I open the door to Eagle’s Nest, clutching my skis the way I have discovered works best— I hold the rear binding of the bottom ski down to my front, with the top of the ski not resting quite on my shoulder, it is too close to my head, but resting on my arm in the groove of the deltoid and bicep— and run into Jack. “How was the ride break?” he asks. “Great. Awesome,” I say. “Lot of powder. I was cruising through these fields of it over by 2, it was beautiful. But I think we’re going to get slammed today,” I warn him, “I waited ten minutes in Game Creek and it wasn’t even 9:30.” “Well,” he says, duly warned, “get to work, then.” Jack is the boss, so I head upstairs.
The snow is still fresh in my head. Vail had a surprise little-warning Winter Weather Event last night and the report says ten inches, six of it overnight. Of course, in the mountains, that can vary from trail to trail, and it does, but there is nowhere there isn’t at least four. My first run down Columbine I stick to the groomers, but on my second down Avanti, I go for the deep. My skis are not adapted for powder, but I make do, and it is easy because powder this deep slows you down even on the steep blacks on the eastern front side. It is beautiful, the sky is blue, it is borderline sexual in a way that I don’t think I could have explained to myself before I moved out here, it is soft, and because it is slow and soft it makes me fearless. On my second run up I drop into Game Creek on the Eagle’s Nest Ridge side, down Faro, and it is even better than the front and halfway down I stop and look across the nine miles of open air to Larkspur, back home, back at Beaver Creek, and I exclaim to someone else who is doing the same, “Damn, it’s beautiful!”
So I am in a good mood, coming in, and my mood is only slightly dimmed when I realize on the stairs up that there is no jingle of keys in my pocket. They are probably in the locker, I tell myself, since that has happened before, and I am fully expecting that they will be at the bottom of my locker as I pull out my snow boots, my work boots, my backpack, my work hat, my jeans, my deodorant, check my jeans again and check my coat again and check my boots could they have gotten in there? and then I remember on Faro that I think I stopped because just really vaguely I heard this ching
and I have only a pair to the computer’s two pair, and I guess that means I lose a dollar, but it was my first dollar I ever spent in a real Nevada casino, and before noon at that! I’m not too upset, because after all, I am in here for the experience. It is Day Four of The Road Trip To End All Road Trips. So far we have been to the Sequoias, and to Yosemite, and last night we slept, we actually slept on account of we splurged on a hotel instead of crashing in the tent and also we were having a fight about something that was extremely yesterday, just over the border into Nevada, marking the beginning of the “we-are-not-in-a-state-either-of-us-knows-anything-about” phase of this six-week-long beautiful sort of catastrophe. I am feeling pretty good on account of it has been nearly one hundred hours and I have not yet had to call for Denny to pick me up on his motorcycle from a half-mile marker on some dirt road in eastern California. So why not spend a few bucks on the state pastime, say we did it, and get on up to Idaho? I reach for my wallet and it is not there and my heart just about pops out of my ribcage. I already know it is gone. I already know it is futile. I will make the poor casino attendant (because casinos, in Nevada, are not all the Bellagio and the Venetian) dig through the trash they already took outside, and I will get on my hands and knees and look underneath slot machines that are barely as high off the ground as my wallet is thick (and it is not very thick), and I will ask to see tapes they don’t have, I will give the attendant my name and phone number like they’ll ever call it, and I will go to the county sheriff and file a stolen-property report and get a temporary license with literally no legal force, and I know the sheriff is not going to help me because of the look he gave me when I mispronounced it ne-VAH-da instead of the correct way which I now know is ne-VAD-a, and I will eventually have to pay to get the real license mailed to my Syracuse address and then forwarded to Fairfield, Idaho, and I will have to cancel all my credit cards and get new insurance cards (I don’t even know if I have dental anymore) and I will get a new leather wallet at the rodeo in Fairfield made from a cow whose throat this guy probably slit himself, and there is no way that I can know the specific order of events at this time because all I want is a goddamn cigarette. I tell the casino attendant I am going to smoke and he tells me not to go outside because you can smoke inside in Nevada. Which I damn well do. Then I go outside and smoke again and cry and the girl, I think, is still in the bathroom, because my life has fallen apart and it has only taken thirty seconds, because everything everything is gone
and I am looking under the lockers, and under the other lockers, and in every pocket of my jacket and my snowpants and my pants and my other pants, where the hell are these keys, and I sweep the entire dining room and the ski school room and I’m just looking for a flash of light a glint of metal, but they’re not there, they’re not there, they’re not there. And I have to get my ass back to work. So I do. Colorado Club. Hot Italian. Turkey Yard. Time passes and I start breathing again and I realize: this is not at all like that.
This is not at all like that, I think as I throw the bread in the toaster, and the day passes, and I am sweeping up and panning chili. I have a spare key to the car, I can get a spare key to the apartment, this is not at all like that: I don’t have to call the New York DMV, I don’t have to cancel any credit cards, I have to leave the car in Vail overnight and maybe pay the building $25 for a new key and damn, I guess I lost that little Chapstick cozy Jill gave me but this is not at all like that, nobody is going to run up my credit cards, I still have health insurance, I don’t have to drive from Idaho to Chicago with no license, this is not at all like that.
And on the path home (the same path from the other day) even though I’m idly scanning the side of the walk to see if maybe they fell out here this morning, I am smiling: this is not at all like that, I think, not for any of those reasons, because in the end, it’s just stuff and money, I could lose everything I own and still have my body and my mind, this is not at all like that because that (I think to myself) was June and this is January, that was June 2013 and this is January twenty-fuckin’-fourteen and for maybe the first time in my life I am glad that it is January and snowing and cold and still somehow blue-skied, but maybe that’s because it’s never blue-skied in January in New York.
or, Where Can I Get a Goddamn Falafel At 3:43 In the Morning?
or, Where Can I Get a Goddamn Falafel Period?
“Palmyra!” I exclaim. “You know Palmyra?” the bluejacket asks me. Workers here are color-coded, like parts of a machine. Light blue means ski instructor. Dark blue, lift operator, “liftie” colloquially. Red is generally ski patrol (“generally” because there seem to be exceptions, which still confuse me), and black is mountain services, including warehouse and maintenance. Fluorescent green is the photographers. We don’t get jackets at Eagle’s Nest, since we only work indoors, but everyone else’s jacket and pants are emblazoned with HELLY HANSEN H/H in at least three places, including down the side of the leg like a Madison Avenue tuxedo stripe. When I first saw the logo I thought it was Kelly misspelled, and then thought it was an odd name for a winterwear designer, but now I realize it is only Norwegian.
But I digress. “Yeah, man,” I tell my ski school teacher, “I’m from Syracuse.” “Oh,” he says dryly. “Cool.” We do not interact further while I make his Colorado Club (sourdough turkey bacon Swiss toast it serve the next customer take it out chipotle sauce “Lettuce, tomato, onion?” no onion stick itcutitchipspickleDONE) and after that it is only a parting “Have a nice day.” He nods.
I’m from Syracuse, it sticks in my head all day. My nametag says it: “Syracuse NY”. This is my defining locale. “Where are you from?” an Italian asks me. “New York,” I say. But quickly, “Upstate. I lived in the city for a few years, but I grew up about five hours away.” Why is it different now? What is different about it? But it is so different.
I’ve written here before about my relationship to places, and in particular to my two cities in New York State, Syracuse and the other one. What is the connection to a place? I am there and then I’m gone, and when I’m there I’m there, and when I’m gone it sometimes hits me that yeah, I did use to live in New York, I did use to commute four-and-a-half miles by bicycle each way and not only that I identified as a biker, more for sure than I identified as American, maybe more than I identified as a student. Yeah, remember that, I did use to live in a house called the Shtetl, yeah I did sometimes when I was bored on Thursday afternoons use to go to Apple with Nate where they had $3 drafts for happy hour, yeah I did use to eat Thai food more than hamburgers, yeah it was a lot more I sometimes didn’t have a hamburger for a couple of months.
Yeah, I’m not exaggerating when I say I wasn’t even in a car for four, five months at a time, yeah I did use to think traveling eight miles in thirty minutes was the coolest thing ever, yeah, I was there for the hurricane. It’s all in there, it all happened, none of it’s been undone. And yeah, yeah, it’s true, I did use to say New York was my hometown, I was from there, I was born there after all at St. Vincent’s on Seventh and 11th, there was even a time when I cared that you spelled out the avenue and wrote the digits for the street, who cares about that?
This probably sounds stupid. I mean, if I’m asking why do I tell people I’m from Syracuse and not the city, the answer is obviously because it’s true, stupid. I lived in Syracuse full-time for over sixteen years, I was in the city for eight or nine months a year for four. It shouldn’t be that hard,
but remember Switzerland, remembering telling someone (I forget who) in R1 that what it seemed at the time was the most important thing I was learning at CERN was not the mass of the top quark, was not coding in ROOT, was not anything about the modern high-energy physics culture or even how to speak French to normal people, but was that I can’t stay away from the city, was that I was in love with the city, that “I do not mean love in any colloquial way, I mean that I was in love with the city, the way you love the first person who ever touches you and you never love anyone quite that way again,” that it was maybe a miserable, self-destructive, dependent, trapping love but good God, man, I was getting the shakes just thinking about being back. (The shakes, of course, were not actually because of thinking about being back in New York – but I suppose one can never be sure.)
So that’s what it was, then: it’s not that I’ve stopped saying “I am from New York City” even though it’s true: it’s that I’ve stopped saying “I am from New York City” because it’s a lie. No, that’s wrong, too. I’ve stopped saying it, and it’s a lie, but that’s not why I’ve stopped saying it.
What did New York do to me? I cannot be the only one asking this question.
I am rereading this post and it has only a little left to do with its original intention and title. The part of me that wants to “work on my writing,” whatever that means, thinks I should spend some time revising it and reworking it and making it make sense, but that’s never been how this blog worked, that’s never been the point. What did New York do to me? When you get out of an intense live-in relationship there is this little period where you are readjusting, reorganizing, re-imagining, re-understanding, or should I say understanding for the first time, and for a little bit at least nothing at all makes sense. “I don’t even know how to make an omelet anymore,” I wrote once, that might have been in high school but the feeling is familiar. If there is anything I have learned so far, it is that that little period, that little bit, is never as short as you think it is going to be, even after it is over.
I am on the beach. The beach is a six-foot-wide spit of sand and rock and gravel, and there is brick covering the ground to my left, not like a floor but like the side of a building that has fallen down: but it is a beach. The waves are small, lapping, not breaking, even with the cold wind blowing at my ears ready to take them off. There are people up the beach a ways. Maybe fifty feet.
It is a small beach. There is not much room.
I go to walk around the park. The bricks, I learn, were not washed up here by accident. This was once a great port, a giant of the shipping industry where barges could bring freight from Jersey City to Brooklyn, bypassing Manhattan’s overpriced and overcrowded wharves entirely and making business in the borough affordable, fast, modern. The six-foot high, two-foot-thick concrete walls that run in straight lines from the water’s edge nearly to Kent once held cranes, gantries for moving containers. The railroad tracks have grass growing in them, dirt has filled up the depression where container-trains’ wheels once sat on their way east.
Rather, grass grew in them. The grass is dead. It is winter.
I found this park by a thought. I was walking on its south side, on my way to the water, and I saw a large piece of concrete protruding onto the sidewalk. Somebody built that, I thought. Somebody had to consciously, deliberately, and at great expense pour tens of thousands of pounds of concrete into just the right shape; and now it is only in the way. What was here? The concrete is layered; there are bricks, there is metal. Why is there metal? I went to investigate and wound up on the beach.
“I was thinking what it’s going to be like when we don’t live together,” Brandon says to me as we pay up. Sea bass, skate, oysters. The seafood restaurant on Graham. My bass came with crimini mushrooms and potatoes and a sauce I hopelessly described as “green,” not because it wasn’t delicious (it was) but because I didn’t know what was in it. What else am I supposed to call it? You cannot be a chef unless someone teaches you to cook; you cannot talk about music until someone shows you the bands; you cannot review a novel until you hear its name. “Going out to dinner, like this, you know. We’ll actually have to catch up. Now it’s like we already know everything.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I mean. We’ll probably talk on the phone a lot. I talk on the phone with Denny at least an hour a week, probably. We’ll probably be like that.”
“We probably won’t be able to go out to dinner that much. I mean, neither of us know what city he’ll be in. The odds are better than even we won’t be in the same city.” We leave. It is not raining as hard as it was earlier, when I took the subway one stop from Bedford to Lorimer to escape the crowds. It was two-thirty on a Sunday and it was impossible to find a café with seating. I found one on Bedford; the seat was taken while I waited in line. I ended up at the Kellogg Diner on Union and I burned the roof of my mouth on a grilled cheese, so badly that in fact even now I can feel the soft blister continuing to grow on the roof of my mouth, six hours and a sea bass later.
But it is still raining.
We are near home when we hear music playing in Vaudeville Park, a small venue on Bushwick that I have walked by many times but never been inside. “Do you want to see what’s up?” Brandon asks. “Sure.” The windows are fogged up and we cannot see who is inside. We try the door but it is locked, which is surprising. We are turning to leave when someone opens the door for us. It is a young girl, probably ten years old. We slide in.
Vaudeville Park is not a bar, but a venue, small enough that people stared at us as we walked in, and brightly lit. My glasses immediately fogged to the point of blindness; we sat in the only two available seats, at the front, moving quickly to avoid blocking others’ view. When I wiped off my eyes I found that we were watching a high school band, three kids younger than my sister rocking out.
Why not? Everyone else in the room was either old enough to be a parent or young enough to be a classmate. I felt out of place. But why not? Music is music: why not?
We sat through the first song and cheered at the end. “Encore!” somebody shouted. “A quick encore, Alex,” a woman said, undoubtedly Alex’s mother, “we need to get home.” “Just one more,” he said, motioning to a friend sitting in the audience, who was clearly itching to play as well. “Just one more. This is called ‘Jazz.'” The song was far from virtuosic, but it wasn’t supposed to be. The drum solo, the bass solo, the guitar solo. The bass solo again. I smiled: they were having so much fun. I wish I could do that, I thought.
They ended and we cheered again. This time it was really over. On our way out, Brandon stopped the guitarist. “You guys rocked,” he said, “you pulled us in off the street!”
“No way!” the kid said, visibly surprised we weren’t somebody’s older brothers.
“Yeah,” Brandon replied, “you guys are really good. How old are you?”
“Well, keep it up. I’ll see you at the Village Vanguard next time!” We headed out, the kid grinning behind us.
All summer, if— when— the stress became too much, when I felt like I couldn’t take two more seconds of lit screen time, when the CMSSW manual was particularly infuriating and the pigeon outside was a little too repetitive— I had my bicycle as refuge. It occurs to me now, typing this on my iPhone at the Grand St. stop, waiting for a train, that I do not remember my bicycle’s number. All the bikes at CERN looked the same, and probably would have felt the same; but one in particular was mine, and I knew it by number. I think my room was 421, or 419. But my bike? I think it started with an 8. It had three digits. What were they?
Sherlock Holmes did not know about the heliocentric model; he did not think it was important. I think this is a fair bit more important.
Anyway. Last night. QFT was a little too much. I began to breathe heavily. Every page, containing things I was supposed to learn this semester but did not, filled me with more need to get out of this house. I put on a sweatshirt and pants, my helmet and Camelbak. 9 pm. I needed to move. Where to go? As if it were summer again, I picked a direction— east— and sped off.
Over the Metropolitan Ave. bridge, and down into Queens, the road wide enough for two tractor trailers side by side but none on it tonight but me. It is only 9:05 pm but the streets of Maspeth are deserted. Long ago, this was a rural town known as a resting place; now it is a working place, factories and a bus depot and railways and warehouses all huddled together to make deliveries easier. And, I suppose, to keep the trucks and the smoke away from people’s homes. No one is here working, at 9:05 pm; now, we have overtime laws.
I stand up in third and race no one. I race my mind. No matter what happens, I tell myself, you will not die because of QFT. No, you may fail this class, and it will be your fault, and so what? I ask myself if I should be concerned that I am having a conversation with myself, calling myself “you,” and decide that it is better to acknowledge it and understand it than to shoot it down. It is no weirder than switching tenses mid-story.
I come to another major street and take a right. I do not look what street it is. I briefly wonder if this will lead me into trouble. I decide it will not. I pass some familiar street names, some unfamiliar. I see no familiar landmarks. Soon the signs are all new to me. I try to figure out what direction I am going. I instinctively look for the glow of sunset. Even after the sun is below the horizon, you can tell from the faint lingering light where west is for quite a while longer, an hour or two even. I look around and quickly find my celestial compass, reassuring myself. I head south for no particular reason.
That’s funny, I think a block later, I wouldn’t think I’d be able to see sunset this late in December. It’s not the summer in Switzerland, the Jura a nightlight past eleven. Then I realize. Manhattan is in the west. I smile. My sun.
I come to a cemetery, which I learn later is Mount Olive. The view of the island is spectacular from the top of a smallish hill that nonetheless affords me several blocks of coasting. It is not the grapevines of Russin. It is dense, it is brick and mortar and concrete, a night that is not dark, but the streets are quiet. It will do.
In New York, you can get a pretty good estimate of the height of the cloud base just by looking at the skyline, as long as it is under 1,454 feet above sea level. It is probably 1,100 feet or so, plus or minus four floors. My eyes are not that good, and in any case the transition from clear to cloud at the top of the Empire State Building is not a rigid line you might draw with a pen, but a penciled, shaded, white-grey blur that it is hard to tell where it starts and where it ends.
I am in Greenpoint. Scratch that: I am at Green Point, the actual point, where Newtown Creek conflows with the East River, spanned by the Pulaski Bridge to my right. A large orange piece of fabric, probably burlap for its remarkable resistance to the water, is floating fifty feet or so away. It is not bobbing up and down or moving in any particular manner: it is suspended, static, in the calm waters of the creek. A barge big enough for a hundred shipping containers is idling on my other side. The tires that form its bumper are big enough for a large tractor. I wonder how often it bumps into things.
My walk this morning was pleasant enough. I decided that for the first time in recent memory I should wander quite aimlessly, with a general direction and nothing more in mind. That direction was north, and so here I am. In Monsignor McGolrick Park I imagined I was in a different city, an unnamed foreign city, a city that still had things left to discover, and all of a sudden there were. You will no doubt think that a silly thing to say: New York has eight million people, five boroughs, hundreds of neighborhoods I have never seen, and this one less than an hour’s walk from my house. Things left to discover? What are you thinking? But familiarity breeds, if not contempt, indifference.
How often do I travel over the bridge to class, watching the skyline, and fail to see the majesty of the buildings below me? How often do I ride through Chinatown and fail to remember the tens of thousands of lives, each unique, each worth learning about? An answer comes to me now as I write this: because there is just too much, because there is no way to meet them all, and so I prefer to ignore them. Can that possibly be right? Does that even make sense?
In McGolrick there is a memorial to the young men of Greenpoint who gave their lives in the Great War so that our government might not perish from the earth. It is majestic, thankful, glorious and without irony. I have always noticed — I have probably remarked on it before, here — the contrast between the exaltation of the valor of combat in World War I memorials, and the subdued, somber, reflection on death and inhumanity that is more common to the stones of World War II and later. Something inside me briefly wonders why they did not, in 1945, tear down these columns and replace them with trees.
I make my way up through the industrial section, the lumber exchange, the water-treatment plant. The plant looks most of all like a giant lemon juicer, which I think is funny. I do not, at the time, consider that the lemon juicer is probably the reason I can drink the water in my house at all, despite living just a few blocks from a waterway that rivals Onondaga Creek for toxicity. I know it is poisonous because the sign at the entry to the Nature Walk says so. Do not swim in this water, it says, or eat fish caught here. It is not a suggestion.
The Nature Walk is a bizarre little place, concrete-walled at the beginning, a fence dividing you from the shore later. There are supposedly egrets here. That is what makes it nature. Otherwise, you would think you were walking through an industrial park opposite a garbage dump, which is exactly what you are doing.
I think I have walked enough and take the B43 bus home. I have been wandering for about three hours, not all of it a beeline walk, but it is nice to use my new unlimited card. The trip is one and three-quarters miles. I get out at Metropolitan and cross the street. I reflexively check to see if I have left anything on the bus. Keys, yes, phone, yes, wallet, yes, journal. Journal. Journal. Journal. My reflexes are too slow. Why am I doing this now and not ten seconds ago. Journal. I need that. My head begins to spin. My body spins. The bus is two blocks away. I break into a sprint, not a run, arms flying up and down in rhythm, my feet only barely touching the ground, my lungs doing quadruple overtime. The bus is still moving. People are turning to look at me. I try to go faster. I am catching up. Past Devoe, past Ainslie, past Powers. The run is 300 meters, three-quarters of a lap, and it is probably my fastest time ever: but it is not enough. The bus makes it through Grand before a red light and I am still half a block behind when the cars begin to move, tons of steel and aluminum moving at twenty miles an hour between me and where I need to be. I helplessly watch the bus continue down Graham and only now consciously realize that I have never run that fast in my life. I sit down in the middle of the sidewalk and catch my breath. It is far away, like the bus. It takes a long time.
When I feel physically able to, I walk home dejectedly. I file a claim with the MTA Lost and Found, more as a matter of course than out of any real sense of hope. I try not to let myself think that the whole walk has been ruined, but of course it has been. I want to clear my head by writing and my anguish is redoubled.
I will have to buy a new one: but those entries are gone, gone, gone: what were they for? It is still cloudy, it is raining a little, what were they for?
Another Saturday, another day in the Rockaways. This time we went to Arverne, seventy blocks east of St. Francis in Belle Harbor. Arverne, named for Remington “R” Vernam, the real estate magnate who built the place up at the end of the century before last. Arverne is next to Edgemere, home to some of the last paved and numbered blocks within New York City limits that are devoid of any kind of construction—no houses, no shops, neither brick nor wood nor vinyl, not even a parking lot—not because of blight and decay, nor hurricane’s wrath, but because they simply were never built up.
This, it turns out, is not true. Edgemere once was a thriving beach town, with hotels and bungalows, but they are gone, have been gone so long that Planet-of-the-Apes-like they have faded even from memory, and people like me will make assumptions that life has simply not spread there. Read this Forgotten New York piece if you get a chance— you might get hooked on the site.
But I digress, it was Arverne I was in, not Edgemere. We were helping Coco, a friendly, asthmatic, older Puerto Rican woman remove moldy appliances and sweep the sand from her basement. I took off my sweater as the lifting made me sweat. While we worked, we listened to the stories. Coco’s daughter, whose name I’ve lost, and her husband moved to the Rockaways twenty days before the storm. “They lost everything,” Coco told us. “New house— it’s gone.” “What are they doing now?” I asked. “Dave was the one who helped you carry the stove,” she said, pointing him out to me.
Work has to be done. Triage. Don’t worry about what you can’t save.
We finished, or at least got to a point where we could leave, because— oh, you know. We drove back to Belle Harbor. Brandon went off to an interview and Kristina and I met up with Rob. Rob had stopped us on the way to the car that morning. “Do you guys have a house to go to already?” he’d asked hopefully. We told him yes, but we might be able to stop by that afternoon. He was thrilled to see us. He showed us to his basement. “I took the drywall down myself,” he said, “and put it in these bins. But I can’t get them up the stairs.” Kristina and I lifted the hundred-pound buckets of house parts up the stairs, one step at a time, and brought them in a wagon to the street, where we dumped them like so much sand.
When we were done Rob talked to us for maybe ten minutes about the process of rewiring a house. “You have to get a new box,” he said. It’s not as simple as Con Ed turning your power back on. The stuff in your house is fucked. Con Ed doesn’t rewire your house. That’s your property.
We walked on. I realized I had left my sweater at Coco’s; we would have to go back. We ran into Billy on Rockaway Beach Boulevard. “Where’d ya get that broom?” he asked. We told him it was from the Rubicon team. “You’re supposed to sign up,” I said, “sign all these waivers, do it their way, but we just took their stuff. It’s getting used for what it’s supposed to be used for.” “So I gotta go over there and sign something?” Well… no. We offered Billy the broom, then realized he probably needed help. He was delighted to have us clear the sand from the street in front of his house.
They can’t sweep here, he showed us, because there are two cars parked on either side of the drive. The owners can’t move them because the engine’s full of water. The insurance company totaled both of them, he said, and called me to tell me they towed them and I could relax. Sure the hell didn’t. They’re still here. Why you gonna call me and tell me the car’s gone when I can look out my window and see it’s still here?
Brandon found us and we had to go back to civilization. “You guys,” he said before we departed, “I was in such a shitty mood before you got here, and I feel so much better now. This stuff you’re doing, it’s really more mental than physical, you know. Thanks for coming out here.”
We headed to the car. It was starting to get chilly, and I missed my sweater. I must have looked cold when we walked by Rob’s house. “You got a coat?” he shouted from across the street. I assured him I did, but he wouldn’t have it. “It’s cold,” he said. “You sure that’s enough?” “I’m about to get it back from where I left it,” I said again, “but thanks.” “Okay,” he said, unsure. And that was when I lost it.
Rob has lost the whole basement of his house, I said as we got in the car, he owes fifteen grand to the contractors who haven’t done anything yet and his papers are all gone and he is probably going to have to move out and his neighborhood is in shambles and the Harbor Light still smells like smoke and he probably knows someone who drowned and he wants to give me a goddamn coat and I can’t even finish this fucking sentence. Some people are just good, and it’s just too much to think about, and you feel unworthy.
We started out directed east, but only made it to Beach 116th Street: the traffic for the Cross Bay was like stone. Fuck it, I said, Coco can hold on to my sweater, or have it; let’s turn around. The sunset over the Marine Park Bridge was one of those sunsets where it is so clear and vivid and real that you can see the spherical shape of the Sun, how the bottom is farther from you than the top, and the gold on the water like electricity.
“Well, Charles,” I said, standing by the Physics Department office copier, “I’ve finally gone and done it.” I raised my handiwork for his inspection. He inspected it.
“Ah,” he said in that ambiguously sarcastic Charlie-voice we all know and love so well, “yet another pissed-off biker.” My printout was this:
“Another pissed-off biker:” yes, I know that’s how people see me. But after nearly three months of Brooklyn life, after nearly a hundred commutes over the Williamsburg Bridge bike path (north side), I had had enough. How many times, I ask myself, must I slow to an unstable crawl to avoid hitting the leftmost of a group of three Hasidic women pushing their strollers from Manhattan to Brooklyn with nary a care for the lines painted on the ground? How many runners must I pass in the far left of the uphill lane for fear that they will jump out in front of me like the woman on the West Side Highway those months ago?
It would, paradoxically, not be an issue if the bridge were more crowded. The Brooklyn Bridge has a narrow wood-slatted path that places bikers and pedestrians side by side. Sometimes for the sheer density of people, someone spills over into the bike side (also north), and I am prepared for this, I can see this happening, and so when I am on the Brooklyn Bridge I keep my speed low and a finger on the bell. Ditto for the 59th Street Bridge. But the Williamsburg and Manhattan bridges have fully separated lanes, ten feet wide for bikes and ten feet wide for walkers, with different entrances, different exits and no reason to mix. It is a highway for bikes. On a good day I can make it from landing to landing, from South 5th Place and Street in Brooklyn to Delancey and Clinton Streets in Manhattan, in seven minutes. I feel somewhat entitled to my speed, and I feel justified in that entitlement. People have told me I need to slow down and recognize that there will be pedestrians in the bike lane, that it is not their fault; well, if you walk on the highway, that ticket is several hundred dollars. We do not recognize a right to walk in the highway. Paths are separated for everyone’s safety and comfort: why does it appeal to someone on foot to share a space with cyclists whizzing by at twenty-five miles an hour? This is why I put a map on the sign: some people might just be unawares.
You have all had to put up with my adamance on this issue and I will bore you no longer. Here the story begins. I am riding over the bridge after Oliver’s show. It is approximately midnight and the bridge, while not crowded, is far from empty. I pass ten, maybe twelve bikers and am passed by three or four before reaching the midpoint. It is not until here that I remember the sign in my backpack. Along with the sign above, I have a few printed up with the same text but without a map, with a line added to the effect that if you find yourself on the wrong side, it is OK, just please cross over the tracks at the top of the hill. I consider stopping to put it up near the crossover; that is why I printed it up, no? But there is a pedestrian a little ways behind me. He is the exact person I am trying to reach with these signs and I should not be ashamed to put it up in front of him, even as he passes me. In fact, if I am serious about this, I should speak to him; I should tell him, look, it is nothing personal, this is not an attack, but were you aware, sir, that the walkway is on the other side?
But I do not.
I am a little embarrassed and I can’t exactly pinpoint why, but I suppose you understand. It is a little awkward. I continue down the hill, embarrassed at the prospect of having to actually speak to this stranger, ashamed at my unassertiveness. On the way downhill I reconsider. I printed these signs: I finally printed these signs. I have been thinking of printing these signs for literally weeks. How could I give up now? How could I live with myself? To come so close and give up for fear of a stranger: who am I?
I reach the bottom of the hill and know where I am going to put the sign: I am going to tape it to the pole that holds the graffitied, illegible NO PEDESTRIANS sign. That one is official and metal and utterly disrespected. I cannot really expect mine will do better: but I can try. I reach the bottom of the hill, pull over, and look at the pole. The frame of a bicycle is locked to it, no wheels, no handlebars, just a frame. The metal is twisted and bent beyond salvage. The frame has been painted white. I do not remember seeing a sign: there does not need to be a sign. All cyclists know what this means.
My gripes all seem suddenly very trite. I stare at the ghostly frame for a long, long time: maybe a minute, maybe five, I don’t know. I try very hard to contain myself. I know I cannot affix my sign to that pole. That pole is taken.
Should I put it up at all? At first it almost seems silly. But I think harder and decide that this is the very reason that my sign is so important. When I was knocked off my bike by the woman on the West Side Path, it was a matter of luck that my bike was not painted white and locked to a tree. The danger will not decrease without education, without an active effort to make change in people’s habits. I go instead to a short pole, the barrier in front of the entrance that allows bicycles but not cars onto the lane, and quickly, looking around to avoid interaction, I tape my sign on all four sides to the metal. Then I jump back on my bike and head home, feeling a mixture of satisfaction and what some will no doubt call overly melodramatic sadness.
The next morning the sign is still there. I have won a small victory. There are only two pedestrians on the bridge. Perhaps the rest of them saw the sign, or perhaps it is just that cold today. This is New York. No matter how loud you shout or how big your font is, people will always find a way to ignore you.
And once more into the breach: James, Rob and I spent the day gutting the first floor of a basementless house on Beach 124th Street, Joe’s house, Joe the retired veteran of the Marines who loved Final Fantasy and Star Wars and cleaning his laserdisc player. “You can learn an amazing amount about somebody by throwing out everything they own,” James said, and though there is a twitch of hidden humor in there somewhere, none of us really cared to dig it out. We took out the drywall: we made holes with the tail ends of hammers and then peeled it off like wallpaper. “What is supposed to go?” I asked Michael, a Mormon volunteer from Boston who had arrived before us. “If it comes off in your hand, throw it out,” he replied. “Houses aren’t supposed to do that.” Under the waterlogged drywall was waterlogged insulation, in some places shriveled and black like a smoker’s lung, sitting in an inch of water and smelling like nothing quite so much as death. It all went into the bags, which this time were not thrown into a garbage truck but picked up by backhoe and hoisted into a dump truck, which meant that I got to childishly ogle even more different kinds of machines.
The siding came off with a crowbar; the floor went to pieces with a sledge. Everything went in the trucks. Last week it was sand, and trash, and boxes, and papers, and fridges and computers from 1989 and two mattresses; this week it was the house itself. I almost thought why don’t we just raze the goddamn thing and get it over with but I didn’t say it out loud because I suspected the Mormons would disapprove. Joe idly wandered from room to room. His eyes were unfocused and he didn’t appear to be interacting with anyone there, an ontological dangler of a homeowner. He didn’t cry or even tear up, he didn’t say don’t do that, that’s my house, why are you taking my house apart, nor did he smile. He wasn’t staring; he was just existing.
Eventually, the work was done — though after two weekends in Rockaway I’ve realized the absurdity of saying anything like that — and we made our way down to the beach so Rob and James could see the boardwalk, which was blocking the street. We serendipitously found Brandon finishing up his last interview of the day, with organizer Katie. After last week, Brandon decided to make an oral history of the Rockaway recovery, and rather than manual labor he spent the day interviewing anyone who had a story to tell, which was everyone. “Twenty interviews,” he told me on the phone, “I’m fucking exhausted.” We went back to the car and sat behind a garbage truck for about twenty minutes before it finally moved and we could make our way home.
“There was one thing that really got to me today,” Brandon said after we dropped off the others, “there was this one woman, when I was walking on Rockaway Beach Boulevard, who saw my camera. She was middle-aged and fat but she was covered in dirt and had been working on something, and she just looked me in the eye and said: I hope you did an hour of shoveling for every hour of picture-taking.”
“Yeah, that was what I said, I said excuse me? and she said it again. I didn’t even bother to argue with her but it just pissed me off so much.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking. Of course, I understood what the woman had meant: she thought he was a tourist, a thrill-seeker, taking pictures of people’s misery for his own fun and profit. Of course, that would have been blameworthy, but I agreed that that wasn’t what was going on at all. Someone has to document this, record this; history isn’t made on its own, and if no one records it it will be forgotten. I didn’t begrudge Brandon his clean pants and shoes, not even a little: he worked as hard as we did today.
“She was probably more of a hindrance than a help wherever she was working, anyway,” Brandon said as we turned onto Grand. “Maybe,” I cautiously agreed.
As we parked, another thought came to my mind. “There was really a lot of presumption there,” I remarked.
“No fucking kidding.”
“I don’t mean about whether you were doing a real documentary, or just taking pictures for shits and giggles. Obviously she assumed you were just dicking around when you were really doing important work. But imagine what else you could have been doing.” I paused. “I mean, we’re in the fucking Rockaways, this is ground zero. How does she know you didn’t just lose your home?”
“I guess she doesn’t,” Brandon said.
I imagined what I would do: what if your house flooded, what if you had to stand idly by while college kids you’ve never met and Mormons from Boston smash holes in your walls with sledgehammers while your daughter out front directs the truck backing into the yard, and what if the only thing you could salvage was your camera? And to take your mind off it you go for a walk around the neighborhood and take a few pictures because it calms you and then some woman you’ve never met from somewhere tells you you’re not working hard enough? Can you imagine?
The snow was about an inch and a half deep in the middle of the road. An inch and a half: for an inch and a half in Syracuse we didn’t even bother to shrug. An inch and a half: that’s all? we would not even bother to think, because everyone knows how to drive in the snow, and everyone has thick-treaded boots, and an inch and a half is not enough to make a snow man, or to close the schools, or do much of anything besides make it take an hour and forty-five minutes to get back from the school play in the Town of Onondaga late on a Saturday night in 2009 — but that is another story.
Things are different here, and when I say things are different I mean that my primary means of transport is a bicycle. An inch and a half may be nothing to a car, but it is potentially deadly to a cyclist with smooth tires, meant for asphalt, not for ice. This morning, it was raining, and I rode to the Hewes M — the L still, still out of service. After last weekend I understand how and why it may take some time to return, but it doesn’t make it easier. When I left Meyer it was snowing, and I walked to Broadway-Lafayette, slipping and sliding, listening to This American Life on the podcast.
Winter is New York is the most romantic time — everywhere else, the snow is like a blanket for the ground, but here it’s like a blanket for the sky too. You are alone with the buildings and it is the only time it is quiet.
Over the bridge, I watched the pedestrian path (the south side, people, is the pedestrian path) rise and fall as we made our way east. No one was on it. I was not looking forward to my ride back. I got off at Hewes, found my bike and set out, but soon realized the futility of my Iditarod home. Slipping on feet is a nuisance; slipping on a bike is much worse. Even in first gear my tires simply would not hug the road. After a few painstaking blocks I gave up and started to walk, but with my hands not-so-slowly petrifying around the handlebars I had no choice but to lock up the bike to a pole and walk the rest of the way home, hands in pocket. I looked at the street sign so I could find the place tomorrow. Manhattan and… it was covered, white, illegible. I thought about checking my phone but it was too cold. I was sure I could find it later. The walk home was brutal. I put on pajamas when I got indoors.