1. An Introduction
There’s an old New Yorker cartoon of a man and woman sitting on a pier with all of Manhattan behind them. In the caption, the man says, “What I like about New York, Claudia, is you.” This appeared in the magazine long before I came to the city, long before I had these kinds of moments with various potential Claudias of my own, and long before the heartbreaks started.
Eventually I learned that the city itself breaks your heart, not by outright rejection but rather by an ongoing casual and total disregard for your affections. The city has taken from me personally certain parts of itself that I loved dearly. The felafel shop with four stools where R. and I ate after a movie. The bench in Central Park where A. and I would have lunch every Tuesday until one time I forgot. Even the sunlight hitting a particular corner of 14th Street and Sixth— a corner that’s now always in shadow beneath a new high-rise. The sun will never fall the way it did one morning as I said goodbye to B. at the F train.
New York now is to walk among these ruins and to be a New Yorker is to carry these tragedies in your head, to feel maybe the past more sharply than the loss. So I find it’s impossible not to hype up my own tragedies until they’re proportional to the city itself. A city where I no longer live, deepening in shadows under earlier sunsets, a city that no longer promises I’ll ever find myself on the pier, with Claudia, at last.
2. Madison Square Park
In the early 90s, B. and I used to have lunch in Madison Square Park several times a week. She had a boyfriend, but our flirtation at work had become a real affair that spring and by summertime we were spending a lot of carefully negotiated time together. (She eventually married the boyfriend.) We spent those lunches — a summer of lunches! — telling each other everything. I told her things I was dying to tell someone and in a way it ruined me. I failed to break them up and, even more drastically, failed to get out early.
For a few years I avoided the place completely. Then I got a job at a studio that overlooked the park. Our windows faced the side of the park where the old Madison Square Garden used to be, where Harry Thaw shot Stanford White for having an affair with his (Thaw’s) wife. I’d sit and look out at the evening as the winter light fell early on the brown glass-box skyscraper that’s there now, and wonder if certain places in the city are just bad fucking luck.
3. Howard Johnson’s Times Square
It’s gone now. And to be completely honest I only went there twice, when I was living in Hell’s Kitchen. But it was a real Howard Johnson’s restaurant, in the heart of Times Square. In the afternoon there was a steam table in the back with pans of sauerkraut and hot dogs cut into bite-sized pieces. A group of us went after work. We were working on a zine — this was 1996 — and I’d called a staff meeting there. “Staff meeting”: an excuse for the kitsch of terrible food and lousy ice cream among tourists. What’s remarkable now is not that Howard Johnson’s is gone, or even that it was there in the first place. It’s that staff meeting. Ten of us, maybe? How industrious we were, how silly and unconcerned. A year or two later something crested and we got very uptight about irony and after that fun was harder. New York takes from you the person you used to be and you never see it coming. Suddenly the places where you were young are gone, and all that’s left are streets and avenues laid out like a latitude and longitude of your old self, as if you could ever find your way back to the places where you used to be so free, and so young, and so free.
4. The 7 Train from Shea
We went to a Mets game with tickets I got from my job. Just her and me, no other co-workers. It was a night game in early summer, before we started fighting a lot. It was warm out. After the game we took the 7 train back to the city. We were both standing, holding onto the pole. Her hand was a little higher up than mine. And somewhere in Flushing, she just, she reached out with two fingers and entwined them with mine, and we rode the train like that for a while.
5. The Plaza at Lincoln Center
Whenever someone asks me what was my best meal ever, this is what I tell them:
Deep in the summer of 1997, A. and I went to Midsummer Night’s Swing on the plaza of Lincoln Center, where the fountain is. The band was Brave Combo, who I loved, and we took the cha cha lessons and then danced while the band played. It was hot out, late summertime. It took hours for the sun eventually to go all the way down. When it finally got dark the fountain lights came on. Then the music and dancing were over. At the curb was a taco truck — a plain, silver boxy truck. Hungry from dancing, A. and I sat on the steps of the plaza and ate greasy $2 tacos and drank cold Jarritos as the evening cooled and deepened and I almost, almost fell in love with her. She figured this out a month or so later at a wedding where we didn’t dance very much. She was so mad at me. Each time it’s a different form of cowardice. For a long time I felt guilty and avoided thinking about it, the night of dancing and the dinner of tacos. Now I do think about it, once in a while, if I happen to be up there, and it’s summer, and I’m by myself and feeling hungry.
6. Hungarian Pastry Shop
This one is still there. The pastry is still dry and the coffee is still awful. I go back any time I’m even remotely close to the neighborhood. Somehow, maybe because it’s unchanged, the Hungarian is one of the few places where I feel like I can forgive my younger self. The undergrads you see there now are just like I was: frowning and serious over Penguin Classics, making neat little check marks in the margins. One fall afternoon, 1991, I was sitting at a table in the back next to the bathroom reading Nostromo for a seminar when L. sat down at the table next to me. I was so agonizingly 20-year-old in love with her that I didn’t even speak to her except to say hi. What’s changed, really?
The old guys who used to seem like thinkers with heavy projects are still there, but now they just seem like old men carrying too many newspapers. I never became the grad student I thought I wanted to be, but it seems foolish, after all, to obligate oneself to a future romanticized by a 16-year-old. At least at the Hungarian, sitting in the back with the same hamentash and bitter coffee, I can think about how, even for all my failures, what I thought would happen really didn’t have to happen, not in the way I thought it would at all. Which was lucky, mostly, I guess.
7. Eisenberg’s Coffee Shop
Sooner or later, this is what you’ll overhear at Eisenberg’s:
A guy, late 30s or a little older, hair thinning, will be explaining to a younger, more attractive woman just what the Eisenberg’s magic is. You’ll be tempted to say she’s out of his league, and frankly she is, and chances are he knows it because you always know it. The conversation will be halting, driven by an earnestness that’s embarrassing to sit next to. Just by telling her she should get the pastrami with an egg cream, he’ll make something true sound obvious and therefore corrupted and lame.
The thing is, of course, there is no magic. There is only the plain matter-of-fact of the red stools and the marbled counter and the charred-grease black of the grill. It will be clear that this guy wants desperately for the young woman to understand what this place means to him. It’s a mistake I’ve made more or less every day of my life, romanticizing that which does not improve by being romanticized. And it’s a terrible test to give a woman: to want her to start loving, suddenly and on a random (to her) Tuesday lunch hour, the same things you’ve loved for so long. Terrible, desperate, ridiculous. But still, if you’re not embarrassed by your love of a thing, you’re maybe not loving it hard enough.
8. East 12th Street
The things we did together. Having lunch. Writing letters from work trips. Leaving the office together and separating on street corners. Nothing, really, but a nothing that was special and great. Working late on the twelfth floor, watching the snow fall on Broadway. It was pitch dark and the office was empty but it might have been only seven o’clock. I went to a therapist for a few months, entirely to prove to her that I wanted to be a better person. I have no idea if I was — I was only 23. My roommate Tony told me later that when she went on vacation, I checked my voicemail every 10 minutes, calling in to the landline, to listen to the one message she’d left.
I said it ruined me but not fatally or even permanently so I guess that really means she changed me. She was — is, maybe, still — my Claudia. She was such a big part of then, and my New York is the New York of that time. The time of no money and smoking in bars and having no idea how soon and how different the the future was going to be. The time of wanting so badly something I would never get.
But it was also the New York of miracles — the time of once signing for dinner at the Four Seasons (free! unheard of!), of staying out all night and setting out at 4 a.m. to walk from Chelsea to the Roosevelt Island tram, of zines and smoking in bars and roommates who were your best friend. The time of once going to the movies during the day and nobody at work even noticing I was gone. It was the time of finally giving her birthday presents that I’d bought months earlier, all so carefully chosen because I knew she’d love them — apple soap, a t-shirt with a certain design, a Superchunk CD — and the way she hugged me after, so tightly, in her kitchen, in that apartment on East 12th Street. That was what I loved about New York.
Postscript: Spring St., 2013
Could it be then that the problem (if that’s even the right word) is geography? If all the pressures exerted by our surroundings are what we carelessly call fate, or the modern condition, or New York, then why not geography? The light, the wind, the way the cold in January is an excuse not to go out (as if it were Vermont, as if it were the 1700s). The way that first warm day comes, when you can spend an hour sitting on a bench in Soho, as I am right now, watching everyone walk by, some guy’s dog asleep there on the cobble sidewalk. It can drive you crazy with the perfection of the feeling of it. Another couple, another laughing pair, goes by and I can’t help thinking: Why not me? followed immediately by I’ve got to get out of here. Don’t ever think about fate. (The dog has rolled over and groaned in his sleep.)