I first became aware of New York as a magical city at the end of a long stretch of train tracks that passed by my grandmother’s elegant old apartment building in Ardsley-on-Hudson.
I imagined it to be a place of kings and queens.
As the name implies, my grandmother’s town was situated beside the Hudson river, a river which also runs along the west side of Manhattan. This river, and these train tracks, are like a vital artery which connect the ecstatic paroxysm that is New York City to the dense forests and sleepy houses to the towns north of it.
My mother and father were both raised along this river, and my mother’s father worked in the city as an acoustical engineer who helped design the interiors of Carnegie Hall and the planetarium. I myself was born in Boston, but was raised on stories of New York, it’s glamor and cosmopolitan charm.
When I was at my gramma’s house, I spent hours wandering the train tracks and picking up the smooth stones between the rails to toss them into the Hudson. The Palisades were on the opposite shore, a wall of steep green hills with tiny homes tucked into every cranny.
I wondered what all those people– undoubtedly more interesting than me– were doing in that distant city and in those hills.
I loved the quiet water noises and I loved the the hum, not quite audible, but shaking the molecules in the air, of an incoming train. I would close my eyes and feel the humming rise, until my body buzzed like an electrical wire, vibrating as the air shifted around, anticipating it’s need to accommodate the monster that was roaring toward me. And when the train did come, it brought with it a rush of city air, a layered cocktail of asphalt, exhaust and something that smelled primal, swamp-like. It’s mammoth presence frightened me, and I tested my courage by staying as close to the tracks as I could when it blew past without flinching.
When I was 22 I packed up what few possessions I had and moved to New York. I felt the same way I did as I waited for the trains to pass me; frightened and exhilarated, but I also felt as if I were going home. The city had been calling it’s siren song of possibility and seductive anonymity to me all those 22 years.
In New York, you could be anyone you wanted to be, that I knew, and what I wanted most to be was not-ordinary.
I had a friend from college who lived in Alphabet City and kindly offered me her couch while I got settled. Alphabet City, on the lower east side of Manhattan, was not the New York I had fantasized about. The low, broken down buildings looked bereft, homeless people grinned up at me vacantly from the square patch of earth they had staked out for the day, and hispanic man/boys muttered and leered as I walked by, standing in groups outside their favorite bodega, gold teeth flashing in the sun.
On the rooftops, at dusk, I could see the silhouettes of policemen with rifles at their side, the mayor’s newest attempt to staunch crime. They paced back and forth, staring down cat-like onto the neighborhood, waiting for a chance to pounce.
My first apartment was in the East Village, one block north of Alphabet City. Instead of groups of young Hispanics, this place was populated by punks, transvestites and kids from New Jersey who had just graduated from college like me. It had it’s share of homeless people too, but they were allowed to squat in Tompkins Square Park. It was much more civilized than bedding down on a curb.
The park also had a dog run and big trees to sit beneath, and though the soil was dry and knotted under the sparse grass, it was an oasis. I sat and ate a bagel— the cheapest food I could buy—every morning before I began my search for work. The pigeons gathered around me burbling as doves will and I dropped them a few crumbs just to see their iridescent heads flash as they bent to pick them up.
Eventually, right before my savings ran out, I got a job as a waitress at a steakhouse. I wore a bow tie and a long white butcher’s apron and I always smelled like blood. But I made good money and was able, year by year, to better my living condition. I moved to Union Square and then west, to Hell’s Kitchen, which, while not as posh an address, allowed me to nestle into a nice railroad apartment.
Railroads are named for their rooms, which are laid out one after the other like railway cars. In this case, it was half of the entire first floor of an apartment building with a stamp sized backyard where the caboose would be. Down the street was the Hudson River, and I often walked there, gazing in the direction of my grandmother’s home. At those times, it was like I held a fragile thread between the past and the present and I nodded back at that kid on the tracks throwing stones.
I was just a waitress, but I could feel something taking root—I was going places.
If you had told me that within five years of moving to New York, I would be homeless, I would have laughed outright.
But it happened. I followed a man I thought I loved into the shadows of the city.
With him, I learned that the dark green liquid in tiny glass capsules they sold at the bodegas was pure ginseng, nicknamed “baby cocaine”, and once I had a taste for it, it wasn’t hard to steer me toward the real stuff.
I learned what all those Hispanic guys were doing down in Alphabet city too. I got to know them—they didn’t mutter or leer anymore, they wanted my money. Now the cops on the roof were looking for me, and I peered up at them anxiously, bags of powder in my pocket as I scurried away.
I also learned that tucked into the sewers caps, sidewalk cracks, tree roots and wheels of parked cars were stashes of drugs like rare mushrooms—ready to pluck if you just knew where to look. I found out because the guy I loved was friends with a man in charge; an oddly elegant, if decrepit, Frenchman named Bernard.
We sat together in Bernard’s filthy one bedroom apartment very near my first place on 1st Ave, the floor sloping wildly, as the drug dealers from the neighborhood came to weigh and bag their goods. The coke we snorted made the process that much more fascinating. My boyfriend and Bernard chatted in French while I sat on the broken couch and wiped my nose.
My boyfriend got kicked out of his apartment, so he moved into mine. Then we got kicked out of that one too. After over two years of being a perfect tenant, I suddenly couldn’t pay rent. The sheriff came and told us to leave. I walked out with nothing but my passport and a few clothes, high and disoriented.
That first day, we walked all the way from Hell’s Kitchen back to Alphabet City. There was nothing else we could think of to do. We slept that night in Tompkin’s Square park, with the all other homeless people, and again for many nights afterward.
For the next year, we slunk through the underbelly of the city, finding cracks and crevices to hide in just like the drug dealers found for their drugs. We slept on trains, in train stations, in youth hostels, in parks, on rooftops and perhaps most humiliating, down by the docks of the Hudson river, within spitting distance of the apartment I’d been evicted from. Huddled against an oily pile on, my hair unwashed, my feet itching, I tried not to look northward to my grandmothers house as we discussed our desperate plans to get more drugs.
I left New York one morning in a delirium of sleeplessness. I’d been up and wandering the streets for days and I knew that if I stayed I was going to die. I used the very last bit of cash I had on a train ticket to Chicago. I road the train all the way through the city and past Ardsley-On-Hudson, hanging between the cars to breathe in the lush air from the trees, the water and the soil. Tears tried to form, but evaporated before they even left my eyes. My body was too sick to cry.
In Chicago I got better. It took a long time, but I did. Now I have an ordinary life, the sort of life I dreaded when I was young, and I am happy.
I still dream about New York almost every night. In my dreams I am running through the streets with drugs falling out of my pockets. I pound on every door, begging to be let in, but they are all locked. I wake up in a sheath of sweat and reach out for my husband.
In 2002, I went back to the city and stood beside the giant hole in the ground that used to be the World Trade Center. I cried and cried. I cried for myself and all the things I had done, and I cried for the city; a place of kings and queens and cats and rats and bodegas and Bernard and rivers and trains, and in my case, possibility unrealized.
But at least I could cry.
When I left that time, it was on a plane, and even from that height the Hudson sparkled like a bejeweled finger pointing the way home.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise