A Writer in New York City *(NOT MY FICTIONAL MEMOIR: JUST RANDOM NYC WRITING)
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**This is some “fictional memoir” material, about my move to New York City in spring, 2019, one year prior to the Covid lockdowns.
I arrived in New York City—Manhattan—on March 26th, 2019. Almost exactly one year before the Covid lockdowns ravaged the nation. It wasn’t my first time visiting the city; my first rugged trip had been in 2006, when I was twenty-three, taking Amtrak three days across the country from San Diego, where I was living at the time. Since then I’d flown to The Big Apple every couple years, usually for two weeks at a stretch.
But this time was different. I was here to live. This time, I was a 36-year-old writer and developmental book editor. I’d been living in the Bay Area for a decade and had grown so grotesquely sick of the environment there—the same people, the same politics, the same streets, the same everything—that I felt if I didn’t leave soon I’d either implode or explode, possibly both simultaneously if that were possible according to the laws of physics.
For the prior four-and-a-half years I’d been in a serious relationship. We’d lived in a house we bought together in a little town called El Cerrito (“little hill”) ten minutes north of Berkeley. We’d purchased a Tuxedo cat, Lucius, from Berkeley Humane. At first I’d been wary of getting a cat: I worked remotely from home and my girlfriend drove to work doing a 9-5; I feared I’d “get stuck” with the little feline. Of course I immediately fell in love.
My ex and I broke up on January 1st, 2018, the New Year and the day after my 35th birthday. It was the hardest breakup of my life. I kept the house and the cat. (We agreed. Long story.) For fourteen months I cried, went on long, despairing walks, forced myself not to call her, wrote as often as I could (the real, raw stuff), and worked harder than ever. I paid my debt off. I saved up. I knew I’d go to New York City. It’d been a dream of mine for years. I’d even tried to convince my ex to go and we’d rent the house out. She never went for the idea.
But now I was free.
I remember that late March day in 2019 very vividly. The Uber driver picked me up at JFK. It was late morning. Traffic was light. Gleaming sunlight beamed off the flat surface of the East (Harlem) River as we moved west across Queens and into the city, crossing on the RFK Bridge. I remember the little click click sound of the tires rolling along. The river seemed wide and long and green and mysterious. There was a deep early spring chill in the air still. The Uber driver was African; we did not speak. He had the radio on and it was a local news channel and a deep-voiced man was talking about how New Yorkers were more than ready for spring weather. They’d just gone through the cold brutality of winter. Winter, I thought, something we Californians don’t fully understand. Seasons. Change. Birth, life, sickness, death.
The driver let me out at my overpriced East Harlem Air BnB apartment, an artist’s place on 2nd Avenue and 103rd. I had Lucius in his miniscule flexible green crate. He was too frightened to meow. The flight alone had terrified him and he instinctually shut down. Danger. Fear. I understood that reaction. There was a park on one side and a Pentecostal Church across the street. The driver pulled my massive black suitcase with wheels from the trunk, we smiled briefly at each other, and then he was gone. Suddenly I was alone. Here. In Manhattan. I was single again, as I had been for a whole year by that point, but it seemed to hit me for real exactly in that moment for the first time. I was alone. I was a working writer, in New York City. My Californian romantic notion of NYC writers—think Norman Mailer and the Village Voice circa 1961—pulsed through me like a shot of heroin or a jolt of electricity. It felt thrilling. This was being alive.
Immediately a succession cars, eighteen-wheeler trucks and yellow taxis rushed by in front of me on 2nd Avenue. The loud, belligerent, urban chaos of Manhattan, the city that never sleeps, ensued. Someone’s tire clinked angrily against a manhole cover, that metallic clack noise emanating through my brain like an audio sledgehammer. People walked everywhere along the sidewalk. I still stood on the street next to the curb, like some serendipitous statue. I felt frozen in time. Everything happened around me. Smoke curled up from a sewer.
I wheeled my suitcase off the street, over the curb and to the front door of the apartment complex. The door was black metal around the edges and thick clear glass. I could see inside, to a dirty black-n-white checkered floor and the base of a filthy wooden staircase. The building had six floors. My apartment was on floor five. Of course it was. All part of the experience, I reminded myself, and another romantic thrill rushed through my soul again. I grinned, dumbly, at nothing.
Leaving my gigantic black suitcase for a minute I did what the Air BnB guy—a Brazilian artist in his thirties—had told me to do. I carried Lucius in his crate with me. He weighed a mere eight pounds, though his thick long fur made him seem panther-like. Two doors down was a tiny hole-in-the-wall combination Vietnamese restaurant and coffee shop. I walked in. It smelled deeply of fried egg noodles, shrimp, raw fish, and white rice. The sound of food being fried in a pan sizzled. It was small and warm inside. I rubbed my eager palms together. Then I asked the short, dark-haired Vietnamese cook if he was the man who had the key for me. There was some slightly confused back and forth and then we figured it out. He gave me two keys, one for the apartment complex building and the other for the actual apartment. I nodded in appreciation.
Back at my suitcase—thank God it was still there—I opened the apartment complex door and entered. The door slammed shut very loudly behind me. The stink of beef and chicken wafted from an open door on the first floor. I heard distant voices speaking Spanish. There was no elevator. The dreaded “walkup” of New York fame and ill repute.
It was a struggle getting up to the fifth floor but I made it. The process had included a slow, heavy-breathing journey up one flight at a time. Then rest for a half minute, lungs expanding and contracting, and then once more ascending.
The apartment’s door was shit-brown. Voices carried from the apartment right next to it. I smelled plantains. This made me nervously hungry. I also realized I was exhausted. I’d barely slept the night before and I never slept on flights. I hated flying with a stoic passion, always had. Moments always passed wherein I was certain the plane would descend from 35,000 feet and crash outlandishly into a mountain or a field. Death, death, death. If I wasn’t thinking about writing or books or women I was thinking about death. Just my nature.
Inside the place was ragged and cruelly artistic. I liked it. Just my style. A dump, ostensibly, but a Manhattan dump. A tiny bathroom barely big enough for one man. A thin, narrow kitchen with a laughably small sink. A big, wide desk, perfect for writing and editing. Then a bigger open living room with a torn bright orange couch. There were cigarette holes and red wine stains on that couch which seemed to be eons old, from the 1990s. The apartment reeked, I realized, of cigarettes. On the cigarette-stained walls hung many paintings. Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory, one I had seen at MOMA in San Francisco, was on the wall across from the couch. The painting was massive, taking up nearly the entire wall, maybe ten-by-ten feet. I gaped at it for a minute, the sea and the dirt and the mountain and the melting clocks. Time. Time. What was time? What wasn’t time? I thought about my time as a child. My time with my ex. My time as a punk-rocker. My time so far as a writer. What would my time as a New Yorker be like?
I wheeled my suitcase to the bedroom, in back. The bedroom was medium-size. The bed itself was a queen. Flowing black sheets. Two large, cold-seeming windows overlooked 2nd Avenue. I placed Lucius in his crate on the bed and unzipped it. He sat there frozen, immobile for a minute, then very slowly, cautiously, stepped out of his crate inch by worried inch. I watched him for a few minutes. At last his body was fully outside of the crate, his little safety prison. He stared at me with his gold Egyptian eyes and meowed suddenly. I smiled. Yes, I thought. We are here.
Stepping across the room I gazed out the window onto 2nd. Cars and big-rig trucks and yellow taxis again. Honking, people running irrationally across the street, the general vibrant noises of anarchy and wild urban plunder. Manhattan. Harlem. I sat on the edge of the bed. It creaked. The cigarette smell wasn’t quite as bad in this room. The headboard was tall and thick and wooden. It looked ancient.
Suddenly a wave of fatigue rolled through me. I laid on the bed, my head against the covered pillows. Kicking off my shoes, I curled up into my usual fetal position. I closed my eyes. Someone down on the street yelled “muthafucka” surprisingly loudly. That low-gear rumbling sound of eighteen-wheeler trucks rushed by, and ever-so-slightly the room vibrated. Swallowing, exhaling air out of my mouth, I shook my head. What was I doing here?
Soon I felt my consciousness fading.
(TO BE CONTINUED…)