Rocks made of plastic sit askew on beds of yellow leaves in Gramercy Park. Keys to houses are hidden inside similar ones on suburban doorsteps. Most people see them through bars; thin vertical black lines with spikes on top of them and cement beneath, probably made from some weak alloy. A broomstick could poke in between the bars and nudge the top half of the rock completely off of its lower counterpart, revealing its innards and the mystery of why it’s there. This would draw too much attention though. Gawkers would accumulate a crowd if any fumbling or mishap were to occur while fiddling with whatever’s inside the fake rocks, which may also botch any opportunities for future investigation. For now, viewing them, and knowing they’re there, is enough information. Maybe they’re just speakers, or something else benign and harmless.
Gramercy Park is private. If you aren’t rich enough to own or rent there you’re not getting in. The National Arts Club is located on its southern leg. A red awning has those words in white lettering above it. Suits with brown elbow patches arrive and leave throughout the day as if it were a country club with a view of the park instead of a golf course.
Seven Elevens replace Starbuckses more and more now, and birds on tree-lined streets squawk louder than they used to. I just saw a young man in a gray blazer, with the sleeves rolled up, maybe in his twenties, approach a retail store that sells expensive clothes and begin to pray. Desperation leads people to do things that sometimes conflict with common sense, and only in a desperate situation would facing downward and making the sign of the cross seem rational. In today’s environment asking God for assistance doesn’t seem so crazy. A lifestyle more in tune with the spirit is emerging. Pharmaceutical commercials pitting corporeality against thought have cleaved a space that’s been filled by a fear of sudden death and a familiarity with the inner-self. Skepticism of science is a dinner-table topic discussed by cable-channel pundits, which are followed by advertisements exploiting the division between what we want and what our bodies want. Out of such chaos are birthed desperate situations in which an idealized entity, one who is inherently unknowable, acts as a receptive confidant.
When people ask me about my dreams, my goals, they expect a long-winded fantasy of having more money, but i’m not interested in that. I’m not interested in screwing people over or splitting up my family. I’m for love, above all. Just because I was born and live in the United States doesn’t mean I have the intention to exploit its definition of freedom, which combines democracy with capitalism in a way that places neighbor against neighbor. It doesn’t mean I want to start a company that will eventually hire a handful of under-qualified workers at minimum wage who won’t threaten my position. I’d like to respond with a diatribe on how the free market and corporations work against the middle class when I’m asked about my dreams, but instead I stumble through a list of ideals as to why I don’t have a job, and claim it’s my form of rebellion against the system. The only people who email me are spammers and Barack Obama. I click endlessly through metaphysical spaces on devices that enumerate more than my attention can bare. I feel like I’m not getting anything done.
I should go for a walk, but I won’t for a while. Instead I’ll delineate a procrastinatory cycle of trips to the refrigerator and the computer. On the other side of my door is the hallway, and down the hallway is the outside world. Once I turn the knob I’m loose, free to explore the homeless-ridden cement and everywhere it’ll take me. My neighborhood is half people who’ve been here too long and half people who’ve no idea where they are. Everyone walks around without a purpose. One guy in my building sits outside, in his car, until twelve thirty P.M. or so waiting for the mailman, who is a young, stocky dude. I think he doesn’t have any friends, so he seeks kind interaction. I see him because I’m on the go, I have things to do around twelve thirty. When I pass by the mailman I say, “Hi,” and I keep walking, then I say, “Hi,” to the guy who waits to say, “Hi” to the mailman.
This city is outside my apartment, but it’s not like being outside. Harsh bright light is diffused by sky before bouncing off of buildings and streets, and evenly filling in the shadows of a face, or a car, or a tree. Like plants, buildings grow upward to dominate the forces that give life and cast shadows on those of lesser scale. Outside seems like inside; especially at night when neon, compact fluorescent, and metal halide supplant the sun’s even blanket. The streets are filled just the same at two A.M. as they are at two P.M. Three thirty or four A.M. was the only time I’ve walked down the east side avenues without seeing the streets flooded with people. It’s when the garbage men roam, gathering things others have given them: unwanted, secret, embarrassing things that only garbage men should know about; things no one else would have the constitution to understand. Embarrassment spreads during these hours; the only hours when most everyone is asleep, when even the homeless are missing because they’ve retired to their shelters. And during this time is when the old woman from down the street hunches over to feed the cat who lives in my building’s side-alley trash area through a one-and-a-half inch sliver between the bottom of the steel door and the sidewalk.
“Could you leave it open for me?”
Her eyes are bright blue and have pockets of fluids filling the skin underneath. They match her coat, which she wears regardless of the weather, and have a large size, which seems to increase whenever they meet mine directly. She’d have to overcome about a yard or so of debilitating osteoporosis in order to make eye contact, giving any would-be conversationalist time to redirect. Usually avoiding isn’t a problem, as long as she’s not hiding around corners or gaining an unprecedented agility. But then there’s the inevitable late-night deposit, which may result in an imprisoned encounter.
The city’s dreams amass at night and enact themselves during the day, together. It’s light out, now, I’m not even sure what time it is. My apartment gets almost no light because it faces the interior of the building—other people’s windows, no trees, or streets, just other people’s windows, not even the people, just their windows. My ears tell me my neighbor just opened the door, then closed it. I’ve confirmed it through the peephole. A concave version of her is facing away, slowly turning a key, while her terrier jukes around and barks like it always does. It’s company for her, who, from what I can tell, has grown kids that visit only occasionally. I’ll wait until the hallway’s clear before I head out so I can proceed to the street uninterrupted. I’ve got my devices in a tote: the phone, the tablet, the wifi, and their respective chargers. I’m ready to go. Now, just to wait for her to leave, which’ll be a while because she’s old, and slow. The pace of this city must have run her over several times during her time here. Yet, she stays. I don’t know why. I wouldn’t if I were her. I’d have moved upstate. I’d’ve bought a house with a yard and a grill and flowers somewhere in California. I’d be in love. Married. Not alone and living in Manhattan: the center of all the bullshit this country is known for.
Somewhere a teenager is standing, looking forward, blind to weakness, with a gun to his head. He continues to look forward like he’s not at the end of a barrel, like the gun isn’t being held by someone he knows. It’s not a faceless barrel, like nature when wildfires clear for new growth, or Al Qaeda. This barrel is held by a person, someone close to him; someone who knows who he is, where he lives, where he works, how much he makes, and when he gets home at night. His mother can’t help him. She was part of it, and so was his family. They’re all to blame, and so is society, and college, and his mentors, for the situation he’s in. They all got him where he is, guided him, led him on by not informing him of the dangers of living in a new kind of modernity, full of work, work, work, and accompanied digital loneliness. It’s their fault. He doesn’t know about the world, nor should he. He’s too young for such stress. A weathered army general who’s seen the falling of platoons has a comparable demeanor. Valiantly, and stoned-face, he acts as if everything’s fine, and continues on, minding his own business. I identify with him. We have similar goals: to have a good job and raise a family in some house, and drive some foreign car made by some company who used to be domestic but had to trade because of some greedy people at the top. Fake goals. Those people at the top are keeping both of us from our goals. We’re both facing death.
“Small black coffee.”
An old Indian woman just closed her dress shop. A man with a chef’s hat and a white mustache just greeted a customer. A “For Lease” sign was just replaced by an awning and a busboy. A herd of NYU students is lining up for a shuttle that’ll take them twenty blocks south to class, even though it’d only take them fifteen minutes on foot. They must not know how to walk, and therefore are missing out on the best part of New York, which is the time spent getting lost in places you’ve never been, wandering. It’s not a place that’s meant to be seen through a car, or bus, window. It’s a place that needs to be felt under your feet, in your lungs, and under your skin. It’s a place that acknowledges your presence then tells you whether or not you’re welcome to stay, and most people don’t make the cut.
“Small black coffee. Please.”
A thirteen-year-old girl struts with a nine-by-twelve-inch portfolio under her arm. She’s not from here. Her starry-eyed, suburban parents brought her here, but soon abandoned her to the interests of a handful of gay men. They make her schedule: tell her where to go and how to get there, but never offer a hand to hold, just some vague, not-so-wise words on her eating habits and what the industry wants. Naked, her undeveloped body is subject to the teary eyes of every horny preteen and baby-boomer who has a computer. She feels lucky. She’s a professional, one who has natural, in-born talent. Her eyes and hands perform an awkward hula, from her hips to her head, and back down to her side, then together. Afterwards, she leaves. Her portfolio is a fraction of an inch thicker, and her childhood has fallen incrementally further into the past, like it never happened. Her career has overcome her. She’s now a simulacrum of the overly sexualized ads plastered on bus stops. Alone, she knows these falsified, sensationalized images will follow her throughout the rest of her life. She’ll have to explain what happened behind the camera to every lover, and the change of identity she experienced, the ethical compromise, to every child, to every feminist. But it’s not her fault no one showed her how the combination of sexism and capitalism destroys people’s lives. She didn’t decide to do something she’d either later regret or suppress so much as to choose not to live. It wasn’t her hands that opened the window, it wasn’t her eyes that blinked away tears, it wasn’t her body that got her into this, but it was her mind making the decision of how to deal with it, it was her mind thinking now, not listening, thinking about a new beginning, not the end. Her body is falling, about to die, which is retribution in her eyes, her tightly closed eyes. She’s picturing her spirit flying, finally free. Her spirit is herself, not her body, nothing physical, but her spirit, it’s untainted, pure, ready to start again. The rising concrete, she’s ready. She’d been ready. Later, a friend would gossip of her meager background and how her parents couldn’t afford a proper burial, much less a funeral, and that it took days for them to even be notified, and how selfish the whole thing was that she’d left everyone having to pick up after her; but she doesn’t care. It’d become too much, and she was willing to burden those around her, those who should have cared about her during life, those who drove her to do this by being superficial enough to pretend like they were her friends then talk about her behind her back, and who soon after her death published an editorial in a Pop magazine depicting a naked Agyness Deyn leaping from a lower-east- side walk-up. The cement cracks first, then her skull and eyes, then the shutters of cameras broadcasting what must have been an act of drugs or depression—because, you know, rich people have absolutely nothing to worry about, and must be in some altered state in order to do such an irrational thing.
“Fuck ’em all. It’s rational as hell.”
Her place in the pre-show lineup was taken by an even younger, skinnier, less-developed, more pathetically starry-eyed preteen from eastern Europe who can’t speak English, leaving her defenseless against camera-toting Roman Polanskis walking the halls of Pier 59 and Milk Studios. Her kneecaps grind with every heel-toe, and her elbows make vector points of alarmingly delicate one-hundred-twenty-five-degree angles. The eyes staring at her and her clothes gleam with wetness. They used to gleam for her predecessor, but she’s forgotten now, dead, and those she knew have moved on. Dealing with the tragedy was easy because they don’t really have to say goodbye: they can look at the images of her exposed body, which was youthful and ideal. They can remember her the way they knew her: superficially, with a hint of sexual dominance.
A production assistant is gathering extension chords. He’s gathering them amid obstructions like table legs and her legs because she hadn’t yet moved on from what had seemed to be a ritualistic removal of her makeup from the shoot. She remained sitting at a portable vanity mirror, staring at herself, even though most of the crew had already left. He’s there at her feet getting ready to unplug the power cord that illuminates the tubular fluorescent lights flanking the vertically-rectangle shaped mirror into which she was still gazing. The lights go out.
“I’m not done.”
The lights come back on. He continues to ravel chords and she continues her ritual. He wonders if she’ll ever be treated as a normal human being, if every time she walks outside people stare at her, and if such attention has improved or damaged her self-esteem. She probably thinks she’s weird, or different, not beautiful, even though she’s representing today’s ideal woman: someone who’s unbelievably thin. I’m not sure who came up with such an ideal because guys like women, not undeveloped girls, or at least guys who aren’t pedophiles: real men.
Her story is all too common. This city kills. The other day in Borough Park a middle-aged Hisidic Jew kidnapped a child, smothered him, cut him up, and put him in a suitcase before throwing him in a dumpster. The child was of faith as well.
“I have faith in myself and no one else.”
I’m on Madison Avenue. There’s a man who’s creeping around corners. He’s hiding from someone or something. I’m not sure what from. He’s weird, like he’s impersonating a movie—spreading his hands and arms across a car door while he crouches at waist-level height towards a ritzy hotel entrance. Really weird. His eyes dart skyward for cameras, which undoubtedly are ridden along the terraces, and buttresses, and flags, and traffic lights, and street lamps, and maybe even the trees, thanks to Bloomberg. He can’t hide. I feel like I should call someone, three-one-one or something, just in case this guy’s legit. Last time I called three-one-one was because I saw a weird guy wrapping a white cargo van in yellow caution tape, like it was filled with explosives waiting to claim innocent pedestrians and apartment-building occupants. The operator connected me to the police department directly, but the reason I called three-one-one instead of nine-one-one was because I didn’t necessarily want the city knowing my name and phone number and then tracking me forever. The operator knew the situation I called about was weird enough that not telling the police would have been unethical, thus forcing me to stay on the line and submit myself to the state. I’ve since set a prerequisite for impending danger in order to yield a three-one-one call—maybe I should call now, but I’m not too sure he’s a definite threat. He’s gone now. Escaped. Got away with whatever he did, if anything. I guess, more power to him. I should start sneaking and creeping.
A family walks side-by-side in a line that blocks the entire width of the sidewalk. They’re panting, tired, waiting at a blinking orange hand, complaining that no one knows where they’re going. Feeling guilty, they offer pocket change to a paraplegic veteran as a few cents of destiny. They’ve saved, and will continue to save as they walk, pennies at the tips of their fingers ready for collection. Fries and cheeseburgers are on their horizon, so they duck in for a snack. Sweating, eating, digesting, talking, then making their way back to where the theaters are by rickshaw before an early dinner at Ruby Tuesday.