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A Story of New York
The month of June has always been a return for me, as it was on June 1st that I arrived in the City of New York many years ago.
I came to NYC as a waif with few established prospects. I was 23 years old, and my mother was ill but stable with the cancer that would claim her less than two years later. She was still working, and my father was bearing up, but getting away seemed both desirable and worrisome. This is how I arrived on Manhattan Island -- full of the need to stay there and given many reasons to fail at it. The evening I arrived at my sublet, arranged by friend Jordan, I found out that Jordan's father was dead. I knew him well – a scenic artist with his own atelier - and couldn't believe that this man had suddenly expired in his sleep. He was 57. It wasn't Jordan who informed me but a mutual friend in California who had called that evening to see how I arrived in the big city. I was, therefore, quite alone. No friend Jordan to show me around to the jobs I needed. No one even to have breakfast with. And I was there for a month - finances dwindling from the moment I got out of the cab.
This was a Saturday, and it was after sundown, as I remember the nakedness of the fluorescent bulb beating into the night from the brownstone building as the cab pulled up. I had paid for the month’s sublet sight unseen – another arrangement by my friend. I had flown in on TWA from Ohio. I lived in Dayton (just back there from a university job), but the Columbus fare was cheaper, which I remember was $50.
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I had forgotten my ticket, and the agent required that I buy a second one – or, that is, my parents had to as they had credit cards. The forgotten ticket was refunded, thankfully. I remember thinking that New York was now not to be, right after the omission was discovered. It fed into all the misgivings, the guilt of taking something on that was a little too big, barely planned, and all other related doubts. There was a hasty goodbye, and I was suddenly winging my way to LaGuardia Airport while enjoying a Time Magazine that happened to feature an article about New York attractions and changing times.
There were no wheels to convey my grips, and so there were the familiar tired limbs grappling with a weighted-down Samsonite, a large gray zippered suitcase (both from the early 60’s), a carry-on, and a plastic bag containing some odds and ends, including a selection of cassette tapes in a long cardboard box. Adrenaline saw me to the cab stand.
“Where you goin’ babe?”, the dispatcher shouted my way, as fares were being hurriedly matched with taxis. “Babe!” I was already in the thick of it, as if I had just joined a comedy workshop and was improvising through a New York sketch.
“Midtown!”, I shouted back. I was already proud that I was familiar with the general truth of where I had landed. And so perhaps Murray Hill wasn’t actually Midtown, but it wasn’t far. The trunk popped, and I was ushered toward a taxi cab dressed in standard medallion yellow, driven by a quiet Nigerian man who gathered my East 30th Street destination and wordlessly took off toward the city.
I recall the bridge and then the myriad street fronts, towers merging with the darkening sky, and people becoming ribbons of color and detail, and the constant turning, as if my apartment were at the center of a maze. At a certain point – almost in a grand tradition – the driver made a wrong turn and found that the one-way block I was on required additional circumnavigation (resulting, of course, in a higher fare).
Then, finally, the truth. The house itself appeared on the left, and it was hardly a building at all compared to the surroundings – five stories of a skinny long-converted brownstone house – its stoop and stairs lobbed off to create a step-down entrance. Thinking back, it put me in mind of the sawed-off candlestick phones in the 1931 film The Front Page, where the mouthpieces were missing.
After peeling off more of my money than planned, I was faced with a new life four stories up. The keys had arrived in the mail, and they allowed me entrance past the aluminum mailboxes and into the tiny landing beyond where I was immediately met with the odor of still warm air mixed with the acid tang of cat urine. Gray enamel paint hung on the walls, and the Victorian staircase still led the way as it had for a century, creaking under my weight.
At last, the apartment – breached with another mailed key. A tiny foyer led straight to steps leading up to a giant lofted futon bed, while whatever was left to see of the dwelling was toward the left, and that included a kitchenette with under-the-counter refrigerator, a collapsed dining table, a door to a surprisingly normal-looking bathroom, a living room with a couch, a large polished writing table, and a shelf unit between the two windows in the place, containing TV, VCR, tuner, cassette deck, turntable, and speakers. A hardware store box fan provided the only mechanical ventilation.
There was a note for me (from Doug the lease holder): “Dear James, Welcome to the land of VCR’s and answering machines.”, as if the rest of the country had never heard of them. I was requested to send any incoming mail to his out of town address and to send a boxed pair of shoes to someone named Melanie. An additional note from Jordan was also waiting for me in an envelope boldly labeled with my name. The note showed photographs from a road trip out West and a promise to see me the day after my arrival – a reality that had not included the unexpected death of his father.
Later that evening, still obtaining my equilibrium, I sat on the bench in front of the polished table and turned on the television. I saw my first flickers of Manhattan Cable TV, a kind of window into the soul of mid-New York. Aside from the regular channels were cable access channels on lettered stations. The famous dial of Manhattan Cable featured VHS channels 1-13, then a series of lettered channels. Channel J was the cable access channel that truly warranted attention from an out-of-towner.
Early in the evening, before a particular program aired, there might be several minutes of a simple screen animation – the most memorable being a sporty looking woman sitting on a Vespa scooter, underscored by light electronic funky music, while two frames of hand-colored strokes implied that the back tire was moving. All the while, the same two phrases kept circling around the Vespa: “Manhattan Cable TV” and “For the Manhattan Life”.
Somehow, I found “the Manhattan life” a daunting proposition. Was I now supposed to own a scooter, and what precisely was the Manhattan life? Apparently, it offered all the fun in the world to those who could spend enough for it. I had the smile but only about 380 dollars that weren’t even in the bank yet. The Manhattan life… what had I done?
As if the shock of weren’t enough, Channel J – a basic cable offering - suddenly erupted into its late evening programming, and it was all locally-produced soft-core pornography, interspersed with advertisements for escort services and costly chat lines. Among the offerings were a naked interview show, explicit commercials for sex toys, and something, eventually, called Midnight Blue - a kind of interview and commentary show hosted by one Al Goldstein. The term “jaw dropping” has become an Internet cliché, but I believe that my jaw dropped that evening.
Some of the programming was really a cover for New York humor, as it could just as well have been a blue comedy channel. Many watched the shows, enjoying familiar hosts and the kind of camp that came with the ribaldry. I soon learned that this was indeed essentially New York – not taking the world seriously, and how could you, watching middle-aged men and women slumped naked in chairs discussing music videos and recent plays. The craziness and irreverence of Channel J even allowed for a certain catharsis from rough and tumble Manhattan days.
What I had taken on in moving to New York was a lifestyle that, labeled or not, was now with me. I needed work and so pounded the pavement, attempting to wear a polyester suit in encroaching summer heat. The daily images of city blocks, windows, and towers stayed with me. They’d form pastiches of abstract paintings in my head as soon as my eyes closed for the night.