Thursday, May 21, 2009

New York, Part I - Arrival

Just before boarding the Metro-North train in New Haven, M called me from Midway Airport in Chicago. He’d missed the deadline for checking his bag, and now the airline couldn’t guarantee that it would get loaded onto the plane with him. This was just one in a series of phone calls I’d received from him, beginning that morning when he called in a panic over the details of how to get to Midway Airport from our home on the northwest side. I talked him through his options and he’d texted twice to update me on his progress on the CTA. I was on the commuter train to New York when I got the next phone call. M had landed but the bag didn’t make it, and the airline wanted to know the address of where we’d be staying so they could deliver it to us. I doubted that Southwest would make the trip all the way from MacArthur Airport in Long Island to 143rd street in Sugar Hill, but I gave M the address. As expected, delivery wasn’t an option, and arrangements were made to have the bag held at the airport for the duration of M’s visit.

I felt responsible for the situation; if it hadn’t been for the extra clothes I’d asked M to pack for me with his things, he’d have been able to travel using only a carry on bag. This meant M had no clothes other than what he was wearing. I got off the train at Grand Central, and boarded the subway shuttle to Times Square, where a grey haired man wearing a baseball hat with the words “Springfield Armory Trap Door” printed on it unwrapped a stick of gum, and after putting it in his mouth, crumpled up the aluminum wrapper and flicked it across the subway car with his thumb and forefinger, seemingly at someone seated across the aisle from him. Above ground at 42nd street, graduates in caps and gowns kept appearing before me like an internet meme, some carrying flowers, some wearing their caps on their heads, and some carrying their caps by their sides like briefcases.

I walked past the biggest Dave & Busters in the country, an Applebee’s restaurant, and negotiated through crowds so thick I found myself thinking “oh for Pete’s sake” in a Minnesota accent, although I’ve never set foot in the state. A girl in faded blue pixie haircut spoke to her companion, saying “just get like, a little thing of coconut rum,” and I walked past a poster of three men on a desert island wearing nothing but Speedos. The man in the center of the photo stared into the camera, his right hand down the front of his bathing suit. The words “Man Island” were printed at the top of the poster; a play on words, I supposed, on “Manhattan Island.”

I had an hour before M’s train arrived from Ronkonkoma, and I hoped to buy him a change of clothes during that time. I pictured myself picking through piles of sweatpants and "I heart NY" shirts set up on vendor tables along the sidewalk, but found a GAP store in Times Square - score one for ubiquity. I texted M for his pants size, but didn’t hear back. I felt like I was on a game show - I’ve lived with the man for ten years, could I remember his pants size unprompted? I grabbed a pair of 32 waist jeans, and 34 waist khakis, and hoped one of them would fit. I picked up a t-shirt, a button down shirt, three pairs of socks and two boxers, and paid for them at the register, which was manned by an uninterested hipster.

The last time I was pick pocketed in New York, George Bush the elder was in office, but out of habit I rearranged the contents of my purse before leaving the store, placing my wallet under my glasses case and makeup bag.

I was standing across the street from a red neon sign reading “Green Papaya” when my phone rang again.
“The train is in Hicksville,” M said.
“Isn’t it fabulous that there’s an actual town called Hicksville?” I asked.

As I approached Madison Square Garden I suddenly lost my bearings, and asked a street vender selling halal meat what direction Penn Station was in. He silently lifted his right arm and pointed - Penn Station was in the same building as Madison Square Garden, how could I have forgotten this? I walked towards 7th Avenue and tried to make out the honorary street name ahead of me. Did it say Jay Leno Plaza? No. John Lennon Plaza? Wrong again, Joe Louis Plaza. My eyes were failing me.

I ventured underground into the labyrinth of Penn Station, and tried to find the track that M’s train would be pulling into. A man wearing glasses that were duct taped together at the bridge of his nose, a dollar bill in his hand, asked if I had change.
“What for?” I asked, thinking that he needed change of a dollar.
“I’m short a dollar for my train fare, and I was wondering if you could help me out,” he said. I thought for a long moment; I’ve actually fallen for this scam before, and the strangest part is that I knew I was being scammed even in the moment that I volunteered my spare change to the last man who‘d told me this story at the Irving Park blue line stop in Chicago, under the Kennedy Expressway overpass. There’s something about committing to the scammer’s story that keeps hold of me until I’ve parted with my money, and I was dangerously close to becoming ensnared once again.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I can’t do that.” My eyes had become weary with the strain of trying to find M in the streams of people coming up from the LIRR train gates, so I turned and went back up the escalator to the street. As if on cue, a muzak version of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City” played overhead.

Outside, I settled into a corner away from the main foot traffic when a man with an empty Dunkin’ Donuts cup approached me asking if I had any spare change that he could have to buy some dinner with.
“I can’t do that,” I said, emboldened by my experience with the underground duct-taped man, “I’m waiting here for my husband so he can feed me.” The man with the empty cup looked at me, unsmiling, for a long moment before retreating to the crosswalk where a friend was waiting for him.

I was exhausted. I’d been in the city for exactly ninety minutes.

M called me from underground and I talked him through the escalator to the street. We made our way to the number 1 train, and then realized that we had boarded the southbound train, so we got off at 28th street. There was no way to cross over to the northbound trains until 14th street, so we boarded the next one heading south. Like it’s number, it smelled strongly of urine. A man wearing a filthy white jacket, black pants, and sneakers lay sprawled across five seats, his right foot touching the floor, his left leg bent at the knee with his foot resting on a seat. His right hand rested near his head, and with his left he grabbed his crotch, moving his fingers across his groin periodically. As we pulled into 14th street a nickel fell out of his jacket pocket and hit the seat near his head, causing him to open his eyes momentarily before falling back into a fog. We switched to the northbound train, and M asked how far we were going.
“We get off at 145th street,” I said.
“Is it safe?” He asked,
“It’s fine.” I said.
“I just, it’s getting kind of dark, and we’re carrying bags and…”
“It’s fine, we’ll be fine,” I said. M started reciting lines from a scene in the movie The Brother from Another Planet in which a card sharp tells the Brother that as a magic trick he can make all the white people disappear from the subway train, and in 1984 at about 110th street, that’s exactly what would have happened.

At 145th, we walked two blocks south and found Jorge’s apartment building. I called him on my cell phone and got his voicemail.
“He must be in the laundry room,” I said to M, in my most reassuring tone of voice. He called back a few minutes later, and came to the door wearing a tan cap, jeans, and a t-shirt with the word “minority” printed in block letters. His apartment was on the 4th floor of a walk-up, and although there was a buzzer system in the building, there was no buzzer to Jorge’s apartment. He greeted us warmly, and looked at our pile of belongings.
“Is this all your luggage?” he asked.
“Well, there’s a story,” I said.
“What do you pay in rent for this place?” M asked as we negotiated the narrow stairway. I was mortified, there are two things I never ask New Yorkers: how much they pay in rent, and what they earn in salary.
“Eighteen,” Jorge said, leaving off the word “hundred”.

Jorge’s housing situation has been in limbo since last summer, when he made a down payment on a condo, and is currently living in a month-to-month lease while he waits for the details of his purchase to finalize. This is the third transitional apartment he’s moved into, and most of his belongings are in a locker at Big Apple Mini-Storage. I set my bags down and headed for the bathroom, which was so small that when I sat on the toilet my left leg pressed up against the bathtub, my right leg was pressed up against the wall, and I had to stand up to wipe properly.

I’ve visited Jorge in New York many times over the years, including one time in 2000 when he lived in a storefront building on Avenue C on the lower east side. My flight had been delayed, I didn’t have a cell phone, and I didn’t get to his neighborhood until two in the morning. In my travel weary state I’d forgotten that he lived in a storefront, and stood in front of an apartment building searching for his name on the buzzers. I didn’t see his name on any of them, so I pressed them all and someone buzzed me in. I was carting a large hard-shelled suitcase with me, and I dragged it up the stairs one at a time, the sound echoing off the walls as I climbed the staircase calling his name.
“Jorge?” I called out every few seconds. A door opened a crack. “Jorge?” I whispered. SLAM! Finally I remembered that this wasn’t the building I should be in, went back outside, and found the storefront that Jorge actually lived in.

We sat in the central room of Jorge’s apartment and caught up with each other for a few minutes. I heard the sound of someone coughing, but it wasn’t coming from any of us.
“Oh, I forgot to tell you - I have a roommate,” Jorge said. I looked around but couldn’t figure out where a fourth person might be hidden. “You probably won’t even see him. He stays up all night writing code or whatever it is that he does, and sleeps all day.”

A silent black and white cat made her way to M, and he scratched her on the head.
“That’s Kitty,” Jorge said. She looked exactly like a Kit-Kat wall clock, and had eyes that were wide open in an expression of permanent surprise.

We left the apartment and went around the corner to a Mexican restaurant that had ten tables, and waitresses in short white skirts. Fifteen minutes into our visit a large Latin man in a Hawaiian shirt started singing loudly into a microphone, while music blared from a sound system. It wasn’t quite karaoke, since he was the only one singing. It was too loud for conversation, so while we ate I watched a TV that was bolted to a wall. An ad for weight loss medication came across the screen, the word “Gorditos” flashing across it, and the same footage of three overweight men was shown twice with the word “Antes” above them. Then a camera shot from below a large man’s belly showed him squeezing his rolls for the camera. The singer finished his song, which I understood one word of - mujer. He then began speaking to his audience, and, spotting Jorge’s shirt, said in English: “I like your shirt man, minority rules!" And then: "Do any of you speak Spanish?”
“Un poquito,” I said.

When we left, a large man seated on a stool by the front door wished us a good evening, somehow I hadn’t noticed him on the way in.
“He’s a bouncer,” M said later, “in a restaurant with ten tables. Something else is going on in that place.” That may well have been true, but the food was delicious.

Back upstairs, we began making arrangements for the hand off of Jorge’s keys the next day once we made the subway trip downtown and dropped off our bags with Jorge at his office, a task that seemed hopelessly complicated. Then we talked about our respective workplace situations, M telling Jorge how strange it felt to tattoo people who were born after he’d graduated from high school.
“You have to be born in 1991 or earlier to get a tattoo,” M began, “In 1991 I was…”
“A hot mess,” Jorge interjected.

My words stopped making sense.
“I’m too tired for these details”, I said to M as he began dressing the air mattress that Jorge had blown up for us.
“It seemed like you were both having trouble”, M said. Three brand new packages containing flat sheets and pillow covers sat on top of the air mattress, and M set about opening them.
“There’s some kind of a blood stain or something on this pillow case,” he said, showing me the offending spot, “so don’t turn the pillow over.”

M turned on our laptop and became so absorbed that he didn’t even notice that I was changing into my pajamas in full view of the undressed window, with the bedroom door wide open just moments after having been introduced to Jorge’s roommate. I went to Jorge’s bedroom to say goodnight.

“You can stop by any time before I leave work to get your bags and to give me the keys,” he said, “usually I’m done by seven; then I come home and cry.”

M and I slept under a single sheet wearing our sweatshirts for warmth, visions of Latin singers and gorditos in my head, and Kitty asleep on M’s legs. I woke up at 4 a.m. with a pain in my side like I’d been punched in the kidney. I got up and squeezed myself onto the toilet to pee, and then came back to bed, disturbing Kitty’s perch on M's shins.

No comments: