Moments of Perspective (and: Realising that You Need to Leave New York)

It’s strange to come out of the tunnel, and realise that I haven’t exited New York in months. That isn’t uncommon: to take a breath, and say to yourself: “shit, I need to leave the beast!” It’s strange to come out of that tunnel, because for a city with majestic views, the teeming nature of it doesn’t often allow the solitude to enjoy those moments – at least, not in public. The train comes out of the tunnel at 4th Avenue / 9th Street, it’s evening, no one but lunatics are commuting to Manhattan 12 hours too late. I’m on the way to meet Adrienne. I can see a muted sunset, wrapped up in blue, the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines are overlapping, the Statue of Liberty, far off, is like something to pick up and put in your pocket. It’s all of that, but more importantly: the carriage is empty, just me and 3 other people, each of us seated throughout the carriage. Rightly, we are taking the opportunity to spread out and settle into ourselves, and breathe slow in public again.

I let my breath out, sigh. I’d forgotten this: what it feels like to be allowed to sit in public without someone immediately impinging on you with any number of oblivious, neurotic, infinitely-annoying New York traits (someone singing to himself, a woman emptying and filling her bag and spreading the contents out beside you casts a cobra eye at you when you dig through your own bag for something, a dude sitting opposite you in mirror sunglasses, affecting oblivious cool and this is fucking with your head because of course you can’t see his eyes and of course that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Someone sits too close, their thigh almost breathing on your thigh, but not close enough to allow you to tell them to move away without you appearing to be the neurotic one).

The F train emerges going the opposite direction, from Carroll Street: the sun glitters over Carroll Gardens, and it is like waking from a mood state – not depression, less definite, though the way depression settles is anything but definite. It is the city’s own mood state: what it does when you are on its canyon floors 100 storeys down, or underground, for how many commuting hours? Coming out of the tunnel and crossing the culvert across the scrapyard area of Gowanus (though the train slants like it’s going to fall) is, in a small way, like coming up for air.

It’s the same in a taxi going uptown, especially if you can only afford to take a taxi, say, once a week, and only when you have to. The driver’s got the hang of the light sequence, and is barrelling towards East 105th street with no real allegiance to whatever staying in lane might mean: testing, trying his luck, one more microbe or a virus among all the other denizens of this grimy mainline vein. (The funny thing is that he seems to want to get there as quickly as you do: maybe with him it’s a matter of pride?) Truckahead! You grab the oh-shit strap, he eases back into lane or, rather, forces in on top of another taxi, who of course, not showing guild solidarity, honks away at him.

What I’m getting at is the uptown taxi journey can grant perspective (the La Guardia-bound airplane dipping its wing crossing the Chrysler Building’s plating made of light is a more extreme example of literalist perspective). “FDR Expressway?” he says. Crosstown indecision to get to it (“shit! $10 already to get from Union Square to 2nd avenue!”), but then the glide begins. Better if it’s 1st avenue, or 3rd, when the lights are right. It’s like jumping the vines in Tarzan, or a relay race where every runner in the 100-person team between 17th street and 101st is on form, and each green light is a bit of grace. The glide gives you an insulated sense of perspective, much like reading a great novel does: and, you’re finally given the space to be able to love, and bless, humanity on an abstract scale.

Otherwise I take the train (MTA stands for mother fuckers touching my ass). I close the door of my flat like a pressure door. Blowing out my lips in a sigh, and smoothing out the stress-vein-bulge at the temples, I give the order: “Periscope down, bos’n! Dive to 50 leagues.” “Aye, aye, sir,” and my sanctuary disengages from the city for the night. Drifting down, going deeper, a tenuous equilibrium returns.

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Leitrim / Ditmas Avenue / Mexico City

An Orthodox man comes out of “Laundry Mania” with a white shirt draped in plastic, freshly-laundered and ready for tomorrow. A thin, young Hassidic man in a brown, furred hat like a lamp shade has his crying daughter firmly clasped in his arms. He’s marching ahead, wheeling a suitcase. It’s the eve of Sabbath, much work still remains to be done before the sun goes down, to prepare for when work must cease. There’s no mitigating circumstances when it comes to the Law. Auburn-wigged young wife walks behind in black, registering the argument in her demeanour, registering the husband’s stress in the downward-looking gaze and gait of her wife’s body.

Seriousness struggles with another kind of vigil: Friday night, and cheesy, sweet Latin American music pipes out of the shops, floating on the air. Clutches of Uzbek men in plastic leather jackets and 70s ‘taches, smoking rancid fags, eye the young women, who shun them with a self-turning shoulder. Some of the men feel like mafia, probably because they’re always around, doing nothing specific. They’ve claimed this pavement; you have to walk around them. Same with the Poles. (Hipsters, beware. Locals Rule here enough to resist gentrification. Ah… but gentrification is like Manifest Destiny. An inevitability in the U.S., and its empire abroad.)

A Mayan boy on the pavement in three-quarter-length khaki shorts is blowing bubbles upward into the Indian Summer evening sky, and I cross into Latin America. Passing the barber shop, Abel the barber from Mexico gets up from his ruminations to greet me: perfect grey flat top like a 50 year old punk, he wears a bone necklace, and has features like Quetzalcoatl. His wife is Irish. “David? si. Yo estaba pensando. el nombre de mi suegro es Mc…Dermott: y es de una ciudad que se llama Leitrim. Si, Leitrim.” (“David? Yes. I was thinking. My father-in-law’s name is Mc…Dermott, and he’s from a city called Leitrim.”) I go up the rickety wooden steps to the subway, laughing to myself and, in fact, some tears of connection squeeze their way out with the laughter: about how only New York, perhaps, can connect the watery fields of Leitrim (otters and loneliness), to Mexico via Brooklyn.

Abel’s daughter cut my hair the other day: “Blade 1? Easy haircut.” And yet, she dedicated a plethora of blades, scissors and talc, a wealth of pleasant attention to my pate, my beard, my neck. She taped old style, elasticated tissue around my throat; a sharp, pleasant, wet straight razor gliding down the back of my neck. Her hand adjusted my head with a firm, woman’s touch. She was wearing a water-based cologne that opened a wound of nostalgia for Spain. In the background, heroes and heroines swooned on soap operas piped in via satellite from “el D.F.” (Say it Day F-Aay, bud.) I get a chill when Mexicans say, “Soy del D.F.”, in response to my inevitable, “¿de dónde eres?” / “where are you from?” The sound values of those sibilants contain something of the day-to-day heroism and chaotic aliveness of Latin America: it’s Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Cuzco, it’s Asunción; it’s Sao Paolo, and of course it’s the Distrito Federal. New York may be the shit, but the true motherlode, the big hearted Mother City, is “el D.F.“, homes. Mexico City, baby.

SoHo (Babies in Manhattan, and the Perfect Sandwich)

26th August 2010

Went south from Washington Square, and found myself in a semi-pedestrianised cobblestoned heaven / hell of chi-chi restaurants. (Ah, so this is SoHo…) One was all terrace, with lunch time fashion types sunning themselves; that is, if potential eyes could constitute a sun. But there were almost no rubber-neckers, because all potential witnesses were themselves studiously checking their digital communicative equipment, checking their make up, or talking to a friend who was doing the very same.

The café I’d been looking for, Olive’s, recommended in the NFT for its amazing sandwiches, had a queue going out the door. (How much of their lunch break did people spend queuing for the perfect sandwich? It reminded me of something a young Hispanic architect had told me at 6 a.m. while tailgating at Bryan and Laura’s truck under a raised section of the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, after their gig at Union Pool in Williamsburg. He said that when you were making good money, when you’d worked so hard to get to where you had, finally, arrived, you thought nothing of queuing for half an hour at the restaurant that served the best ramen, Kobé steak, the latest sushi, “because you deserved it.” Though it sounded a tad like the L’Oréal worldview, I knew what he meant.) Nearby, office girls sat on window ledges with their legs crossed, drinking plastic cups of iced coffee, checking their text messages so as to appear occupied, and not be seen vulnerably eating alone on such strange perches three feet off the ground. Sporty women, slim, forty-ish, went by with baby strollers like designer tanks. The sight of babies in Manhattan had a touch of the alien about it: of a customised humanity, cyborgised – not by technology, but by money: the feeding tubes of sheer liquidity it took to raise children in this environment.

Women passed behind mirrored shades, in black mini-skirts and polished black leather boots; bangles and necklaces jangled on their perfect, barely-moving breasts. They had severe Cleopatra fringes, like designer biker chicks without bikes, as if they’d just come back from shopping for an identity. Guys in check shorts, thick-rimmed prescription glasses, and de rigeur pork pie-esque hats stood around talking, like nerds who’d suddenly discovered they were hip. A blond, tanned, muscular dude in a white vest and jeans walked past the restaurant. He was handsome enough to be a Calvin Klein model (and probably was) but no one noticed him. No one was looking at, or watching, any one else.

I went to look for a café somewhere else. Who knows, maybe in a year’s time I’ll be queuing for the perfect sandwich, but not yet.