ONCE UPON A TIME IN NEW YORK

September 18, 2015

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We ran through the station, breath loud in my ears, sandals slapping on tile, and everything else a smooth, overwhelming blur of white opulence — the massive chamber in the heart of the station opened up and I spun on my heels around and around, scanned the high walls with all their numbers and unfamiliar names and stained glass and beauty I didn’t have the time to appreciate. It hit me that I didn’t know the name of the final destination just as I spotted the information booth in the center only to find my feet had already taken off — carrying the rest of me with them, and the bag I somehow still clung to, and I threw myself frantically at the man behind the booth “where do I go to get on the train to West Point?!” He gave me a long look. He said something I don’t remember. I was off again and as I ran my hand reached out and grabbed Christina’s arm — the rest of her having just arrived, flushed and panting — we ran as fast as our legs could move us; ducking and weaving through the obstacle course that is Grand Central Station. We dashed down a tunnel and I overshot the mark, focused so intently as I was on putting one foot in front of the other as quickly as possible, but Tina screamed “ESSI. HERE” and I jerked myself backwards, sandals kicked off entirely in the opposite direction as I ran back down the gate she’d found, down a sloped hallway and then on to the platform and onto the train where we collapsed against each other; Christina wailing uncontrollably and me in my bare feet gasping for breath while each and every New Yorker in their seats glared forward indignantly and then the train took off.

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The night was dark but for the street lights — their yellow brightness suggesting a warmth that wasn’t there. In their light against the black sky you could see the ghost of snow in the air. I hugged my red coat to myself and lengthened my stride, picking my steps deliberately on the slippery ground. “I should have brought something warmer than this.”

“I like it.” He said. “You look like a robin, bobbing ahead.” He paused. The streets were strangely quiet for 1am in Cobble Hill. “Would you mind holding my arm?”

I linked our arms together, feeling him sway in the tall, thin way the palm trees at home do. There was no wind on this night but I tightened my hold on him; certain that he would float away into the dark night if we took the wrong step. I don’t know if he was drunk, or exhausted, or both, or something else, but I held on and M took his other arm and the three of us walked in unison, slicing through winter air that cut right back. We were all too thin then. We didn’t know how to take care of ourselves.

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The bar was old and spoke of another time but was full of youth that night. In the back there was a big open yard where someone had built a fire; we all gathered around it with our drinks, watching our breaths and the flames as our clothes filled up with smoke. Suddenly there was a cry — it echoed all around us over and over, louder and louder; the night suddenly full of shouting and cheering, then the booms and cracks of firearms and fireworks first from one direction and then from every direction. I was embraced by everyone; we threw our cold forms against each other around the fire, all crying “happy new year!” I was kissed on the cheek and kissed on the mouth and hugged and cheered as beer splashed everywhere. I thought it was the end — of the year and of the evening, but it was far from over. We walked through Williamsburg and everyone in the world was awake and on the streets which were lit almost as bright as day. There was a group in a small front yard of sorts and someone called to me and I paused with him. He was there with a group of friends, who rotated in and out of the apartment on their guard duty, because he had threatened to kill himself that night. I asked him why, and he told me about his terrible life, and we spoke for a long time. I told him, don’t give up. You can always start over. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it; your friends will help you. I remember all the friends; their worried eyes, their movements, even the sound of their soft chatter and the lights of the apartment living room, the porch lights, the way the sky seemed so open above us — big and cold and dark and bright at the same time and us so small under its watchful gaze. But him — or maybe it was a her? — I can’t picture. In that moment in my memory there’s a dark smudge where he stood and I can’t remember his face or any of the particular words he spoke, only the gist of it all. Does that mean anything — that I can see all the rest but him? Is he still out there somewhere? Or has he reinvented himself — is he now someone else? Eventually after a long time we walked on. He seemed to be in good hands. Other people had paused to speak to him. The streets were full and everyone was so young and they would speak to us and each other as though we were all lifelong friends.

Later we were hungry, and because it was New York not a block away a deli was open serving giant sandwiches. I used their bathroom, picked up my sandwich, and sat outside across the street on the sidewalk where I ate every last bite. As I ate not a minute went by when I wasn’t passed by someone, and every one of them started when they saw me sitting down. Are you ok? Do you need help? Are you alright? Is everything ok? It is. I’m fine, I assured them. Happy new year. Just eating a sandwich. One young man walking alone stopped dead when he saw me. Are you alright? WHY are you on the ground? YOU look like you have a story and I INSIST on hearing it! He crossed his arms and made himself comfortable, waiting. I don’t remember if I told him my story. I remember speaking, and then seeing my friends reappear from wherever they had been; they turned onto the block from down the street and saw me sitting on the ground with a man standing over me and both broke into a run, only to slip on the frozen ground and fall, tumbling and sliding and hitting the hard sidewalk between us with cacophonous crash. The young man and I broke off our conversation. He stared at them as though baffled, and did not offer any help.

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Newark airport is on the edge of New Jersey near the Hudson River. To get from it to Legaurdia Airport in New York in one hour you must:

  • Return the rental car to the folks at Dollar, who — when not attempting to rob you blind — seem to be very nice people
  • Take the air tram to Terminal B while sitting next to beautiful children the color of burnt caramel who tickle each other and giggle adorably
  • Head all the way down 3 flights of stairs to the lowest level, where you will then negotiate a ticket for the Newark to Legaurdia shuttle. It will unfortunately cost you more than the people at Dollar assured you it would.

The shuttle is captained by a wiry man who in retrospect reminds me of a former coworker at the frame shop I worked in another lifetime ago. He is completely unintelligible but speaks with such quiet conviction that somehow his intention and meaning comes through even though no actual language is ever understood. He drives the shuttle with the reckless confidence of a drunken sailor. It barrels down the highway into the Holland tunnel, shuddering out onto the other side where we crawl across the bottom of Manhattan as he jerks back and forth between traffic lines. There, right in the middle of Chinatown, while the car is in the flow of traffic, he leans over and begins to conduct a business exchange with a man selling fruit on the sidewalk. He cannot be understood by anyone but he gestures and money is even produced and reluctantly exchanged and the vender flounders for a bit — he seems as incredulous as we are that this is happening — until our driver begins snapping his fingers and shaking his head with a hypnotic rhythm. It gets the message across — snap to it — and within seconds a bag of mysterious brown fruit – the likes of which I have never seen before — is passed over the window into the passenger seat. My heart is in my throat and the drive has done terrible things to my stomach. The time is 11:29am; our flight leaves Legaurdia at 1pm sharp, and we’re stopping traffic in Chinatown on a Sunday in Manhattan while a madman buys 2 pounds of fruit via the passenger window from a vender on the side of the street. Every neuron is firing in a different direction and I’m frantically running through my options of how to get out of this mess but before I can make a decision we’re off again and then we’re on the bridge and the city skyline spreads out behind me; we fly down the highway to the airport like avenging angels — we slide into American Airline’s terminal at 11:38 only to find (after punching our names into the kiosk and consulting with staff members who seemed far to relaxed to be East Coasters) that our flight is actually on a US Airways plane (recently purchased by American) and we have to get on another shuttle which is just at that moment leaving to Terminal C where a very helpful woman checks us in, gives us our boarding passes, and with frightening ease we’re through security minutes later. My body is still pulsing with abnormal amounts of adrenal and other chemicals — which is my way of explaining why I then bought 2 slices of greasy cheese pizza, which I regretted eating almost simultaneously with the act itself. I ate them nonetheless.

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I’ve been so many people here. I’ve seen so many people here. I’ve walked the same paths of Central Park with family, friends, strangers, enemies, people I loved, people I thought I loved, people I didn’t know I loved. I met with friends at bars, shared drinks, parted ways, and some of them I’ve never seen since. I fall in love every time. I stay in Brooklyn and talk about free will and have my tarot cards read. I stay in Queens. The Upper West Side. Soho. I take the subway and wander the streets. Here’s where we walked after we watched a movie. This is a square where I saw my first street performance. Here is where I left my phone in the hostel and wandered for hours to try and find my way back without a map. I arrive naked and the city clothes me. I have a plan and it never works out but whatever does happen always feels like magic. I visit and I soak it all in and then I leave New York — the years go by and centuries pass. The cells of my skin shed off and are regrown. The atoms that make up my body drift into the world around me and are slowly replaced by wholly new atoms. Each time I return I am someone different but the city is still here and appears the same. It is a time capsule, holding history and memories, offering so many possibilities but promising nothing. I haven’t been here, growing with it — I visit in and out and each time the broad strokes remain the same but there are small differences if you know how to see them. When I visit the Highline and it rains on me, as it always does when I visit the Highline no matter what time of year it is (somewhere there is a time loop where I am always walking and re-walking the Highline and it is always raining and pausing and raining again on me), but this time I notice that the trees have grown higher; the grasses have filled in more; there’s a new tower in the sky; there are blooms that look perceptively different and it is almost a relief — this proof that time has passed outside of myself.

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thank you for reading

12 Comments
  1. I love this: “I have a plan and it never works out but whatever does happen always feels like magic.” Very similar to how I feel about my time in New York.
    I want to read more stories like these!

    • jm

      Do you??? Because this is the kind of writing I want to do – so I might take you up on that ^_^
      Thank you Cory! Hope you’re having a beautiful start to fall :-*

  2. Excuse me, please write a book. Or many books. I want to devour them the way I did this post. You are so gracefully eloquent, it was the best escape I never expected to fix this dreary work day. I almost feel like I got to be there with you through these adventures, I can’t wait to read more!

    • jm

      Natalie!!! THank you SO much for such a thoughtful response – it has brought a huge smile to my face and given me so much encouragement! This is the kind of blog I want to be writing and this is the writing i want to be working on, but I wasn’t sure if it belonged here on the Thread and Bones as I’ve built it to be. Thank you thank you! It’s been so fun getting to know you through your gorgeous photography and beautiful words – hope to keep inspiring each other as we go ^_^

      xo

    • jm

      Sweet – I was totally aiming for that haunting quality so this is a huge compliment Daisy – thank you SO much ^_^

12 Comments

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