“Here’s proof that the algorithm is, in fact, fallible,” begins one panel of Melanie Kruvelis’s New York City grief pamphlet, part travel brochure, part how-to guide for the bereaved: “Spotify compiles no playlists for mourning complicated father-daughter relationships. Maybe grief is just too messy for recommendations curated by capitalism. Besides, what would they call that playlist?…‘Estrangement + Chill’?”
For Kruvelis, grief and humor are neighbors, and they live in New York. Before moving to the City last year, Kruvelis crowdsourced her friends and used their responses to create an emotional-political map. Users craving a particular mood-driven experience of the city—anything from “i wanna be sad” to “i wanna makeout on the dancefloor” to “i wanna buy dumb shit”—can explore a constellation of corresponding destinations, digital recommendations for engagement with IRL urban spaces.
A policy advocate by day, Kruvelis is an artist, writer, and the co-creator and producer of Leave a Message After the Tone, an acclaimed short-form fiction podcast, by night. A few weeks ago, I sat down with her to talk emotional mapping, grieving alone in New York City, and the catharsis of karaoke.
Do you feel like your creative work is in conversation with the policy work you do?
I do, though at first I saw them as oppositional. I think the way language gets used in political spaces pushed me to wanting language that was maybe closer to the abstract in some kind of a way, but also truthful.
Right, you also use language that’s truthful to the way people actually speak—there’s a very conversational quality to the pamphlet.
Yeah, and I don’t work in a political space where I’m writing angry speeches—my life doesn’t look like the West Wing: I’m with dweeby advocates who have crumpled-up newspapers in their bag and we try to come up with laws that make sense. I think the language can be difficult, there’s a certain pattern to it, there’s certain phrases you use when you’re coming up with policy recommendations, certain ways you’re trying to reach your legislator that isn’t necessarily the way you would make the argument. I think my creative work benefited a lot from that learning to write for particular audiences. Knowing that this legislator really cares about the potholes in their district so how can I make my point come back to that? I feel like a lot of my life is in libraries in the Hudson valley where people are yelling about potholes in their neighborhood.
Do you think you had an audience in mind for the emotional-political NYC Google map you made?
It started off as sort of a self-serving project but also it was very crowd-sourced. I was about to move the New York, and when I had been here before, I was either extremely anxious coming off a bus in midtown or drunk in a bar in Williamsburg. So I knew what those states of mind were like but I knew there were a lot of other states of mind that I needed to know about. Where do you go in New York when you’re bored or want to warm up real quick or when you feel like being sad and stewing in your own thoughts but you don’t want to do that in your apartment?
I started asking people I knew, and friends of friends started to send my questionnaire out to each other, this list of emotional spots that I was looking for. And I ended up getting some very interesting answers. It’s fun too because this personal place-making project provoked others to think about how they use spaces in New York. I wanted to put it on this Google map to feel like I have some sort of anchor when I come here. I don’t think I’ve even been to 20 percent of the places people have recommended; there are lots of places I haven’t been to or haven’t been to in the ways that somebody explained them to me. It was less about having the exact coordinates of where I could go for an exact feeling than having these hotspots.
Like a heatmap!
Exactly, like an emotional heatmap to have some sense of where I could duck into if I needed, using maps as a kind of security blanket. Because of my job, I included where all the local libraries are, so the map shows you Giles—the librarian from Buffy—he’s all over it. I wanted places I could go between meetings and not spend money. So it was an experience about spaces and emotions and the politics of where we let people go to feel certain things outside of the home.
Did you ever go to a space looking for a specific experience, as it had been categorized on the map, and have an opposing experience from what you were expecting based on this crowdsourced information?
I think that did happen in a lot of ways, you begin carving out your own little spaces. In particular, the places that I went to in the week that my dad passed away. I was going through a very one-woman grief experience and ended up in places people had recommended for other purposes. My experience of grief was so particular that I think it holds a different weight than a place you go where you’re simply sad.
There’s this woman who created a crying map of New York that had gone viral a couple of years ago, which was also very crowdsourced. And people told stories like I was on this street corner when me and my boyfriend broke up. It was a social history of crying in New York, which is a great concept. But I wanted a few more gradations. And then, after what happened with my dad, the map became something different to me because—in grieving you can be surprised by how you feel. My dad died a month after I moved to New York. So it was boom boom boom.
One thing I liked about both pieces was your friends’ involvement in creating them. I was really moved by the friend who showed up with a megaphone, ready to scream off the Williamsburg bridge. I’m wondering what the role of other people, your friends and your community, is in your creative work?
Whenever I can bring other people into anything, I do. I love it and I also really struggle with it.
Which is something you did with your grief experience in a way, which, as you said, was a one-woman experience, but then you make a how-to guide out of it that others can use.
I feel like I oscillate between extreme solitude and deep extraversion. I’m a mild person in a lot of ways, but I think my social life can live in those extremes. Working with other people is something I’ve sought out as a security blanket, but that at the same time has produced things that I’m proud of. And what I mean by security blanket is—I struggled with my relationship to writing for a long time. You’re in your room, you’re writing this thing, you don’t know who this is for, you’re deep in it, you get out and there’s so much self-doubt in that process. So me reaching out to friends was a way to have the expanse that writing lets you have without having to do it fully alone.
That was really important for me particularly with some of the grief stuff because what had happened when my dad passed away—we had been estranged for 8 years by the time that he died. So I didn’t have people in my immediate circle who were also grieving. Like, my mom said The nightmare is over when she told me, but I felt like it was just beginning for me.
There were all these weird ways my dad got back into my life when he died—I ended up being the next of kin, meaning I had to sign the autopsy, which is mentioned in the pamphlet. It was this intense experience of diving back into a relationship with someone I’d been apart from for a really long time. It was very isolating in many ways, so working with other people was a very necessary security blanket when it came to this project. I think people really do want to be there for you when you go through something like that, but that they don’t really know how. It’s not been normalized to talk about these things, even when they’re happening to you.
Right. In my experience, even when they’re happening to you, it’s sort of a bummer to do that all the time.
I think people are nervous that they’ll say the wrong things, so they say nothing, and the funny thing about that is that I’m so in my own head about the situation that you can be like fuck you, your dad’s dead and it wouldn’t even register to me. Memory is so strange when you’re in that grief fog. I hope that takes the pressure off when we’re trying to be there for each other.
Right now, I think people are trying to be increasingly thoughtful about their real-talk interactions, for lack of a better word. They’re becoming aware of the weight of their words, and sometimes that means putting pressure on ourselves to say the exact perfect thing. But there is no perfect thing—there’s nothing you can say to bring back somebody who’s been lost, or in my case, repair a 25-year relationship and also deal with the grief. So don’t worry about it!
That’s so interesting. I’m curious how those stakes, that pressure—of trying to say the exact right thing at the right time and being a writer and having a very intentional relationship with language—how do those stakes influence your writing?
I think it actually gives me some space. That’s something I struggle with in writing, especially when you’re talking about grief or other serious things—when you write seriously people take it seriously, right? That’s such an obvious thing, but for a long time my writing was based in humor, that’s how I got started. I could turn phrases and say funny things but I didn’t feel like I had real stake in the things I was saying. It was something I could do and be clever at and get some good—and sometimes really bad—reactions, but it wasn’t a very authentic space for me. So I moved away from writing for a couple of years. But when I went to write about grief I tried to retain that sense of humor—because grief is also very funny. I developed a sense of the stakes in what I was doing, and that’s what guides me more than saying the right thing. The pamphlet is short, but with every sentence I wrote, I went back and asked myself where the truth was. And I thought, that’s how to make something very serious about grief that also examines the humor in it.
I love that because I feel like I’ve had the inverse journey in register in my writing, which is why I wanted to ask about that choice of marrying such a truly witty voice with such seriously unfunny material.
I think I started there. I was writing in the college paper and the radio station, so I was mixing journalistic stuff with the thing I did most, opinion writing. That was a nightmare of a space for me, actually. It was miserable, trying to write columns, coming up with one joke at four a.m. and basing the rest on that. So that’s why I moved away from that writing for a while for three or four years, so I tried to become a serious person—working at a thinktank, trying to get a PhD and becoming a political theorist. But I still didn’t feel like myself in that space.
There were always bits of truth to my humor writing—otherwise it wouldn’t have worked at all—but that wasn’t my stake in it. Having the goal of making something entertaining or funny is different than asking myself how can I use humor to really get at something truthful.
That’s the biggest tension I’ve felt in the past few years—that pull between being a funny person and someone who’s willing to take on the heavy stuff. In the grieving process I realized I could smush those together, because they are together. Obviously not every part of grief is funny, but [in the pamphlet] I talk about how asinine your relationship to symbolism becomes when you’re grieving.
I was going to say, one of my favorite lines in the grief pamphlet was about seeing a barbershop on the street and being reminded that the speaker’s dead father had hair. It’s hilarious and, like you said, so true to what grief makes us see, how everything becomes a symbol pointing back at loss.
I was talking to a friend last night whose mom had passed away a couple of years ago. She went with her father to spread some of her mother’s ashes out in Queens where she grew up. And of course that’s a heavy thing, but also, when you’re pouring ashes in multiple places, you’re like, How much do I put out in this park and that school yard? Do I say something each time I drop it? It’s not like you’re pouring it all into the ocean, you’re kind of doing this pit-stop thing and you don’t know how heavy to make each point. So in this park in Queens my friend and her dad found a Mentos wrapper on the ground and they were like Well, Mom liked Mentos, so they poured some there!
Right? That was something that kept me afloat through the grief—you’re in such a specific, tunnel-vision world but the glimpses out of it, whether it’s through something absurd someone says to you or you have to, a week later, go back to regular tasks and it’s almost insulting when the MTA machine isn’t working because you’re like, Don’t you know I’m fucking dealing with loss? How dare you not accept my card. How dare you tell me I have insufficient funds? I have lost something—I’ll tell you what’s insufficient! Having no parents.
Exactly, and that echoes this idea of mixed registers, of tragedy rubbing up on comedy, because you have this internal state and the world is giving you something totally different, and when those combine it can be hilarious.
Right, you’re so in your own space at the same time that you’re interacting with a world that doesn’t know how to deal with that: Either the universe doesn’t know you’re grieving or it’s the people in your life who still don’t totally know how to be there for you. I think there’s something funny in all of that.
Not acknowledging the humor in grief made it more isolating for me. Like I’d try to tell a friend about something I found funny in my dad’s autopsy or whatever and I’d have to remind them, This is a joke, this is a joke, we’re okay! Even the parts I thought were funny and that I wanted to share with people—I don’t think they knew how to react.
So in the pamphlet and the map I wanted to make that nexus of grief and sadness and profound humor as accessible as possible. We can all laugh at this together, it’s okay.
So it sounds like you were able to see the humor while it was happening, but did the act of creating the pamphlet focus that lens for you?
Yeah—when I was in the thick of it, the funny was so tangled in these weird other feelings I had, where you laugh and then almost cry. Writing allowed me to take out that humor in isolation and play with where the humor took place. It did make something in the process feel more manageable or powerful in some way.
What are you working on now? What are you looking forward to?
I have ambitions to go bigger than pamphlet—still figuring out what the form is. I’m interested in exploring social media through the lens of grief. When my dad died, I deleted all my social media. There were some discrete things that pushed me to that decision. But I also got very irritated by the politics of extraction that social media requires. I got really annoyed with the idea of these companies existing to mine everything about me, to make a composite of me, to then sell me shit that I don’t want. That cycle felt really personal when I was navigating the loss of this person I didn’t really know.
And going back to the idea of stakes, this thing knows so much about you but has no stake in your life or your wellbeing. While I was grieving I was trying to cobble together some pieces of my father’s life, what it had looked like. I have no pictures with him, no letters, no report cards, no nothing. So through late-night Google searches and church pamphlets—I never even knew he went to church—and his Couch Surfing profile—these are the things I’ve found of my dad. While I was trying desperately to thread things together, there’s social media on the other side—this thing that can thread you together so perfectly. I got so irritated that the place that had the most investment in documenting my life didn’t give a shit about me.
That bothers me a lot! And maybe that’s another place where my writing and policy work come together. Let’s win back the internet!
Speaking of wellbeing, what is your favorite New York City self-care ritual?
Any go-to songs?
Lots. I always like a Christmas song. But I’m not up here at a Mariah Carey, I’m down here at a Rick James. “Little Drummer Boy” and “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” A lot of self-discovery happens at karaoke. I’m here for all of it—it’s such a great, great mess.
One karaoke experience that I’m still trying to find is lunchtime karaoke. The closest I’ve found so far in NYC is in Flushing, Queens. On the ground floor of this mall there’s this little booth that’s a personal karaoke booth and it’s literally just for one person. I think if you want you can record yourself while you do it. But it’s only for you—you’re in this little glass box, doing karaoke, in the middle of this food court. I was in between meetings when I found this and I was like, finally. Scream Papa Roach on a microphone, go back to your desk, and you’re fine. The full release into the booth.