Where the Streets Have No Brains; or I Guess I’m Already There
October 22, 2009 § Leave a Comment
I’ve grown accustomed to answering questions about why I moved to New York, but I always stumble when someone asks the most basic of them all. “So what do you think? How do you like New York?” The most writerly instinct is to try and avoid saying something that’s already been said; to spare the audience of repetition of something they could just as easily have told you. I can’t imagine what I could say about New York that hasn’t already been said somewhere else.
New York is an imaginary utopia that we all have in common, regardless of whether or not you’ve even been here. Times Square is an icon, a vibrant cliché spilling over with molten neon and plastic, revered by tourists and mid-westerners, loathed by locals, and finally the place upon which we all convene anyway when the New Year falls and all the grousing can be set aside for a few hours of common exaltation in the passage of, and our survival in, time.
I didn’t have to walk by the Chelsea Hotel to have a sense memory of the place. Coming to Central Park for the first time was a déjà vu; an anticlimax. Having the Empire State Building as a permanent reference point in the sky seems obvious, as if it’s always been in my periphery. Being in New York I often have the sense that I’m reaffirming things that I’ve been told or shown by others, not actually sailing through experiences of my own.
A few days ago my friend A sent me a link to Joan Didion’s description of her own experience leaving New York for California, and never coming back. Didion writes in concentric circles that wind up encapsulating something as sprawling as New York while still managing to be alienated from it; left in a corner of a cage like a shrunken Cybil, speaking in a clatter of horns and subway rumblings. She writes about the streets as if they were places you should know, as if they had a character you should be able to identify.
I’ve found that I’ve adapted this habit too, talking about neighborhoods and streets as if they needed no further clarification. Bowery. Bleecker. 14th Street. 2nd Avenue. Broadway. 59th. 42nd. Atlantic. Nostrand. It’s easy to just stop with those and let the silhouetted importance of the backdrop inflate a description. The backlog of history says enough about these places; it anthropomorphizes them with a character that nobody can affect. Radio City Music Hall will always be the postcard. The Chelsea Hotel will always be Leonard Cohen’s.
During my first summer home from college I couldn’t find work in Fresno so I had to take a job as a cashier at an ice cream shop in Yosemite. I slept in a tent cabin with ex-convicts, one who had just been let out of prison for having beaten a man with a tire iron and the other for cocaine sales. I wanted nothing more than to be at home during those days, in a place that was familiar and without any incumbent anxieties.
Being away at college felt like an extended slumber party with beer and women in short pants. It didn’t seem serious and the squalor in which it was possible to live exacerbated the sense of frivolity. In Yosemite I worked twelve and fourteen hour days on my feet, and returned to a dark tent in the woods with criminals. My first night there I walked out to the far end of the parking lot by the tent cabins and cried because I missed my mother.
Whenever I had two days off I would take a shuttle from the lodge back into Fresno and spend a night at home. My old room began to feel a little bit small. I could push my feet off the end of my twin bed when I laid out straight, and the pile of plastic toys in the closet had that same sense of déjà vu I later felt in Central Park. I knew the GI Joe helicopter and Jabba the Hutt doll innately, but I couldn’t place what magic had once been in them, beyond conceding that I had been a child once, and filled with whimsy.
As I moved through the living room and dining room things had the simultaneous sense of being familiar and not mine. The entitlement I felt as a boy was disassembling, and the assumption that my father’s books or my mother’s Victorian china had something to do with me was departing. They were becoming foreign objects, things that had been chosen by someone else at some other time.
A few years later my parents moved to a new town. Now they live in a stranger’s house that happens to contain their furniture.
I went back to Fresno in 2006. I don’t know anyone that lives there anymore. I was trying to raise money to make a movie that would have been shot there and I wanted to take reference shots for locations. I drove up from LA in the early morning and got there just as the winter sun was taking the frost off the front lawns in the neighborhood where I grew up.
New people lived in the house where I had been a boy. Where I had slept outside on the back lawn with our old dog Blackie two nights before she died, her body riddled with giant lumps of cancer. She couldn’t even raise her own body at the end. Every breath was a whimper, a pained wince. I lay beside her, the crickets chirping and the bright summer moon above, her breath knifing into the blue-black air.
Then the sprinklers came on. I jumped up and ran to the back door out of the spray. She crawled along behind me, digging her paws into the soft grass. I went back and tried to help her but she clinched in pain wherever I touched her.
Two days later, she was dead. Her body was lying by the backdoor, where she had spent most of her life looking into the living room at us eating, watching TV, ignoring each other. My brother went to the hardware store and bought a bag of lye and we buried her in the empty field down the road. I left for college a week later.
The people that lived in our old house had painted it brown and cut down the trees my dad had planted in front.
I turned away from the house and walked a mile to the Save Mart where I used to loiter as a kid. I used to steal cigarillos and smoke them in the empty lot behind the loading dock. I bought a swimsuit magazine there that I looked at the first time I masturbated. I worked in the McDonald’s on the other side of the parking lot.
I walked through the aisles looking for a bottle of water. Everything was smaller than it had been. I walked past the bakery and I heard someone call my name.
I looked behind the counter and saw an old woman in an apron, her crimped grey hair coming out from beneath a scarlet Save Mart hat. Her skin was pallid and loose, she had a black eye and I could see she was missing a tooth when she opened her mouth to talk.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” she said.
“I’m not sure,” I said, trying to buy time.
“I remember you,” she told me.
She had been my second grade teacher. This triggered some memory, but I still couldn’t pull it out from underneath everything else piled on top. I remember second grade, the apartment we lived in while our house was being built, the Dukes of Hazard lunchbox; I remember the school campus with the big lawn amphitheater in the front, and finding a can of half-drunk beer during recess and recoiling at the fact that anyone could drink something so foul smelling. But I couldn’t remember her. Not even a name.
She told me stories about what a good student I had been, and about how I had been with the other kids. She smiled and tilted her head to the side when she spoke. I smiled back. I had a sense of her. I knew we connected, but I still couldn’t place how or why, even as she was explaining precisely that.
That was the corner of Herndon and Marks, on a cold January morning, three years before I had any idea I’d ever come to live in New York. That was Fresno. Maybe you know it.