The Fabric of Us

I am writing. I keep writing. But only in bits. Snippets. Short spurts.

I read over what I’ve written. I exhale. Is this something? Is it anything? How would I know?

My hands are busy, my body always active, anxious, and my mind? Adrift, staring up at the sky on a raft far from land. Sounds, images, scents, sift up:

A sigh – our radiator stirring like a great beast in its sleep: first a wheezing inhale then the repetitive clang announcing heat.

Constant sirens – soft then strong, insistent. Receding to the back of consciousness, but still present. My ears track their progress on a Doppler arc – is it our block? No, not tonight; sleep. Or try to.

The daily ritual of Vitamin C on our tongues – a sacrament, a talisman against infection, a comfort.

The endless ritual of washing – masks, hands, everything that comes through the door. Fascinating how vulnerable the print on food packaging is to rubbing alcohol. Ink staining the palms of my hands.

Rubbing alcohol – once the childhood smell of fear (a shot!), now the smell of safety, reassurance.

The first thing I notice about anyone on the street is whether or not they’re wearing a mask. For many in the West, a mask has not quite shifted from the look of threat (what are you hiding?) to the look of protection. Jokes about bank heists.

Avoidance, physical distance, as a mark of courtesy, deference, care.

Every day an exhausting tunnel of work. The guilt of having work.

In the city we are suffocatingly close to our neighbors but somehow more visible to each other now, our daily routines exposed through windows because we’re Always Home. I’m wearing shorts, a tank with no bra, and the curtains are open. Normally I would shy from the frame, but these days I think “Let in the light. Let them see.” We are all seeing more of each other, though our faces are masked. Also less, as struggles are kept from the phone camera lens and anguish vows to be silent, stoic.

Sitting in front of my laptop I can’t help but think of a cockpit. I plug in, all wires and earbuds. I curl into the cramped space to pilot around a world that feels entirely virtual. The physical world drops away. The virtual is where the ‘real’, the in-person happens – it’s the only place we connect without barriers, protocols. It’s escape, touch where there is no touching, emotion, sharing, checking on each other. We have dance parties here and it feels like we’re dancing together. We’re in the same room because there is the same music and we can play – share moves and expressions – and in this landscape of distant islands, that feels like a miracle: There you are! Here I am! It’s signal flares and messages in bottles; it’s Griffin & Sabine; it’s letters by carrier pigeon; it’s smoke signals; it’s semaphores; it’s Morse Code. Let’s return to the old forms, old before any of us were born: the ticker tape, the telegraph, the phone. Let’s have a parade where we all send messages at once and they cascade down around us like waterfalls of code: 0s and 1s blinking on and off, black and white like the opening to The Matrix. Maybe this is looking behind the veil, seeing what’s (in here) instead of out there, finding out what we’re made of, what our relationships are made of: Poly-cotton? Viscose? Taffeta, Darling? A 1970’s flammable blend?

The telegraph machine taps out: What. Are. We. Made. Of.

We may not want to know but we’re going to find out.

Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn NY

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

Small Change

Constant talk about how New York City has changed. Listen to it: “This isn’t the city I grew up in”, “It’s not what it used to be”, “The chain stores have drained all its character”.

All of those things are true. I know it’s different from when I first came here. Do I miss how it used to be – 20 years ago, or even 10? Moments stick out, stay sticky, won’t let go. They imbue buildings, cross-streets with emotion, nostalgia, unspeakable attachment. But when someone says “New York has changed so much” I can’t feel it – I stretch out my arms, reach my fingers wide, try to receive it on my skin. Nothing.

Still, I agree. I say, “New York has changed.” But seen through the lenses of 16 million eyes, New York has changed us too. In increments it changed and we adjusted, without ever noticing. Suddenly these arms I stretch out, these eyes I squeeze closed, aren’t the same ones I had then. My body has forgotten how to thrill at the constellation of possibilities the city lays out before me. More than anything, I want to remember.

So when I say “New York has changed” and shake my head, and sigh, what I really mean is, “I have changed.” Isn’t that why I came here? To jump into the fray and be transfigured?

We are the sentient infrastructure, not the concrete or the taxi tires grinding through potholes. We shift the painted firmament, tug at the traffic tides, influence subway karma. It comes with the territory.

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.

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.


Switching It Up

Without a doubt, a highlight of the past few weeks was being invited to participate in the No, YOU Tell It! Reading Series – a workshop in which four writers develop personal stories based on a theme, and then trade stories with another writer for a live reading in front of an audience. If past readings are any indication, it’s a fascinating exercise in point of view and interpretation, as you listen to one person’s experience – complete with cadence and character – come out of another’s mouth. I am thrilled (and a little intimidated!) to be participating in this round.

As I write, I’m trying hard to put aside notions of tone and style as they relate to being read out loud, and just tell the story. But I’m always aware that there’s a difference between how someone might perform (and how an audience will interpret) a first person monologue, versus a piece with a lot of description and exposition. Nonetheless, it’s a thoroughly enjoyable challenge.

The next No, YOU Tell It! reading will take place on Monday, November 12th at 7:30pm.