The City of Illusion
I know NYC has this reputation for being the center of the world, the place where you go to turn your dreams into reality and your reality into a dream. But the actual reality of the situation is that when you’re in your 20s and you don’t work in finance, you’re a beat-up old bucket and New York City is the homeless guy who just took a dump in you, right on the corner of 39th and Park.
Perhaps this isn’t a great metaphor, mostly because you’re probably having a bit of trouble imagining someone taking a shit in a bucket in the middle of a busy Manhattan street. But that’s the thing about this place; I regularly see people take shits in buckets. Or in the subway station. Or on the subway.
If you’re ever visiting the city and notice that an otherwise full train has a mysteriously empty car, take my advice and do not get in the subway car. The train will pull up, and you’re going to get all excited about it because not only are you a little overwhelmed from the crowds, but an empty subway car in New York City is social media selfie gold. That overhead halogen lighting is so edgy against the orange and yellow seats, perfect for an impromptu photo shoot. But I’m going to ask you to use a little common sense. I know it’s hard. And I know you’ve had very little Common Sense education ever since the public school system decided that if we treat all the different children the same then no child will get left behind. It’s not your fault. But it will be your fault if you don’t heed my advice and instead take a step into that subway car. Something terrible has happened in there. Something unspeakable. Do not go in.
Actually, fuck it. You need to learn. Go check it out and let me know how it goes.
The in-public dump is a frequent enough occurrence that I’m not even alarmed by it anymore. You’re never bored when you walk down the street, because there’s always an engaging game of “Human shit or Saint Bernard shit?” to play. And while New Yorkers are fairly maniacal about carrying around brightly colored bags to pick up the business of William Shakespaw and Virginia Woof, you never see the human poopetrators attempting to clean up their own business.
And don’t fool yourself into thinking it’s just a small portion of the extra crazy population who confuses a mailbox and a toilet. No, Manhattan’s elite and soon-to-be elite also have a way of turning the entire sidewalk into a bathroom after a night out in Murray Hill. Future lawmakers wander backwards down the street, blue plaid work shirt unbuttoned and flapping in the breeze, peeing freely out the fly of their tan pants and not noticing the stream of piss that’s splashing off their brown boat shoes. Manolo-clad Stanford grads spread ’em wide and squat with the grace of a weightlifter to relieve themselves of an Olympic-sized whiz in the gutter. And every Sunday morning, you’re greeted by the projectile artistic vision of UConn and Penn State’s latest graduating class. It’s like a Jackson Pollock of regurgitated dinners, illuminating the gritty cement with orange and green streaks of $1 pizza and the forgotten remnants of neon blue fishbowls.
At least Sunday morning vomit hopscotch is a predictable once a week occurrence. Unless it’s St. Patrick’s Day. Or SantaCon. Or the time of the year when sports do sports things. But rodents and roaches don’t take days off, so whenever you come home in the wee hours of the morning, the first thing you do is flip on the lights and scan the room for the sneaky motherfuckers that think they can outrun your drunken rage. In one swift motion that makes you look a lot more graceful (and sober) than you are, you slip off your shoe and smack its sole onto the scuttling vermin, thankful that you’re four dirty martinis deep and can’t hear the crunch of its shell. Then you clod around the rest of your apartment, in one shoe, and go after the deceased’s family while muttering, “Die you bitches, die!”
Still, the roaches are preferable to the rodents, especially at the bakery. At least when roaches die in the walls, they don’t stink up the space so badly that you have to roast garlic in the oven all afternoon just to cover up the smell. If we were an Italian restaurant that served delicious roast garlic crostini with some cured anchovies, bitter greens, and blackened peppers, then perhaps the smell of roasting garlic in a kitchen would make sense. But we made cupcakes. The only garlic we needed was to ward off the ghosts of Lower East Side addicts that overdosed on heroin in our entryway back in the 80s.
But the best Department of Health inspectors can literally smell infestations and death. Before they lift up their flashlight and measure the spaces between the floor and your prep tables, they know if they should be on the lookout for multi-legged creatures that are not served on the menu, just based on how the kitchen smells when they walked in the door. A touch of garlic in the oven and my knack for rerouting the typical DOH inspector conversation to more comprehensive topics like personal waxing habits, as was the case with one particularly chatty inspector, usually throws them off the scent while they fumble through their briefcase for that big ol’ blue A grade. This is what small business success looks like, folks.
While the roaches and the rats and the shit and the piss and the noise and the anger and the stress and the greed can be pushed aside and chalked up to the basic faults of man, there’s no dismissing an island of 1.6 million people that, over time, becomes a minefield of memories. The buildings that once stood as monuments of potential eventually transform into gravestones of the past; with enough time, the city’s 22.7 square miles become a mirror that reflects the worst of you right back at you. The business born on 9 Clinton Street in the Lower East Side. The friendship nurtured in a brownstone in Brooklyn and demolished in Central Park. The life lived on a high rise on 3rd Avenue. The noodle shop next to his apartment where the relationship began. The pierogi shop next to his new apartment when it ended. And another that began Here. One more that ended There.
Here, you cover the smell of death with roasted garlic. Here, you smile humbly when successful strangers, smile wide with mouths full of sweet frosting and cake say, I want your life. Here, you lock eyes with a man and his bucket and nod, and with each handful of little pills you take every morning, wonder how much space actually lies between you and him.
Mending old wounds is easier with space, and in Manhattan, there is no space.
When you drive into Manhattan from JFK International Airport, the city at first appears small and insignificant, like a single play piece on a large board game. As you crawl through traffic and wind around spaghetti bowls, there’s a sense of wonder and pride as you inch closer to the city that seems to define success. It’s almost impossible to comprehend that so much life exists in such a small, dense place, and that you of all people get to call it home. As you make your way down the Van Wyck Expressway, a large billboard comes into view just as the skyline seems to transform from a play piece into the game itself.
Welcome to the…
Suddenly the skyline comes at you, crags of building tops cutting into the horizon like the rough edge of a tidal wave against a calm sky. You hold your breath and brace for impact, because you know that in between two rivers, on a crowded stretch of land, a force of intensity is waiting to drown you as soon as it pulls you in. Some will go quickly. Others will last a few years. And still others who were born and bred for this will fight for this space and gain strength with its swells and ignore the shit-stained sidewalks because, god dammit, this is the best city in the world. This is fucking New York City.
The City of Dreams.
The City of Dreamers.
A City of Illusions.
Brooke Siem is a professional chef turned writer who is currently working on her second book, a memoir about getting off of antidepressants, and is currently seeking representation. Follow her on Instagram and get more info at brookesiem.com.