I am here. No one has noticed.
This is the first view I have of the city itself. Taking the advice of the woman I’m subletting the room from, I take the cheapo $16 shuttle from Newark. Lacking all elegance and charm, both the bus and the Port Authority terminal seem a better start. I can save Grand Central’s grandeur for my return. I think this is the view up 8th Avenue. Someone bothers to review this famed destination on Google: Check your soul at the door as you enter and enjoy the smell of Cinnabon and human waste. Then be sure to hug your loved one when you get home. I think it’s charming the new New York retains a living example of its Seventies disgrace, but then, the bus stops on the street and I never need go in.
The plane ride was smooth and direct, very early, and exciting, coasting over thunderstorms mid-country. The moment the camera finished recording this picture, the pilots snapped on the seat belt sign, barked something over the intercom, and gravity lurched just above my head for several long seconds.
It was a fun sensation after I was sure it had stopped. Had this happened a year ago, over the endless Pacific, would my reaction have been different? The tractless ocean presents a special, endless horror that the middle of the continent doesn’t.
Four and a half hours of semi-awake flight obliterate the weeks of travel required hardly more than a century ago, and nobody dies of typhoid. There isn’t even a crying baby. I am in the very back corner of the plane, seat 40A, next to a guy in a hat and two larger, gently lesbian women on their way to Scotland with bagpipes. They have Disney coloring books and stay inside the lines of the various princesses. Hat man is from Newark and heading home from business, at ease with returning to 6 A.M. not being 3 A.M. We talk about the threat of natural gas fracking up north, where all the great metropolises get their water. This is news to him. Yeah, it’s in Albany, the Wall Street fuckers, that’s where the problem is. He liked Guliani for cleaning up the city. I have nothing to worry about, he says. The two young women are making their fourteenth trip to Scotland. Where else would one go with bagpipes? The coloring books are not a distraction from claustrophobia or flight anxiety, but to decorate their hotel rooms. They have taken the time to color princess dresses white with crayon.
After jamming at a closed TSA checkpoint for an interminable, but objectively brief wait, and then a clogged bus ride through New Jersey tidelands, the outside of Port Authority has nothing against it. That New York crush is everywhere: traffic, people, air, fumes. It is hot, humid and bright, but nothing like growing up in Texas. Nearly everyone gets off the bus and dissipates into the human stream.
Though both sides of my family are from Eastern Pennsylvania, and the city was only a bus-or-train ride away, we visited once or twice, maybe. Even as a young child I found this inexplicable: how could one not be drawn to the city’s gravity? The urban rumpus of Sesame Street fascinated and enticed my young kid mind. Look at all those places you can go! Cars, subways, people! Walk down your stoop to Hooper’s Store by yourself to get an ice cream and see what’s going on seemed a far preferable mode of living than marooned out in a suburban box, interminable hours in a giant Seventies car to the nearest retail outpost. Summers back to the grandparents never included trips to the city, to the natural family vacation draws of the Statue of Liberty and the UN. Instead my mother dashed around her parents’ house to counteract a years’ worth my grandparents’ incompetence in managing their lives, as she made abundantly clear; my father took long walks with us along the narrow gravel roads of Bucks County, PA, where I was grateful to again be somewhere with true trees, rocks that didn’t crumble when you squeezed them, trickles of streams. Nature was a great prize, but it had no action. Nature doesn’t entice like the city does.
I remember some drives through the city, my father cursing and my mother holding her giant carpetbag purse in a death grip. Why we bothered to go at all if the plan was to drive around baffled my pre-teen mind; I remember they were doing this to humor me, and the resulting guilt I was the cause of everyone’s distress. Sometime in high school we took a real trip, heading out from my grandmother’s farm to Doyelstown and the SEPTA train, switching trains in Philadelphia where I remember my grandmother’s sense of imminent siege. The train let us out in Grand Central and the great vault was the mass in space and time I thought I could imagine from all my science fiction reading but which I couldn’t imagine at all: both vast and contained, overreaching yet pure utility, a relic from a time that imagined a future very different from my present. We did tourist things: the Circle Line, the UN where I bought a poster of the Declaration of Human Rights, the World Trade Center and up to the observation deck’s surreal height. I remember my father’s surprise that the city had been so cleaned up. My mother, who had spent some summers here in college working and modeling, glared out from behind her sunglasses, steeling herself for imminent gang rape. My sister, in early elementary school, was quiet, keeping up and looking. Light was brilliant, the air clear and as invisibly pleasant as water to fish. Nobody jostled, nobody shouted, though I remember the honking. At the end my grandmother insisted we get a Checker cab, waving out in the street for a cab that was probably decades beyond finding.
My most recent visit was 2003, surreal on several unpleasant levels. The occasion was my grandmother’s death, my father having asked my sister and I if we wanted to come see the farmhouse, or help him settle some effects–I don’t remember. I had been sick a year and was having trouble walking, and getting in and out of my father’s giant pickup truck, which he had driven from Texas, was something I had to steel myself for. The first night was late, the land lost in an impenetrable dark that hardly seems possible near the glow of the great cities, and I lay in the lumpy, uneven bed in the tilted, cramped farmhouse bedroom that had been mine away from home, thinking about visits I’d made alone in college and the silent, anxious Thanksgiving I’d spent here while at school in Boston. How we decided to visit the city I don’t remember, but early the next morning we drove north to where all the hobby farmers caught the bus for Manhattan.
History had concentrated itself in the few blocks of the World Trade Center, and like all people horror has an undeniable allure. We peered through the tiny holes in plywood at the great crater, now being emptied and readied. I remember the two portals of the PATH train tunnel, two dark holes in the grey wall. Fences with posters of the missing were still up, smiling men and women, all races, Anglo and funny names, staring out in photocopy from happier times. A woman played a guitar, surrounded by candles and flowers. Air was acrid still. We didn’t see anything else.
Later that week we drove to Gettysburg, my sister making wrong turns and driving too fast, getting in arguments with my father. I remember realizing how green everything was here too, but different from Washington: somehow older and tamed, more deciduous.
Now it is the present and everything is changed. My friend’s one-man show was accepted to the FringeNYC theatre festival, and as part of helping him out I’m here as his representative. It’s an excellent excuse to need a month in the city. What reason is there not to go? The reality of it looms for six weeks: plane tickets bought, email conversations with the theatre people, subletting a place and trusting internet pictures. Now the reality is now, which is always different from what is imagined.
The place I’ve rented is what I expect for Manhattan and the money: a notch in the back of a walkup building, plenty bright and adequate for having a place to keep my carryon and get a shower. The woman renting it is thin, dark-haired, and probably a Russian Jew given the Cyrillic titles in the bookcase: she’s leaving for Israel on Tuesday and assures me to call her for any reason. The bus, delayed by traffic, gives her time to get off work and let me in, show me the keys, invite me to use anything. She shows the drawer she’s cleaned out for me twice, shows where the extra pillow is stashed at the top of the closet. She walks with me around the corner to personally show me the grocery store she likes. Connecting the laptop to her wifi she shows me how to use the Weekender, which shows what subway lines are changed or cancelled for weekend work. She seems perfectly nice and normal, nothing of the neurotic.
It’s far cleaner than what I had in Hawaii, is blocks from Times Square, and costs less. Smaller, of course, with a bathroom hardly bigger than what’s on an airplane and the classic Manhattan kitchen that is the leftover space in front of the door. She points out the beer the previous tenant left and thinks it’s funny or embarrassing. The cabinets are full of makeup, and the john has one of those blue-water things you’re not supposed to use any more.
Out in the hallway is a bookcase with erudite but readable books. The CHUDs of my parents’ nightmares must have gone to night school.
Evening is coming on. It’s Friday in New York and the options are overwhelming but outside my concern. I have modest goals: something to eat, maybe a few groceries, a subway pass.
I splurge and get the monthlong unlimited pass for a hundred bucks. The machine is purposeful and the ticketing application well-designed, both in flow and keeping the classic Seventies Helvetica look I remember the New York subway as always having. I take a short ride a few stops downtown on the A, remembering my first rides on the Boston subway. It took a few tokens before realizing I could walk the distance in a few minutes more, but we’re decades beyond tokens now.
Not paying much attention to where I’m going and now with the ubiquitous crutch of my phone to rescue me, I wander over to Central Park where a woman with a Spanish or Italian accent holds up her guidebook and asks where she is. I just got here four hours ago, I say, and she apologizes and moves off before I can look at her book or pull out the phone. A big guy with a group of tall young people strides by complaining of how miserable the heat is. The trees are full of locusts, which reminds me of Texas, and which surprises me. The park is deep and green and full of bikes and runners, and teenagers play kickball on a sand diamond.
Nothing is threatening or alarming as I emerge back out the west side, wandering south. People crowd around. Hordes of attractive and a few outright beautiful women course over the sidewalks in an endless stream. I marvel at them but it’s an acknowledgement like you would a car or piece of furniture. I am in that state of energized fatigue where I could keep going indefinitely but consciously know this isn’t desirable. There are too many places to eat so I pick one that advertises health. I spent $14 on this:
It’s some kind of turkey-bacon wrap, stuffed with crunchy vegetables, and a hunk of chocolate cake. What’s wrong with that? Times Square is out the window, the greatest symbol of flagellated excess outside of Vegas. I can have chocolate cake. A half-hour later I realize I am as full as if from a gluttonous Thanksgiving. I get the picture of Times Square above, walk past theatres quiet with their Friday night shows, and gradually circle back.
I stop at the little store I was shown, buy a loaf of bread, a carton of chocolate soymilk, and strawberries. I realize the store is probably too pricey for me, stuffed with organic and alternative and “good” everything; she likes it because fruit must be fresh. In the apartment I find a clean glass and put the carton in the refrigerator. It’s a hair too wide for its space and the door must be pushed into the counter to close. I am welcome to anything, which must include the moldy Parmesan. I don’t mind–there must be a Trader Joe’s here.
Aside from the cheese and a bad onion, the fridge is fine. The place is fine. I am fine. The fatigue, so deep these past weeks, has lifted a little. I don’t feel lost on another planet. Everything is all right enough and there is no need to judge.