man invited me to attend church the next day to hear him play guitar. He wrote the church’s name on a tag that I had ripped from socks I had just purchased. It had been difficult to keep socks clean. We were eating turkey tetrazzini. It was terrible. The man across from us said, The only entitlement you need is to know the god that loves you. I left quickly, while they were in conversation, not wanting to be drawn in, thinking I would see the man the next morning, but it would have meant walking three miles, and a cough kept me up much of the night, and so I didn’t go.

It was a lonely time, and my trip had slowed enough so that I felt it. But what could I do? I couldn’t continue on so fast, doing one city every few days. There weren’t enough cities in the world to make me happy. My lover still wasn’t calling. I was tired of soup kitchens. I wasn’t sure what I’d ever wanted from them, but they were like the cities—simply the same thing, one after another. Sitting upstairs in the library in Iowa City, I looked down to see the homeless walking around the block holding signs. People passed without looking. The woman whose sister had been burned in the fire walked laps with her sign fastened around her neck as if she were a child, and there was something childlike in the roundness of her face. I thought of what it felt like to be near a shelter or kitchen in a city when food was about to be served, and suddenly people emerged, coming down alleys, moving out from behind buildings, walking slowly, in a drifting way, to that one spot, and they seemed sometimes like the dead, or people who had seen the dead.

* * *

For several nights I dreamt someone was lying close to me. In one dream, a man lay near me at a concert. In another, I was doing yoga in a crowded room and a man stretched behind me. In these dreams there was the comfort of the activity and then the presence and warmth of a man. This was in Omaha. My mother was with me. It was as if she had brought the dreams. Her close to me, and my desire for the kind of love you’re supposed to have once you’re no longer someone’s child. There were jobs I wasn’t getting, learning about them, uncertain of what I would do when I got back, and then walking Omaha with my mother. She drew close to me when we neared the homeless shelter. A woman rose from where she was sleeping on the sidewalk and walked in front of us. She kept looking back. We were making her nervous and I felt sorry. We passed a fenced-­in courtyard with a man screaming. We continued past the shelter towards a church. It was a humble wood church with red trim. There was a door under the stairs with a sign that read: Only One Lunch Per Person, Open 1012. It was closed, and the next morning we were driving to Kansas. There was something in the places I kept leaving behind. I imagined staying and going inside, imagined the room I would enter. It was as if the rooms and my desire for them were gathering in me as I traveled.

In Kansas City, I went to the St. Paul’s community breakfast. We ate in a sunny, high-­ceilinged hall. Afterwards, I looked through the doors into the church. Blue stained windows rose above the alter. Behind me, the breakfast line kept growing. It had been a good meal. A man came up and asked if he could talk to me. I thought that he might be involved with the church and, seeing the way I stared inside, might try to talk about God, but he was only asking me to dinner. Dinner seemed a fine offering to make to a woman eating breakfast at a soup kitchen, but I was leaving the next day.

Outside someone asked, Where is your man, where is your boyfriend?

I went to an exhibit on hunger at a county art museum in a Kansas town. The town’s soup kitchen was in the center with a large sign that said Welcome to All. Many soup kitchens didn’t have signs and weren’t at the listed address, were instead set further back, behind another building. In the exhibit in this town, the artist had taken pictures of people who had gone hungry and interviewed them. They had talked about their lives, about what the experience of going hungry had been for them. The artist had traveled for years working on the project. There were forty or fifty black-and-white portraits, each with the person’s story told through headphones. I couldn’t listen to all of them, so I picked people based on their faces. They talked about their lives, how they had become homeless, what that had felt like to them. I wanted to find someone intelligent, someone who would tell me something about being poor and lost. It was nice when they simply talked. Mostly I put headphones on to hear a voice, and to hear how they told a story, how they summarized an experience that must have been chaotic and something that still hadn’t ended for them.

Afterward, I tried to explain to my mother that I was happy I went, though I didn’t think it was effective art, as it was too compassionate. Can something be too compassionate? she asked. I said that art can end up being compassionate—because you’re trying to communicate to people and that’s a compassionate act—but making it is often unkind. Artists take images and stories from people without telling them, and artists are doing it for their own ends, or for the ends of art. Even if they have morals or set limits, they are still taking from people. Their interest in another’s life is often for themselves. This artist didn’t want to do this. He wanted to portray these people as they were, and, in that way, it was a good study, but I wanted more. I wanted to know how he saw these people. I wanted him to forget who they were.

The question started to become what was effective art about the hungry or the homeless, and there wasn’t an answer. I took from everyone on the trip. I took meals and stayed for free with friends and strangers. I was patient and present with the poor—the people in the kitchens and on the street—but I was shut off with most others. I was tired after the kitchens. My openness meant someone always talked to me. There was a woman no one would go near. She asked to sit with me. She didn’t touch her food. I kept eating. You’re hungry? she said. The food is good, I said. When I stood, she hugged me, feeling her hands along the sides of my body.

I wasn’t doing any good, I knew. I had liked the artist at the county museum, his description of hunger and his project, but I didn’t think he thought he was doing good, either. He could have done more had he not been so faithful. They were only people after all. When you travel you see how many there are, how they fill whatever place you go to. It was hard to see the children in the lines. It wasn’t hard to see the adults, but it was hard to see the children.

Later I dreamed that I was teaching again. That I was in a classroom with a circle of students. I hadn’t been able to get a teaching job that year. In interviews I was vulnerable, scared, and trying to disguise this. I missed teaching. Missed being alone in a classroom with students, trying to do my best for them, which was, in the way those things often worked, never enough. When I got to St. Louis, I let myself into the apartment of a stranger who had hidden a key for me. I curled onto the iron bed in the spare room and called my lover. I told small stories about what I had packed, and about looking in the thrift store for a pair of lighter shoes and another shirt. It wasn’t like me to repeat stories, but I kept repeating those. My mother had left the week before and I was more afraid than I had expected. He wanted me to come back and see him. There were times when my stubbornness, my ability to press on, made life harder, when it would have been better to let things fall apart, to go home, and I wondered if the trip had become this.

I was thinking of King’s bookstore in Detroit. How, when I walked in, the woman behind the register had said, Oh, you’ve been here before. When I said it was my first time in Detroit, she said, There’s someone that looks just like you then. Hours earlier, when I was in the street, looking at a ruined theater, a man had stared at me, and said, You work at the restaurant? No, I had said. So I asked the woman behind the register if she knew anything about my double. Does she work at a restaurant? I said. She didn’t know. She felt that I had been in many times before, and so hadn’t explained how they organized the books.

I looked for the authors I always looked for, but they didn’t have them. Instead, they had authors with the same last name. Looking for Denis Johnson—trying to find the old edition of Jesus’ Son—I found ten other Johnsons, many of them women. It was the same with Walser. It was as if the famous authors didn’t exist, and there were only the unknown versions. I found an old edition of a Thomas Bernhard novel and so I selected that.

I passed a clergyman leaving with a pile of books. The pile went up to his chin. Later I saw him again, walking down the aisles. I even went to the religious section for a moment, but couldn’t understand which book to buy.

The woman who looked like me remained a stranger, as I left the city the next day. I retained an interest in secondary authors, the ones with the same last name as the people I was looking for, and bought, in one bookstore, perhaps I was in St. Louis then, a pretty book called Two Views by a German named Uwe Johnson.

* * *

In St. Louis I sat outside a Laundromat while my clothes washed. A man approached. He was looking for his phone and needed me to call a friend. I called and said that I was with Robert and that he wanted to know what his phone number was. The woman on the other line asked if I was a friend of Robert’s and if he was okay. Yes, he’s okay, I said, I’m here with him at the Laundromat. She started to ask more. I was worried she would ask to speak to him. I didn’t want to give him my phone, so I said thank you, and hung up, and handed him the number I had written down. Thank you, he said. After that I walked to an apartment where I was staying with people I didn’t know. The windows were closed and while outside it had been sunny, inside it was cold and quiet. I curled on the bed and called my lover. We spoke for some time. I think mostly I talked about my fears.

The most peaceful moment of my trip happened in that city. I was on the train to East St. Louis. It was across the river and its own city; there was no reason to be there unless you belonged there. The train went across the bridge from Missouri to Illinois. It was sunny out, only a few people on the train. Only a few people ever seemed to be on the buses or trains of those cities. Two men, one sitting in front of the other, began to sing. They sang so their voices alternated; you heard one and then the other. The moment had happened by accident. They had begun a conversation, one learned the other could sing, and so they had started up. They stopped as easily as they had begun, trailing off, one saying to the other, You are good, you ever sing at your church? No, the other one said.

When I got off the train, I went into a thrift store and bought a dress and a blouse. They came to two-­sixty. Then I went around back to a half­-open door that went into the soup kitchen. The few people in the room stared at me. Their eyes were harder than they had been in other places. I stood in line but the food looked bad, so I only asked for a cup to get some water. Later, when I kept going to cities—Louisville, Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh—but didn’t go to the soup kitchens anymore, it was East St. Louis that I thought of. I thought of St. Louis and East St. Louis, and of that thin, light-­filled train that brought you from one side of the river to the other.

I stayed in Memphis for a while. I didn’t go to the kitchens, but I still walked around. I gave a dollar to a man on a bicycle. He was asking for money for food. He said the last man he asked gave him a cigarette, telling him it would dull his hunger. The next day he bicycled past me and tried again. I gave you money yesterday, I said.

I stayed in a hostel next to a church. For the first two nights I was in a dorm room, but I switched to a private after that. To get to the private you had to pass through a dorm. The first night the dorm was empty, but the next night a man arrived. He picked the bed closest to my door, and I could hear him turning over in the night. Rooms like that—rooms that were tucked inside other rooms, which were then part of a larger building—felt like holding, like being held by something that you couldn’t see. That time in Memphis was the loneliest part of my trip, though, I didn’t know it then. I felt happy. I walked to the vegetarian café where the beer was two dollars after six. I read Graham Greene. On Sunday I even went to church, knowing it could be an answer to the loneliness, but that you had to believe in order for that to be the case.

* * *

Sara Majka‘s stories have appeared in A Public SpacePEN AmericaThe Gettysburg Review, and Guernica. A former fiction fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, she lives in Queens, New York.