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Entries in new york city (69)

Tuesday
Oct142014

Hello, Goodbye

Last October, I returned to New York for work. The day I arrived I stood in an elevator and listened to a tall dark woman lament about having to move out of Manhattan. "I mean, I can't even stand the idea. I have everything here! A 24-hour printer, a 24-hour manicurist..." I hid my smirk in my scarf. Those 3am manicures! Those late night Kinko's runs! I know some people live different hours, but 24-hour manicurists? (My neighbor here in Cincinnati works the night shift at the Amazon fulfillment warehouse, though I still can't picture her getting a 3am manicure.)

The man she was talking to shook his head, "yup, you got the best of everything here." Another smirk, deeper in my scarf. I thought of my happy little house on the edge of the creek. The flit of birds at the feeder. Each person has his own version of best. I stepped out of the elevator and tripletted my way into the subway. I pulled out my book and smiled again at the echo of the man's words: The Best Of Everything by Rona Jaffe. In it, a young secretary has just been shown a dirty picture by the ticket man in the subway. I looked around me. People teetered over the edge of the platform, waiting for the train. A man with a shopping cart piled high with his belongings and antique crosses stood barefoot on a piece of cardboard, bending over an open book in prayer. I stood watching him, considering his prayer, wondering how he ended up there. One of the platform waiters walked into my field of vision, trying to break my gaze from the praying man. This is not what we do here. Don't look. Don't look at this dirty picture.

Little did they know I was praying with him.

I spent the week packing in as many friends as possible amidst a week of work. I visited I Hate Perfume and bought slightly overpriced pine-scented "home spray." I found a prized Nazz album at a Brooklyn flea mall. I ate Persian food and drank copious gin fizzes and large glasses of wine in dim and dimmer bars and photographed my parents leaping in front of brightly colored trees in Prospect Park. I tickled a friend's baby and scarfed down a pork bun in a crowded fancy restaurant's Brooklyn outpost. I visited the first restaurant I ever went to when I lived in New York, still there, and ordered the very same steak salad, still on the menu, and still as tasty. I turned in my seat as the Q train emerged from the tunnel onto the Manhattan Bridge. As I always did. Rituals from my own New York past.

On my last night in the city, I met Masha, a retired actress, on a white couch beneath an overgrown palm tree in an apartment in Washington Heights. I told her that I was a writer when we were talking about careers in the arts, and why she gave up hers, and as we were commiserating over money issues she said "You know what you should read? There's this book called Goodbye To All That. I'm reading it now."

I nodded and shouted that the book was in my bag, bookmarked by my MetroCard, fresh of the top of the stack of them at Greenlight Bookstore ("Do you have a Greenlight loyalty card?" "No, I've said goodbye to all this." "..." "Sorry, bad joke." "No, nice use of the title. Where do you live now?" "Cincinnati." "I just moved here, two months ago." "Where from?" "Phoenix." "Wow, that's quite a change. Well, hello to all this for you...")

Masha's was the story of the native New Yorker: she grew up a block from the Chelsea Hotel (Patti Smith's New York in Just Kids "those stale donuts she describes? I used to drool over those stale donuts!"), and we sat on the white couch under the overgrown palm tree and talked about how sad we were about what New York had become and she said "I know but you're lucky that you have somewhere else that feels like home. What else do I have?"

When I first heard about this book, I was furiously jealous I didn't get to write one of the essays. I could write this essay. I HAVE written this essay. I didn't read any of the essays at first that were being flung around the internet because I knew it would heighten my jealousy. Then Emily linked to Rebecca Woolf's So Long, Suckers and in a fit of weakness I read. And I shook. And I nodded so violently my head hurt. Because here was exactly how I felt, perhaps a bit angrier than I was at the city, but just as betrayed. Emily said that she would have loved to have read my essay for this book, and I wrote to her that if the Woolf essay was any indication, then anything I might have to say was already said in this book. And oh how it was. Multiple women refer to New York as "the ex." Elisa Albert, bless her, even mirrors my insane obsession with malls after first leaving the city. Editor Sari Botton's rent-stabilized situation, the ball-and-chain that keeps so many of us there (but you have such a great apartment!) for far too long, matched mine so nearly that I had to look in the mirror after reading it just to make sure I was me. There are those who felt complacent staying too long, those who said the city was no longer their city...

Masha the retired actress echoed Emma Straub's frustration with people from anywhere but New York saying they are New Yorkers. "You know what I say?" said Masha "I ask them where they went to high school," a refrain that sounded deliciously familiar to me from conversations among natives in Cincinnati. I never was a New Yorker. I never even pretended to be, though I may have behaved at one time like someone's expectation of one. But I was always an Ohioan. And I always had Ohio to come back to.

On the train back to the hotel (dear god, a hotel in New York! With the dark window overlooking a shaft and the bloodstains on the top corner of the mattress where the sheet is coming loose) there was a man on that very very cold night begging for money, walking up and down the subway car in a T-shirt and bare feet exposing one missing toe, saying "Please help. God bless everybody. Please help. God bless everybody. Please help." Before collapsing near the subway doors and holding his head in tears. I suddenly couldn't remember if I'd seen him before, if he was one of the ones hardened New Yorkers tell you to ignore, or if he really needed my help, and for a moment I considered what might happen if I took his hand and took him to buy shoes.

Back at the hotel I called J and told him about the man on the subway and he said how different it must be to see a guy like that when you live there and you have money, versus living in Ohio and worried about how you'll pay for your plumbing issues.

So many essays in Goodbye To All That begin with stepping over bodies. And I left New York that time, not remembering if I'm supposed to step over the body or not. Or if it's my body being stepped over.

***

A year later, I returned again for work. This time I was staying with my brother in Brooklyn, on a brownstone-and-tree-lined street butting up against the back of the bandshell in Prospect Park. On my first day there, I pickled something. The mornings when I commuted into work, I saw so many children with parents walking them to school that I thought they were actual field trips. We ate bahn mi from the Vietnamese place on 7th Ave, and at night I watched the distant Empire State Building changing colors. I walked through Columbus Park in Chinatown and sat on a bench eating dumplings and listening to the sounds of Cantonese and Chinese Chess and erhus. I marveled at the tops of skyscrapers. I even talked with strangers on the subway.

I was more at peace with the city than I’d ever been.

Of course there were still times I lost my patience. I had a cab driver who drove too fast and made me nervous. I witnessed more than a few fights among strangers. After a Bryant Park lunch with an old co-worker, he accidentally led us through Times Square, and more than several times I was bumped, shuffled, blocked, spun around, to the point where I found myself standing still and screaming to the heavens. I’d lost my New York mojo.

There was something significantly different about this trip, and I realized that I had let go of any idea of this city as mine in the present: it was someone else’s city now. The gaggles of young kids standing in line for a club on the Lower East Side, a line through which we cut like a picket line after karaoke. “I could be their mother,” I said as we stood on the curb, watching their eagerness. The throngs of young professionals who now clogged the entrance of my office building, names I’d never know, editorial assistants who would one day soon rise to publishing stardom. Even most of the people I love who still live in the city were talking about their plans to leave it, and I realized that they were more or less my last ties there, and it now belonged to someone else.

My place was taken. I embraced the fact that I was nothing more than a tourist now.

On the Friday of my last weekend in the city, I was forced again to walk through Times Square to get to the train that would take me back to the brownstone-and-tree-lined streets of Brooklyn. I lamented it over the phone to J, who understood what I meant. Times Square was the worst torture ever held over the heads of resident New Yorkers.

But that’s not who I was any more.

I walked down 42nd street and looked at the street artists doodling caricatures of European and midwestern tourists. And then I saw him: an artist sculpting a bearded man out of clay. He moved his hands quickly and expertly, adding and subtracting gray mounds where the beard began to take shape. The subject’s friend stood to the side watching.

“This is amazing,” I said.

“Isn’t it?” His friend said. “He could work really fast and churn out hundreds of these but he’s really taking his time on each one. My buddy’s been here over half an hour.”

I decided I would be his next subject. After the bearded man and his buddy left, I sat on the little folding stool, possibly the first time I’d ever sat still on 42nd street instead of attempting to pierce my way through the throngs as quickly as possible.

The artist, whose name was Lin, had studied at the art academy in China. He hadn’t sculpted for 30 years, but decided to pick it up again last year.

“All people are artwork,” he said.

“Awkward?” I misheard.

“Artwork,” he repeated.

I told him my favorite number in Chinese was “er shi er” - 22, because I liked the sound of it. He then told a story in Mandarin to his neighboring vendor, during which I heard “er shi er” repeated a few times.

“Do you understand me?” he said in English.

“Not really,” I admitted, and so he repeated the story for me as he sculpted.

He had been gambling in China, and he sat at a roulette table. The dealer spun the wheel and then the ball, and it landed on 22. Nobody had won. But Lin had $300 left in his pocket, and at the table behind him, he said he heard the wheel spinning, making the same noise as the losing wheel in front of him had made. At both tables the dealer had started the opposite spin of the ball on the number “2,” and as Lin listened, he knew that the same sound (“chchchch” he imitated the whirl of the roulette wheel) meant that the ball would land on 22. He placed his bet, and he won.

“You mentioned 'er shi er,' which makes me think of this story,” said Lucky Lin.

Two women stood over his shoulder the entire time, commenting on his progress. “Oh my GOD that NOSE, that’s JUST like her nose.” “See that bump there on her cheek? He even got that right oh my GOD!” These women delighted me so much I kept laughing, until Lin reminded me to turn my head and resume my pose.

And so I sat still, for half an hour, looking a stranger in the eyes as he studied my face, and all the people trying to pierce the throngs of 42nd street passed by and commented on the progress of his artwork. When he finished, he turned to show it to me, and I saw myself at 38, exactly as I look. He even got the crease in my forehead, carved by years of anxiety, just right. In his rendition of me, I’m smiling the smile of someone who has been down a few roads, but is fine with where they all led her, and is now sitting in a place she never thought she’d sit still in, laughing with strangers.

I was there in the place I thought I hated most in a city that was no longer mine, listening to the sound of the spinning roulette wheel. And I knew then that I could finally beat the house by just stopping to listen.

***

Never Can Say Goodbye, the counterpart to Goodbye To All That, comes out today. And I can’t wait to read it, because I’m finally in the place where I’m happy to read about someone else’s city, a city that is part of my past, a city I said goodbye to long ago, ready to make my own mark in another great city. I’m lucky I had somewhere else to go, another place I could call mine. To those of you who loved and lost your New York: I'm so sorry. Honestly. To those of you who now embrace New York to the fullest, just as it is: please, it’s yours. I've vacated my spot, I'll accept whatever changes you make to it. Allow me this: just to pass through slowly, as a tourist again, head up, marveling at the tops of skyscrapers.

 

Friday
Jul152011

The Voice Beyond The Wall

I.
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.

II.
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."

III.
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.

Thursday
Jul072011

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.

Friday
Jul012011

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.

Thursday
May262011

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.