Perpetual Motion

Though I’ve basically abandoned my “20 Years 20 Stories” writing prompt, it still feels like a very New York-y year. I find myself thinking about the-City-with-a-capital-C a lot as I move through it: how it shapes its citizens, cultivates habits, and never, ever stops changing.

Thanks to The Hairpin, I discovered The Long-Winded Lady: Notes From the New Yorker, by Maeve Brennan. It’s a collection of observational essays about New York City that appeared regularly in The New Yorker from 1954 to 1981. Though the pieces vary in length from a few paragraphs to several pages each, they’re somehow exactly the right length to read in bed before falling asleep with a cat nestled in my hair. (Coincidentally, Brennan did own a cat who makes cameo appearances in a few of the essays, but for once this is not a post about cats.)

Brennan’s writing about New York City is disarmingly simple – it can feel like a stream-of-consciousness on paper, a trail of notes dashed off without much considered thought. A closer read reveals precisely-cut gems made up of intimate observations that ring as true today as they must have when first published. Part of that is due to Brennan’s keen observational sense: she is direct and unsentimental, but also deeply considered. Her vignettes don’t follow any scripted form and end abruptly, without resolution, which makes them a perfect expression of New York City. The way she documents her days as if jotting down thoughts on a cocktail napkin captures the way every New Yorker’s life bumps into countless others as we engage in our everyday routines.

The stories are striking, in spite of their plainspokenness or – I suspect – because of it. Our modern multi-tasking fog means that we’re not used to reading anything that isn’t engineered to manipulate our attention to a calculated end. Brennan simply writes what she sees, without comment or apparent agenda. And what she sees much of the time is change. Churn. Turnover. Perhaps the most surprising thing about The Long-Winded Lady is that Brennan was every bit as rueful about the destruction of her “true” New York as we are about ours today. There are frequent mentions of favorite restaurants closing, buildings being razed, and entire neighborhoods losing their character when particular trades became obsolete. I shouldn’t be surprised by that, but I am. I like to think there was a time when popular opinion favored maintaining a cherished landmark or cultural touchstone, instead of erasing it in the name of the new and lucrative. But New York has never stood still, for better or worse. I’m not opposed to change, just to change for its own sake, for profit over community value. And despite its sprawl and mottled appearance, New York City is a community; one that remains in perpetual motion, continually pursuing the next, new, beautiful thing.

Image of 5Pointz by Laura Itzkowitz for

Image of 5Pointz by Laura Itzkowitz for

Little box

Every September 11th, I imagine the little box where I sat on the 51st floor of the South Tower. I remember the hallway, the break room, and the perpetual white noise of the HVAC system. Sometimes I think of the other reception desk I worked on the 54th floor, or the 100th floor of the North Tower, where I was also occasionally assigned, but mostly I think of 51 South. Glass on one side, door adjacent, wall behind me, fax machine to my right. There was a phone, a buzzer to let people in, and a rule against doing anything except staring through the glass into the lobby. My job was to greet, to answer calls, to be a human body so visitors getting off the elevator weren’t confused. It was a temporary job but I had a permanent ID with a picture. Every morning for six months I joined the throng of people in the elevator banks, traveling first to a floor somewhere in the 30s, and then taking another elevator to wherever I was working that day.

I sat in the box until about 10:30, when I got a 20 minute break – almost exactly the amount of time it took to take the elevators to the underground mall and make a quick circuit before heading back up. I did a lot of power walking at the time; I was very conscious of the dangers of a sedentary desk job: specifically, that I would gain weight. I developed a taste for the Jenny Craig energy bars they sold at the Duane Reade below Tower 2.

By lunchtime I was desperate to be outside, striding up Church Street or over to the water outside the Winter Garden. In the colder months I ate lunch inside, sitting a vacant cubicle next to a window so I could enjoy the view that was a privilege of working in the Towers. In high winds the walls creaked loudly like a pirate ship, which my coworkers assured me was normal. We joked that it was better that the buildings bend than break and crumble.

There were frequent fire drills, when we crowded the narrow stairwells linking each floor and listened to the fire marshal. He gave the usual warnings against taking elevators in cases of emergency, and we sighed and rolled our eyes the way anyone who works in an office tower might. And the way anyone might, we all imagined in vivid detail what a real emergency would look like, including the desperate unlikelihood of so many people evacuating quickly from buildings that high through the stairs.

My job at the World Trade Center ended in the Spring of 2001. It was only a temp job. But every year I remember.

Floral WTC Mural, January, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

Floral WTC Mural, January, 2003, photo by Fred Hatt

New York Story #5: Scam Cinema



“Hey, can I talk to you for a minute?”

The man seemed to appear out of nowhere. He cut a slight figure in slim jeans, a collared shirt, and brown loafers. His energy was twitchy, his weight shifting from one foot to the other so that he almost seemed to dance above the pavement. He didn’t move towards me but put up both hands defensively. “Don’t worry; I’m gay. It’s not like that.”

I hesitated but kept my distance. It was already dark on Fifth Avenue and both sides of the street were deserted. I was a sophomore in college walking home to my dorm. Though my demeanor had grown a protective exoskeleton in the two years I had lived in New York, I still felt vulnerable from time to time. I started to utter an excuse and he talked right over it, pinning me to the spot with his words. He explained that he was a wardrobe supervisor for a feature film, and that he had to get a rack of costumes – very expensive costumes – uptown to the next location where they were shooting. He had to get a cab because things were already behind schedule but his wallet had been stolen, so he had no money and the shoot would be ruined – he would be ruined – if these costumes didn’t make it uptown.

“So I’m wondering if you’d be kind enough to lend me $20. I can pay you back; I’ll give you my card, you can write your address on it and I’ll send you the money. I’m good for it; I hate having to ask like this but I don’t have a choice.”

The man was well-dressed and tanned. He was older but well-preserved – maybe 50? He was clearly used to nice things, but I did not for a minute believe his story. I was more stunned than anything, amazed that he had spun this elaborate tale just to get $20 out of me. It was obviously rehearsed but he sold it well; I could see it working on a person less skeptical than the one I had become. Though short on details (where exactly were these “costumes” and what would he have done if I asked to see them?) his tale had a whiff of truth, and I imagined that at one time he probably had been involved with the film industry. Maybe he had been a costume assistant who was felled by mental illness or wrecked by a romantic entanglement with a designer he idolized, sending him reeling into a downward spiral that eventually led here, to running this scam on Fifth Avenue. Admittedly it was a pretty cushy backdrop for a hustle, but one that worked for his particular narrative.

I snapped out of free-associating his biography long enough to stammer something along the lines of “Sorry I don’t have any money”. I added a “Sorry, good luck” when he started to ask whether we could go to an ATM because “I’m really desperate here.” He delivered that last line with such conviction. I really was sorry.  I believed he was desperate, though not for the reasons he gave. For a moment I wished I was more naïve, or at least rich enough – kind enough? – to overlook his obvious trickery.

Once he saw I was serious, the man seemed disappointed. He played the appropriate reaction and let his shoulders slump, sighing. I had probably seemed like a sympathetic mark. I started walking away, and quickly just in case. After a block I looked back – just in case – and saw that he had magically regained his dancer’s energy. His feet were animated again. I heard “I’m gay. It’s not like that.” He had already launched into his shpiel with someone else.

New York Story #4: Bad Words



From 1997 until 2000 I lived in Jackson Heights, Queens. At the time it was further from Manhattan than most of my friends lived, but it was a great neighborhood with plenty of “amenities”, as real estate agents like to call restaurants, supermarkets, and shops, and the apartment itself was actually one of the nicer ones I’ve lived in. There was an elevator, and laundry in the basement (something my then-boyfriend and I only discovered in our third year of living there, never once tipped off by the number of neighbors we saw in the elevator clutching bottles of Tide and wearing what were clearly bedroom slippers.)

Culturally, the population of Jackson Heights was a mix of Latin American and Indian immigrants. That meant amazing food, dazzling window-shopping, and – for a twentysomething white couple like us with no Spanish or Hindi language skills – a lot of impromptu life lessons, most of them positive and occasionally hilarious.

However, at the time that was not Jackson Heights’ reputation in the rest of the city. “Dangerous”, “drug-ridden”, and “violent” were descriptors commonly used to characterize our neighborhood in the local media. Conversations with new acquaintances drew reactions ranging from blank stares, to concerned shakes of the head, to literal gasps when I answered the question, “Where do you live?” Which mostly, just made me angry. I rejected the perception that I lived in a “bad” neighborhood, because it didn’t reflect my experience. Sure, I had witnessed drug deals and stepped through crime scenes on my way to the subway, but I had also enjoyed leisurely weekend breakfasts at our favorite coffee shop, quiet evening walks through tree-lined streets, and kindness from the fatherly superintendent of our building. Plus, the corner where we lived hosted the borough’s only Gay Pride celebration each year. I didn’t move to Jackson Heights for the street cred; I really liked it there.

Our only brush with crime came one evening when we returned to the apartment to find it had been broken into and ransacked – probably by junkies looking for cash. I remember how chilling it was to see our door ajar as we stepped off the elevator. Immediately I knew what it meant, and the words of Joseph Bittenbinder, the mustachio’d host of PBS’s Tough Target crime prevention series came back to me: “Don’t go in!” I said to my boyfriend, “They could still be inside.” He went in anyway, and whoever had broken in was long gone. Our place was a mess: chairs overturned, drawers tipped out, the floor covered in our belongings. Fortunately our pet rats[1] were unharmed (I later jokingly complained that we hadn’t trained them to attack the intruders, but it was scary to imagine them so vulnerable in their glass enclosure as strangers wrecked our home.) That night we collected a few items and went to stay at a friend’s apartment in Manhattan, but not before we called the police – which eventually required flagging down a police van on the street when no one responded to our call. An officer took my boyfriend aside in the kitchen and advised him to move out because as white people we “stood out”. He predicted I would get raped if we stayed.

But even after having some of the neighborhood’s worst qualities literally brought home to us, I refused to ascribe to the perception of Jackson Heights as a bad area. I suppose reductive descriptions like that are  necessity in certain contexts – if you’re a writer of tourist guides or a new parent trying to narrow down neighborhoods to move your family into – but they’re also a luxury of outsiders and a barrier to nuanced understanding. I say luxury because the person who lives in the neighborhood you’re trashing, who grew up there or who is just trying to make a life somewhere that’s been described as “bad”, doesn’t have the privilege or the impulse to talk about it that way. Why would they? Doing so would be to betray all the relationships, affection, and history that root them to the place. I say barrier because negative labels inhibit progress by discouraging discussion and investigation: with a single word, the topic of that neighborhood’s worth is closed, ineligible for debate or deeper reflection. And inevitably that assessment gets perpetuated – because in New York that’s what people do: we absorb others’ opinions into our own and repeat them with a knowing smirk. It makes us feel confident, authentic, awarding a sense of ownership over a city that threatens us with obsolescence by having the nerve to keep evolving at a whiplash pace. Ironically, the same impetus to imply authority by saying “that’s kind of a bad neighborhood” is the same one that prompts us to dismiss change by saying “that neighborhood’s not as edgy as it used to be.” I know am just as guilty of that as anyone else. It’s part of being a New Yorker, and it’s something I’m working on.

[1] Yes, okay? We had pet rats; four of them. Don’t hate; they’re nothing like the cat-sized sewer monsters of New York legend and were very clean and affectionate. Fun facts: one of them is buried in Strawberry Fields, two are in Corona Park, and the last got an Antigone-style guerilla burial in the flower bed of our apartment building.

New York Story #3: Central Park at Night



Look up

see the winking grains of silver scattered wide,

embedded across a velvet-tucked sky.

Lamp posts stick upright, buried in cotton clouds of mist.

still so still

silent as milk edged with

the tartness of fear

no choice but to stay alert, surrounded as we are

by more than the cacophonous pageant of day.

We are hunting,

halo’d with dew from early morning

sleeping with shoulders wedged against stone,

tilting our heads to listen as voices spiral up from the stage,

knitting our lives in the unsaid space between thoughts spoken aloud.

These leafy forays, underscored by ridiculous legend,

new names pasted over our old ones, are a test.

Drawn through the Park’s great heart,

trees rustling like a constant breath,

we are challenged  by doubt, bound by sudden joy,

awed by the endless depth of the unknowable.

Everything will change inside its walls.

Under evaporating dark we emerge, high with swagger and grateful.

CP at night success

New York Story #2: Sit and Listen



The dusty black drapes were there to block the light spill from the windows, but also to hide the unpainted, patchy walls and random stacks of furniture. Surf Reality was one of a constellation of tiny theaters on the Lower East Side in the 90s, and my favorite of them all. It was comfortable and the owners were shockingly friendly. More importantly though, every Sunday Surf Reality hosted Faceboyz Open Mic: a perfectly random lineup of live acts that was picked out of a hat two minutes before curtain. I only went a few times, but I saw standups, poets, musicians, schizophrenic monologists, and – once – a middle-aged guy who told us about a failed romance and then improvised a dance to Bill Withers’ Ain’t No Sunshine. It was the first time I heard the song, and his dance was beautiful.

Faceboyz Open Mic wasn’t a ‘scene’. The house was reliably packed every week but there was never a line to get in.  Each act got 8 minutes on stage, and the performances were sincere, sometimes painfully earnest or just painful. The whole point – the joy – was not knowing what to expect. No one was looking to get famous; there was little chance of that anyway. People came to listen, to watch, and the watchword was respect. Faceboy was a generous host, with something positive to say about every act.

This is not a “New York ain’t what it used to be” story. I know there are still pockets of the city where people shed cynicism and artifice in favor of connection and generosity. But Faceboyz Open Mic was undoubtedly a product of its time – I don’t think it would survive today.  A forum with so few rules would never attract consistent enough talent to build a following; Faceboy wasn’t interested in cultivating consistency, and he would probably reject the standard definition of ‘talent’ anyway.  The open mic existed because performance space on the Lower East Side was (relatively) inexpensive, and because the community it gave rise to welcomed a full spectrum of creative expression to the stage. It was a safe place to be raw and honest and unexpected – that was its brilliance. Faceboyz Open Mic ran for an unbelievable 13 years, from 1994 until 2007. Though it’s probably better for a show like that to close rather than risk irrelevance or death by overexposure, I miss it, and I’ve been looking for its equal ever since.

New York Story #1: Doorways

this is one of 20 random little stories I’m posting in advance of my 20-year anniversary in new york city, which will hit in the fall of 2013. Click here for more background, and feel free to share your own stories in the comments – randomer the better!


At age 26, working for an HVAC company was far from the worst temp job I ever had, and after a few months there I grew dangerously comfortable. The office was full of what you might call “characters”, from the two owners – brothers – who were prone to yelling adorable things like “I’m gonna tear you a new ASSHOLE!”, to the handsome engineers who loitered around the reception desk and campaigned for me to be hired as a permanent employee. Yet despite the fact that it was a consistent gig and an entertaining one, I had no plans to stay. Showing up every morning by 8am was beginning to exhaust me, especially since I spent my free time rehearsing elaborate slapstick comedy shows, drinking too much, and commuting back and forth from Astoria.

It hadn’t been a particularly eventful day, but few were: the job consisted of answering phones, typing up – on a typewriter – work orders, negotiating an outdated DOS computer program, and deflecting the shockingly persistent visits from door-to-door salesmen. At times the job was delightfully old school, but mostly it was just dull and repetitive.

Once day around mid-afternoon, arguably the dullest part of the day when morning seemed like a foggy dream and 5pm a distant tease, a woman’s voice broke the silence in the hallway outside our office. I was used to the owners yelling, but this was very different. She sounded hysterical, unhinged, desperate. Like something out of a movie she was screaming, “Help! HEEEELP! Somebody please help!” I had never heard anyone yell those words; it seemed theatrical, impossible that they were ringing against the dingy walls in such a mundane context.

Those of us within earshot looked up from our desks, then at each other. But at first none of us moved. We were all afraid to open the door and see what was in the hallway. After a moment it seemed ridiculous that no one had risen from their chair; the woman was still screaming. My supervisor and I and I moved towards the door. I let her open it, on the premise that she was my superior and, well…more of an adult. Maybe this sort of thing happened all the time.

We peered out into the hallway and at first didn’t see anything. The door to the next office – a textile manufacturer – was open and we could hear a voice inside, still wailing.  I took a few steps into the hallway and called out a tentative response. The woman emerged from the office; she was of middle-age, with long frosted hair and fussy, layered clothing. She was sweating. Upon seeing us she shouted that there was a man having a heart attack in her office – her stream of words still sounded like dialogue from a movie. She kept urging us to do something. She asked if either of us knew CPR.

I did. I had learned CPR as part of my previous job teaching performing arts in an after-school program, which also included reading books and teaching crafts to under-threes in a playground. We were required to learn CPR but none of us imagined we would need to use it. Or we did imagine it, but the reality of actually resuscitating a child was too frightening to contemplate, so we reassured ourselves we would never have to. Once I brief stint as a teacher was over I thought I was safe.

I hesitated a long moment in the hallway, long enough that it seemed wrong and selfish not to speak up, so I did. My voice sounded unsure in the dense silence that suddenly enveloped us. But to her it must have sounded confident because she ushered me into the office. I urged my feet to move, saying to myself that this woman needed me; I had to try and help. All the while, a warning from our CPR instructor played on a loop in my head: that if you don’t know exactly what you’re doing you could hurt the person you’re working on, kill them even. In the year or so since my training I had forgotten nearly everything. I couldn’t remember the number of compressions you were supposed to do in order to keep air moving in and out of the lungs, or the correct hand positions; I only knew that both were precise, and deviation from the prescribed method was worse than doing nothing at all.

But I had already said I knew CPR. I had given her hope. I had stepped forward and now there was no stepping back.

I entered the room. The air was close, warm, likely due to the rolls of carpeting and fabric that lined the walls. The floor was also thickly carpeted and in the center was a man, slight and blond, younger than the woman who called us in, lying unconscious with his head propped awkwardly on a tasseled pillow. I hesitated again; I hadn’t expected him to be unconscious. But it seemed ridiculous, cruel, to just stand there so I went to him.

The only thing I could remember from my CPR training was “A.B.C.”: Airway, Breathing, Circulation[1]. You are supposed to check a person’s vital signs in that order. I knelt, and took the man’s head onto my lap. He didn’t open his eyes, and it occurred to me that I could be holding a dead body. I took the back of his neck into my right hand and, as gently as I could, raised his head so that his airway was straight instead of crumpled forward. I eased his jaw open with my left hand and looked inside his mouth. There was nothing blocking his airway. Honestly I hadn’t expected there to be. I was looking purely to ensure that I was checking his vitals in the correct order, to buy time. I was more afraid of making a mistake than of letting this man die.

The next step was to check his breathing, but I could already tell he wasn’t. I moved my left hand from his jaw to feel his neck for a pulse. Nothing. I had no idea what to do next.

I returned to the task of keeping his airway straight by slightly adjusting the position of my right hand behind his head, and suddenly something happened. The man’s mouth dropped open and he gasped, inhaled with a deep shudder that I could feel against my knees. It startled me, and a jolt of fear ignited my whole body. I adjusted his head again, and again the gasp came. I had no idea what was happening or what to do – should I begin chest compressions? Give him mouth-to-mouth? I was paralyzed by the idea that I held this man’s life literally in my hands.

I looked up at the doorway where my supervisor was standing, just staring at us. The woman who had called us in was leaning against the wall in a corner of the room. She was whimpering, or praying. Even from my vantage point I could see her hands were shaking. She had seen the man inhale and was waiting to see what I would do.

Mercifully I didn’t have to make a decision, because at that moment two paramedics showed up. (It hadn’t occurred to me to ask whether they had been called, and this was before I had a cell phone.) I felt strange and guilty sitting there with the man’s head on my lap, so I began a clumsy explanation of what had happened, of what I had tried to do. They sidled through the doorway so casually that for a second I thought perhaps the situation wasn’t as bad as it seemed. They were professionals. They would fix it.

I stood up slowly, placing the man’s head back on the pillow, and walked out of the room, wanting to say something reassuring to the woman whose name I didn’t know but who had witnessed one of the most frightening moments of my life. For her, the moment wasn’t over, and her eyes never left the man on the floor. He was now surrounded by the paramedics, who were still exhibiting what I hoped was professional cool and not indifference.

My supervisor and I returned to our desks. She didn’t seem to want to discuss what had just happened. We didn’t even exchange the head shakes or long exhalations of breath that might have been expected given the circumstances. The building walls had seemed paper-thin to the woman’s screams but I didn’t hear another peep from the hallway; only the ‘ding’ of the elevator as the man was taken down to the ambulance. I was quiet for the remainder of the day and so was our office. At least that’s how I remember it.

The next day I walked into the building even more reluctantly than usual. I was afraid to encounter the woman from next door in the hallway, afraid of not knowing what to say, afraid of her answer if I asked how the man was – the man I had vainly tried to help.  But I wanted to know.

As it turned out, despite the polite silence that existed between all the tenants of our floor, the almost stubborn reluctance to become involved in each others’ business, there was news. The man had died. The woman was his wife. The door to the textile company’s office was closed, and there was silence behind it. Now there were plenty of head shakes, exhalations, but I couldn’t bring myself to join in. I could still feel the back of the man’s neck cradled in my hand, the fineness of his hair, and the rattle of those breaths against my legs. I wondered if they had been his last.

My temp job at the HVAC company continued for another few months. I never saw the woman from the textile company again. The twin doors to our respective offices remained closed. I think about that day and try to conjure a precise picture of the woman in my head. It gets progressively blurrier with time. I wonder if she remembers anything about me, the stranger kneeling in her office, unwittingly sharing the moment when her husband died.

[1] The recommended order has since been changed to C.A.B.: yet another reason why you should not take CPR advice from me!

Twenty Stories

It’s nice to acknowledge milestones, whether they’re anniversaries, month-iversaries, how-long-has-it-been-since-you-smoked-iversaries. But simply marking a date doesn’t mean anything in and of itself, unless you take a moment to reflect on how far you’ve come – the same way a ritual only takes on meaning when you repeat it, remember where you were the last time, and notice what has changed.

Rituals are puzzles, or the slow and deliberate solving of puzzles. They’re what we use to look at the broken pieces we’ve been dealt and try to form them into some kind of picture, arrange the sounds into sheet music. Repetition helps us see the picture when we step back far enough, hear the song when we close our eyes.

This fall will mark my twentieth year living in New York City. I came here in August of 1993 for college, and except for a few months in the summer of 1994, I never left.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to have lived somewhere for that long, to have racked up that much experience on one place. Without any kind of reflection, twenty years doesn’t mean anything. It’s just time. And since time is a made-up concept, it’s really more like just…aging. (Oh good MORTALITY TALK.)

So I’m going to try and distill this time into something sharp, distinct, meaningful, by writing up twenty stories from my twenty years – one story each week between now and the end of August. The stories will come from any and all points along the timeline of the last twenty years. They will be of varying length, style, and quality.

The challenge: for a writer, I’m not a terribly strong storyteller; I have a hard time knowing where to begin and end a particular sequence of events, because those are the hard choices that stamp an experience with meaning. But in this case, isn’t that the point? I want to trace lines through the stream of my memory, set up signposts so I know where and who I am. Because if it’s one thing I envy when I hear other peoples’ Archetypical New York Stories™ it’s the indelible sense of identity they carry. And I feel like I lack that. Despite all the time spent here, I’ve managed to retain quite a… “portable” sense of self. I definitely feel marked, influenced by the city, but I don’t think of myself as anchored here.

…which is an utterly ridiculous idea. I mean, I’ve spent my entire adult life here; I’m a creature of New York in ways that would be laughably apparent if you shoved me out of a van in another city. But instead of knowing that in a vague, abstract sense, I want to KNOW it. IN CAPS. I want to understand my particular brand of New Yorkness and be able to point to it with words.

So here we go. Story #1 will post by April 8th.