New York Stories

I had an idea about New York. It’s a strange thing, a story I told myself on the walk home this evening, a rumination on people that both overlapped and never met, and feelings that could never have happened concurrently, even if they wanted to, but somehow did. Anyway, I liked it, and now it’s sitting there in my brain, waiting to be told. So I’m going to tell you.

First, let me start by explaining that this story is not going to be very fulfilling to you. I’m sorry, but that’s just the truth. Because it’s my story, and it’s very small, but also because it’s all nestled together like little matryoshka dolls in my head. Actually, a better way of explaining what I’m seeing would be to tell you to imagine the pages in an expensive art book, the old type with three color printing and tissue paper between each plate. Look at these beautiful illustrations, so richly colored – those velvety blues, and luscious reds! Handle the pages oh so gently. Now let the sheet of tissue softly float back to protect the art, then take a moment to marvel at the change. The memory is still there, still lovely and still, but a layer of sepia and smoke keeps it just out of reach of your fingertips, allows you to worship the idea of it without getting it greasy. Welcome to my New York.

My mother was born in Queens, to my grandmother, a native New Yorker, and my grandfather, a Nebraska farm boy turned U.S. Marine. Mum only lived in NYC for a year before her family moved to Pennsylvania, then Georgia, and eventually North Carolina. To my knowledge, she’s never even been back to her mother’s hometown; she certainly carries no mannerisms that would allow people to guess her geographic origin story. When I was growing up, people always mentioned that I was lacking an accent, and I did my best to cultivate this non-accent, to make it mine. I’d explain that my father was from North Carolina, but my mother was from New York, and the two cancelled each other out. I believed that I had no accent until I moved to New Orleans, where people started mentioning my Southern drawl. It is still one of the first things that many people mention about me. I hate it with a passion. Not the accent, just the fact that it seems to mean something to people. Many men seem to find it sexy. I typically find those men repulsive.

In college, I enrolled in a work-study program that allowed students to work a set number of hours to pay for a portion of their room and board at the school. As luck would have it, my work-study job was actually in the work-study office, helping other students find jobs. It was a little like being a matchmaker, and I enjoyed it. One of the perks of working there was a boy who came by the office weekly to turn in his timesheet and flirt with me. His name was Josh, and he was an Italian immigrant who had grown up in New York City. Eventually he disappeared to spend a year tramping in Italy, working in a vineyard, but when he came back, we dated for a few weeks. He was so warm and genuine, so full of life, and I was simultaneously entranced and unnerved. It didn’t work out, but that part didn’t really matter. We remained friends.

Among the other interesting men I dated in college, there was a Quebecois named Alex. We saw each other for a few months in freshman year, and remained friends until he quite literally disappeared at some point in my junior year. He told his friends he was going home for the weekend, then never came back, ignoring all phone calls and letters. This was before Facebook, so we wondered if he was dead. It became an obsession for me, and I worried about him for years, until sometime around 2005 or so, I placed a classified ad on Craigslist in every town listed for Quebec. He wrote me a bemused email, and mystery answered, I stopped caring so much about Alex. What I never told him (or anyone, for that matter, until now), was that one of the reasons I found him so important was that I also had a crush on one of his friends, let’s call him Joe.

I will always remember Joe the way he was when I first met him, lounging at the smoker’s tables outside of Monroe Hall. It is twilight, and his face melts into shadow, his outline clearly delineated in the yellow florescent glow flooding out of the dormitory’s glassed-in foyer. He had a husky voice, and a terrible New Jersey accent, both accentuated by his propensity to talk about three times louder than necessary. He wore an interestingly awful hat. Was it a Kangol? I think so. He had piercings, and dated a beautiful girl who scared me, and since he scared me, too, I never actually talked to him. He was beloved to me, though, and a part of my circle of friends, and he still is, in a distant kind of way.

After Hurricane Katrina, I lost my mind. I did not know it then. Really I don’t think I started to understand exactly how far I’d unraveled until a year or so ago, and only now, as I fixate on seemingly unrelated points, am I understanding how this all connects. Or could connect. Does it connect? Do we care? Flip the page. Examine the illustration. See all the fine detail. Here and there it’s odd, it seems like maybe the printing was incomplete. What’s missing here? Don’t worry, let the tissue paper settle, and voila! See, the image is whole again. Where were we?

Yes, before the storm I was in a tumultuous un-relationship with a musician. He was my second love, the one that I couldn’t quite let get away after the first one cut ties and ran. This one, Luke, was sensitive, magical even. I knew the sound of his horn out of all the others playing on Frenchmen Street. You could have loosed me like some kind of musical bloodhound, and my ears would tug my heart in a straight line to wherever he was playing. It was torture. Maybe it’s why I don’t go out too much, even now, so many years later. We weren’t together, but after Katrina, everyone was clinging to whatever flotsam and jetsam they could find, and he allowed me to use him as a lifeline. I was living in Chicago at the time, but traveled to New Jersey to pick up some things he’d rescued from my house. While I was there, he wrote and played his horn and began a romance with another singer, a singer who actually had the guts to sing on stage with her own band. I was devastated all over again, and it was with swollen eyes and a voice that couldn’t stop breaking that I took the train into New York for the day to meet Josh. It was my first visit to my mom’s hometown.

I met my friend Brandy at the train station, and she took me to The Cloisters, then to the spot where I’d arranged to meet Josh. We hadn’t seen each other in years, but with his customary warmth, he immediately rushed to hug me, then linked arms and proudly showed me around his city. We looked at the empty spot where the Twin Towers had stood, then walked to a little Halal restaurant he knew a few blocks away that had a buffet lunch for less than $5. He was so full of sunshine, and even in a city so big, he made friends like it was no trouble at all. I traveled happily in his wake, feeling renewed by his optimism and positivity. We looked out over the harbor at the Statue of Liberty, so tiny in the distance. We stood in Times Square. We watched the ice skaters floating by in Rockefeller Plaza, that ridiculous Christmas tree blazing in the background. We joked about emptying a bag of Skittles on the ice, and had a nice, mean laugh, my favorite. Before it was time to catch my train back to New Jersey, we had one last coffee. I wish I…

Josh died a few years later, and I didn’t find out about it for months. His friends planted a tree for him out in Prospect Park.

About a month after the last time I saw Josh alive, I woke up one morning in Chicago in my post-Katrina apartment and decided it was time to move back to New Orleans. I re-enrolled in my Masters program, and on the very first day of classes, I met yet another New Yorker, Dan, from Long Island. We started dating a year later, and were together for almost eight years. But before that started, something else happened. Joe came to town.

Joe’s call was out of the blue. He was going on a road trip, and planned to come to New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Could he stay with me? My first thought was to wonder how he even remembered who I was, but I quickly decided that it was probably just a fluke. He remembered seeing me around in college, found out I was still in the area through mutual friends, and took a chance that I’d have a place for him to camp out while he was in town. How was he to realize that I’d never say no? There was no way that he could have guessed that I’d had a crush on him for years, especially since my foolproof plan for not embarrassing myself in front of outgoing people is/was/will always be to avoid them at all costs. To put it lightly, I was terrified and intrigued. Who was this person now? Could we be in the same room without me melting into the floor?

It ended up being a great visit. Joe was in town for a weekend, and was the perfect houseguest. We went to the first parade of the season, traipsed around the French Quarter, went to see live music, and had a pretty great time together. By the time the night was over, I realized that my instincts had always been dead on. Joe was not only intriguing and frightening and cool, he was solid, kind, and fun to be around. I felt at ease around him, which is a very high mark of achievement. Joe also met Dan, which I weirdly needed to have happen. In some small way, I wanted Joe’s nod of approval. They got along, the weekend ended, Joe went home, and eventually things started up with Dan.

When Dan and I had dated for two or three years, we moved to Chicago together. The move didn’t work out for him, and eventually he had to move back to New Orleans, but for the next three years or so, I lived in Chicago and he traveled back and forth between the cities. One night, I was on the Clark Street bus on my way home, and looking through Facebook. I’d been trying to call Josh for a few months, off and on, and wasn’t having much luck, but he was always in Italy for long stretches, or off on some adventure. I figured that maybe he’d changed his number, or was away again, but then I had a flash of inspiration to look for him online. I searched for his name, and a memorial page popped up, complete with his picture. I’d like to say that I started sobbing, but what really happened was that the warmth got sucked straight out of me, like all the feeling in my chest was gone. I stared at his beautiful face and wondered what cruel joke this was. When I got home, I started writing frantic messages to the page admins – where was Josh?  The call came the next afternoon. A very nice guy who’d had six months longer than I had to come to terms with the situation explained to me that they’d been out partying, Josh had gone to sleep on the couch, and he just hadn’t woken up. It was an accidental overdose. The most alive person I ever knew, dead. I wish I could put two tissue pages over this. I don’t really want to see it.

A couple of years later, Dan’s job sent him on assignment to New York, where he had a hotel room and the entire larger-than-life city at his fingertips. The museums, the shops, the architecture, the restaurants, a person can live in NYC for their entire life and never really need to leave. Comedy clubs, seedy dives, FASHION, specialty cinemas (get your mind out of the gutter), so many foreign languages being spoken, fantastic Chinese food, ohmygodBAGELSANDSCHMEAR, history overlapping and rubbed raw in places, it’s THE CITY. The one. The one with $5 Halal buffets.

He bought groceries and ate in his hotel room. He watched TV. Sometimes he splurged and bought a sub from a place down the street. He had to save money, he said. Our relationship had been dying, but this behavior hurt me in a way I couldn’t express. I had traveled long in other people’s wakes, I had stayed out of rooms just to avoid uncomfortable truths, I had stopped music all-together just to keep from hearing one specific horn. I could not stand watching him let New York City go to waste.

I came up to visit Dan and do the sightseeing that I’d wished he’d do. We visited the Empire State Building, the Met, Central Park, St. John the Divine, Times Square, and a host of other places. I walked 17 miles in flip flops one day. While there, I also made plans to meet up with Joe for a drink, since he’d moved to New York not long after college.

The bar wasn’t too far away from my hotel, and I had fun navigating the neighborhood on my own. Neither of us was familiar with the place, but it turned out to be western themed, with country music on the jukebox and plenty of whiskey at the bar. As it turns out, we both appreciate a good bourbon, and since the prices were surprisingly cheap for New York, we lingered for a few hours, sipping our drinks and having a long, interesting conversation. He was showing his age; his eyes were tired. But as he got talking, the rambunctious personality crept back. I was surprised at how much we had in common, and how much I respected the man he’d grown into. We were both thoughtful, but in different ways. Joe commanded a level of passion that I found impossible to show. He was a warrior. He was a controlled flame, waiting to envelope his enemies. Next to him, I was a fledgling monk, a placid little pool. Maybe my depths were disarming, but then again, maybe not. Many days, I came close to drowning inside myself. I wondered if he worried about burning up before he had made his mark.

As the night wore on, I told Joe about Josh, alive and working the grape vines somewhere in Italy, dead on someone’s couch, now a plaque on a tree in some park. Joe urged me to visit the park the next day. I said I would, but in the end, it never happened. I drank too much that night, a reaction to having to go back to share a hotel room with the man who didn’t want to see the city, coupled with the weird challenge of getting to share a private, completely platonic moment with a guy I’d been crushing on since I was 17, as well as a nice strong dose of sorrow for the man who’d never get to leave New York again. My hangover the next day was exquisite, to say the least.

Joe walked me back towards the hotel, and gave me a big bear hug goodbye. In memory, I pressed a little closer than I should have, but I don’t think he noticed. As he ambled off to find a cab, I started to cross the street to the hotel, then realized that I was in the city that never sleeps – I should get a slice of pizza. Instead, just a block away, I happened across an all night Halal buffet – $10.

Times change.

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