Why the pain? Stories from New York City

11:57 PM


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The city that never sleeps stays awake by dancing in and out of people's dreams. Once upon a time, I thought of the place as my future home. I idealized the Manhattanite archetype of the career woman, all high heels and briefcase, power walking down the sidewalk to meetings in skyscrapers. In truth, though, I've been many people in New York City, but I have never been that woman. The first time I came to New York City, the closest stock character to describe me would have been the wide-eyed ingenue from the countryside hoping to make it big.

I was six. Good Morning America, a TV show I had never even seen, put my family and me up in a swanky hotel room in the Millennium Broadway. I most remember the bathroom, clad in armor: black marble so shiny that the lights, and our faces, swam around in the reflection. There was a giant tub, although as we filled it with hot water my sister and I felt gigglingly self-conscious about its placement right next to a giant window. We didn't think ask the question, At 42 stories up, who would be outside to see?

-1-

The Spring Break of my freshman year in college, I came again to New York City. Cold wind whipped my hair into a frenzy the moment I stepped off the $16 bus from JFK. I walked into a Times Square subway tunnel, looked up, and saw words tacked to the beams. 

“Overslept / So tired / If late / Get fired / Why bother? / Why the pain? / Just go home / Do it again.”

Just go home, I thought. If only I could.

It was the most discouraging poem I'd ever read; at the time, I thought it was some cruel ad man's idea of a joke.

I thought about the cold I was nursing and social obligations that I didn't want to meet. It felt like the conundrum Andrew Solomon describes in his hauntingly apt TED Talk about depression, the messages on the answering machine feeling like burdens instead of gifts. ("I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends, I would think, "What a lot of people that is to have to call back.")

All these thoughts made me fight back tears--and then I realized that in this sea of people all swimming down this tunnel, in pencil skirts and puffer jackets, there was no one to see me cry.

There's nothing like a city full of people to teach you how to be alone.

On my right side there was a little man with red hair and a red beard. He was sitting on the ground cross-legged. There was a small hat in front of him with a sparse pile of some dollar bills and change. He had no arms, and he was wearing a t-shirt in the cold. And he was smiling.

Something about the smile just made all the pity that had been worming its way through my mind twist into a knife, a fierce how could you feel sorry for yourself you privileged jerk you are so goddamn lucky to be wearing a coat, to be going to stay someplace warm tonight, to have arms. And I started sobbing quietly while walking, maybe feeling slightly enabled by the fact that nobody around was going to say a thing.

-2-

I have a weakness for pretty paper things, a predilection that leads me by the hand into all the stationery shops and Staples stores of the world. In NYC, I spent money freely--$4.50 for a thin wooden postcard at the Strand, $2.50 apiece for postcards with pictures of old New York and one, with an immigrant brother and sister at Ellis Island. It reminded me of a book with the same photo on its cover I had read in my childhood.

I was walking somewhere on Prince Street with my sister when I stopped to go into a store that mostly sold jeans but had some cheap postcards on a revolving stand outside. They were 10 for $1.00, the best deal outside of Chinatown that I had ever seen.

The man at the counter was short and slightly balding. He was talking jovially in a foreign language with a shop girl folding jeans. He would have looked equally at home in a painting of a family dinner or an episode of the Sopranos, with the kind of face that implied it could turn, as needed, from kindly to stern.

The shop girl went to put the jeans away and I timidly placed my postcards on the glass countertop.

He appeared grave-faced when he glanced at me, and I thought I had misheard him when he took the postcards and barked, "Why you pay for this?"

Is he saying that I should have stolen them? I thought with some wonderment.

"Uhhh..." I stuttered.

"Here," he said, sliding them back across the counter, "my gift. And here's a bag," he added, putting them in a bright red paper postcard bag.

"Oh--oh my god--" I said, taken aback. "Are you sure?"

He nodded with a snort, as though I had missed something obvious. I thanked him and stumbled out of the store, clutching the unused dollar bill--simultaneously worth little and priceless.

-3-

I took three bread rolls from a catered lunch at work, intending to save one of them for my sister. I ate two of them along the way back to the Prince St. subway stop. Every day on my path back to Prince St., I would pass Dominique Ansel. The bakery had the vaguely yuppie look of all Soho storefronts, and the most expensive pastries I'd ever seen. I never bought a cronut (their most famous product), but the day I was clutching that third bread roll in a flimsy paper plate in my hand I walked into DA and paid $6 for a blueberry tart barely the size of my palm.

After I had finished eating I didn't have any appetite for the third bread roll I was carrying, the one I'd been carrying for Adrianna, and I didn't feel like holding it further in my sweaty hand.

"Do you want a bread roll?" I texted Adrianna.

She said no.

I looked around quickly to make sure no one was watching. There was a green trashcan on the street, near some construction workers and scaffolding. I instinctually hid the bread a little as I tossed it into the trash.

I walked no more than 15 feet when I saw the weary-looking woman, gray hair in matted locks to her shoulders, hunched over on a bench with a cardboard sign at her feet:

"HUNGRY ANYTHING HELPS."

-4-

My sister and I cleaned and cleaned and cleaned the basement apartment we'd rented for the summer. And then we tried to cook, turning on the oven and realizing with shock that it, too, was powered by gas.

"So this is how people committed suicide with their ovens," I said thoughtfully. 

"How long do you think it would take?" she responded.

"I don't know. An hour maybe? I think that's how long it took Sylvia Plath."

I didn't think to turn on the fan above the stove before trying to cook some frozen parathas. As soon as Adrianna smelled the smoke, she turned it on and warned me the fire alarm in our small, badly ventilated studio would go off. It did. 

"Turn it off!" she shrieked at me.

"How?" I demanded.

I realized, standing there helplessly, that I was in no way prepared to be a grown-up. 

The moments after we turned off the fire alarm, we thought we were OK. We put some of the pizza dough we'd bought from Whole Foods into the oven and let some minutes pass.

That was when another beeping came from the fire alarm, and a preternaturally calm and robotically dispassionate woman's voice uttered, "Warning: carbon monoxide. Warning: carbon monoxide." I ran to shut it off, Adrianna had the foresight to turn off the oven, and we bolted outside.

"What do we do?" I shouted. I was crying and pacing, thinking (or saying out loud, I don't remember), I'm so done. I don't want to take care of myself anymore. I just want somebody to be here and make it all go away. The tears fell in big fat drops off my cheeks while my sister shook her head in exasperation at me, hands on her hips in her black Adidas track pants. 

"Get yourself together," she said, and I could almost hear "Crybaby! Crybaby! Crybaby!" in her and Daniel and Nicholas's voices--she and the boys who had been our neighbors back in Renton, where I grew up until I was six, would always taunt me with it--and now it was coming back, it seemed, as subtext. On the phone with my parents, I cried some more, and said, "We could've died, if I'd f***ed up on turning off the fire alarm and accidentally turned the whole detector thing off, we never would've known, and then we would've just died in this f***ing little dirty basement apartment that smells like wet dog."

It was like the indignity wasn't the dying, it was the location of death.

I don't want to die right now, I thought, but if I have to, please God, not here, not New York. 

Not New York.

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