Day one of beginning over again. My own personal ground zero, New York. I’ve been stripped completely of every security, every comfort, every person save one, every part of myself that I thought made me myself. I’m naked in New York. Like some homogenous human that is not human and is every human. A blank canvas. A white wall. Standing at a starting line wondering if I am still able to move once that gun goes off. My reflection is New York. I no longer have any other mirrors. I have nothing. I am nothing. I began this journey thinking that I wanted to wash myself clean of all material and immaterial things. Here I am. Finally empty and full all at once.
New York CIty. No other city in my own country could make me feel so much like an alien and so completely exposed as an outsider. I’ve already been admonished for not recycling correctly by an asian man I could not understand. I’ve gotten on the subway going the wrong direction too many times to admit. I am living in a neighborhood where the language spoken and written on storefronts is not a language I understand. I have no car to hide in, I walk. I can’t go to Target to take care of all of my needs in a single trip. No, I have to walk to a grocery for food, a bakery for fresh bread, a liquor store for wine, a pharmacy for toothpaste and vitamins, a shoe store for shoes, a boutique for clothing, a bookstore for books, a convenience store for gum … you get the idea. It’s an adventure every single day. Every little shop is unique and different and they take pride in their little specialties, really doing it up right. I realize even more than I did before what the Costcos and Targets have done to our culture, herding us through warehouses of generic items that we pile into our oversized carts without considering where it came from, who made it, or if we truly need it. This sort of mom-and-pop shop community is being eaten up by an ugly insatiable beast. It is dying so fast that I feel lucky to finally be in a place where I can actually experience it before it disappears completely.
It’s been a while for me on this blog. I’ve been opening it up and staring at it, completely overwhelmed by where we were and where we are and what has transpired in the in-betweens. I want to write volumes this morning about Chicago and our final trek from Chicago to Washington DC, the sad goodbye to the The Good Ship Lolly, the back and forth between New York and DC and homelessness as we tried to find refuge in a city that does not exactly welcome outsiders with arms wide. But it’s so much. The thought overwhelms me. I’ve decided to offer a few important and not-so-important moments from my time so far in this magical city and hopefully catch up slowly from there. We’ll see. Meantime, here are some snapshots to thumb through …
There is one particular bar in this town, I don’t even know its name. It really has no distinction from the countless bars that line Manhattan Avenue, the main thoroughfare in Greenpoint, save one thing. This one has a very nice bench out front that is generally in the shade. Every time we walk past, day or night, two hearty old Polish ladies are sitting on this bench in full old lady regalia; skirts, slippers, blouses, powder and perfume, ruffles, jackets, wigs, hats, pearls. They sit there muttering in polish to each other, glancing often toward their suitcases, packed full of treasures that are treasured only by them, making sure they are still sitting nearby and haven’t been swiped by a street hoodlum. I keep thinking at some point the lights will come on and they will act out a scene from Mame complete with song and dance. It’s as if they are waiting every day for the sweet chariot to swing low and whisk them up to heaven. Certainly they are dressed appropriately for the ride, everything in its place, all the important things packed, face powdered and rouged, all ready to meet some spirit in the sky. Times like this I wish I spoke Polish so I could plop down cross-legged somewhere near them and make requests for story after story.
On a Sunday afternoon somewhere beneath the city of Brooklyn, while rain falls outside, a homeless woman in the middle of her age drops quickly to the ground and drags herself slowly along the floor, scooting under the subway turnstile. She doesn’t have money to pay the fair I assume to myself. No one moves to stop her. We slide our metrocards through the slots like New York pros, walk through the turnstile and find a seat on the G-train. I don’t see her again. People live in the subway tunnels Joel tells me. It’s times like this that I make note of the microscopicness of the indescribable unnameable thing that separates me from her and I wonder if someday I will be the one crawling under turnstiles.
In the town of Williamsburg, a town that has been taken over and gentrified by an army of New York hipsters, there lives an old leathery man who is perpetually in his yard or the equivalent of one. A yard assumes that there is a house attached to it, and there is no house. So I suppose it’s more of a plot of land where a house would, or used to, be. Incidentally a yard in New York, I have learned, is a small concrete slab behind an apartment building, often dirty and full of old faded makeshift chairs and tables, also usually shared by several neighbors. There is a high metal fence surrounding his grassy plot and many of the necessities that would be found in a house are scattered around. Tables, chairs, an old rusty automobile that has been there long enough for the grass and weeds to take over sits in one corner. He, old leatherman, is always there, sitting somewhere like he is more a piece of the inanimate furniture than a living thing. Sometimes all you see are two skinny brown legs propped up on the open car door. Sometimes he is in a chair near the fence where passers-by can view him like an animal in a zoo. The spectacle raises so many questions, most beginning with, “why … !?”. Someday I hope we will have a conversation with him, meanwhile we make guesses … a tragic fire … claustrophobia … a statement about his hatred for the hipsters … vitamin D deficiency … maybe he is a lonely agoraphobic and thought that putting himself closer to the rest of the world, without actually entering it, would make him feel better.
Upon entering the subway train one afternoon, I sit down across from a lady who looks like she’s spent the last five years underground. Literally…underground. She has this amazing dreadlocked hair, clearly a product of neglect – not a fashion statement. People are getting up to move away from the stench. This woman has crazy eyes. I can’t stop looking. She spits out colorful curse words like she needs an exorcist and slaps herself repeatedly for the length of our three-mile subway ride. By the time we approach our stop she has cleared the entire bench beside and across from her. I keep watching and wondering what will happen if she looks at me with her crazy eyes and catches me staring… will I be the next one to get a slap? As I continue to stare I consider that a slap from her would certainly make for an interesting story and even more, maybe that’s what the poor woman needs is just someone to finally look at her. Knowing how my overactive imagination has a tendency to get me into sticky situations, I finally turn my eyes back toward my book and continue to eye her out of the corners while pretending to read.
We have had several weeks of record-breaking heat now. Relentless heat and humidity. One day in particular I have some small errands that require me to leave our little bedroom, the one room that has an AC unit in the window. I am out and I am attempting to move without actually moving. I feel as through I’m wrapped in wet melted cheese swimming through hot French Onion soup. I finish up and painfully make my way to a home that is not a home, a small temporary sublet on Huron street. A man in sweaty work clothes appears riding his bike at top speed down Manhattan Avenue. He is triumphant on his steed. Head high, elbows locked, arms straight gripping the handles, legs pumping mechanically. He is a machine. He flies past the old Catholic cathedral that towers above the small Greenpoint storefronts that huddle like impoverished subjects, clothed in faded american flags, hands outstretched. Straight out of a story book, I’m transported every time I walk past this monolithic sanctuary. A heavenly vision, it seems to be made of gingerbread and frosting with its red brick and white trimmings. As he approaches, his head bows slightly, he crosses himself on all four catholic corners and without slowing his speed, pedals on. I continue my slow walk home and ponder the powers of gingerbread and consider that maybe there’s some secret to living through this soupy inferno that I don’t know yet.
An evening on Huron street, the sun is setting and we are strolling past deserted warehouses covered in graffiti, concrete castles in the kingdom of Brooklyn. We follow discarded pieces of strewn litter like bread crumbs to the water’s edge where we wade through weeds and garbage to sit as close as we dare to the New York City skyline and watch it light up at the end of a day. My head is full. We pull out red wine in water bottles. Bare legs are offered up to the resident mosquitos. The heat and humidity have finally loosened their grip on the city and I’m pulling in the cool air like its pure gold. I feel like I’ve just won the lottery and I look at Joel and see he feels the same. The momentousness and clarity of the moment rests on both of us as we look from each other back over the water to the jagged city skyline. We are home.