Despite the fact that I lived here for almost five years and have visited numerous times since, this city always manages to surprise me every time I return to the old sod.
I spent all of yesterday and this morning thinking about terrorism—and last night, too, judging by my dreams. Was it the best idea to visit New York just now? I gave serious thought to phoning my boss and telling him I didn’t feel good about coming, or that my anxiety was out of control, but the truth was that it was just a vague worry that mostly felt foolish in the face of probabilities. Plus, cliche as it may be, that’s how terrorism achieves its victories, and staying behind was just a little cowardly for my tastes. So I won my own little victory by stepping on the plane, relevant only to myself but relevant anyway.
The minute I navigated my out of JFK and into far Brooklyn, I stopped thinking of New York as a target and saw it again for what it was—something spectacular and thriving. These were uncharted waters for me—I had never flown out of JFK before, and hadn’t seen these areas of Brooklyn. At Howard Beach I left the air train and descended into the city proper, in the form of the A-train subway platform. A sunny day, unseasonably warm, and it wasn’t long before the gray subway car, a beat-up jalopy as reliable as it was degraded, its blue-and-white “A” faded and chipped, came down the tracks. What is the sound it made? Grinding, plus whining, plus rattling, plus pneumatic? It was one of the really old cars, with the orange and yellow seats facing in every direction. Beyond the platform were trees I couldn’t identify—birch?—bare branches and some straggler red leaves, reaching over the dividing wall. Outside, on the elevated track, I looked out at the crowded streets and the billboards and the houses/pizza parlors/streets. Somewhere around 80th Street, we went underground, and at Broadway Junction I switched to the L.
Riding the L-train was a daily activity for me seven years ago, and the familiar signifiers did their best to jolt my memory—the dark rusted brown of the tunnels, the mosaic station signs against the white tiles of the wall, the faces on the platform becoming lighter with every stop as we approached Manhattan. I felt partly invigorated by it all, the man next to me with liquor on his breath, the automated voice announcing each stop, the impatient bodies waiting to enter. And across from me and next to me, all the faces…I can’t avoid them, I’m a starer, where most people in New York have learned not to make eye contact. They’re unsettled when they catch me looking at them directly, and they meet my gaze for a second before looking down, embarrassed.
Then out on Bedford Avenue, the last stop before the river—between the tracks, the ancient discs of gum stomped flat and blackened with the years, and a smell that is part subway exhaust, but part unique to that particular station, made of ingredients I couldn’t begin to separate and identify.
I thought for a moment that Ana Maria Pizza was gone. I didn’t see it on the corner of Bedford and North 7th, and when I walked to North 6th, near my old apartment, I was dismayed to see that it wasn’t there, either. But I walked back north to my hotel to find that it was a couple doors down on Bedford, not right at the corner. I bought two slices for old time’s sake and walked on North 8th to the BQE. Had I walked this exact stretch before? Of course—in all those years, I must have taken this route at least once. The legumes of the honeylocust—New York’s most common street tree—hung from the branches as I passed new construction, and bars, and boutiques.
Bedford Avenue, too, looked different from when I lived here. It doesn’t seem nearly as imposing, but that might have more to do with me than Brooklyn. I wish I was always as fearless as I am now. I wish I was always as reckless as I was then.
So I left the computer and challenged myself to make the trip from the BQE to the Sunshine on Houston, via the L-train and lots of walking, in 25 minutes flat. I just about did it, and with previews, I didn’t miss any of the movie. I saw Entertainment, in which the director tried to overwhelm me with depression, and I found it totally useless except as an aesthetic exercise. But why is it that aesthetic exercises today strike me as poorly timed, somehow? It’s like our world isn’t conducive to them anymore; they feel like a waste of time, or like the voice of someone who is missing a broader point. This film tried to say something about the futility of modern life, but it seemed to be saying it about a previous modern life, maybe in the late ’90s. Now we deal with death and violence and all kinds of extremes, but not ennui. If any of the college PC jargon has infiltrated my brain, it might be here, because this man’s disaffection despite some privilege is totally uninteresting to me.
Anyway. After I left the theater, I got the full flavor of whatever it is that makes New York New York, and I got it almost immediately. First, I walked by a bar with a trivia night, open to the street, and the host was introducing a category where the answers were all songs with the word “look” in the title. Then a girl was taking a photo of a marquee with her phone, sure to be artsy and filtered. And finally, before I even reached the corner, I heard a man’s deep voice laughing, and when I turned my head, I saw him thrust into a pay phone booth, pissing.
It’s funny how it takes something like that to make you remember that there actually are pay phones in New York City. They aren’t real “booths,” with closing doors, but they exist anyway, three-sided metal standing cubicles that serve mostly as urinals. It also took me stepping on a series of metal sidewalk cellar doors along First Avenue, and hearing the accompanying bang as they reverberated, to remember their existence. I’m not even sure if I recognized their existence during my first New York tour. I fear that whole time was wasted on me, and now it would be hard to ever go back.
Watching the people passing me by, I understood another difference between myself today and myself at 24. Then, I assumed that everyone I saw was a genius, and it made me insecure. Today, it’s not that I don’t think there are geniuses in the crowd, only that it doesn’t bother me. Have I achieved total self-acceptance? No. But plenty more than I had when I walked these streets almost a decade ago, wondering what it was they had that I did not.