Obligatory Leaving New York City Essay
It’s Halloween weekend, Harlem, close to midnight. My cousin and I are heading home from a pumpkin-carving party—I made mine into a hat that looks like a zombie gnawing on my head, and now gourd viscera congeals in my hair. As we descend into the 145th subway station we notice drops of blood sprinkling the ground, the turnstile. A subway worker in an orange vest crosses the platform, waving his arms at us, shouting Cerrada, cerrada, or maybe cerrado. He points to the signs taped on the walls, directing us to the Bronx-bound shuttle. My cousin’s taking photos of the blood—what a prank. A man wearing jeans, sneakers, and a tank-top walks up to me. He’s holding a balled-up sweater to his head, I think it’s a hoodie. You got a phone? he asks. Yeah, I say. He peels the sweater away from his face; there’s a wound, long and berry-dark, open like a second mouth across his cheek. Can you call an ambulance for me? He’s not a man, he’s a kid. I just got stabbed in the face.
I visit my cousin in Brooklyn. When I tell him I am moving to New York he is so happy he strips and runs down the street, and the whole block laughs at his pale, beautiful ass. We’re not really cousins, but most people from our high school thought so, and it seems easier to keep the joke going than to tell people we’ve been lying these ten years. That afternoon we walk by a pizzeria near Lorimer, and the owner shouts at us from behind the counter as we walk past: What are you doing? Don’t walk by my shop without buying a slice! Get in here! The pizza is not good. I go back a few times, until I discover the bar around the corner serves a free pizza with every beer you order. That night my cousin and I celebrate by getting drunk and playing put-put golf in another Brooklyn bar. It’s summer and everything feels electric; the cars, the beers, the streets, the stars, the AstroTurf—they all buzz, they all look like something I could unplug if I wanted. But I don’t.
The L-train gets stuck between 1st Ave and Bedford Ave, and a guy with a saxophone crosses from one car into ours. He has on these parachute pants, some colorful pattern, like a shotgun blast exiting a parrot. Add to that a black t-shirt, and a headband on his head with these manic, Cookie Monster eyes glued to them. I am an alien! he says. And if you motherfuckers don’t give me five bucks, I’m going to play this sax as loud as I fucking can! No one has five bucks. The train doesn’t move. Minutes. What does a saxophone uninterested in being a saxophone sound like? My ears ache; I don’t have five dollars for food, much less bribes for malicious buskers. Finally, a hipster hands him some money. Dumbass! he shouts. He plays louder. The East River flows overhead.
I get so drunk I believe there are vampires coming after me. I’m hanging out with these Greeks, and they keep putting shots of grappa in front of me. I take a shot, they hand me another shot, I fling it down my throat, etc. I’m young, thirsty, stupid; it never occurs to me to sip a shot. Everyone at the table has an expression as if they’re playing chicken and don’t want to but they don’t know how to stop. The edge of my vision chips like a plate; I suspect the darkness is a threat. I lurch to my feet, stumble out the door. I wander north into Queens, south again through Greenpoint. I am suddenly sure I am being followed. I sense something vampiric, something blood-lusty shadowing me. I find a 12-ft. length of wood around McCarren Park, carry it like a rifle. People cross the street to avoid me. I feel powerful. The feeling of being followed ebbs, wanes. Dawn is giving its grand entrance by the time I relocate my apartment in Williamsburg. The length of wood is now only 8 inches long. A good length for a stake, I think.
After hours, with a friend. I don’t drink during my bar shifts; I make mistakes, I give too many drinks away, and then the girls never leave, they take up all the bar top real estate and they never tip and some of them sulk when I flirt with other customers. Anyway, I want a beer. My friend and I go to another bar, closed but the bartender lets us in after hours, he knows my friend. We join a table of industry girls, all of them blonde, their eyeliner drooping like telephone wire, their eyes fluttery, twitchy as birds. I’m a hero; I buy a round. Go to the bathroom. God, what a piss. I come back and buy another round, call it a night. My friend follows me out—You should come home with me, you don’t look alright, he says, and he gives me a long hug. I wave him off, it’s barely after 2am, I’m fine, two beers couldn’t do me in. I watch him walk away, then fall down the subway stairs. How did I get this drunk? Help me, I say to some girls. They point me to the right train station and wander away. I crawl out of the station and find a church. A cop stares at me, I stumble north. Find my train. Sit down, pass out, come to just two stops from mine. When I get out of the station, it’s daylight, 11am. I am alive.
The first time I drive over the G.W. I spend most my week’s money on the axle fees the tollbooth worker charges for my U-Haul. Last time I sit shotgun, my wife driving, my daughter behind me snoozing in her car seat. As always, the skyline greets me slow, like teeth emerging from a dog’s snarl. And the way there seems to be a chasm between midtown and lower Manhattan, like something leviathan took a bite out of it. And this hunger. Whose hunger is this? Mine, or New York’s? Such a spectacle, I think, even skirting it, chugging north to visit my wife’s grandmother. That first time I emerge from Penn Station, up the steps below Madison Square, a homeless woman asks me if I have any money. I told her no. You’re full of shit, she said, and laughs. Maybe she is New York. Maybe I am.
A Columbia kid pukes over the 6th and 14th subway platform. A girl holds his long hair, rubs his back. They’re both wearing black, I can’t tell if it’s a style or a statement or some sort of party theme. They may or not be with the other drunk Columbia kids crowded on the platform. You can tell they’re Columbia kids because they all look like they’re stifling surprise; their new-New Yorkerness glows like a baby’s skin. It’s hard not to see what they’d do if I asked them for a dollar. We pile into the same car. Two of the Columbia guys stand in front of me, facing each other. They look like they’re going to fight. I’m hungover, coming off consecutive 7pm-7am shifts at the pizza-for-a-beer bar. When the train blunders forward the Columbia kids grimace; they’re not holding onto the rails. It’s a contest—who can last the longest without stumbling or grabbing a rail or support pole. This sucks, I say, too loudly. They glance at me, and one of them ups the ante, starts singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But right away they fuck up the lyrics. It goes like this, I say. And I sing. The train goes, it stops, it goes, it stops. The rest of the Columbia kids join in, then the whole car is singing “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Is this the real life? Everyone’s possessed. What a New York moment. What a New York moment. The song ends at 110th, the kids pile off, we all love each other, no one knows my name. The car’s silent all the way to 242nd.
My MFA program is in Bronxville, but I live in Yonkers. Mornings I walk to campus, cross the Stop and Shop parking lot, grab coffee from the gas station, end up standing on top of a half-buried boulder in front of my class’s building, smoking, shivering from the night before. My brother’s pea coat collar is turned the way Vallejo’s mother preferred. Mornings my professor comes up the hill, Hello, she says, hello. Class, work, class, more work. I usually leave at 8 or 9 at night, go home to write and drink and smoke until sleep wrestles me into bed. At the end of the semester, my professor pulls me aside. She tells me to be careful. ‘Of myself’ is implied. She looks sad; I feel terrible, loved. If it didn’t begin to snow, it should have begun to snow. I’ll remember it as if it did.
One night I am tossed out of a Saint Mark’s bar for two-stepping because the bar doesn’t have a cabaret license. So many nights end on rooftops here; this one, a group of us each buys a six pack, stomps up the steps of someone’s Union Square apartment. This girl strips and climbs a water tower and screams. Screams and screams, not like she’s terrified or wants help, like she’s tired of wanting to know what she wants, or she wants people to look at her, I don’t know. Someone says, My god. The string of her tampon is bright against her skin. Like a mouse is hiding there. Like you could say Boo and it would scurry further inside.
Bronx, Riverdale, local bar, swollen with locals for a high school reunion. I’m not a local, but since I live down the street most people don’t bother me about how I didn’t grow up here. I sit in a cluster of empty stools in the middle of the bar. Someone screams. Someone kicks the jukebox. People start throwing bunches; buttons, teeth hit the floor. The entrance and the emergency exit in the back are clogged with people; there’s nowhere to go. I finish my beer and wonder what to do, where to hide. A coffee pot flies over my head and busts open my friend Gunner’s face. The fight spreads, brawls swirl like eddies around me. A girl appears next to me; she takes my pint glass and smashes it on the ground. Everyone stop, she screams. Then she grabs another pint glass, smashes it on the ground, screams again, again. She stomps her feet petulantly; I look down and she’s barefoot, there’s blood stewed in with the broken glass. I scoop her up, dump her on the seat next to mine, and her boyfriend runs over and threatens to kick my ass. Her feet, her feet, I keep saying, and he tells me I shouldn’t have touched his girl, and she’s crying and asking about her shoes, and then the cops come and everyone runs away but me and the bartender Nicky and Gunner. How about that, Nicky says. He hands me a fresh beer. Gunner sits down, glass jutting out of his skin like crystal horns, like he’s some sad, magical creature that doesn’t know the way home. The ambulance is on the way. How about that. I take a sip.
Years without insurance, without going to the dentist. Then a mouthful of French fries rips half a molar from my gums. A patina of snow fuzzes the sidewalks. My girlfriend’s embarrassed; she’s introducing me to her friends who are also a nice couple, and I won’t shut the hell up about my tooth. We break up. For months I avoid the dentist; I don’t have the money, I dull the tooth hole’s edges probing it with my tongue. Then, one night, like a fire in my mouth. I go to the only dentist who’s open and accepts the insurance of the publishing company where I work. On the way there I see a man getting a blowjob on a set of apartment stairs, the kind that duck below the sidewalk. We make eye-contact; his mouth works silently up and down like a goldfish’s. The woman doesn’t look up. I run away. Abscess, the dentists says. His drill is in the shop, so he uses these tiny, fun-colored plastic toothpicks instead, dipping them into my gums, pulling them out, wiping the necrotic flesh on his mint bib, then again. I almost break his hand when the anesthesia wears off, so he extra-doses me. I send selfies of the experience to this girl’s number I find in my phone. Her name in my phone: She Plays Bass Guitar. She texts me back: damn, good luck, come to my show. 14 hours go by. I wonder what ‘home’ means, where I would go if I was heading there. The bill is 600 dollars, but I get a 10% discount if I pay cash. The dental hygienist sends me a friend request on Facebook.
I go on a date, we run into my friend. Tequila. My friend leaves, gets jumped; he gets beaten so bad the bones are rearranged on his face. Blocks away my date and I are buying tacos. In the months afterward, my friend is violent; you can’t hug him, you have to soften the way you say no. One time he decks a guy for talking back to me. Another time he decks a guy just because. I heave him to the exit, tell him to get the fuck out of there before the cops show up. When I go back inside people flinch at my face, hurry to get out of my way. In the bathroom I realize why: I’m covered in blood; it glues my hair to my forehead and falls like drapes onto my shirt. Not my blood, I realize. When I wash my hands I see something glinting in my palm, silver and bright and shining through all that red. Someone’s filling. Whose? My clothes are ruined, god dammit.
Celebrities. I physically run into Cameron Diaz twice, both times on accident and without realizing who she is. I see Jake Gyllenhaal dining in the window of a Chelsea steakhouse. In the hospital where I work I hear someone yelling at a couple for making out in an elevator. When I turn the corner I see it’s Tracy Morgan chumming it up with a geriatric couple, their denture grins like something out of Looney Toons. I kiss the ex-girlfriend of the director of Shaun of the Dead in her apartment stairwell. A friend takes me backstage to this big nightclub; she knows the owner. We hang in the VIP lounge; there’s a transexual porn star there, dressed in white, surrounded by bouncers. She looks bored and surprised and doesn’t talk to anybody. Instead, she watches the crowd, watches it roll and roll, like an ocean before a storm. My friend gets us tickets to see Neil Gaiman read Peter and the Wolf and afterwards Neil Gaiman walks around in the crowd. We make eye contact; I feel ashamed for no reason and leave suddenly. One time my sister and her fiancé come up to see me. We go to the 9/11 museum, then to a bar. When they go back to their hotel, I stay, order a scotch, then a group of firemen dressed in full gear come storming in, kick me and the bartender out. We head onto the cobblestone streets, and there’s a famous chef there, eyes bulged, hideous. Gas leak, he says. He needs a shave. I suddenly want to smoke; sometimes I have ideas that are so terrible they’re funny. The firemen reemerge a few minutes later. All clear, one of them says. I say goodnight to the chef, go back inside, and finish my scotch.
In Harlem a guy on the subway platform calls himself the Black Knight, threatens to put me and my girlfriend in check. When I tell him to go away he grins, nods to her, I guess she the white Queen, and then he disappears onto an uptown train. In the village a guy threatens to decapitate me like 1954, follows me off the train. A group of cops is waiting for him. In Bushwick a guy windmill kicks the air over my head. When I don’t move he cackles and runs up the stairs. In Greenpoint a group of men surround me, screaming in Polish, but like something biblical they don’t touch me as I walk silently through them. In Williamsburg I tell a girl I’m learning how to kick box, and she starts punching me over and over and over again. My roommate picks her up over his head and slams her on the ground. She jumps up, unhurt, says, That was hot, can you do it again? She pesters him for blocks. Please.
My first New York Christmas. I have no money to go home. I’m -$300 in the bank because the college didn’t process my last paycheck before the winter shutdown, and I over-drafted for days without realizing it. My parents send gifts; wrapped presents, a plastic Charlie Brown tree, ha-ha. I hover at the edge of my roommates’ rooms, wonder why they each have their own smell, what it is that makes them smell different. I read Stanley Kunitz and immediately forget what I’ve read. I find a hundred bucks in my sock drawer—who knows from when. It floats me until campus opens again. I gain five pounds off Ramen and black beans and rice, but I have enough to buy six tallboys for Christmas day. I drink, I open the presents alone: tchotchkes, journals that start with hopeful messages, never to be filled. No one sends money. No one ever sends money.
My friend and I miss the train back to Westchester. We find a Bank of America ATM vestibule, the kind you need to swipe your debit card to enter. We stumble in, lay down, let the first customer of the morning wake us up. One time I walk through Astor Place after the bars shut down but before the bartenders trickle out, that blank hour between 4:30am and 5:30am, when the sunlight is new and dim as a glass of water on a table. There’s that giant black cube sculpture that spins in the Astor’s plaza; I grab an edge and throw myself against it, bang my head when it doesn’t budge. No one is around, the world could have ended and I’m fucking around with public art. I try again, slower this time, and it begins to move. I give it a few spins, the faster it goes the easier it moves. What have I done? Why am I here?
One by one, my friends leave, until the friends that are left don’t talk about our ranks’ depletions anymore, except when someone’s essay about leaving New York is published. Someone calls me a hipster because I’m wearing jean shorts. Someone brings a pet fox to the bar. Someone asks if I know Alexa Chung because I look like someone who might know Alexa Chung. I get married in the summer in City Hall, my cousin takes pictures while we wait, we all stroll through Washington Square Park. It’s hot enough the benches are too hot to sit on; people play in the fountain. My wife looks great. My wife. I’m sweating in my only suit: blue wool. She looks like she could be on a boat in a sepia photo, like she could be an ad for slender cigarettes or clutch purses from back when. I feel salvaged, like a shipwreck tugged from sediment, gasping as it breaches the ocean’s surface. Not because of her. I finally see the future. I finally see the shape of tomorrow rising to greet me. A year later she’s pregnant, a year after that we move away. I see it all happening before it happens. I even see the book my friend mails me before he mails it: essays, all of them about leaving New York. None of my friends are in it.
Someone says: everyone has a leaving New York essay in them, even the people who have never been to New York. It might be me; I am sometimes an asshole. I write an “Ode to Bodegas” and throw it away. I write an “Ode to Bodega Cats” and throw it away. I look for the twine that ties ten years of New York together; I think it is hunger, or craving, or an amalgamation, something chimera, joy-pain-blah, or spectaclespectaclespectacle; or maybe it is an open window looking onto a bar’s sidewalk chalkboard, the special’s for the day: gone gone gone. This essay is coming to a close, I should end with something grand: New York teaches you to survive. Or: New York teaches you to survive yourself. Or: all New Yorkers walk to the same tempo as Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face,” all tourists clog the sidewalks like a game of Red Rover. I’ve been gone a year now, what New York is to me is already losing its edges, starting to dissolve. I think of New York, and I think about the couch I slept on at a friend’s when I didn’t have a place to stay. I think of the food my friends gave me, which filled me with more than calories when I could barely afford anything but Ramen packets and frozen vegetables. I think of the friend that opened his door when his was the only door I could knock on; the friend that pitched the wiffle ball at midnight, after McCarren Park’s lights shut down; the friend that invited me to his Thanksgiving dinner the night we met. I see my wife again for the first time, climbing down bus steps near Penn Station, scanning the crowd, looking for me. I see July 4th fireworks reflected on the Hudson, the lights above and below, the explosive calamity; I feel again the vertigo of looking up the silvery planes of skyscrapers; I recall the way LaGuardia-bound airplanes carve a circle over Manhattan as they descend. What else. What else. I don’t know. Maybe everyone has a Leaving New York Essay in them. Maybe everyone is already writing a Leaving New York Essay. Maybe the secret is that you can leave New York but New York can never leave you. Maybe the secret is that the Leaving New York Essay never truly ends.