No matter the love hate relationship I may have with Manhattan it is, and shall always be, an exquisite place to be a writer. A place that cries out to be observed and catalogued for future explorations into the funny, poignant, and surreal. Snippets of conversation, graffiti, odors both bitter and sweet, things familiar and all at once foreign.
Kids in front of a school. “Hey, let’s all get in a circle and put Lisa in the middle. Yeah, circle jerk, circle jerk,” the boy shouts.
“You don’t even know what a circle jerk is,” Lisa says in that tone that will someday make her husband’s teeth stand on edge.
“Well, neither do you,” the boy says, unsure if trying to get Lisa’s attention with this circle jerk idea was perhaps ill advised.
I race past them both, late as usual, glance over my shoulder praying they are teenagers and not a bunch of eight year olds.
Tap tap tap down the stairs echoing against subway walls to the end of the platform I go. New Yorker with know-how over here ladies and gents, I get where I’m going quicker cause I pick the right car. But on this particular day there are garbage bags in amongst the impatient throng. Trash on the platform, that can’t be good. What if there are… RAT!!!!! He belongs on the tracks with the other vermin. Damn rogue rat up here with the people. What hubris. He makes his way beneath a forest green dumpster. I half expect to hear the voice of Paul Lind come out of his mouth as he instructs riders to clear a path. I shriek loudly, but so many have headphones surgically implanted in their skull no one even notices my squeaks. I bet when that rat squeaks it’s low, like a stand up bass with jowls and a tail.
Once, I watched a girl on the subway holding a tiny pampered dog in a carrier. He was smaller than the rat. Carrier matched her shoes. Tried to imagine the vanity of spending time and money finding a dog carrier that had corresponding designer foot wear, but it seemed too absurd to be real. Yet her toes tapped impatiently across the car from me. Wonder if the dog’s name was something precious like Cashmere or Pookie? Maybe she went for irony instead, The Hulk or perhaps, Gunther? On this day, the subway offers a man with behemoth hands, so large I almost mistook them for a package. Gargantuan mitts that could easily palm my head, or the dog, or that rat for god sakes. Must remember these things. I curse that I am without a recorder. Late for my lunch date, pound pound pound the balls of my feet up the subway stairs. Circle jerk, rat, mammoth hands, circle jerk, rat, mammoth hands, I will this mnemonic into my long term memory.
I walk home. Even here in the cement chaos there are fiery trees in mustards, reds and browns. A heavy wind rustles. The scent of decayed leaves fills my nose bringing me back to a time long before, a playground littered with horse chestnuts and seed pods. Why did we collect them like leprechaun’s gold? They were treasures to the mind of a five year old, I suppose. Want to get back there now to a moment when acquiring this waxy brown sphere with the tiny wormhole in it was more important than the dollars in my bank account, or the latest congressional scandal. Pirate booty crammed into pockets. A dried pod clutched in a child’s fist rattling all the way home.
Back to the street and my knee high boots, bought on sale, clip clopping on the pavement in time to the beat of cars revving, workmen drilling, guitars playing, strangers cursing. A street window plastered with discount cheese signs. Discount cheese? It’s already mold. How furry does it have to become before they discount it? A young guy, brown beard, striped shirt, I can tell he likes to laugh but rarely gets the girl. “Yeah,” he says to his buddy. “But a fire-safe cigarette? Come on. It’s supposed to be on fire.”
I ponder a friend’s question at lunch, what is it to be a man? Must I work a band saw or be sensitive, or both?
Three large stacked white cubes obstruct my path, each one displays a separate word in primary red. BIG, BOX, SALE, the tower reads. I admire this lack of subtlety, sometimes a banana is just a banana.
One, two, six Nail Spas, block after block they appear, no matter the state of the economy. Tenacious weeds capitalizing on our insecure need for shiny lacquered digits, twenty-four seven. Perhaps if that perfect shade of rose glistens on our fingertips, complimenting the overpriced lipstick we had no business buying last week, and matching that scarf your mother wishes you would wear more often, no one will see the flaws on the inside. All those failings that keep us up at night wondering if only we’d made different choices would things be better?
On my left a black door with white words. A lifetime of distorted judgements. -Elbow Joe. Elbow Joe and I both misspell judgement, do we have anything else in common?
Muscle Cars and Unicorns, signed Me, a wall nearby reads. Why that particular combination, Me? Hard to imagine that in the dead of night while you were defacing public property Unicorns weighed heavily on your mind. Are you just a writer Me, in need of a laptop, or a teenager trying to prove to his buddies he wasn’t afraid to do the wrong thing, or both?
I reach my door with a buzz that is so much more than the huge cappuccino I drank at lunch. (A frothy bowl of smoky bitterness that might have made me feel adult and cosmopolitan except mostly, I imagined Paddington lost in his cup of tea covered in sticky jam.) Still, there is excitement. A vein of gold finally tapped after a long dry stretch. An itch to write words, a need to stop every few blocks scribbling notes on the back of a bank receipt in an indecipherable language I pray to understand later. A moment filled with gratitude for a town that never fails to color outside the lines. Its stench as inspiring as its museums. I turn back towards the street eyeing the corner where a man once stood late at night kissing me with tears in his eyes. The Nail Salon that used to be there has gone out of business. Only the sign above the shuttered building reads, Coming soon, March 2011, Nail Spa. I shake my head in wonder. New York, you are flawed, you are grey, you are noisy, sometimes your stubbornness outweighs your better judgment, but still you persevere. And I kinda love that about you.
Lovely – you make me itch to be back in New York even though it sounds just as maddening as London.
Thanks so much Graham! Knowing how clever you are when all you are given is 140 characters, I consider your praise quite an honor. One of several times I was in London for a shoot it snowed, a bizarre weather anomaly I gather. What a laugh watching the city come to a standstill with a tiny dusting of white flakes. I guess every city, every town, has it’s own foibles and quirks that make it home.
wonderful images! I love your writing!
Thanks Marni, I so appreciate the encouragement, and that you’re still reading the blog!
A long piece that left me wanting more. That is writerly victory! Also, you sound like you should always have some kind of recorder with you for audio notes. Were I an editor I’d send you out for investigative follow-up on any of these characters, maybe interview Elbow Joe in a nail salon, assuming his poor judgment didn’t lead to his demise.Just loved this piece.
What a smile this message put on my face. And considering the wit and intellect of the source, it is doubly flattering. (Those monks on Kung Fu offered sage wisdom, after all.) I also love that this piece has the ability to resonate with people who aren’t from New York. You should have seen me first muttering things to myself, then scrambling to find room to write on this tiny crumpled receipt before the words all disappeared from my brain. I looked juuuuust nutty enough to fit in perfectly in Manhattan.
I love this. I read that really slowly and took my time imagining everything you had seen. Makes me want to go outside for a walk. Take a different route home. Hop on the subway, get out somewhere random and explore new NY territory. Thank you for that.
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Your imagery makes me smile and brings up all the many reasons why I have maintained a love affair with the city for forty years. Thanks for saying it so beautifully!