“If you didn’t cut it,” says Mikey, “it would grow and grow until it was as tall as the Empire State Building.” He is sitting on the lawn chair, licking some kind of cartoon-shaped popsicle that is turning his tongue blue, and getting (of course) all over the front of his white shirt. The popsicle, despite being marketed as ice cream at the deli around the corner, does not contain any animal products. “Wouldn’t it, Dad?”
“Obviously,” John tells him, “which is why we have to cut it.” He is in his underwear and a T-shirt, kneeling in a yard that is big for this area of Brooklyn, whatever his ex-wife thinks. His shins are coated with a thick layer of what John calls dirt when talking to his son, but calls repurposed industrial waste to his friends. Two years ago John tried to grow tomatoes in the yard. Tomatoes weren’t his first choice; Mikey loves tomato sauce, but John never has time to make it from scratch, and neither of them like raw tomatoes very much. John loves, more than (almost) anything else in the world, the smell of tomato leaves, but he didn’t think that a smell alone was really worth the trouble of gardening every day. But Mikey convinced him. “We’re gonna have a thousand tomatoes, Dad,” he had said, “we’re going to have so many tomatoes that you’ll have to make tomato sauce or they’ll all go bad, and we can give the extras away to Mamacita,” which is what the basement tenant (who does not have direct access to the yard herself, and who does seem to cook a lot) has told Mikey to call her, even though John knows her name is Diana. Despite his better instincts, John was sure his son was right, because of how sure Mikey had sounded when he said it. And so he bought five packets of tomato seeds and spent an afternoon with Mikey in the yard, with John digging five parallel rows and Mikey coming behind and sprinkling seeds in each row, one packet to a row. “There are going to be so many of them,” Mikey had said, “there’s going to be a forest of tomatoes in our yard,” and he had laughed excitedly, thinking about what it would be like to be the only one at his whole school with a forest of a thousand tomatoes in the backyard. “We could tell people we live in Tomato Forest Hills,” he had said, and dissolved in an uncontrollable fit of laughter. John had had to explain (to Mikey’s dismay) that only some of the seeds would sprout, and of the ones that did sprout some of them would grow bigger and stronger than others, and they would have to weed out the weaker ones and in the end there would only be a dozen or so plants per row. Mikey had cried thinking about all the poor plants they would have to kill; he had asked if we could take them to the park, where maybe they would have some more room, and John had said no, plants don’t like to be moved when they’re that little, and Mikey had said well maybe they don’t like to die either, couldn’t we at least try it, and John had said no we’re not allowed to go plant tomatoes in the park, and Mikey had cried some more and finally John had relented, OK, OK, we can transplant some of them to the park, but we have to do it at night. In the end it had been a moot point. Despite Mikey’s meticulous watering, only nine plants sprouted, and only two survived long enough to produce any tomatoes: one per plant. The one that grew closer to the fence was scraggly, orange instead of red, deeply wrinkled, and delicious; the two of them made a Caprese salad out of it, with mozzarella from D’Agostino’s that John was pretty sure was made upstate. They had eaten the whole thing as a snack. The other, the one that made it in the center of the yard, was big, bright, round, and full from the core to just inside the skin with foul-smelling green mold. The leaves on both plants had no smell at all. Mikey didn’t ask about tomatoes last year, and John has been telling his friends that their yard is built on the ruins of a chemical plant, which he hasn’t confirmed with historical records but which seems to him like the only likely explanation for the tomatoes’ failure. After all, Mikey had been very good about watering.
“I don’t get why we have to cut it,” Mikey says.
“Because,” John says, snipping the grass and remembering his days as a child watching his father cut hair, “the city won’t let us have grass as tall as the Empire State Building.”
“That’s stupid,” Mikey sighs, resignedly. He is used to the city being the reason for so many things they can’t do, like have a car like Mom’s (actually, John can’t afford the insurance, even now that they have a tenant), or have a pig, which the city actually won’t let them do, which is a good thing because John really does not want a pig. John is almost done cutting the grass, tossing the clippings over to the area of the yard where no grass grows, trying to cover it up so it is not so obviously barren. “How tall are we allowed to grow the grass?” Mikey asks curiously. He finishes his popsicle and holds the stick between index and middle finger, like Mamacita’s cigarettes.
“It has to be shorter than Trinity Church,” John says, “they passed a law in 1733.”
“And we still have to obey it?” Mikey is shocked. “That’s like three hundred years ago.”
“Laws don’t go away,” John asserts.
“There are so many taller buildings now,” Mikey muses. “They should change it. How tall is Trinity Church?”
“A hundred feet.”
“Well, the grass isn’t a hundred feet tall yet.”
“The taller you let it get,” John says, standing up, “the faster it grows.” He surveys the yard. He has done a good job. He walks over to the lawn chair and sets the scissors down on the armrest. “Take these inside. And throw out your popsicle stick.”
“Couldn’t we let it get a little taller next time?”
“We can talk about it. You might have to write a letter to the city.”
“I’ll write it right now,” Mikey exclaims. He grabs the scissors and runs inside. John sits down in the unoccupied lawn chair and looks at his work some more. He sure has done a good job. The clippings are covering the bare dirt like a turf mat. A few more days of this heat and it will all be dry and brown, but for now, he can imagine the yard verdant, sprouting, full of life. While he’s at it, he imagines the grass growing tomatoes, a ball-pit’s worth. Seems like anything is possible here.
It is quiet. It is early, but it is quiet: at eleven p.m. facing the interior of the block, there is only the dim sound of the occasional horn a half-block to the east and west. I expect to hear the yowl of a catfight or the brick-muffled Spanish beat of a party or the junkies laughing at the rehab house or an argument and sounds of feet above, but I do not. This block in Washington Heights, far enough uptown that it is served by a shiny fleet of green cabs (the most noticeable change since the last time I was here), is decidedly asleep.
I expect to hear the rumble of a train. In Long Island, what feels like long ago and with each year becomes more so, a window not all that much like this one faced the Gibson station: not all that much like this one, except for the size of the room, and the sodium orange filtering through the corners of the blinds, and the feeling of being close to things, and to people. I expect to hear the breathing, the heartbeat of the city, and I think I do.
Time does not pass. I lie three-quarter face on the three-quarter body pillow, thinking about fire escapes and how they do not, apparently, have them in Sydney. It is four a.m. It is five a.m. Sometimes, when this happens, I am not sure if I have slept or not, and it worries me; today, it feels natural, peaceful. I am neither alert nor tired, conscious nor asleep. For the first time in what feels like months my limbs do not ache, they lie exactly where they are supposed to be.
I rise to use the bathroom. Soon Brandon and Abby will wake up, to eat breakfast and go to their respective real-person jobs, but for now the house is empty. The light permeating the entire city is not bright enough to read by, but it is bright enough for me to navigate this unfamiliar familiar apartment, unfamiliar because I have never been in it before, familiar because I have: The elephant platter, a painted gold disc the diameter of a tire, is hanging in the kitchen next to the refrigerator, its carved legs which amazed me every time I picked them up are tucked away next to the couch. When we ate dinner: remember when we learned to cook?
Even that yellow sodium light: some people might find it harsh, but to me it is soft, recognizable, saying you used to live here, you used to be here, some things change and some do not. At Gabe’s, where I ate breakfast, the things stood out, calling to me: the hot-sauce poster, the dolphin picture, the television mount, but not the TV itself (Diego’s drill, alas, is surely in New Orleans), the dead airplant, Flora very much alive, sprouting leaves upon leaves threatening the ceiling, to break through into Annie’s apartment, where Annie no longer lives. The curtain in the bathroom still hangs crooked. The fire pit is gone, and so is the table, but now Gabe is growing tomatoes, and because that is such a Gabe thing to do, I feel at home, I feel welcomed.
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.