I’ve Never Been to New York
I’ve never been to New York. I’ve never been to New York but I have an idea of how it is shaped. I have an idea, concrete, from novels, a novel, the novel in my bag. I’ve never been to New York but when I arrive at Penn Station an early morning hits my eyes as I try to move through waves of New Yorkers I’ve never met because I’ve never been to New York. Because I’ve never been to New York I get spit out at Tenth Street and I see the taxis, the homeless, the buildings of solid glass, hot dog vendors, drug dealers, business men, the fashionable 50 year olds conversing, idle, with crust punks, spastic, and at least one semi-famous person I recognize but won’t acknowledge because if I had a somewhat recognizable face I wouldn’t want people to interrupt my day with their mundanities either. Someone tells me I’m doing this wrong, being to New York, but I’ve never been to New York so I don’t know how to do New York. From there I grab the N train to Houston and—which, yeah, someone tells me I’m saying that wrong but I’ve never been to New York—and switch to the D and sit next to a woman crying, tears seeping through the cracks of her iPhone 4, her headphones crackle the tiniest grumble of a conversation or message or prayer or song and it’s breaking her world as we cross into the Rockaways and out the window I see the People’s Library nestled sweetly on Boerum Hill, lined by the quasi-literate waiting their turn for the bathroom, the only public-use toilet on Sixty-second street, that is, of course, unless you count the de-facto one in the McDonald’s by the Park. I’ve never been to New York but I’ve read enough books—like the one in my bag which is based in this city so known it’s like a new city for everyone who doesn’t know it—so you’ll believe me when I tell you that as I disembark onto Broadway I confront scores of traffic to catch quick the 5 train as the clock atop the Manhattan Bridge says it’s nearly 9AM and I have to be in Grand Army Plaza, the Madison Avenue side, before 930. The train climbs the Brooklyn Heights, scrambles by Chelsea, stops on the Promenade to gather up the geriatrics careening toward youth. I’ve never been to New York but we speed by Zucotti Park where the ghosts of the protesters in the novel in my bag shimmer in the rising light, the train circles Long Island once and spits people into Lincoln Square, at the Applebee’s in Flatbush. I’ve never been to New York. At the FDR Drive stop I consider getting out on the NYU side, but I’ve never been to New York so I watch the doors close on someone’s coat tails and at the Wall Street stop the coat falls to the tracks. I get off here, recognizing the gravitas, and turn onto the sunlit Upper West Side corridor of East Seventy-ninth Street, watching my back for artists and enemies and realizing just how jaded you can be even if you’ve never been to New York. Because I’ve never been to New York I have to see it all—La Guardia from the Long Meadow of Prospect Park, New York Presbyterian from the roof of Columbia’s School of Fine Arts. I’ve never been to New York so I have to find reasons, reason to and reasons not to—dying hydraulics, coughing smokers, ignorant slapsticks, sludge on food, slime in noodles, shoelace hackers and semaphoric exchanges between the heights of windows. On the summit of the north side of Cobble Hill on the corner of Sixty-eighth and Lexington a hunched man hobbles along with me and directs me to take the 2 across Central Park, just over Twenty Sixth, past the Whole Foods in Union Square, take a left toward the lower east side near Canal Street and presumably I’ll see Manhattan off in the distance like a cold water bath gone grey with the dust of this city and its habitual, daily rinse of people, like me, who have never been to New York. I begin, mark my progress with the Frank Gehry building, and emerge from an alley blocked by the mad rush of Atlantic—the street the narrator in the novel in my bag seems to be constantly traveling up and down and I see just how complicated it is to be in a city I’ve never been to, to never be in a city where all the characters of every book have been, to know the ghosts of narrators and protagonists who have walked this street, fallen in love on this street, fought just here under the sign for West Fourth on this street, the arguments and kisses that have been witnessed by the pigeons in Sunset Park on this street, the fictional shenanigans of young men and women finding their true selves on this very same bench I sit on now, staring out at the streetlight on South Street, where they’ve been. This bench here, just on the border of Brooklyn, carries the history of patients in gowns, doctors with hangovers, children with oblivious balloons, mesmerized housewives contemplating just where their husband had an affair last night, her conflicted by the city and the lights on Delancy where, if she was worked up enough and dressed up enough and in the right mood enough, this city she’d never been to could easily wipe her memory of her children and house and marriage and life. I’ve never been to New York so I know this place through the treading of novels and characters—the scenes set with the pillars of the American Museum of National History overshadowing the brisk walkers on Eighty first-Street. I could go in, see the history within the histrionics, but because I’ve never been to New York I take a right off Fourth Avenue and hit Union Square where a street performer is performing taxidermy to the sounds of whale song vowels, where a guitar strums from a rooftop and the clouds billow in and cover the facade of the Park Slope Food Co Op and I lean against a defunct phone booth. Life bustles and the truest fictions simmer in this city I’ve never been to—the lives influenced here, the scenes remembered for their reality, their vibrancy, their truth: how did Holden Caulfield decide it was time? where did Nick Caraway get his break and settle the hell down? how did Francie Nolan feel about these cigarette-lined streets? why didn’t Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska get consummate without all the fuss? I’ve never been to New York but I find some pizza slices on the East Side of Fifty-ninth at a shop with two vendors occupying the same space, both vying for my dollars. I rip one in half, make them share, congratulate myself on getting the hang of New York and walk out the back exit to Park Place, on Fifth Avenue, and realize, looking across the Hudson to see Long Island City’s hazy ball of shame in the clouded light of lunch time, that I’ll never understand New York because I’ve never been to New York. After buying new shoes at Union Market and lacing them in front of the Met, a payphone rings and I grab it up, desperate: a more desolate voice than mine tells me to meet them at the Soho Crate and Barrel near Fourteenth, their heart breaking audibly and the view of the Brooklyn Bridge from here is like a suture too far away to use and too huge to offer. I’ve never been to New York. I’ve never been to New York but the N train hurls me past the tramps of Manhattan, away from the Union Street rickshaws and Thirty-sixth Street trainspotters, just skirting Furman and the Brooklyn Bridge Park, to the last stop at Redhook between the upper west side and the first C stop and it reminds me of home. To never visit a city like New York is a like never going home, like knowing cities are finite containers holding an infinity of denizens who elaborate days with meaning and death. Inhaling: a ripe scent in the air of blossoming daisies and dandelions and orchids and orangutan sloping grass and vivisecting bees pollinating the branches of oaks bringing acorns, finally, back to Hanson Place just down the block on Henry Street near the Carroll Gardens. I’ve never been to New York and navigating has never been so marathonic and Sisyphean, rolling the rocks of midday toward the Upper East Side were I find shade, tangible shade under Crown Heights and I nap. Or attempt. But it’s a melancholic waste, though I wouldn’t know as I’ve never been to New York. Over the hovering hum of BQE, I consider the book in my bag, the one that’s been in my bag, the one about New York, where I’ve never been: would I appear in these books about New York if I ever went to New York? Would I be a detail in a memoir? a distraction in a novel? a device in a play? a nuisance in a poem? a roadblock in the middle of the street when a cab driver can’t get a supporting-character away fast enough as the earthquake strikes and the tidal waves crash and the High Line derails into the buildings of Queens where protesters are wallowing in self pity and out somewhere a reactor blows and everyone in Dumbo on Columbia succumbs to the initial blast, instantly eviscerated? The East River boils along Saint Mark’s while I consult the narrator of the book in my bag. Rumors in the air. They taste of Chinatown after sweating my way over the Upper Thirties past the ghost bike where the narrator of the book in my bag, still there, considers all the New York I should consider—the restaurant off Lafayette and Grand Street called Teleran, the art major with synesthesia on the B63 telling me to get off at Centre Street, here, the East Village. Here, at the BP gas station on Douglass Street, I finally pick up a conversation with a semi-famous person packing a pack of Camels, walking up Flatbush. I ask for one. I tell them I’ve never been to New York and they tell me, like they’re picking up on a left behind discussion, that City Hall had a bomb threat earlier, to not go down that way to Staten Island because the Gowanus Canal has flooded and Midtown is a wreck. Turns out to be Thomas Pynchon and he comments on my tattoos and insists I hit the nearest bar in Prospect Heights and tells me they have the best Manhattans in Manhattan you can get. He says its right near the Century 21 across from Ground Zero, left of Park Slope and fifteenth. We shake hands in a conspiratorial way before he sprints across the Greenwood Cemetery past Thirty-ninth Street. And because I’ve never been to New York the trees sway and the people laugh in the late afternoon glow of the Financial District as I pass thorough on Central Park South. And because I’ve never been to New York I find this Pynchonian bar and order a Manhattan, looking out the windows at the Goldman Sachs building and the twin towers’ grave site. I take my company out, the narrator of the book in my bag, you remember him, we follow every character who has ever been up Eighteenth past Coney Island, every true, vibrant, person from all the books about New York I have accidentally read without ever being to New York. Because here’s the thing, I say to the narrator who sips his own drink and returns my look without turning his head, I’ve never been to New York and it’d be nice to have a tour guide.
All place names taken, without permission, from Ben Learner’s 10:04
Michael Badger attended Harvard on a classic mixed-up transcript snafu. After they caught up with him they demoted him to a sister university, yet still in Cambridge. Which was fine. After many winters tending bar, many summers farming cannabis on the west coast, and a dubious stint in Seattle, he ended up at Bread Loaf on the waiter scholarship program and helped charge in the Great Waiter’s Revolt of 2016. He now lives in Vermont, obsessively turning wood into kinda pretty utilitarian objects. That’s it.
Image: Flickr / Aftab Uzzaman