How can I say goodbye to New Tork, the city that’s been my home for — Hang on. I’m being advised that it’s actually “New York.” Stand corrected.
How, then, can I say goodbye to New York, the city that’s been my home for the entire five days since I booked that studio apartment on Airbnb? I can still remember my first glimpse of her. (That’s what we New Yorkers call her — “her,” because she’s like a lady in the respect that she’s, I don’t know, pretty. And tough. And she has weird parts or something. Look, I’m not an expert on ladies.) Anyway, I remember it as if it were yesterday, and not the long-ago lost world of last Tuesday. I stepped off the train at Penn Station a gawky kid with a headful of stars and a suitcase full of the things people usually carry in suitcases. Clothes and toiletries, mostly. Oh, I wasn’t about to come to New York without toiletries! That was a time, understand, when people really cared about their grooming. They’d shower, and they’d use soap, and shampoo, and then the next day, for the most part, they’d do it again. Because the great throbbing metropolis of New York demanded it, you see. Not in any kind of verbal way. She can’t talk. But oh, she has her ways of letting you know things. You’ll be walking down one of the great avenues, Columbus or the other really long straight one, and the wind will rise up off the river, it’s either the Hudson or the other one, I get them mixed up, and it’s like you’ll hear Lady New York in that wind, whispering Dale. Dude. Shower up, buddy. It’s time. And you’ll know. All that’s gone now, of course.
At first, I don’t mind telling you, New York intimidated me. She can be an evil goddess, and a stern taskmistress, and the sort of career middle manager who says things like “Look, I don’t like it any better than you do but that’s policy.” The whole first 24 hours I was there I didn’t set foot outside the Sbarro’s on 33rd and 7th. I just stood there in the corner whistling and looking nonchalant, and every once in a while I’d have a calzone. Eventually Gary the night manager told me I had to leave but then I guess he took pity on me because he let me sleep standing up in a slop closet. Also, as I recall, I gave him all the money I had, which was about eight hundred dollars. That was a packet of money in those days. Gary jammed it into his pocket and called me “Creep” in an affectionate way and told me — I’ve never forgotten this — he told me never to tell a living soul about it or he’d find me and kill me. It’s funny the things you remember. The next morning dawned bright and clear, with that typically New York sunrise you used to see a lot of in those days, where the sun sort of elevates gradually over the horizon. I never saw Gary again, because he was the night manager and I left the Sbarro’s about 9:30 AM. I wonder if it’s still there.
Before too long, I’d found my way uptown to the studio apartment that was to be the only real home I’d ever known for five days with an agreement to vacate by 11 AM on the fifth day. It was small but clean, and with the cable TV and the cache of protein bars the owner had been thoughtful enough to seal in a Ziploc and leave wrapped up in some scarves on the top shelf of the coat closet, why, I had everything a young man could want. I’d leave the apartment at first light and walk for hours, or until I got tired, which was much more often the case because I tire easily. So most days (Thursday, Friday, and today) I was back at the apartment by 8:00 AM or so. Then I’d just sort of chill. You could do that then. You could amuse yourself for hours with nothing but dreams of someday, always someday, and the packet of personal letters the owner had taped to the underside of a dresser drawer. I was young and on my own without a care in the world, and one day (by process of elimination it would have been either Thursday or Friday) I looked around and realized I was home.
I wish I could describe to you what it felt like to be at home in New York back then. The streets crossed at corners in the most wonderful way, and if you came to one you could turn either right or left and go uptown or downtown or even crosstown depending on which way you were facing, and it was all so free and easy. People called you “Poindexter” or “Four Eyes” or “Creep” and made promises you just knew they’d keep, like how they’d find you and kill you if you ever told a living soul about something, because a man’s word was his bond. The ATM machines dispensed money at the push of a button, up to your daily limit, and if you exceeded your daily limit there was always tomorrow, and the hope that your mom would wire that money into your account like she said she would when she got “damn good and ready,” which was how people expressed themselves then. It was thrilling. It was glorious.
It had to end, of course. And not only because those German backpackers showed up saying that “the flat is turned over now to us, we have email confirmation.” It had to end because somewhere in the night New York had ceased to be that magical place I first saw all those hours ago, and it was time for me to go. A flood of memories washed over me, or would have if the Germans hadn’t been shouldering me toward the door pointing at their sport watches and shouting “Eleven AM, eleven AM, okay, bye-bye.” That’s how it is, you see. You come to New York and you make it your own for a short happy time. But that time never lasts, and one day — for me it was today, Saturday — you realize you’ve opened your heart and let it escape. And you stand there on the sidewalk watching it go, watching it take flight like those gray birds that seemed to be everywhere in those days. I can’t remember what they’re called, but — PIGEONS. That’s it. I wonder what ever happened to them.