Wednesday, February 17, 2010

You Know You Need Unique New York

Congress Street, Brooklyn

Generally I have nothing but good things to say about living in this city, nutty as it is, but I had one of those disheartening New York renter's weekends that made me feel otherwise.

New York City likes to work its magic on you in mysterious ways, either dishing out surges of goodwill or breaking your heart, sometimes both at the same time. You ride the F train for weeks, feeling nothing but the rattle and lurch of the train car, but you are halted unexpectedly one day by the sound of a lone a cappella voice singing a song that makes your eye halt on the page you'd been reading and makes the world slow to a crawl. Or one evening, headed out to meet some friends, you notice a teenage kid in a hoodie on the seat opposite you. He is alone, head bent down, a brown paper shopping bag between his two overstuffed Nikes and you wonder where he is going. You are unexpectedly moved to tears when you see what's written in small type on the bag's label, facing out: Pet Crematory Agency, Inc. And if that isn't enough, you exit at West 4th Street right behind the kid and his delicately held bag and notice that what you thought were pinstripes on his black oversized hoodie is in fact a single phrase written over and over again in a tiny white text: Never stop exploring. The train doors open. You step off and the doors close behind you. You will never see the kid again. For a minute you forget which exit to take. You don't know where you're going.

When the city gets you, it's usually not on any grand scale. It comes in small stabs. It's just sometimes the stabs come spaced unusually close together.

The litany of weekend woes begins simply enough: with the weather. Mostly, I can deal with weather. Raised in Chicago, I'm the sort who is content to wrap up in a few layers inside my apartment. There's a blizzard outside; it stands to reason that the apartment's heat is not going to fully do its job. But when low heat turned to no heat, something had to be done. When the fix-it guys, a real Laurel and Hardy duo, came to drain the radiators, they goofed royally and unleashed an explosion of black, boiling water all the bedroom, ruining the duvet cover, obliterating art supplies. Attempts to read, to relax, were halted by the sound of a mouse crunching cravenly on an uncooked piece of penne pasta that had fallen behind the stove. An entire case of wine, intended as a surprise gift, was intercepted and stolen from the hallway. The thieves made off with the twelve bottles of wine, but were kind enough to leave behind the empty box and mountain of packaging for me to leaf through and contemplate.

Add it all up and it's almost enough to make a mural like this about New York (full text here) feel impossibly optimistic, a too-romantic view of a city overrun with scrooges, stooges, and thieves. Memo to self: report theft of wine to Brooklyn Paper police blotter. If nothing else, I want to see this crime twisted into some overwrought, Dashiell Hammett-like prose.

But I have to remember back to almost ten years ago, to the days when living in New York City was truly an exercise in maintaining sanity. To when my default mode on my morning commute was abject fear, and when a mural like this -- hand-painted, hand-crafted, placed there by a soul who remained anonymous -- was all that got me through the day. Plus, I kinda love that this mural correctly uses the word "stanch." What can I say? I've always been a sucker for the details.


Radge said...

I hope nobody thievens me.

Jackie said...

This was really beautifully written. I was particularly struck by those small New York details-- the ones that make this city haunting, inescapable, and sometimes beautiful.

Your prose is really astounding.

Therese Cox said...

Radge - As long as you aren't wearing twelve bottles of wine strapped to your back, you should be all right. Or as the MTA would tell you, "Stay alert and have a safe day." The MTA is so concerned about you not falling, tripping, passing out, getting robbed, or seeing a suspicious package while on the subway that they would shrink-wrap this city if they could.

Jackie - You're no slouch yourself with the prose, if I may say. I sit around noticing all this stuff all the time, and I never know why it's important until one day, sometimes months or years later, it comes back to haunt me. One of the reasons I love keeping notebooks.

Radge said...

I should also have made a point like Jackie's, loved this piece.

Pierre said...

Again a great read. Thanks. "overstuffed Nikes", I've seen them on many kids. What a word picture!
Sorry about your bad day. Heartbreaker about the wine. Red, white, dry?

Therese Cox said...

The world may never know...