New York City
New York City
My first trip to New York was not at all like the other road trips I have taken. During high school, I traveled by bus with a bunch of other high school students. It was miserable; there were drugs, boozing, and oral sex, at least one of which took place directly behind my seat while I was napping. Other kids were kicked out of the musical ensembles with which they were traveling in order to compete in whatever regional event happened to take place near an affordable beach or theme-park, but I wasn't. I was reading a book.
Pardon me, I digress. Most of my other road trips were by car, book in hand and my mother in the driver's seat, or book in duffel bag and I driving two or three hours with or without a few friends. My New York trip was by bus. My fellow passengers were tamer, and Jesse, the only woman with whom I have ever had a substantial relationship, was my very favorite bus-mate.
There is a paradox in all of this. Driving one's self across a reasonable distance affords one a degree of control over his immediate fate, which can be mistaken for independence. Purchasing a ticket for a bus ride strips the passenger of anything that can be mistaken for independence. The bus driver may, if she so chooses, pull over at a truck stop for an hour at a time in order to rest her pedal foot. In that time, she may elucidate the plight of the non-unionized population of bus drivers, bemoan the infrequency of convenient break scheduling, and spend a great deal of time on her cellular telephone. On the other hand, said passenger may have chosen a companion for said bus ride which would culminate in a weekend in the big city, planned in collaboration with said companion. This is very adult behavior and, by extension, independent. Hence, paradox.
When we arrived in New York City, Jesse and I were hungry. Jesse had spent a great deal of the bus ride and a portion of the weeks preceding the trip praising the quality of the diverse cuisines in the Big Apple, but having arrived in an unfamiliar city we ducked into the first restaurant we saw that might have served sandwiches and salads. We found well-made sandwiches and salads in plastic containers lining the checkout line adjacent a buffet and a small staircase leading to an upper level crowded with small green and purple tables. Our rolling suitcases pinballed between feet and chairs in the narrow aisles between seated city-dwellers. We had arrived.
I remember that late lunch well; my road companion and I purchased meals in shifts so that our bags would not be bothered, and I wrote a poem about a salted almond. Between the lettuce and the left-out avocado, Jesse remembered that she'd left her cell phone on the bus. After we wrapped up, we hurried from Bolt Bus stop to Bolt Bus stop in a vain effort to hail the driver of our ill-fated vessel. Such an eventful afternoon seemed to jibe with my notion of the typical condition of the New Yorker; hurried, anxiety-ridden, a little chilly, and only vaguely satisfied by lunch. I've come to believe that this image of the city person, popularized by Hollywood movies and Saturday-morning cartoons, is really only true of the business-person or the tourist. For the most part, people who live in the city seem fairly relaxed. Jesse and I, on the other hand, must have seemed manic to the objective observer.
Everyone in New York, Jesse had told me weeks before, was beautiful and well-dressed. Everyone was young or acted young, and nobody had anywhere to be. People only moved to New York if they wanted to be artists or performers. Inevitably, they failed and spent most of their time wandering between bars and cafés. They did not care where they were going or where they were coming from, because they all had trust funds and very expensive shoes.
We went to New York during the spring. We could go anywhere we pleased because we were on teacher schedules and it was spring break. We did not have trust funds, and could only sustain the lifestyle of cab-fairing and eating out for a few days. We were reasonably well-dressed, because Jesse was always well-dressed and I had neglected to bring a jacket which necessitated the purchase of a substitute at H&M. We had a degree of anxiety about navigating an unfamiliar subway system, and wheeled unwieldy suitcases around when we were between hotels. Depending on where we went in the city, we fit right in.
I rarely have the sensation of being a tourist in Washington DC. I know how to use the subway, I rarely carry a bag of any sort, and I haven't been to a monument in several years. The essential differences between a tourist and a human being become apparent when comparing one's experience in a city accessible by twenty minute drive from one's home and a comparable experience in a city that is a four hour bus ride away: a person does or does not look like a tourist depending on where he is, where he is going, how confidant he is in going there, and whether or not he is carrying luggage. Fully aware that it is often preferable to appear to belong, Jesse and I favored New York's bohemia to its Times Square.
If, on the other hand, the hallmark of the non-tourist is a degree of authority, then there was a moment in Times Square where I asserted just that. As Jesse and I shuffled through the shoulders and elbows of the densest part of the city during mid-afternoon, I overheard a very touristy conversation about Spider-Man. Spider-Man is an icon of American culture, and these particular tourists were from overseas. There must have been something about my confidant gate that intimated that I might have some knowledge about precisely where in fictional New York Spider-Man lived, and so the most inquisitive of this group of three or four tourists turned around, tapped my shoulder, and looked me straight in the eye.
“Does Spider-Man live here?” He asked.
“No,” I replied. “He lives in Queens.”
With that, I was a New Yorker. As he thanked me and disappeared into the crowd, my elation was undercut by uncertainty. I was getting hungry, and had no idea where to go for a good sandwich.
Jesse eventually recovered her cell phone. Later that evening, too may hours after it had been lost, her brother David convinced her to call the Bolt Bus company offices, where a customer service representative re-assured her that this sort of thing happened all the time, and that the bus drivers who had been in and out of our bus that day would be informed. The cell phone could be shipped to her within a week or so. This meant that for the duration of our adventure in the big city my phone was our only means of communication, as the use of a pay-phone at all was entirely out of the question. Our capacity for independent activity curtailed as it was, we would be inseparable for the remainder of our travels. This had been the idea anyway, but I was inclined to appreciate the measure of added personal security.
I love Jesse, and quite like spending time with her. Ultimately, though, my relief had much less to do with my preference for moving about in a unit of two than a facet of the condition of being me that has proven unchangeable for roughly the entirety of my natural life thus far: I am absolutely terrified of ever finding myself solely responsible for my own well-being.
I have a vivid, and very embarrassing, memory of being ten years old. (I don't really know how old I was, but ten seems old enough to make the story plausible and young enough still to cast it as somewhat less humiliating.) I was riding my bicycle, following my friend Nick Saltimachia, who I trusted to lead me safely back from the park to our neighborhood where we lived roughly half a block apart. Wanting to show of, Nick sped away from me approximately four blocks away from the house I'd lived in since I was three years old, and I lost sight of him. I panicked. I was devastated, disoriented, and betrayed. For something like five minutes, I entertained the possibility that I would never find my way back, and that I should perhaps stay precisely where I was on the chance that some neighbor that recognized me would be kind enough to lead me home.
My panic was, as it often is, entirely unjustified. I had been walking exactly the same route home from school since I was in the first grade, and had often walked the shorter distance to and from the park with any of several groups of friends throughout the years. I had panicked, I think, because I had been suddenly abandoned. Because I saw a different neighborhood all together from on top of a bike than the one I was accustomed to seeing on foot. Eventually I gathered myself and simply rode the bike back home, but I never stopped feeling a twinge of panic every time I found myself in unfamiliar circumstances without someone present who I could trust to know what was going on.
I am five feet and ten inches tall, and weigh one-hundred seventy-five pounds. I am reasonably intelligent, athletic, have studied several martial arts over eleven years, and in New York City I only felt safe in the company of my four-foot ten girlfriend who becomes distraught if her body weight ever creeps in to the triple digits. One evening, while bar-hoping with her brother David and three or four of his friends, Jesse and I ended up in different taxi cabs for a trip from one bar to the other. With a great deal of effort, I concealed the twinge of panic I always feel by participating enthusiastically in the conversation between David and two of his friends that were in the cab next to me. I have absolutely no idea what we talked about, but remain confidant that I seemed entirely comfortable to everyone else.
I met Jesse's brother David for the first time outside of our hotel in Brooklyn. After we checked in, Jesse called her brother to see if he'd meet us for a tour. It was unseasonably cold, and because we'd packed for the season I purchased a gray hooded sweatshirt from H&M right off the bus. The hoodie had two pockets and a zipper in the front. I'd never had a hoodie before but this one was comfortable as well as functional, and so I warmed up to it as I warmed up in it. Jesse, on the other hand, wasn't dressed for the rain. David and I became acquainted on an impromptu shopping excursion when his sister asked him where to buy clothes immediately after we met outside the hotel.
It was strange, or it seemed to be, to find myself small-talking with David while he watched his sister shop for clothes and I watched my girlfriend do the same. When shopping Jesse becomes entirely lost in the thrill of the chase. David seemed to be someone who was always at ease no matter the company he was in, and so I pretended to be comfortable with David. He would sometimes indicate to his sister that a given raincoat was “fine,” and I would defer to his judgment. Jesse paid us little mind, except for when David would direct us to another store where there might be a suitable raincoat. All the while, David would offer sage bits of New York City lore: “we can get a cab a few blocks up,” “don't ever stop to pick up a penny on a New York sidewalk,” or “I'm gonna stop for a 'slice.'”
When we'd done quite enough searching for a raincoat, we decided to cab it to David's apartment. This apartment was famous for Jesse's mother's appraisal of it as “tiny, crowded, way too expensive, but pretty nice.” It was a little on the small side, and David had three roommates. One was a large, robust fellow with a brown beard who seemed to keep irregular hours, and another was a more reserved red-haired fellow who had a gentle manner and an affinity for Domino's Pizza. I do not remember either of their names, but they weren't there on our first visit anyway. Gish was. David knocked on his door, called “Gish!” a few times, and Gish rolled out of his bed and into the common room wearing, if I remember, no shirt at all.
If I've got it straight, (and really, who knows), Gish was a high school friend of David's who moved to New York ahead of him. He'd been employed at one point, but had since conformed to Jesse's notion of the young New Yorker. He spent his time eating out and smoking weed, having come into a great deal of money as a consequence of being born to his particular parents.
“This is my sister, Jesse, and her boyfriend, Paul.” David offered.
I extended my hand. “Nice to meet you,” I said, and Gish replied in kind. Gish had fairly short, tousled dark brown hair and was considerably thinner than I was. That said, he was by no means unhealthy. He was wearing a little bit of stubble for a beard, and struck me immediately as a genuinely kind person.
“What are you guys getting into today?”
David spoke for us. “Not a lot. We were probably going to go check out the Botanic Gardens and then go get some sushi. You should come along.”
“Yeah, Gish. Come with us!” Jesse knew Gish well enough to posit that he would, in fact, be good company.
“I don't know. Doesn't it cost money to get into the Botanic Gardens? I'm trying to save some cash.”
Inevitably, the conversation turned to our professional status. Jesse and I told him just enough about our jobs, but Gish had even less to talk about. “I'm just kind of hanging out,” he said.
“Tell them about our business idea,” David chided.
“No, that's ok.”
“Come on! Tell them about our idea!”
“Well,” Gish began, “I know that David's really good at the directing and producing stuff, but I think I know a lot more about the business end. Besides, I have more time. I was thinking that there are a lot of companies out there who need videos. They could be commercials, informative videos on YouTube, viral, or whatever, but there are a lot of companies out there who would throw a couple thousand dollars down on a video if they knew it was worth their time. So I find the companies, market our product, and David shoots the video.”
“Yeah, and I've gotta pay you a percentage,” David said.
“I think it's a good idea. I could get you more business, and it'd be really good for both of us.” The sticking point seemed to be that David was less than enthusiastic about paying Gish a finder's fee.
Eventually we got Gish to agree to “maybe” accompany us to dinner later in the evening. As we were leaving, David said “damn Gish. He has so much money. I don't know what he's talking about; he hasn't worked in forever but he never has trouble making rent or buying weed.”
David was one of those rare people that moves to the big city to do film and has a modest amount of success. Jesse's younger brother by two years, David is a man of medium height and medium build. He has dark blond hair and a beard, both of which were, during this particular weekend, well kept. His father has a fondness for still photography. David resembles his father, but prefers film.
Upper middle-class son of a Jewish mother and a father raised in the Episcopal church, David has directed music videos that have appeared on BET. In the video for DR by Papa Doc, an artist for Universal Records, Papa Doc waits until his lady has left their shared apartment to put on his gold chains and dark aviator glasses. While his girlfriend is at work, Papa Doc raps and sings auto-tuned verses about how he would like to “go to DR, baby, but [he] don't know how to tell [his] lady.” During this time he visits a dance club, drinks from liquor bottles and plastic cups, has a pillow fight on his bed with several scarcely-clothed women, dances erotically, and waves his hands back and forth. When his lady returns to their crib, Papa is sitting in his pajamas reading the newspaper. Said lady tells Papa about her day at work, asks whether he has something to tell her, and Papa replies in the negative. When the unnamed girlfriend hugs Mr. Doc and kisses him on the cheek, Papa shrugs, raises his hands, and shoots a look of resignation at the camera while the joke is played off by the kind of sitcom ditty that you'd hear at the end of a Leave it to Beaver episode as the camera wipes to a black screen. David has also directed a commercial for Target, one for a local liquor store, and is working on a documentary about college quidditch clubs. After a year of initial poverty, David is keeping busy with plenty of commissioned work and making roughly two-hundred fifty percent of my highest annual salary to date.
There is a photograph that Jesse took at the Botanic Garden that frames both David and myself in a scene by a few non-budding trees. I am looking in one direction, David is looking off in another, and it is unseasonably cold. That is to say, I believed at the time that it was unseasonably cold, having never been to New York during that or any other season. It was Spring, it was cold, and it was wet.
In Washington DC, one may visit the Botanical Gardens free of charge. In Brooklyn, admission to the Botanic Garden costs five dollars. You do get a helpful little map in the Botanic Garden, but if it is unseasonably cold you will have paid five dollars for admission to a nature walk where the landscape is dominated by browns, vaguely purple purples, and plants otherwise not in-bloom. Earlier that same day I had been inspired to poetry by a small tin of salted almonds in a sandwich place; I found nothing quite so inspiring in the Botanic Garden.
Jesse and David had come with cameras, and were snapping photographs. “There's not really much that's worth photographing,” someone observed. Sure, there was a cluster of marginally healthy flowers here and there, the odd interestingly-shaped log, but nothing really to elevate the soul.
David said, “remember when Dad used to make us all pose for pictures when we were kids?”
“Yeah,” Jesse replied. “I remember when he set up the tripod, put the camera on a timer, and when he came to pose with the family Mom had us all run away. That was hilarious!”
“He's so into photography now that it's annoying. He's not any good at it either.”
“He used to be, though.”
“Oh yeah, he used to be really good. I don't know what happened to him. I don't know how he doesn't notice that his pictures aren't any good anymore.”
Just then I began to realize that I'd come into the picture well after the beginning. I didn't remember when Jesse's father had been a good photographer. I can't say that I remember the rest of that evening very well. We finished with the Botanic Garden, David showed us a very nice park, and we wanted to go on the carousel but it was closing as the clocked rolled over to five pm. We took a cab and met Gish for sushi, took another cab to a bar where the present singles experienced the requisite sexual tension, and Jesse and I made our way back to the hotel after a long day of travel and sight-seeing. Still ahead of us was a trip to a bookstore with an in-store print-on-demand service, a pilgrimage to the Shaolin Temple USA, and the hunt for a good bagel. We had to go to Times Square, see an art museum, and go into gothic-themed oddity shops that sold bleached deer skulls and magical crystals. This was the end of the first day of our second vacation as a couple.