In New York, there is an important distinction to make between where you live and where you sleep. You sleep in your apartment. You live in the city.
It is a dripping August, which you know by the smell of it: dried urine, rotting garbage, and the unleaded smell of cabs burning off fuel as they idle in the shimmering heat, each a mirage, a promise of something better on the other side. You can’t get into a cab today because the ten dollars in cash and change sitting on the desk in your apartment is all you have until payday, which is Friday. Today is Sunday. You don’t have a bank account because the check-cashing place is convenient to your apartment. Also, you don’t trust yourself with a bank account; the margin of error is always, always so small. Instead, you like to watch the stack of cash dwindle in front of you. It causes you anxiety, but it also makes you feel as though you are in control of something here, in New York. You are in control of nothing, of course, but the illusion helps.
Because you sleep in the East Village, in a studio apartment in an old tenement that you share with a roommate, you walk the streets for entertainment. On paydays, you allow yourself a Cuban sandwich from the take-out counter on Avenue A. Today, however, you simply stand in front of the door for a few minutes, because smelling something is almost as good as eating it, and smelling something other than urine and garbage makes you happy. The smells are engrossing, in fact, which is why you don’t notice what has been going on behind you until there is the sound of something whining through the air, not very far from your head, and then the noise of the bystanders, who must have been there all along, suddenly rushes in and you turn in time to see two men grappling with each other, in the street, just feet away. One of them has a hammer. In the moment it has taken you to notice the scene and become confused by it, the man with the hammer bounces it off the side of the other man’s head and there is a sound that would, under other circumstances, be a satisfying sound—the sound of a job being completed, of something being forced into its proper place. You actually see the eye of the struck man wobble in its socket, as if it has just been dropped there to settle. And they are both screaming—one in anger and the other in pain, but the sidewalkers are screaming too and so the scene takes on a kind of miserable white noise wherein no one person’s distress can be sorted from another’s.
The police sirens are what finally cut through and break the cord that had knotted around you, anchoring you to this place to watch a man maybe get killed. This is true for everyone, and when the cop car screeches up, the men have already run off together, like wild elopers, one with his hand over his eye and a trail of blood down his shirt, the other just behind him, brandishing the hammer like a cartoon wife with a rolling pin after a mouse.
St. Vincent’s/Lower Left Quadrant
David Beckham has broken the second metatarsal in his left foot. You do not care very much except that the picture of him in the sporting publication open on your lap—he sits on the ground, one hand over an eye, one hand on the foot, worried and in pain—is the only thing distracting you from your own pain (back, lower left quadrant), which is unlike any pain you’ve had before. It is also distracting you from the St. Vincent’s ER, which is the least comforting place you’ve ever been. Everything is a shade of grayish green. There are no plants or tissue boxes. There are spots of dried blood on the floor in front of you. You sit facing the windows and feel like you’re in prison. You are trying not to pay attention to the couple seated to your left. You try to focus instead on the lesser pain of Becks, but your neighbors are difficult not to overhear.
It’s the meth, the boyfriend says, he’s been doing it all weekend. The ER attendant asks the man who is not the boyfriend how much meth he has done this weekend. The man is weeping quietly. He sits straight up in the green vinyl chair, one hand gripping the chair arm, the other twisting his boyfriend’s hand, which has gone white and slightly blue from the pressure. His eyes don’t look anywhere. I don’t know, all of it? says the boyfriend, grimacing at his twisted hand, but content to bruise, to share. The expressionless attendant makes a note on a clipboard. And when did he do the, uh, procedure? she asks. I don’t know, says the boyfriend. I just woke up and went to the bathroom and he was sitting on the toilet like that. Like what? asks the attendant just because she wants to hear it again. With his … the boyfriend whispers but can’t talk too quietly because his man has started to make a low whining sound in his throat. With his testicles stapled to his thigh, he finishes and puts a hand on the head of the whining man, who is wearing loose, dry-weave exercise shorts.
You have glanced up from Becks to catch this glimpse and you’d almost forgotten yourself but here is the breathless punch again. You jerk in your seat and pant. Your vision tunnels, momentarily, the periphery dark and fogged out. You seem to pulse in empathy with your neighbor. Later, you will learn that a UTI has crawled up your urinary tract to your kidneys, which are infected, which can be life threatening but is also easily treatable.
The man with the staples in his balls lets out a thin howl, which is unlike a dog howl. It is not rounded and full and conclusive. It’s the sound of pure pain. The bemused ER attendant has come back out of the triage station and even she looks concerned now. You look back down at the photo because you feel very strongly that you would also like to howl, that you would like to hold this man’s hand and go a little hysterical with him.
There is a bustling—the attendant and the boyfriend are trying to coax the patient into a wheelchair. You can’t imagine how he got here, how he walked at all, down the stairs of his apartment building, to the curb to hail a cab. It must have taken tremendous reserves of strength. He must be exhausted. There is a yelp and a moan followed by some rustling, and the squeak of rubber tires on sanitized linoleum.
David Beckham looks very tired and perhaps as if he is about to cry or has just finished crying. Probably just about to cry—there is something like disbelief in his face. It is 2002 and his foot is worth several million pounds. Something knocks at you from the wrong side, from the inside. You close your eyes, and Beckham’s gleaming shin guards stay with you, ghost your retinas for a moment, then dissolve.
World Trade Center/Head
You meet a friend for dinner at Molly’s, which is full of the usual regulars—undocumented Irish construction workers and investment bank lackeys: the administrative assistants and data enterers and mailroomies. You are eating a medium-rare burger with one hand and decadently smoking with the other. It is almost as if you intuit that this won’t be possible for very much longer. You haven’t been following it, but the bill will be passed in December; the bars and restaurants smoke free by spring.
You are on your second Guinness, which makes you want to put on music. You like Molly’s juke because it has the most Pogues albums in the city, plus it’s been one of those days—frequent lately, it seems. You feel funny but you don’t know why. You don’t even know what you mean by funny. Which is what you say when your friend, who is having the shepherd’s pie and also smoking, asks. Tomorrow’s the anniversary, he reminds you. How have you worked in an office all day, printing letters and time-stamping materials to be copyedited and proofed, penciling dates in your boss’s calendar even, without seeing?
I walked, he says without prompting, seven miles home to Brooklyn. I drank an entire bottle of whiskey that night. When I woke up the next morning I thought it had all been a nightmare. Really? you ask. No, he says, not really. I spent the night throwing up in my bathroom, completely sober.
So you didn’t drink an entire bottle of whiskey?
No, I did that. But I didn’t forget. That part’s wishful thinking.
You weren’t living here then so it’s not your memory to share, but you listen to him talk a little more about the dust and the fear and the posters, some of which still hang in gray swelled strips on the lampposts and scaffolds around town. They are unreadable now, but no one will take them down. As you listen, something uneasy shifts inside you. The room darkens a bit and the sound of the other patrons is suddenly deafening. You stand up, unsure of where you are going, until he puts a dollar in your hand and requests “Fairytale of New York.”
The jukebox swims in front of you—you can’t make out the numbers next to the track listings and you seem to be having trouble drawing a full breath. The door is two feet away and you leave the jukebox queued with money to get some fresh air, to get out of this cave for just a minute.
The street is empty, and in the deepening dark of the night, you see that the blue lights are on. There is no cloud cover tonight, so they rise up from Ground Zero as far into the sky as you can see. You wonder if there are astronauts out there right now and if they can see these other twin towers, these ghosts. You have never looked at them for very long because, even though you have no religion, and the thought is frankly stupid, you are afraid that if you look at the lights long enough, you will see the spirits of the dead being sucked up in them, like some tractor beam to heaven, a pneumatic salvation. Like jumping off a building in reverse. You try to take a deep breath but your breath won’t come. The lights go out.
When you come to, you see the upside-down faces of strangers and between two of their heads, the blue lights. You are extremely confused. If someone asked you your name, you would not be able to say. There is no sound but a soft ringing. Then your friend’s head juts into view and his voice cuts through the white noise: What happened? Where’d you go? Jesus Christ, you’re bleeding.
You decide not to say anything until someone tells you what’s going on. Your friend sets you up and cradles you and puts a napkin—where did he get the napkin?—to your chin and if you are glad for something it’s that the tower lights have left your field of vision. You sit on the sidewalk while concerned people bird-walk around you and make noise on their cell phones and then there is an ambulance and then you are inside it and your friend holds your hand and your hair when you throw up into a white bag, but until you turn to go crosstown to Bellevue, to stitches and the diagnosis of a concussion, and some half-baked hypotheses about undercooked meat and low blood sugar, you make yourself look at those two lights through the portholes in the back of the ambulance doors, as if your looking could mean anything at all.
Empire State Building/Phallus
You have been inside twice now and up to the top once, but you can’t remember much of the trip except that the lobby ceilings seemed too low, too gray, and the elevator went so fast your ears popped. When you think of the Empire State Building it is always an exterior view, jutting beyond the tops of the Village brownstones, a guiding beacon at night, when the streets creep together and the city rearranges itself. When the grid seems to disappear, there is always that great glowing pyramid tip. They change the lights on it according to the seasons or holidays, but in your mind, it always glows red, white, and blue—a sign of American optimism, a great anchor of capitalism, that directional daddy, standing guard.
You look at it now, reassured you’re headed north. This part of the city feels friendly. The old tenements crouch close. The shop windows are lit and full of the kinds of businesses you never have need for—a stationery shop, a designer pet-clothing boutique, a restaurant that serves $30 macaroni and cheese. It is not even late, only freshly dark, which is why you are not scared, but merely surprised, when the passenger door of a semicab parked on the street opens as you come parallel to it and a man in a gray hoodie, eyes wide but expressionless, yells to you from the depths of the truck. He looks you straight in the eye and asks a simple question.
How does it look? he says. And you, stopped now, the Empire State eclipsed by the massive brow of the cab, can only ask, What? Your voice hangs in the air for a frozen moment and in that moment you see that the man has his cock in his hand, is yanking on it violently. You can’t help but be transfixed by the head of it, squeezing past his white-knuckled hand. You realize that he is about to pull his own dick off in front of you.
Then the man is talking again, and automatically your eyes move back to his face. His own eyes are still wide, but now they are worried too. I’m going to see my girl, he says. But I been driving on minithins all night. Is it hard enough?
Your legs have realized, before your brain, that it is best to leave quickly, that the ladies selling French paper twenty feet away will not be able to help you should this man decide to drag you into his cab and make material his question. But really, no, that is not what you think. That is what you should have thought. On some level your brain has responded mechanically to the danger, but consciously, the only situation you know that resembles this one is a joke. And so you laugh. You turn around and trip away nearly screaming with it. Later, you spend your last five dollars on a cab ride home.
Ridge and Rivington/Mouth
Your first mistake is that you are wearing headphones. You try to remember to take them off on the subway platforms and at night, on the street, but there are so many rules to remember. This one sometimes escapes you, especially when you are listening to very good music, which occasionally makes you feel as if you are starring in a movie and the movie is your life, which is one of the more pleasant feelings New York inspires in you. Occasionally, New York makes your life feel much bigger and more interesting and possible than it is. This makes it easy to forget.
You are also wearing heels—the tall and tottering kind. You can’t run in them—you can barely even walk. But you are walking, alone, from a bar in SoHo to your boyfriend’s apartment on the Lower East Side because it is faster to walk across this part of town, even in tippy shoes, than to take a cab.
You see him first as you turn onto Delancey. He is walking alone. He wears a white T-shirt and a green stocking cap and looks like everyone else on the sidewalk tonight, which is why you forget him almost as soon as you see him. He drops back and you stutter-step on to your mix CD. It is only when you turn again onto Clinton that you sense someone behind you and stop to pretend to look at a menu in a restaurant window. Your Discman is in your coat pocket and you turn it off. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the man, the white T-shirt. He has turned the corner too, and he is walking slowly. You don’t know if he slowed his walk when you stopped to read the menu or if he has been walking that way this whole time and you are just being paranoid. But your paranoia is not unfounded—lately, more than usual, dead girls have been in the news.
In fact, you realize, as you read the description of a rosemary-lemon lamb risotto for the third time, that the bar you have just left is very near the Falls, where just a couple weeks ago that grad student was abducted and later found raped and strangled, bound with packing tape and dropped off near the Belt Parkway like a gift. And the actress, last year, not two blocks from your boyfriend’s apartment, one block from where you stand right now. You were out that night too, doing what you can’t recall. You remember her last words from the newspaper, though. What are you going to do, shoot me? she asked them. They did. This is how you remember to be good.
You should go into the restaurant. You should go into the restaurant and order a drink and call your boyfriend and tell him to meet you here. But when you look around again, the man is gone. You begin to get mad. This fucking city, you think. You tell yourself a joke. A girl walks into a bar … there is a punch line. Something to do with putting out, with being put out. The punch line is she didn’t keep her mouth shut, of mouths taped shut, a bullet in the lung. You’ll be goddamned if you’ll slink into that restaurant. You turn and begin to walk determinedly up the street. You find your keys in your pocket and poke them like claws through your clenched fist. You clench your jaw to match your fist. Soon there are footsteps behind you again. You barely turn your head and get a glimpse of white cotton. The city thickens its breath.
Here’s something funny you know: The Falls is owned by the Dorrian family. They also own Dorrian’s Red Hand, which is where Robert Chambers met Jennifer Levin the night he walked her to Central Park, raped and bit her, then strangled her to death. Once, a man you were seeing took you to Dorrian’s and you walked back to his place through the park, past where she was killed. He wanted to spook you. Just a bit of fun.
You are running unsteadily now, really more of a lope than a run; certainly this lead-assed shamble will not save your life. You can’t hear him behind you over your own breath and the shod clop of your heels. Somehow, you manage to dial your boyfriend with your free hand. Open the door right now, you say as you round Rivington, his door half a block away. There is something in your voice because he doesn’t say a word over the phone, but in a few more seconds you see him emerge onto the lit stoop. He is waving, but not smiling. You rush up the steps and pull him into the hallway and push the locked door shut behind you. There is no one on the sidewalk or the street, just your own reflection in the glass door, your pale, translucent face laid over the night, eyes like drill holes, lips parted and mute.
An Australian tourist has brought you here, has attached himself to you in the cold gray moments before dawn. You shiver in your down parka after so many hours in the club, and that after-hours dive, and when he grips you closer, the feathers in your coat puff from the sudden pressure. You smell of sweat and whiskey and his cologne, something cheap and strong and chemical, but somehow not unpleasant. His hand twists softly in yours in a way that means he is about to say something.
Here’s a spot, he says and stops walking and you both look around. Here? you ask. You are standing at Twenty-third and Eighth, a monotonous Chelsea corner without charm or color. Your tongue is sore from the hours you’ve spent twisting it into improbable shapes in his mouth. You’d gone to Centro-Fly with some friends late last night, dressed to get the cover waived—something artfully shredded, glittering webs of fabric.
It happens every so often that you crave the kind of release you can find in a place like Centro-Fly, with all those beautiful strangers, each one a possibility, it doesn’t even matter of what. What matters is by the end of the night you are abandoned to it all: the low lights and the bass pulse of the music, a sweaty flirtation in every corner, the anonymous press of curious limbs.
You don’t know his name because he told you, but you couldn’t hear, and so you asked him to repeat it and you still couldn’t hear, but you nodded as if you had. This is probably why he calls you “Love” instead of your own name and you don’t mind. He’d started a conversation by asking if you were French—the best pickup line you’d ever heard, worthy of reward. You’d tried on a Parisienne pout in response, allowed him to buy you a drink and become quickly entangled in a misty corner of the club, all legs and mouths and fingers. Tomorrow, he will leave with his friends and return to Sydney and you will never see him again and this is the way it should be—his presence now perfect because of the totality of his absence later.
He has brought you here to witness. There’s this thing he’d read about in the paper yesterday, this thing that happens twice a year, once at dawn, once at sunset, where the sun aligns perfectly with the cross streets of the city, the grid, and … here he frowns. And what? you ask, but he doesn’t know. It’s a thing you’re supposed to see at least once in your life, he says, the sun barreling down the streets of Manhattan like a huge, spectral taxi.
Of course, you say. And there is nothing more important to you right now than to stand on this corner, next to this dark Baskin-Robbins, and look down the barrel of the cross street for the dawn. Sometimes things are that simple. You smile as he puts his nose in your neck and sighs.
The streets are nearly empty this early on a Sunday morning and this makes the city seem like a wilderness. As you watch, the sun begins its crawl over the top of the edge of that wilderness the East River. It angles through the tall muddy buildings thrown up around it like canyons, as if they had always been there and always would be. The buildings on either side of the street seem to cup the sun, but cannot hold it, begin to disappear behind its needle-thin spikes, which creep toward you until they engulf you too and you feel yourself begin to disappear. But when you look behind you, your shadows belong to giants. Your Australian smiles at you and for a moment you’re in love, entranced, held by him, by the city, kept safe in these palms and, looking back down Twenty-third Street, you think how the city proffers so many kinds of darkness, but here, on this corner, just now, a new kind of light.