New York City affects me like a fever, or a viral flu. It wipes me out, knocks me on my ass for a few days afterwards, it makes me a little delirious and cranky and yet it’s hard to shake. This is partly due to my planning; my latest visits only a couple of days in length. There’s no acclimation, no “getting used” to the city’s noise and demands. I’m in and out, spending more time in airports and on planes than in Manhattan itself. I stay on a friend’s couch and I eat too little and I walk too much, and after two hours I’m saturated with sound and flickering movement. My pace quickens, if only to move with the crowd instead of against.
On Thursday I wandered from the Upper West Side down to Rockefeller Center, where I met my friend Jay, who coincidentally was also in town. They were hoisting up the Christmas tree and the wind was whipping down those narrow skyscraper corridors at 50 mph and I hadn’t dressed warmly enough. It felt like Minnesota, where I grew up and left as soon as I could, and when I saw Jay waiting for me, sitting against a lamppost, I warmed up a bit; a friend clad in Polar Fleece a wonderful thing to embrace amid the chaos. We wandered past the Today Show’s windows, where crewmen were wrapping up electrical cords, dismantling the exterior set. We found one of the thousands of Starbuck’s in the city and I had a Tazo tea, since I was already over-caffeinated. We sat in the last open table, alone near the door, through which scores of business people literally blew in.
Later I kept wandering downtown, I had in mind visiting an AA meeting on Perry Street in the West Village, as a friend had gotten sober there and always spoke fondly of it. I had less than an hour and I kept walking. A cab or the subway would have gotten me there quicker, but I was suffering tunnel vision, and I was determined to make it there on foot. I walked down Seventh Avenue, through Times Square, past the swirling spectacle of the Coke billboard, where even the law firms have wild neon signs marking their entrance. On every corner there were people bundled up in winter clothing, handing out flyers for discount sales in the garment district, and I kept my cold hands deep in my pockets, my elbows brushing past their extended hands. Past Penn Station, a cold drizzle falling now on the line of tourists waiting for a cab. Past hot dog vendors and deliverymen wheeling cases of soda down the sidewalk. And like everyone else I stepped two feet into the intersection at each red-light, scanning for traffic and then crossing, thinking that nobody could take me for a tourist, which I was, or am.
Perry Street was lined with trees whose leaves were golden even in the drizzle, and there was the smell of something, fresh bread? And a few solitary souls ducking through an unmarked door just across the street and I followed them inside, where I nearly laughed out loud at the tiny room, having imagined, all this time, something much larger, something befitting my friend’s nostalgia. It was cramped and there were no windows and the chairs were all pushed tight together and the walls were a dour shade of blue and the walls were covered with AA banners written in calligraphy. I pushed my way into an open chair, and when they asked for visitors I raised my hand and then the speaker began and I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, resting my chin against my fists because I was tired and my feet hurt and I still hadn’t eaten anything and my blood sugar level was plummeting. The speaker was a women who used to be a man, and she was bitter and defensive and perhaps justifiably so, but they had turned out the lights and my eyes were closing and this was becoming one of those rare meetings in which I wanted a drink afterwards. And it seemed that everyone who spoke had just come back from a spectacular relapse, and everyone was afraid of the holidays and their families and the bottles of whiskey and vodka and brandy that would be gleaming on the sideboards of houses in Connecticut and Vermont. And I was cranky and impatient and getting more and more claustrophobic, and when the meeting ended I pushed past everyone who was smoking on the sidewalk. And I wandered down Christopher Street, past the store that’s not there any longer, where I bought a stocking cap during my first trip to New York, in 1990. And I passed the restaurant where we had gone this last summer during Gay Pride, the restaurant where they hated us and took away one of our tables and brought us lukewarm platters of buffalo wings. And I passed Stonewall and the deli on the corner that had carnations and roses and paperwhites out on the sidewalk. And there was a Barnes and Noble on the block where in 1990 I had wandered into some funky little store, was it Patricia Field’s, that had rows of technicolor wigs and I had almost bought a vinyl vest with racing stripes but instead I bought a black and white vest later from some tacky chain store and that night when I went to the Sound Factory, which was still open in 1990, I saw another guy in the same vest and wished that I had bought the vinyl one instead. But on Thursday Patricia Field’s wasn’t there anymore and by now the tunnel vision had narrowed to a pinprick and I let the wind blow me through the door of Gray’s Papaya, where I asked for the recession special, two hotdogs and a drink for $2.50, and I ate standing up at the counter along the window.
And I thought about going over to Washington Square or wandering the East Village in the hopes that somewhere there were still funky little stores full of clothing that nobody in San Francisco would have, but it was cold and the wind still strong and I needed, more than anything, a nap. So I turned and wandered back up Eighth Avenue, the soles of my feet burning and flattened, past another deli where a gust of wind shook its awning and a flood of cold water fell at my side, drops running down the back of my neck. And a cloud of pigeons rose and twisted in the wind and I watched their arc with envy. And the tunnel vision widened a bit and I convinced myself to take the subway at Penn Station, where I should have taken a B or a C and instead I took an E which swung away from Eight Avenue and would have taken me to Queens had I not realized that we were now going east. So I got off at 5th Avenue and turned around and eventually found a C and figured that since I had just gotten lost on the subway it wouldn’t have to happen again.
That night we returned to Big Nick’s on West 71st St. The night before, when I opened the menu and gaped at the hundreds of choices, Jennie told me, “This is what’s called a New York Bible.” Big Nick’s had low ceilings and red vinyl booths, decorated with signs like “This Booth for 3 or More Only!”, where the two of us sat both nights. Jennie finished her onion rings before I did, because I was talking so much. She rested her elbows on the varnished wood table and listened patiently. Later, as we set our shoulders against the cold she told me she had never seen a woman waiting tables in there. The wind was whipping down Columbus Avenue and we stopped for cigarettes and half and half. I’m still thinking about those onion rings.
I caught the subway like an old pro at the 72nd Street Station, and rode the six stops to Columbia. It was dark and colder now, and the sidewalk outside Dodge Hall was full of students streaming towards the station after class, and I wandered onto the campus and stared at the enormous library and felt like I was on a real university campus, compared to the Florida campus where I was an undergraduate. And later, on the fourth floor of Dodge, the wind was crying in the trees outside the dark windows and there were fifty insecure writers asking a lot of questions from the Writing Program’s administrators and students. And as I rode the 1 back to 72nd St I paged through their catalogue. And later I showed the catalogue to Jennie as we sat on her couch while “True Life: I’m a Clubber” played on MTV in the background, and we felt that peculiar combination of envy and inspiration that university catalogues are designed to elicit in potential students. And I lay back on the couch and spoke about the future until Jennie flicked off the TV. And then, as the hour grew later, we spoke about the drudgery of day jobs and I told her about all of the well-dressed business people I had passed near Rockefeller Center, and how I felt a little insignificant, and how the lives we’ve chosen fall outside of something, some way of living that people in suits on Seventh Avenue know all about. And then I remembered an essay I had read on the plane, “Lost Cities” by Rachel Cohen, who examined the lives of two poets, Fernando Pessoa and Constantine Cavafy, who were clerks during the day and who wrote in the evenings. And I opened the book and read this aloud:
Many of the fragments begin with the mundane: the account books, Pessoa’s boss Vasques, his occasionally foolish colleague Moreira, the delivery boy, the clock and the calendar on the wall. Then there is the feeling of the office when the sky outside darkens in a storm. Anxiety comes with the storm, a sense of menace, and Pessoa is glad for the company of the office, the joke of the delivery boy, the protection and comfort of this undemanding company. This is the shape of his world in the day and it frees him for the night. In the evening, he walks the streets of Lisbon and returns home to write perfect crystalline meditations on depression, insomnia, nostalgia, memory, the city’s geography, anonymity, and mortality. It seems that this work is possible only in his straitened conditions. The city wanderings must have their dusty contrast, must play in relief.
I read to find those writers who have tried to make sense of their cities, their solitude; writers who have found, in a particular arrangement of words, a world worth describing. I read to recognize this shared endeavor, because by reading I feel less alone, here along the margins of my own making. And I read for the romantic notion of the poet and the clerk. And I read this aloud to my friend, because I wanted to offer something, some proof or evidence of a tradition; as though by reading it aloud we could belong to the shared history of writers. And I read it aloud because I wanted to keep alive the possible; the diverging paths that I choose to believe lie ahead. And I read it aloud to extend and inhabit this tradition; each of us tied to the other through words; from Cavafy and Pessoa to Rachel Cohen; her words tying my friend and I together to that city, on that cold night, the sound of the wind outside her window a comfort before bed.