Corner of A and Fourth/Eye
In New York, there is an important distinction to make between
where you live and where you sleep. You sleep in your apartment.
You live in the city.
It is a dripping August, which you know by the smell of it: dried
urine, rotting garbage, and the unleaded smell of cabs burning off fuel
as they idle in the shimmering heat, each a mirage, a promise of
something better on the other side. You can’t get into a cab today
because the ten dollars in cash and change sitting on the desk in
your apartment is all you have until payday, which is Friday. Today
is Sunday. You don’t have a bank account because the check-cashing
place is convenient to your apartment. Also, you don’t trust yourself
with a bank account; the margin of error is always, always so small.
Instead, you like to watch the stack of cash dwindle in front of you.
It causes you anxiety, but it also makes you feel as though you are in
control of something here, in New York. You are in control of nothing,
of course, but the illusion helps.
Because you sleep in the East Village, in a studio apartment in an
old tenement that you share with a roommate, you walk the streets
for entertainment. On paydays, you allow yourself a Cuban sandwich
from the take-out counter on Avenue A. Today, however, you
simply stand in front of the door for a few minutes, because smelling
something is almost as good as eating it, and smelling something
other than urine and garbage makes you happy. The smells are
engrossing, in fact, which is why you don’t notice what has been
going on behind you until there is the sound of something whining
through the air, not very far from your head, and then the noise of
the bystanders, who must have been there all along, suddenly rushes
in and you turn in time to see two men grappling with each other, in
the street, just feet away. One of them has a hammer. In the moment
it has taken you to notice the scene and become confused by it, the
man with the hammer bounces it off the side of the other man’s head
and there is a sound that would, under other circumstances, be a satisfying
sound—the sound of a job being completed, of something
being forced into its proper place. You actually see the eye of the
struck man wobble in its socket, as if it has just been dropped there
to settle. And they are both screaming—one in anger and the other
in pain, but the sidewalkers are screaming too and so the scene takes
on a kind of miserable white noise wherein no one person’s distress
can be sorted from another’s.
The police sirens are what finally cut through and break the cord
that had knotted around you, anchoring you to this place to watch a
man maybe get killed. This is true for everyone, and when the cop
car screeches up, the men have already run off together, like wild
elopers, one with his hand over his eye and a trail of blood down his
shirt, the other just behind him, brandishing the hammer like a cartoon
wife with a rolling pin after a mouse.
St. Vincent’s/Lower Left Quadrant
David Beckham has broken the second metatarsal in his left foot.
You do not care very much except that the picture of him in the
sporting publication open on your lap—he sits on the ground, one
hand over an eye, one hand on the foot, worried and in pain—is the
only thing distracting you from your own pain (back, lower left quadrant),
which is unlike any pain you’ve had before. It is also distracting
you from the St. Vincent’s ER, which is the least comforting
place you’ve ever been. Everything is a shade of grayish green. There
are no plants or tissue boxes. There are spots of dried blood on the
floor in front of you. You sit facing the windows and feel like you’re
in prison. You are trying not to pay attention to the couple seated
to your left. You try to focus instead on the lesser pain of Becks, but
your neighbors are difficult not to overhear.
It’s the meth, the boyfriend says, he’s been doing it all weekend.
The ER attendant asks the man who is not the boyfriend how much
meth he has done this weekend. The man is weeping quietly. He sits
straight up in the green vinyl chair, one hand gripping the chair arm,
the other twisting his boyfriend’s hand, which has gone white and
slightly blue from the pressure. His eyes don’t look anywhere. I don’t
know, all of it? says the boyfriend, grimacing at his twisted hand, but
content to bruise, to share. The expressionless attendant makes a
note on a clipboard. And when did he do the, uh, procedure? she asks.
I don’t know, says the boyfriend. I just woke up and went to the bathroom
and he was sitting on the toilet like that. Like what? asks
the attendant just because she wants to hear it again. With his … the
boyfriend whispers but can’t talk too quietly because his man has
started to make a low whining sound in his throat. With his testicles
stapled to his thigh, he finishes and puts a hand on the head of the
whining man, who is wearing loose, dry-weave exercise shorts.
You have glanced up from Becks to catch this glimpse and you’d
almost forgotten yourself but here is the breathless punch again. You
jerk in your seat and pant. Your vision tunnels, momentarily, the
periphery dark and fogged out. You seem to pulse in empathy with
your neighbor. Later, you will learn that a UTI has crawled up your
urinary tract to your kidneys, which are infected, which can be life
threatening but is also easily treatable.
The man with the staples in his balls lets out a thin howl, which
is unlike a dog howl. It is not rounded and full and conclusive. It’s
the sound of pure pain. The bemused ER attendant has come back
out of the triage station and even she looks concerned now. You look
back down at the photo because you feel very strongly that you
would also like to howl, that you would like to hold this man’s hand
and go a little hysterical with him.
There is a bustling—the attendant and the boyfriend are trying to
coax the patient into a wheelchair. You can’t imagine how he got
here, how he walked at all, down the stairs of his apartment building,
to the curb to hail a cab. It must have taken tremendous reserves
of strength. He must be exhausted. There is a yelp and a moan followed
by some rustling, and the squeak of rubber tires on sanitized
David Beckham looks very tired and perhaps as if he is about to cry
or has just finished crying. Probably just about to cry—there is something
like disbelief in his face. It is 2002 and his foot is worth several
million pounds. Something knocks at you from the wrong side, from
the inside. You close your eyes, and Beckham’s gleaming shin guards
stay with you, ghost your retinas for a moment, then dissolve.
World Trade Center/Head
You meet a friend for dinner at Molly’s, which is full of the usual
regulars—undocumented Irish construction workers and investment
bank lackeys: the administrative assistants and data enterers and
mailroomies. You are eating a medium-rare burger with one hand
and decadently smoking with the other. It is almost as if you intuit
that this won’t be possible for very much longer. You haven’t been
following it, but the bill will be passed in December; the bars and
restaurants smoke free by spring.
You are on your second Guinness, which makes you want to put
on music. You like Molly’s juke because it has the most Pogues
albums in the city, plus it’s been one of those days—frequent lately,
it seems. You feel funny but you don’t know why. You don’t even
know what you mean by funny. Which is what you say when your
friend, who is having the shepherd’s pie and also smoking, asks.
Tomorrow’s the anniversary, he reminds you. How have you worked
in an office all day, printing letters and time-stamping materials to
be copyedited and proofed, penciling dates in your boss’s calendar
even, without seeing?
I walked, he says without prompting, seven miles home to Brooklyn.
I drank an entire bottle of whiskey that night. When I woke up the
next morning I thought it had all been a nightmare. Really? you ask.
No, he says, not really. I spent the night throwing up in my bathroom,
So you didn’t drink an entire bottle of whiskey?
No, I did that. But I didn’t forget. That part’s wishful thinking.
You weren’t living here then so it’s not your memory to share, but
you listen to him talk a little more about the dust and the fear and
the posters, some of which still hang in gray swelled strips on the
lampposts and scaffolds around town. They are unreadable now, but
no one will take them down. As you listen, something uneasy shifts
inside you. The room darkens a bit and the sound of the other
patrons is suddenly deafening. You stand up, unsure of where you are
going, until he puts a dollar in your hand and requests “Fairytale of
The jukebox swims in front of you—you can’t make out the numbers
next to the track listings and you seem to be having trouble
drawing a full breath. The door is two feet away and you leave the
jukebox queued with money to get some fresh air, to get out of this
cave for just a minute.
The street is empty, and in the deepening dark of the night, you see
that the blue lights are on. There is no cloud cover tonight, so they
rise up from Ground Zero as far into the sky as you can see. You
wonder if there are astronauts out there right now and if they can see
these other twin towers, these ghosts. You have never looked at
them for very long because, even though you have no religion, and
the thought is frankly stupid, you are afraid that if you look at the
lights long enough, you will see the spirits of the dead being sucked
up in them, like some tractor beam to heaven, a pneumatic salvation.
Like jumping off a building in reverse. You try to take a deep
breath but your breath won’t come. The lights go out.
When you come to, you see the upside-down faces of strangers and
between two of their heads, the blue lights. You are extremely confused.
If someone asked you your name, you would not be able to
say. There is no sound but a soft ringing. Then your friend’s head juts
into view and his voice cuts through the white noise: What happened?
Where’d you go? Jesus Christ, you’re bleeding.
You decide not to say anything until someone tells you what’s
going on. Your friend sets you up and cradles you and puts a napkin—where
did he get the napkin?—to your chin and if you are glad
for something it’s that the tower lights have left your field of vision.
You sit on the sidewalk while concerned people bird-walk around
you and make noise on their cell phones and then there is an ambulance
and then you are inside it and your friend holds your hand and
your hair when you throw up into a white bag, but until you turn to
go crosstown to Bellevue, to stitches and the diagnosis of a concussion,
and some half-baked hypotheses about undercooked meat and
low blood sugar, you make yourself look at those two lights through
the portholes in the back of the ambulance doors, as if your looking
could mean anything at all.
Empire State Building/Phallus
You have been inside twice now and up to the top once, but you can’t
remember much of the trip except that the lobby ceilings seemed too
low, too gray, and the elevator went so fast your ears popped. When
you think of the Empire State Building it is always an exterior view,
jutting beyond the tops of the Village brownstones, a guiding beacon
at night, when the streets creep together and the city rearranges
itself. When the grid seems to disappear, there is always that great
glowing pyramid tip. They change the lights on it according to the
seasons or holidays, but in your mind, it always glows red, white,
and blue—a sign of American optimism, a great anchor of capitalism,
that directional daddy, standing guard.
You look at it now, reassured you’re headed north. This part of the
city feels friendly. The old tenements crouch close. The shop windows
are lit and full of the kinds of businesses you never have need
for—a stationery shop, a designer pet-clothing boutique, a restaurant
that serves $30 macaroni and cheese. It is not even late, only freshly
dark, which is why you are not scared, but merely surprised, when
the passenger door of a semicab parked on the street opens as you
come parallel to it and a man in a gray hoodie, eyes wide but expressionless,
yells to you from the depths of the truck. He looks you
straight in the eye and asks a simple question.
How does it look? he says. And you, stopped now, the Empire State
eclipsed by the massive brow of the cab, can only ask, What? Your
voice hangs in the air for a frozen moment and in that moment you
see that the man has his cock in his hand, is yanking on it violently.
You can’t help but be transfixed by the head of it, squeezing past his
white-knuckled hand. You realize that he is about to pull his own
dick off in front of you.
Then the man is talking again, and automatically your eyes move
back to his face. His own eyes are still wide, but now they are worried
too. I’m going to see my girl, he says. But I been driving on
minithins all night. Is it hard enough?
Your legs have realized, before your brain, that it is best to leave
quickly, that the ladies selling French paper twenty feet away will
not be able to help you should this man decide to drag you into his
cab and make material his question. But really, no, that is not what
you think. That is what you should have thought. On some level
your brain has responded mechanically to the danger, but consciously,
the only situation you know that resembles this one is a joke. And
so you laugh. You turn around and trip away nearly screaming with
it. Later, you spend your last five dollars on a cab ride home.
Ridge and Rivington/Mouth
Your first mistake is that you are wearing headphones. You try to
remember to take them off on the subway platforms and at night, on
the street, but there are so many rules to remember. This one sometimes
escapes you, especially when you are listening to very good
music, which occasionally makes you feel as if you are starring in a
movie and the movie is your life, which is one of the more pleasant
feelings New York inspires in you. Occasionally, New York makes
your life feel much bigger and more interesting and possible than it
is. This makes it easy to forget.
You are also wearing heels—the tall and tottering kind. You can’t
run in them—you can barely even walk. But you are walking, alone,
from a bar in SoHo to your boyfriend’s apartment on the Lower East
Side because it is faster to walk across this part of town, even in tippy
shoes, than to take a cab.
You see him first as you turn onto Delancey. He is walking alone.
He wears a white T-shirt and a green stocking cap and looks like
everyone else on the sidewalk tonight, which is why you forget him
almost as soon as you see him. He drops back and you stutter-step
on to your mix CD. It is only when you turn again onto Clinton that
you sense someone behind you and stop to pretend to look at a menu
in a restaurant window. Your Discman is in your coat pocket and you
turn it off. Out of the corner of your eye, you see the man, the white
T-shirt. He has turned the corner too, and he is walking slowly. You
don’t know if he slowed his walk when you stopped to read the
menu or if he has been walking that way this whole time and you are
just being paranoid. But your paranoia is not unfounded—lately,
more than usual, dead girls have been in the news.
In fact, you realize, as you read the description of a rosemary-lemon
lamb risotto for the third time, that the bar you have just left
is very near the Falls, where just a couple weeks ago that grad student
was abducted and later found raped and strangled, bound with
packing tape and dropped off near the Belt Parkway like a gift. And
the actress, last year, not two blocks from your boyfriend’s apartment,
one block from where you stand right now. You were out that
night too, doing what you can’t recall. You remember her last words
from the newspaper, though. What are you going to do, shoot me?
she asked them. They did. This is how you remember to be good.
You should go into the restaurant. You should go into the restaurant
and order a drink and call your boyfriend and tell him to meet
you here. But when you look around again, the man is gone. You
begin to get mad. This fucking city, you think. You tell yourself a
joke. A girl walks into a bar … there is a punch line. Something to
do with putting out, with being put out. The punch line is she didn’t
keep her mouth shut, of mouths taped shut, a bullet in the lung.
You’ll be goddamned if you’ll slink into that restaurant. You turn
and begin to walk determinedly up the street. You find your keys in
your pocket and poke them like claws through your clenched fist.
You clench your jaw to match your fist. Soon there are footsteps
behind you again. You barely turn your head and get a glimpse of
white cotton. The city thickens its breath.
Here’s something funny you know: The Falls is owned by the
Dorrian family. They also own Dorrian’s Red Hand, which is where
Robert Chambers met Jennifer Levin the night he walked her to
Central Park, raped and bit her, then strangled her to death. Once, a
man you were seeing took you to Dorrian’s and you walked back to
his place through the park, past where she was killed. He wanted
to spook you. Just a bit of fun.
You are running unsteadily now, really more of a lope than a run;
certainly this lead-assed shamble will not save your life. You can’t
hear him behind you over your own breath and the shod clop of your
heels. Somehow, you manage to dial your boyfriend with your free
hand. Open the door right now, you say as you round Rivington, his
door half a block away. There is something in your voice because he
doesn’t say a word over the phone, but in a few more seconds you see
him emerge onto the lit stoop. He is waving, but not smiling. You
rush up the steps and pull him into the hallway and push the locked
door shut behind you. There is no one on the sidewalk or the street,
just your own reflection in the glass door, your pale, translucent face
laid over the night, eyes like drill holes, lips parted and mute.
An Australian tourist has brought you here, has attached himself to
you in the cold gray moments before dawn. You shiver in your down
parka after so many hours in the club, and that after-hours dive, and
when he grips you closer, the feathers in your coat puff from the sudden
pressure. You smell of sweat and whiskey and his cologne, something
cheap and strong and chemical, but somehow not unpleasant.
His hand twists softly in yours in a way that means he is about to
Here’s a spot, he says and stops walking and you both look around.
Here? you ask. You are standing at Twenty-third and Eighth, a monotonous
Chelsea corner without charm or color. Your tongue is
sore from the hours you’ve spent twisting it into improbable shapes
in his mouth. You’d gone to Centro-Fly with some friends late last
night, dressed to get the cover waived—something artfully shredded,
glittering webs of fabric.
It happens every so often that you crave the kind of release you can
find in a place like Centro-Fly, with all those beautiful strangers,
each one a possibility, it doesn’t even matter of what. What matters
is by the end of the night you are abandoned to it all: the low lights
and the bass pulse of the music, a sweaty flirtation in every corner,
the anonymous press of curious limbs.
You don’t know his name because he told you, but you couldn’t
hear, and so you asked him to repeat it and you still couldn’t hear,
but you nodded as if you had. This is probably why he calls you
“Love” instead of your own name and you don’t mind. He’d started
a conversation by asking if you were French—the best pickup line
you’d ever heard, worthy of reward. You’d tried on a Parisienne pout
in response, allowed him to buy you a drink and become quickly entangled
in a misty corner of the club, all legs and mouths and fingers.
Tomorrow, he will leave with his friends and return to Sydney and
you will never see him again and this is the way it should be—his
presence now perfect because of the totality of his absence later.
He has brought you here to witness. There’s this thing he’d read
about in the paper yesterday, this thing that happens twice a year,
once at dawn, once at sunset, where the sun aligns perfectly with the
cross streets of the city, the grid, and … here he frowns.
And what? you ask, but he doesn’t know. It’s a thing you’re supposed
to see at least once in your life, he says, the sun barreling down
the streets of Manhattan like a huge, spectral taxi.
Of course, you say. And there is nothing more important to you
right now than to stand on this corner, next to this dark Baskin-Robbins,
and look down the barrel of the cross street for the dawn.
Sometimes things are that simple. You smile as he puts his nose in
your neck and sighs.
The streets are nearly empty this early on a Sunday morning and
this makes the city seem like a wilderness. As you watch, the sun
begins its crawl over the top of the edge of that wilderness the East
River. It angles through the tall muddy buildings thrown up around
it like canyons, as if they had always been there and always would
be. The buildings on either side of the street seem to cup the sun, but
cannot hold it, begin to disappear behind its needle-thin spikes,
which creep toward you until they engulf you too and you feel yourself
begin to disappear. But when you look behind you, your shadows
belong to giants. Your Australian smiles at you and for a moment
you’re in love, entranced, held by him, by the city, kept safe in these
palms and, looking back down Twenty-third Street, you think how
the city proffers so many kinds of darkness, but here, on this corner,
just now, a new kind of light.