New York City - June, 2007
mm I first came to New York was when I was 18. I was in college, and on the way to France to spend the summer working on an archeological dig for room and board. I was nervous, had been unable to relax at all on the flight from Virginia. Worse, I had just discovered I was landing in the wrong city, the wrong state even. The plane was not landing in in New York, but Newark. In my youth and inability to decipher a Bronx accent, I had bought a ticket to the wrong place. I did not then understand Yankee sense of humor, of putting two cities with names that sound exactly the same side by side, but separating them with a big river and a state line. Choking down mild panic, I struck up a conversation with a girl across the aisle, dressed fashionably in all black with a keffiyeh scarf. We were indeed landing in Newark, she said, and if I followed her instructions carefully, I could catch a bus over to the Port Authority in Manhattan. Once there, she warned me, don't look up when walking down the street or everyone would know I was new.
mm When the plane bent down through the low-hanging clouds into a dirty, drizzling rain, it was like descending into Dante's Inferno - gas jets belched flames high into the sky along a river the color of coal slag; abandoned, rusting hulks of steel from another era decomposed slowly in the vast dead marshlands; uninhabited factories, their windows ragged with shattered glass, staring out with cadaverous eyes, graffiti and garbage creeping up their sides like toxic lichen. It was not a great first impression.
mm I remember coming up out of the Port Authority bus station, lugging a backpack, wearing old cowboy boots, jeans and a flannel shirt. I looked up immediately. I got maybe thirty steps before some guy grabbed my backpack, lifting it over his head, and took off with it through traffic. He was yelling at me over his shoulder, would stop suddenly next to a cab, yell at the driver and slam his hand down on the hood, then take off again in another direction. Everything I needed for the trip - passport, money, plane tickets - was in that bag, so despite the voice in my gut that said "If you chase him down, you will die," I ran after him, trying to keep my bag in view, weaving across lanes of stalled, honking cars. Suddenly he stopped again, swung my bag down and stuffed it in the back of a cab, then he started waving frantically at me. As I approached he yelled something I couldn't understand in a thick, fast bronx accent. He was getting more angry the longer I stalled. Finally I realized he wanted 3 bucks for finding me a cab. He got more pissed when I didn't want the cab, and he still wanted the 3 bucks. Said he wouldn't give me my bag back until I paid him, but the cabbie got out and started yelling too and the guy ran away, leaving the cabbie to apologize and fish the bag out for me.
mm I had no money in those days, so had arranged to spend the night with some friends before catching the international flight out early the next morning. They were in college, too, at Columbia; a really nice couple, who later married. He was a grad student, she was an English major who transferred from my school to be with him, which is how I knew them. They were broke as well, and lived in a one room flat near the East River, but offered to let me sleep on the floor when they heard I was passing through. I hiked over to their place - a mile, maybe two - since I couldn't afford a cab, was afraid I'd get lost in the subway, and didn't want to take any more chances. It felt safer on the street; and besides, there was plenty to see.
mm It was early evening when I finally found their apartment. I was still a little shaken, but once inside felt at ease immediately. They made spaghetti, and we took our plates out on the fire escape, with a loaf of crusty bread and a bottle of wine. There, high above the street as darkness fell, and the evening rush hour waned, I watched the yellow cabs streaming slowly down the narrow streets below, luminescent, like schools of goldfish in a japanese garden.
mm He was an astronomy major, and would go on to get a Phd. Once, over Christmas break, I and another friend spent a weekend with them at his parents' cabin in the mountains of Virginia. He had built a platform in the field and put a huge homemade telescope on it, and it was there, standing waist high in the cold and frosted grass, that I'd seen the rings of Saturn for the first time.
mm She was a poet, and it was with her eyes that I saw the city that night. I knew her work from writing classes we'd had together, and she was very good. I remember reading some of her new work, there in the almost dark on the fire escape, with all the strange noises echoing down the canyons. She was a really calm and generous person, and seemed only more so immersed in such a loud and aggressive place.
mm That night I had a hard time sleeping. Too much excitement for one day, and more to come the next. From where I lay on a mattress on the floor, a view of the Chrysler Building completely filled the windows. It was lit up brightly with different colors that changed, depending on the season - green and red at Christmas, RedWhiteAndBlue for July 4th, etc.. There were no curtains on the windows, so I lay awake most of the night watching the lights bloom from one color to the next; it lit up the whole room.
mm He later became somewhat famous, working with a team who determined that the density of the Universe resembles a sponge. He also was totally into String Theory, which I still don't understand. She went on to publish some, and teach. And they had kids. I read recently that she died from breast cancer, two years ago this month.
mm I'm remembering all this, thirty years later, because just now, walking back to the hotel with my take-out dinner, I was crossing 5th Avenue and looked up there was the Chrysler Building, all lit up. Immediately, all these memories began tumbling through my head again. I crossed the street, and on the next block, on an empty side street, I came to a store with a big awning hanging over the sidewalk. All it said was "Dreams 99¢" and below that, in smaller letters, "Specials 79¢." It was locked up tight, with steel gates and padlocks across the front, and dark, like it had been closed for a very long time.
Barry L. Long
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