You know that feeling, feeling like you have to apologize for being alive? For taking up space in their world? For consuming their oxygen? Like you’re not entitled to it even if you’ve worked hard? New York’s a great place to explore stuff like that.
I feel like that when I’m in a space that isn’t my own. Here in New York I’m homeless, at least psychologically (So what else is new?). I do have a bed at night, deep down in a grubby section of Brooklyn. I take the Q train into Manhattan every day and find someplace for lunch. Then I hang out in the library, next to Bryant Park. The library building feels really solid, very secure, as if it were a single piece of granite. It’s about as quiet as any old building could be in a city that roars as New York does. The stairways are enormous, wide and long, and plenty steep. It has rooms upon rooms for studying, some of them open only to privileged characters with the appropriate credentials.
There’s a huge problem with Manhattan Island: a terrifying surfeit of bathrooms. In the library, for instance, to use the toilet you have to join a club, a small club with a low-cost, rotating membership. If you’re in dire straits on the street, you can forget about sneaking into a restaurant to use theirs; most of them are locked up. You need the code to press the buttons on the lock. The code is printed on the receipt for your purchase. You must acquit yourself economically, at their register. Isn’t that the American way? If you don’t pay, you can’t play. The sole exception, at least one of them, is Fresh and Co. Their food is good, with several varieties of soup. and they’ll let you wash your paws before you order. You don’t have to swear on the Bible that you’ll eat there.
Several years ago I read about experimental sidewalk toilets in NY. They work as follows. You go inside. Behind you the door shuts, automatically. You have a fixed amount of time to do your thing, after which the door opens and the interior automatically washes itself down, walls and all. What a marvelous idea! The story at the link reveals how complex it’s been to place them in New York. Maybe the lack of bathrooms here is why everyone’s in such a great hurry.
You really have to stand up for yourself in NY. That can be hard for a guy raised in the southern US, in the fair and gentle state of North Carolina, where a more considerate understanding of the human physiology prevails, recent events concerning bathrooms and gender to the contrary.
My father was born in New York, in Pelham or Mount Vernon, depending on which line of his birth certificate you prefer. The family moved to North Carolina in 1938. Dad referred to North Carolina as “God’s Country,” which I’ve learned is everyone’s term for any most favored place, especially the place that feels like heaven after too long a spell of rural or urban misery. What my father’s experience was in New York I will never know. He never spoke much of it. I believe that he, as a Jewish man from New York, struggled to fit in down south. Sometimes he affected a southern accent. It was unconvincing; it made me wince. The natives seemed to not mind. Maybe they were too polite. Or maybe they were polite and indulgent, because my father was handsome and charming. He gave everyone lots of attention. He helped them feel better.
Once my father’s good friend Sidney Tager came to Raleigh with his family for a visit. Sid was in the film industry: his company distributed films and, like my father, he was a New York-born Jew. Unlike my father, who married a Catholic girl, Sid married a Jewish girl. And again, unlike my father, Sid lived on the softer side of manhood. His was a gentler take on masculinity. He apparently didn’t need to be tough, to be hard, even though he lived in Manhattan. He had nothing to prove. From what I saw of his interactions with his children and his wife, Dorothy, he liked being a husband and father. My father did not. He just didn’t know how to do that stuff. He couldn’t fit himself into the tribe of husbands and fathers. He spent more time with his golf and card playing cronies than he did with his family.
The Tagers had an apartment in Manhattan. It was spacious and comfortable, no doubt owing its feel to the happy family it protected along with a grand piano and a shaggy dog. They were lively, happy people, fun to be with. When my father was with Sid, he was softer, gentler, and he laughed more than he ever did at home. He was not happy when he was home with us. Maybe that was because my father worked so hard. The Tagers certainly lacked nothing and lived in good comfort, so Sid made good dough. Sid never seemed overly burdened by his work and the two men did not talk work when they were together. I liked Sid. He became my prototypical New York guy: a warm smile, a kind heart, a soft voice. I know they’re not all like that, though I see it in my encounters with the city’s men. I’ve seen fathers deal sweetly with their children. What fascinates me about New York is how often I witness tender, loving behavior. I’m an incurable romantic. I believe in utopia.
It isn’t easy giving up things you love, things you become deeply attached to, things like your work of many years and smoking cigarettes, both of which became a crutch, a stand-in for all manner of other experiences. I have no family now, none nearby: only an uncle and a cousin who are far from me and far from each other. I’ve handed the management of my building over to a property management firm. I lovingly and tenderly took care of that building for 40 years. Now it’s taking care of me.
Let me back up a bit: it is easy giving those things up. What’s hard is filling the voids that follow.
I don’t miss smoking at all. Giving that up was long overdue. Smoking is an extremely destructive substitute for something much more satisfying, like feeling all your feelings. I don’t miss cleaning dirty vacant apartments. I don’t miss living in the basement of my building. After years of making myself indispensable to the place, I’m free. At moments I feel the joy of freedom. Mostly I do not. And though I’m not sure why, I have a hunch. Stay with me.
Right now I’m somewhere in Central Park, far enough from the roar of the beast to clearly hear and enjoy one Australian man’s flute version of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. There are five older people on the bench where I sit. They appear oblivious to the music, reading their papers or diddling with their mobile phones as the magic flute wends its way into my heart. I’m falling in love in the moment. There are many such moments in the City. You get all this spontaneous, impromptu art, and it can happen anywhere and anytime. Perhaps that’s why rents are so high: those intangibles don’t come cheap.
The main thing I still work to abandon (though I don’t believe that will ever happen; once you love someone you always will) is an extreme fondness and appreciation for someone who I hoped would become my very best and finest friend, the friend to end all friends. I thought we’d help each other carry our lives forward together until the end of time. I opened my heart wide to him, wider than I’ve ever opened my heart. I thought we shared more than enough to keep us together. We lived in the same building—mine—which we both loved. We liked similar cars, enjoyed the same foods, had the same feelings about how things should be done (perfectly), to name a few. As our friendship moved on, my connection to him grew subtler, more intuitive. I knew when he was near me or when I was about to see him. Many times we echoed each other’s thoughts. One day as I walked after lunch, I massaged his heart in my mind. Moments later, he texted me. There were many moments when he was distant and responded to my thinking.
We learned from each other. We moved each other. So I was flabbergasted and deeply hurt (flabbergasted and deeply hurt, I promise you, is one helluva combination) to discover that, despite the time we spent together and the depth of my love for him, we would not last.
The loss is deeper because the time I had with him was like driving a winding mountain road, a challenging and invigorating detour from the “interstates” of my daily routine. Early on, he was my hero: I wanted my life to be more like his. He had friends, drive, destination and route. He was handsome, young, wise and kind. He didn’t shrink when I told him that I loved him. I didn’t hold back; he himself advised me not to. The whole damned thing must have been organized by God, though sometimes it felt like sheer bloody hell.
I’ve always felt so aimless. Compared to me, everyone seems so focused, so sure of everything. And for some unfathomable reason, I just don’t connect with most people, so I end up spending a lot of time alone. I don’t care who won the game. I’m not up on the latest music on the radio, or on the web, and I no longer spend my time reading about the newest cars. I do not watch television. In some ways, I’ve tuned out. What I want most can’t be bought. I’m on my own road; he was surely on his.
Though I found him immediately interesting and told him so, my love for him did not rise in an instant. I felt fear at first sight, so stern was his visage. Then we worked together a few times. I felt his alacrity, his ability, his desire to learn. I knew I had met someone exceptional, someone very rare. I moved away, moved back, and I began to take deeper notice of who he was. I realized I was falling in love with him. I knew right away that we had been together in a previous life. I knew it as surely as I have known anything. I wasn’t going to let this go. I saw far too much promise. I saw a future, richly appointed and textured. I worked hard to earn his trust, a place in his busy life. I worked hard to win…something. And I did. But it wasn’t what I thought I wanted, and it wasn’t him.
Life is so funny. I’m in the most exciting city on earth and all I can think to do is to attempt to write my way out of the biggest heartbreak I’ve yet had. The city is phenomenally noisy, yet it cannot drown what I feel inside. The heartbreak keeps surfacing. Sometimes I feel quite empty. I think it’s perfectly reasonable to want, despite my many years of heartbreak, someone to hang with me for a long while under my roof. There has to be a good reason why this business keeps pushing itself right up through very surface of my life while I’m surrounded by the endless variety of this city.
People will ask about my time here. “Did you see that? Did you do this?” And I’ll reply, “Well, no, I didn’t,” and they’ll think “Whaaa?” I’m not a tourist here. I didn’t come to see the sights but to become a part of the millieu, to see if it might be a good fit for a guy who has neither mate nor tribe. I’ll tell them that I was working on my heart and my writing and expressing myself and standing up for myself. That’s what the city, which can seem so foreign to a young guy raised in the gentler South, has been pushing me to do. I’m learning to stand up for myself, to get what I want. It’s my time now. I could be wrong, but I can’t imagine a better place to do it. Today I’m going to look at an apartment on the Upper West Side, very near Central Park. To live in this storied place has been my secret dream, a dream I hid from myself through all those years of overwork.
I just may need to be one of the millions here simply to discover myself anew among them.