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Entries in new york city (68)


The Voice Beyond The Wall

I keep thinking I need to write it all down while I'm still here. Everything. Every last inch of curb and gutter stench. Every single person that passes me on the street.

And so I write this moment: the arrival of the storm, when the winds pick up and carry off a table full of sunhats. The winds usher in the rain, and the crowds huddle under the American Bible Museum, the great marble overhang of the Church of Latterday Saints, unaware of symbolism, only wanting to stay dry.

Every time the bus door opens it smells of rain. Heavy gushing summer rain. As if the whole earth is breathing once again.

I write them all down: Women carrying soggy newpapers over their heads. A man in a beard and a Chinese farmer’s hat who’s not at all Chinese. A woman pricking her finger opening an umbrella, sucking at the wound.

And then as the bus turns onto 72nd street past Verdi Square: I write sun.

Scribbling away furiously on the back of a post office receipt. While I'm still here.

We're outside the walls of a castle at the southern tip of Manhattan, waiting for Patti Smith to perform. We can't see a thing, but we're hoping we'll be able to hear her. There are people climbing trees, people peering through bars built to hold out the British, walls that can't hold in Patti Smith. Like a flash of light she cracks open "Because the Night" and the man next to me reading a design catalogue begins to tap his feet and nod his head. A man on the other side says UGH I could DIE right now I'm so happy and collapses into his partner's lap. A happy crescent of city folk reclining on park benches are we, serenaded by Patti Smith, the sun setting at our backs.

She asks if those on the outside can hear her. We cheer.

Outside of society, they're waitin' for me.
Outside of society, that's where I want to be.

Outside the fortress wall there are women with gray hair dancing in gypsy shirts, Spanish tourists, forty-something model-types in rocker boots. A high school kid walking around sullenly with a composition book clutched to her chest (are you an observer too?), a giant man in a three-piece suit with money on his wrist pumping one fist in the air, women who dance with their arms around each other, eyes closed. The dancers and singers and fist-pumpers, closing our eyes to hear like attendees at a revival.

A full moon rises over the financial district. We're nodding and pumping our fists to "Land" then with magical transition, suddenly, to "G-L-O-R-I-A..." I tilt my head up and watch planes fly overhead. She goes away, then comes back and plays "Perfect Day" and the outsiders start to sway. The fireflies peek out from the bushes, the planes overhead turn on their lights.

It's night now and the night belongs to us.

The voice beyond the wall sends us away with a benediction: "Life is hard. Life will throw a lot of shit at you." The voice cracks and then swells. "But it's the best thing we've got."

I'm writing it all down, while I'm still on this side of that wall. Because it's the best thing we've got.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


A Tourist Again

New York residents navigate Times Square — when forced to navigate it at all — like a slalom course. We dodge families five people wide, holding hands in matching colors, a woman with a furry hat tap dancing and handing out fliers, the busloads of people loitering outside Bubba Gump. Human bowling pins, human statues, comedy show hawkers in bowler hats, police horses, tour bus operators.

A massive crowd of people waving like loons up at a massive screen showing the massive crowd waving like loons at themselves up on the massive screen.

We grumble, we shuffle, we dodge. We are locals: we know the ins and outs, what’s worth our bother. Times Square? Just another place to get through.

I’m aware of a fact I don’t want to think too much about: when I next come back to New York, I’ll be a tourist all over again.

* * *

Last night, I dodged the bowling pins and Bubba Gump patrons to get to another Todd show on 42nd street. He was playing his greatest hits, all the old familiar Todd songs, the well-worn can we still be friends and hello it’s mes. The ones everyone knows. I found a spot at the back, next to a beer tap shaped like a saxophone, a place where I knew I could dance.

We danced. He danced. We shouted and eye-goggled and drank. One guy kept shouting at him to surprise us. We begged him to play all night for us. I felt a part of this crowd; these songs felt like ones I could claim. I felt local.

And then, at the crescendo of the show, a surprise: that wonderful moment when there was a song I hardly knew, and his performance of it moved me to the core. And suddenly I’m a tourist again in the midst of this roomful of long-time fans, those who knew every word of every song. When it was over I was giddy. And I lost it when I fainted in his arms...

The first time you heard it: remember what that was like.

We’re all tourists in these songs at first. I like that chord, nice and warm. And then we start to form roots with every new record we buy, register a permanent address in the liner notes, have all of our mail forwarded to that corner of the room where you keep every record of his next to a comfortable cushion for long listening sessions. We begin to appreciate saxophone solos. We anticipate the key change. We collect knowledge of who played what just as we collect dust on the spines of the records. We become locals.

But it’s nice to be surprised again. To be reminded of the very first time you saw or heard something that moved you to the core.

When you’re a tourist, the police horses are a novelty. When you’re a tourist, Times Square is a place you go to, not just a place you get through. When you’re a tourist, it’s all new, and the simplest things make you smile and wave like a loon. I’m learning how to be a tourist again; surprise me.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


The Easily Seen End

It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends. I can remember now, with a clarity that makes the nerves in the back of my neck constrict, when New York began for me, but I cannot lay my finger upon the moment it ended, can never cut through the ambiguities and second starts and broken resolves to the exact place on the page where the heroine is no longer as optimistic as she once was. 
- Joan Didion, “Goodbye To All That

We’re leaving New York. And so it begins, the goodbye. The swift departure from and lingering analysis of everything I’ve known for so long.

This, I promise you, is not an attempt to emulate Joan in the middle of my thirties; this is not because of promises unkept, or Washington Square at dawn. I could never say my goodbyes as well or as eloquently as she said hers, but saying them is what I have to do. This, I promise you, has been coming for a long time.

You can see the clues if you look hard enough: the places where my heart bursts lie outside the five boroughs, the places where it aches often lie within. It goes as far back and as deep as some of the very first posts on this blog.

I'd much rather sit on the edge of lush forest, smelling the dirt on my hands, overturning rocks to find pill bugs, than to be sat on a park bench listening to the hum of humanity just beyond the thin line of trees. 

My heart, it seems, has always been at the bottom of a ravine in Ohio, just waiting for me to come back and pick it up.

New York: you were a torrid love affair. You were debonair and dashing, flashing me your billion-dollar skyscraper smile, tossing me into cabs and whisking me off to dinner in one of your many crowded, lauded restaurants. But you had mistresses, millions of others who you let roam your streets. They too talked about their love for you as if it wasn't just the two of us alone here. It's never just the two of us alone. The polyamory of living in you with eyes and ears wide open absorbing the sound of ladies humming to themselves on park benches, falling in love with the peach sky and the gray asphalt and the sound of bike wheels and sirens and someone calling out into the night. You made my hair go gray with your infidelities. I fought you and I wrestled with you and then one day when I thought I couldn’t take any more of you, you’d turn up on my doorstep with a bouquet of springtime blossoms and an invitation to a show. You’d take my hand and beckon me to sit on a blanket in your parks and all was forgiven. I danced in your streets and ate your food with howling ecstasy. I got lost in you once or twice. The sun rose over you and set upon you and you were all I thought I needed to know even when I knew I’d never be with you forever.

New York: it’s not you; it’s me.

I can’t help but wonder if like all ex-lovers, you too will boil down to nothing more than a small nugget of memories, if the scent of you will fade from my clothes, if the notion of you in my mind will be reduced to a shoebox of photographs showing What Once Was. I will wonder how your musical tastes really influenced mine.

I’m leaving many love letters behind. Tear-stained, torn in places where the memories are too raw. Perfumed with the scent of a deep dark tunnel at the height of the summer heat. The writing more urgent in places where I was head over heels.

There’s still time for goodbyes, New York. There’s still some sitting in your parks to do, some remembering to be done to Herald Square. A few weeks left of pastrami on rye, of your clickety-clack subway trains outside our window like a serenade.

And then.

And then?

The moment it ends.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.


So-Called Experience

One key ingredient of so-called experience is the delusional faith that it is unique and special, that those included in it are privileged and those excluded from it are missing out.
/Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad/

Over a glass of wine in a bistro I convinced my friend that it was our duty to go to the Goodreads party at Housing Works. "We both loved the Goon Squad," we rationalized. "And I somehow managed to dress myself well today." I had to stop first in a discount clothing store to buy a pair of men's swim trunks; standing in line I sniffed a candle shaped like a pear that smelled nothing like a pear. 

We skipped along bricks brightened by the city's sunset spray tan (yes! what a horrible, mockable metaphor!) to Housing Works, where the note taped to the door read SOLD OUT and people stood hopefully in a line halfway down the block. "Oh no!" we cried, and walked onward.

And walked and walked. It was a night for walking.

I pointed to a bright glass building and asked when it was built. "A few years ago, at least." I couldn't remember what was there before. This is a city where the tiniest things change around us and we think our world is collapsing, but then we barely remember what that world was to begin with.

We talked about films we wanted to see. Win Win, Bridesmaids. I laughed at the letters up on the IFC marquee: Herzog's CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS -- IN 3D, and we both bought Zazen inside a brown-tinged bookstore, where an old publishing luminary browsed books and magazines near the counter and quiet alternative hits peeped through a small speaker. "No bag, thank you."

On to Bigelow's, where amidst high shelves of creams, the women at the counter talked in low tones, muttering syllables from bright red lips; I circled the store looking for a lipstick I'd seen mentioned on a blog. I drew a line of the sample across the back of my hand, held it up to the saleswomen and said "I'd like to buy this" only to be informed that they'd just sold the last one that day.

"This has a been a day of 'no's and 'sorry's," I said to my friend in the shadow of Jefferson Market Library, swathed up to its tower in scaffolding. Library under construction. Surely that was a good sign.

I rode home on the subway next to an older woman I automatically liked who wore a grey stretch cotton pantsuit and clutched a woven black back in her lap. Across from us, a couple taking up three seats with their leftovers from dinner read sections of emails and the New York Times to each other. A woman in a skirt that looked made of long strips of bandages sat down on the other side of me and began to eat a cup of ice cream and read silently from a highlighted script. Nearly to the bottom of her cup, she emptied a little plastic tub of colorful sprinkles into the melted ice cream. The sound made me smile. I tried to remember the last time I ate ice cream on the train.

In the deli, I looked at astringents named after Spanish women with line drawings of bearded men on them. A woman on the street dressed in white barged into pedestrians, crossing against the light, mumbling something hateful under her breath. I wandered the store in search of bubble bath. Outside: sirens chasing each other. This city. Unique and special. No longer my city, but already one of another time.

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.



A little breeze will scarcely blow,
How I loved them, I’ll tell you so.
A little breeze will scarcely caress,
I’ll be a fool, my mind bereft.
I’ll cry. But when with crying I’m done
I’ll go house to house and tell everyone
that there’s nothing more precious than these roads that wind
            from morning until evening time.
            You’ll give me lodging.
I’ll say: thanks, although,
if I stay, who’ll travel my road?
I don’t know, folks, my home is where?
Only this - white dust did fill the air.

(Imants Ziedonis, "Roads")

* * *

We have visitors. Visitors from far away. Sometimes it feels like they're from so far away that they must have broken free from my own past.

1. I take them to Momofuku, where people shout with mouths full of trout roe and market greens. They can’t believe the noise, the way we sit shoulder-to-shoulder with our neighbors. “But this is New York: everyone has to surround themselves with energy, excitement,” I try to explain, mouth full of pork bun. They can’t believe people stand in line for food.

Perspective: In Latvia, a good restaurant is a quiet one. One where you can think while you eat your food. I wonder if they remember bread lines.

2. The sound of the sirens on the roads outside our window. Some are emergencies, others the sensitive car alarms set off by the whiz of passing traffic and the rumble of the train. Shouts at night, motorbikes revving and racing through traffic lights. Louder when you know someone from far away is sleeping in the next room.

Perspective: How many roads have I lived on where I can hear trains outside my window, or the rumble of trolleybuses over cobblestones? Three? Four? Are my dreams of fields of dandelions powered by their engines?

3. In May when the sun sets in this city, there’s a light that falls over the asphalt and concrete, a light much like how I picture the light in heaven. If there were a heaven. “Tāda gaisma,” I say. That light. Our visitors put their hands to their hearts too. This universally beautiful light. Perspective.

* * *

I’m eighteen. Standing on the edge of a ravine, watching these young boys who are now my only friends swing on a rope, knocking each other over like bowling pins on the return, laughing uncontrollably with mouths open. Latvian mouths. Latvian teeth, Latvian tongues. I stand above them, at a distance, surrounded by trees in the last burst of green from the summer, wondering if I will ever understand the things they’re saying. We ride a bus back into the city. They fill out crossword puzzles and make farm animal noises in the back of the bus; I sit quietly on top of the wheel well, watching birches and pines and tower blocks spin by along the road, punctuated by pauses at geometric shelters full of old women carrying baskets. Feeling every mile between me and home.

Fifteen years later, the city streets dipping their tails in the last of this universally beautiful light, we walk arm-in-arm down 14th street. The arteries of roads and sidewalks throbbing with taxis and pedestrians. Clogged at the corners, noise and people and light. And still I feel every mile in between.

(If you have a moment, you can listen to the song and poem that inspired this post here, third song down, Jānis Holšteins - Upmainis (Goran Gora): Ceļi.)

© Zan McQuade. All rights reserved.