Let it Burn: Part Two

When the movers arrived from California, I spent the afternoon in my little studio apartment, unpacking boxes. At dusk I lay back on my bed. The scent of my new seagrass rug – which smelled like someone had dumped a ten-pound bag of catnip on the floor – mingled with fresh paint fumes. It was the middle of August, and I listened to the chorus of air conditioners in the windows of the neighboring apartments, and thought about the Manly Fireplug, who’d lived in New York for over a decade. When Columbia University had called and asked me if I might like to join their program, I stopped by his barbershop, where he was closing up for the day, sweeping a dark pile of clipped hair across the room. When I told him the news he dropped the broom and bear-hugged me, and when we pulled away his eyes were damp, for a moment. Then he blew his nose and pushed me into his chair.

“Now,” he said, “you gotta get yourself a Friedrich air conditioner. They last forever.”

“Friedrich.”

“And you gotta walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. Promise me.”

“I promise.”

“Stay focused,” he said. “You’re in the Ivy League now.”

“I know.”

“Those New York boys spend half their life at the gym, so you stay focused.”

“I know.”

“Don’t let it get to you.”

I sighed. “Yes, Daddy.”

He grunted. “Say that again.”

Our big brother/little brother routine had a slight incestuous edge to it. “Daddy,” I said, teasing. At the end of every haircut, when he’d slap alcohol on my neck, he’d growl in my ear, “I just love the way your skin reddens up so easy.”

“Joe…”

“It’s hot.”

“Joe, I’m not going to let you whip me, so don’t even ask.”

“You don’t know what you’re missing,” he said.

I pushed aside the curtain; my new window looked out onto an airshaft and a tiny sliver of West 112th, where a construction crew was setting up scaffolding on the building next door. It was eight p.m. At eleven p.m. I called Jennie.

“When do they stop?” I asked her.

“They never stop,” she said.

At midnight I bought earplugs from Duane Reade. “You’re in New York now,” I told myself. “Deal with it.”

The Fireplug’s final piece of advice was that I absolutely must go to the top of the Empire State Building and look for my apartment. “First thing you do,” he’d said. At the end of the week I took the subway down and stood in line with the tourists, as salesmen shuffled by and hawked audio tours of the city, which were narrated by Tony, an “Authentic New York City Cab Driver.”

“See more with the audio tour!” one guy said, and I puzzled over that one until I finally reached the ticket counter, ninety minutes later, where I forked over twelve dollars. The girl stamped my ticket and handed it back. As I boarded the elevator I glanced down. I hadn’t planned my trip so well; it was an overcast day, and on my ticket was a little smiley face, except it was frowning, and underneath it were the words, “Zero Visibility.”

* * *

After that first trip to New York, when I’d watched the boy in the bottle, I returned to college in Sarasota. It was 1992, and my heroes were the men and women of Act-UP, who staged kiss-ins and die-ins on the streets of Manhattan and San Francisco, and whose outrageous tactics paid off in advancements in treatments for HIV. I shadowed their movements through magazines and newspapers. My thesis was burdened by the title “The Sociological Effects of AIDS on Gay Men.”
When I made it to San Francisco in 1997, new pharmaceuticals had changed the effects of AIDS among the world’s more privileged populations. By the time I arrived, the community I had written about for my thesis no longer existed. The activist groups had splintered or disbanded entirely. I had missed an era. Within a couple of years crystal meth had become an epidemic among gay men, and we retreated into isolation and paranoia, hiding in our separate rooms.

Now I lived in New York, and I’d take the 1 train downtown, where my heroes once walked. Most of them were dead now. Sometimes, walking around the streets of the East Village with my iPod, I’d play the song Frankie Knuckles had spun the night I’d danced in that dark ballroom, as the boy had rocked on the box in the blue rays of light. I’d listen, trying to conjure that night, and that city. But that New York had disappeared; Second Avenue had lost its edge, I could walk the streets of Alphabet City, and on every corner were stores I’d seen in cities all across the country.

I’d never lived anywhere where it was impossible to be outside, and alone, at the same time. I’d been spoiled over the years. In Minneapolis, when I was still in high school, I’d climb out my window at night, and wander with my headphones down to the rose gardens along Lake Harriet, or duck through the hole in the fence along the dark expanse of Lakewood Cemetery. In Sarasota I’d leave my desk, and my thesis, and walk at midnight through the banyan groves down to the bay, and stir the water with a stick until the phosphorescence spun like a constellation. In San Francisco I’d hike to the top of Buena Vista Park, a few blocks from my apartment, where I’d rest on a scarred wooden bench and gaze down at the hills and the slender piece of the Golden Gate visible through the towering pine trees. At night, far below, the red light at the top of the Transamerica Pyramid would blink slowly, like an underwater beacon. My thoughts had room to breathe. Once I’d read about the ancient practice of bloodletting, which reminded me of my walks; they drained the poisons from my body, and gave me peace.

Of course, what I often thought about during those solitary walks was New York. I thought then that I would gladly give up my walks to pursue this vague dream I’d had for so long: to be a writer in New York City. Not so original. But I was a romantic; easily swayed by images of cantankerous poets gathering over choked ashtrays in Village coffee shops, and by all of the book-lined apartments I’d glimpsed in Woody Allen movies. That nobody really lived in a Woody Allen movie was something I knew, if dimly. Still, I felt that I might prove to be the exception to the rule, and I’d end up with such an apartment, or perhaps marry into one by seducing a rich husband with my talents and charm. I’d visited Manhattan several times, and though the city thrilled and terrified me in equal measure, it seemed a worthy challenge.

But even in New York my dream remained vague; if the city I’d dreamt about in college no longer existed, what did I want now, thirteen years later? To be an artist, I thought. Now my new life would begin…

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