I saw my first New York cockroach on the corner of West 73rd and Amsterdam. This was better than seeing one, say, in my kitchen.
I saw my first New York rat clambering over the tracks of the 110th Street station, late at night. Followed a couple minutes later by my first New York mouse. (They’re much smaller).
The next day a water main broke on my street. The 1/9 trains still ran, but slowed to a crawl through the 110th Street station. I stood on the platform and watched a river of muddy water, swirling with tiny oil slicks, flow over those same tracks towards downtown. The construction crew tore up the entire southbound lanes of Broadway at 112th to replace the water main. They worked all day and all night under high-wattage movie set-style lights. People stood along the edge and watched them work. In the morning the construction workers were gone; the street paved over.
At Gray’s Papaya I saw a cop wearing a yarmulke.
I bought a seagrass rug for my apartment and now it smells like someone dumped a five pound bag of catnip all over my floor. I’m hoping that the smell will fade.
Rob very generously drove me out to the Ikea in Patterson, New Jersey, where I bought a couple hundred dollars worth of housewares, the least essential being these ice cube trays that I had to own:
We of course had to eat at Ikea’s cafeteria, though we skipped the meatballs and talked over chicken breasts at a window overlooking the highway. It was a little like eating at an airport, but cheaper.
Then last night I watched my Fight Club dvd so that I could see all of Edward Norton’s Ikea furniture (“what kind of dining set defines me as a person?”) blown out from his highrise apartment onto the sidewalk below. Just for some perspective.
Another very generous friend bought me an Airport Express station from the Apple store as a housewarming present, and I have been deliriously happy with it, hooking up my ethernet, speakers, and printer to it so that I can access all of them wirelessly. It gave me a profound sense of satisfaction, for example, to sit at my desk and print out a letter across the room. I’d tell you who this generous friend was but then you’d ask him for an Express station, too, and that would be obnoxious of you.
Saw some damn hot men at my first Crystal Meth Anonymous meeting. And therefore stayed sober another day.
And today I ventured down to the world-famous Strand “Eight Miles of Books” Bookstore. I was on a mission, armed with the syllabus of one of the four classes I am taking this semester: “The Short Novel”. Good thing they’re short, because I’m supposed to read twelve of them. Twelve novels in one semester, and that’s just one of my classes.
The Strand, which sells new, used, and rare books, is large, dark, and rather confusing, especially if you’re on a mission. Some of the fiction was alphabetized by author, some of it wasn’t. Some novels were piled on tables marked “Special Discount”, or were in groups like the “Modern Library” editions. Everywhere you looked, in fact, books were piled in precarious arrangements. Even the landing on the stairs to the basement was piled with books (photography books; they had the Peter Hujar book that I own for sale). Walking through the Strand took a certain amount of tact and dexterity. There simply isn’t enough room for everyone and the aisles are narrow. So if you’re even remotely polite, you must constantly shuffle from one side of the aisle to the other, letting others pass by while you scan the towering bookcases for the titles in question.
Nearly every store in this city that I’ve been to is the same; the grocery stores in my neighborhood, for example, have aisles that are too narrow for more than one shopping cart at a time. They have these cute little carts which I’ve only seen used in other cities by children; you know, the kind they push around after their parents, with signs that read “I’m Shopping, Too!”
In the end I found five of the twelve short novels, not too bad for an hour’s work, and all of them half-priced. If I were really cheap, or smart, I’d just go to the library. But then I’d miss a venerable city institution like the Strand. I even bought a t-shirt since it was only seven bucks. And I’ll be dorky and wear it here in the city and everyone will know that I’m from out of town. Jennie says the Strand is owned by the mafia, which explains why they can afford to have eight miles of books in the Village.
For those of you curious about my reading list, here it is. I’ve actually not read any of them. Yet.
Taras Bulba by Gogol
Hadji Murad by Tolstoy
Daisy Miller by Henry James
The Life and Death of Harriet Frean by May Sinclair
The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West
The Old Maid by Edith Wharton
Turbott Wolfe by William Plomer
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Fifth Child by Doris Lessing
Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates
When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka
On impulse I decided last week to see the top of the Empire State Building. Joe Gallagher, who used to live here, told me “The first thing you have to do when you get to New York is go to the top of the Empire State Building and look for your apartment.” He was adamant about this and has nice blue eyes so I promised him that I would.
That afternoon the sky was a little overcast but I didn’t think much about it at the time, since I was trying to be spontaneous. I followed the signs to the basement, where I stood in line under bright fluorescent lights as my blood sugar plummeted. In my effort to be spontaneous I had skipped breakfast. So the minutes ticked by as I shuffled along in line with the tourists, while all around us young people tried to pitch the rented audio tour, their voices droning through memorized speeches, mimicking enthusiasm for their product. One boy actually said that we would “see more with the audio tour”. I puzzled over that one but my mental faculties were becoming more compromised with each passing moment, so I gave up.
That morning an angry zit had sprung up on the back of my neck, causing me additional stress. I was sure that the young couple behind me in line were poking each other with their elbows and whispering “ewwwwwww.”
After an hour in line I finally made it up to the ticket counter, where I paid twelve dollars just to get to the observation deck. The woman took my money, punched out a ticket, and then stamped it with something and gave it back to me. As I turned away towards the elevators I glanced down at the ticket. In black ink there was a smiley face, except that it was frowning, and next to it the words “Zero Visibility”.
I couldn’t see my apartment through the clouds. After the ticket counter it took another half an hour or so through more lines and two separate elevator rides to reach the top, and by then I had severe tunnel vision. I stood on the deck, my hands gripping the iron safety bars for support, and peered over the edge. My balls tightened and I fought the urge to look away. A pigeon, it wings flapping, landed on the ledge on the other side of the bars, and for some reason this terrified me. For a moment I was the pigeon, mere inches from an 86-floor-drop. I kept forcing myself to stare down at the faraway streets, toy taxicabs streaming uptown, and imagined what it would be like to fall from such a height. At that moment I would have preferred death by any other means. My testicles kept jumping around nervously and I turned around and took the elevator back down. Being spontaneous is not something I do wisely, or well.
I stumbled out to Fifth Avenue, where the lunchtime crowds were pouring from every direction. I walked in a daze past dozens of restaurants and deli’s until I came to rest before a sidewalk vendor, who sold me the worst falafel sandwich ever. I took a seat under the trees outside the New York Public Library, spilling hot sauce all over my jeans when I unwrapped the sandwich. Between the sauce and the view from the Empire State, my crotch hadn’t seen this much action in, well, awhile. It left a large, dark stain which I blotted ineffectually with paper napkins.
I had asked for a Coke and wound up with a grape soda, and I sipped this as my jeans slowly dried, and the taste reminded me of when I was a boy, biking alone to the nearby Como Zoo in Minnesota, where I would buy corn dogs and grape soda with my allowance, walking alone to see the strangely-named, pungent-smelling wombat curled asleep in the sun that stretched over his small concrete enclosure.
Twenty years had passed but I was still that boy, wandering alone, exploring places, sitting with his lunch and watching the people stream past, chatting together, the warm afternoon sun on their bare arms. I waited quietly for my mind to clear and my jeans to dry, and then I climbed the steps into the beautiful library, making my way to the Reading Room, which I had never seen, where I took a seat at one of the long tables.
The tables, with their low, gleaming lamps, were full of people working quietly on laptops or flipping idly through newspapers. One woman at my table closed her eyes as the man next to her scanned a fold-out map of the city, his lips pressed together. Distant sounds of a concert in Bryant Park echoed throughout the enormous hall, punctuated by whispers and the rustling of paper. I sat there for a half an hour, till my blood temperature came even with the room around me. I left, somewhat reluctantly.
Hmmm….Empire State Building: $12. New York Public Library: Free. I learned a valuable lesson that day.
But the most important lesson about New York, which I’m still learning, is that you need to eat first.