I woke up at 7, with a hangover and pains in my knuckles. The hangover was from celebrating my first day of work. The pains were from carrying around 138 pounds of everything I owned for a week. When I left Brooklyn, from the apartment I'd been staying at, I took my luggage with me. I promised myself I wouldn't go back until after I'd signed a lease on an apartment in Manhattan.
My job was up at Columbia, and a friend of a friend let me store my bags at the school's radio station. They were having some kind of grad-schooly, ism-filled art music performance in the studio, and as I walked out the door I put on Jason Derülo.
At work, I checked my email constantly. I was waiting to hear from Peter, an old guy in Washington Heights (3 miles North of Columbia). He had room for $450 a month. It was so cheap I could probably pay for it by cleaning the viruses off his computer. My job didn't pay very well, and I wondered if rent would decide whether I'd start a life in Manhattan or move back in with my family at the end of the summer. Staying in New York was all that mattered. I hate retracing my steps. I hadn't been to Peter's apartment yet, but I just needed a phone number or an address. For the price, I would've moved in without seeing it first.
The other landlord I was considering was Fernando, but I wouldn't be able to get a hold of him until we both got out of work. He lived in Spanish Harlem (2 miles East of Columbia) and he was my backup plan. We'd already talked and he said I could move in as soon as he got back home. His room was more expensive, but it would do the trick if Peter couldn't hunt and peck his way into my inbox.
As the day went on, I wasn't getting any word from Peter, but I figured it was OK. I was calm and my co-workers couldn't tell anything was going on. Peter probably had dial-up internet and didn't think a "nice young man" like me, writing polite emails, working at the University, had been homeless for a few hours and needed to hear from him before it started to get old. I figured I'd cut him some slack and go about my day until evening. If I got sick of wandering by then, Fernando would be home.
It was free day at the museums along 5th Avenue and I was meeting up with some friends. After eight hours of work and two cups of coffee, I headed downtown a few stops on the subway. It was 6 PM. You can't cross Central Park on the subway so I figured I'd take a bus.
There was nobody else waiting when I sat down at the stop. Twenty minutes later, the line behind me extended half a block. I got off my seat and walked around the corner to see what was the matter, and as I looked down the street I saw that they were shooting a Porsche commercial. Everything was blocked off. Suddenly the street seemed silent. I decided to walk. It was only about a mile, but now I noticed my legs were sore and wobbly from carrying my luggage around all week. The bus passed me on my way through the park, and it was filled to capacity.
When I got across, I waited in the crowd for my friends to show up. I realized they'd probably want to get dinner somewhere nice, and I wanted to be able to say I'd already eaten. I ducked into a Deli-Grocery and bought a big bag of honey mustard pretzel pieces, which I ate quickly. When my friends arrived, I stuffed the rest of the bag into my backpack and started walking through the German expressionist gallery with my yellowish-brown lips. In the bathroom of the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, I finished the bag. It turned out my friends had already eaten.
Around 9:30, they wanted to go out for drinks, so I left them. I got on the internet on a bench at the edge of central park. I don't know whose Wi-Fi I was borrowing, but I hoped it was one of those neighborhood association types who puts up the signs saying "No Honking. $300 Fine." Anyway, that's who I pretended it was. Certainly it wasn't someone like Peter, because then I'd be making his internet even slower, making him more likely to blow off getting back to me. Right as I was thinking that last thought, my inbox popped up. No new messages. I called Fernando, and he picked up to tell me he'd be out until 11, but that after that I could move in. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I wonder how the night would have gone if I'd decided to head up to Spanish Harlem and sit on his steps from 10:59 onwards.
But that's not what I did. $450 for a room was like $3 to get drunk. It made every other choice irrational. I looked East, through the chaos on 86th street, and I thought of the road in front of my parents' house. I hate retracing my steps. I had to give Peter more time.
I decided to head back up to Columbia. There, I could check my email one last time on Columbia's Wi-Fi and I'd be right by my luggage. It was a good midpoint between Washington Heights and Spanish Harlem, and if everything fell through I could still get to Fernando around 11. I imagined moving in. I'd try to work a little harder and spend a little less. I'd unpack and be in bed by midnight, and I'd get up for work the next morning and never think about June 8, 2010 again.
If Only, Right?
On the way to the subway station, I pass a Bank of America and realize it would be a good idea to have a down payment for whoever I end up renting from. Just to be safe, I want to take out the maximum, $500. I hit Enter on the ATM and a message blinks across the screen: not only has my request been denied, my account has now been locked for suspicious use. I'm frustrated, and the second cup of coffee has just started wearing off. Now all I can taste is honey mustard.
My first instinct is to call my father, because he usually took care of that stuff back home. But before he answers I hang up. He doesn't know any more about my account than I do, and the error message at the ATM has a phone number. I live alone now. Or anyway, I will. I call the bank and talk to a robot for fifteen minutes. I forgot to let Bank of America know I'd moved to New York. The robot eventually tells me my account has been cleared and I can now make withdrawals, and it hangs up on me. I try the ATM again, and when it gives me the same message I grip the red plastic molding around the ATM to shake it. I feel my knuckles. I call the bank again and tell the robot I'd like to make a business inquiry, which should let me talk to a human. Marcia picks up, and she's very helpful. In the middle of the call I get someone on the other line, but I keep talking, knowing I can call my dad back afterward and explain. Maybe he'll be impressed that I didn't need his help. Marcia clears my account and hangs up on me. I look at my missed call, and it's from a private number. It wasn't my dad. It was Peter. I can't call a private number back. I inhale through my teeth.
After some pacing around the Bank of America floor, I start to rationalize. It can still be OK. He's just got to realize he can email me. By the time I get to Columbia, everything will be fine. I withdraw $500, and after I notice that it's almost 10:30 I get in a cab instead of taking the subway. Remember, you can't get across the park underground, and it takes forever to go all the way around on the train. The money saved from the honey mustard pretzels is now gone, but I've got to get North somehow. As soon as we start driving I see the traffic.
5th Ave. is blocked off for the museum showcase that just ended, so the streets are backed up with all the traffic from the event plus all the cars that would have been passing through on 5th Avenue anyway. We move 12 blocks in 30 minutes. It's 11, and Fernando isn't that far away, so I reluctantly call him to confirm that I'll take his room. There's no answer, so I decide to keep going with the Columbia plan.
At this point, it occurs to me that I could walk faster than the flow of traffic, so I pay the driver and start heading North along the eastern edge of the park. The school's a little further uptown, so I go from 99th to 116th. As if stepping out of a subway station to notice that the sun's gone down, I find myself in the middle of Harlem. It's sprinkling.
5th, Malcolm X, Adam Clayton Powell, Frederick Douglass, Manhattan, Morningside, Amsterdam, Broadway
I'm taking long strides, and everything's starting to feel unhinged and liquid and echoing like a haunted circus in Scooby-Doo. I put on "Hide and Seek" and shorten my steps as I approach a corner with two shirtless men and a terrier that holds good eye contact. One of the men is tall, with shiny skin and no tattoos. The other is scrawny and covers his strange, dirty hair with a colorful sash. I'm not nervous. They're just Harlem's version of Fred and Shaggy. I try not to think about the dog. The small one motions for me to take off my headphones. Columbia is still a long ways off.
As I'm pulling them off, I think of what they're seeing. The laptop bag probably means a laptop and the headphones probably mean an iPod. Everyone has a cell phone. But they have no way of knowing I have $503 in my back pocket, that is unless they know that the only skinny kids in collared shirts who walk calmly up 116th street are the ones who have something to hide. I let the train of thought get the better of me, and I look at their faces, at their mouths and eyebrows. I decide that they're the kind of men I could reason with, who, after they robbed me would hear me as they walked away, asking, demanding that they leave me those three dollars so I can get on the subway. They'd hand me the Ones and I'd walk away whistling Lauryn Hill.
Instead, the reasonable mugger waves a "no" gesture with his hand and repeats the headphone motion. He was only running his hands through his hair to smooth out the headscarf. I walk past them, and by the time I get the headphones back on my song is over. I take them back off and hear one of the men get a call. His ringtone is "Back in Black," and the riff starts repeating in my head. A minute ago I only felt tired. Now everything is strange.
My legs are getting weaker and I can feel the 2400 mg of sodium in my stomach, but my mind is still chugging along, planning what to do for every contingency I can think of. As I work out what I'll do if my phone dies (stand outside Columbia's dorms until I make a friend who lets me in and then go door to door for a charger), I start to bite my nails. Maybe I keep moving forward because of OCD. Not this again. I sigh a growling sigh and my heart rate increases. I'm at the foot of Morningside Park. I have to climb the stairs up the cliff, but then I'll be just a block from Columbia.
"Back in Black" is still playing as I start climbing. I lose focus for a second and think of AC/DC, which reminds me of their other song "Thunderstruck," which reminds me of the rain and the mud under my feet and back to the stairs. Not even ADD is a distraction. The neighborhoods I've walked through start to repeat in my imagination, starting from the Upper West, then across to the Upper East, and then through Harlem. My mind cycles through them every few seconds, and I get madder every time I see 116th Street. I wonder if the same city planners who mismanaged Harlem also decided to build this park out of an urban mountain. They never meant for the city to be looked at all at once.
I reach the plateau and I can feel the miles and hours in my ears. I stumble a block to the school and sit on the steps in the main square. Before I catch my breath, I open up my laptop. I feel my knuckles. The wireless isn't working. I think to myself, "I can walk until I die," and ask my legs to cross the street over to Barnard. My knees yawn and grunt like slaves. As I reach the opposite curb I can see Riverside Park, quiet, down the street.
What good was making plans? Peter's just an old man.
Before getting up, I call Fernando. As the phone rings, I know that even if he picks up I'm finished. There's no answer. I call the Brooklyn apartment, the place I promised I wouldn't go back to before I found an apartment in Manhattan. As the phone rings, I think of General Grant, who I once read was superstitious about retracing his steps. There's no answer. I leave a message. I'm homeless for about 30 seconds, until I get a text from my friend: "Of course you can stay with us." It's after midnight.
I walk a hundred yards to the subway. Down the stairs, through the gate, down the stairs, onto the platform. The train arrives immediately. I'll sit down, put on Lil' Wayne (or was it Lauryn Hill?) and feel better. On the way in, the laces on my Timberlands get caught in the door, and I fall down to one knee and break my fall on my knuckles, and I close my eyes, and my brain gives me all the chemicals it's got. Everything blinks.
What's the matter? Why are you doing this? Everything's all right. You told me "I can walk until I die." You told me you didn't like people looking at you. People are looking at you. You told me you felt revolted seeing people glitching. You're glitching.
You told me your mind was always moving. You told me you were compelled to think and to walk. If you stay down I'll start filling the shapes behind your eyelids with subway cars and Harlem tenements and footsteps. I'll send dogs. I'm the headphones you can never take off. I'll tell you "Get up." until you die.
Just put on your headphones and fix it. Find a new disease to diagnose and feel better. You told me those things fix everything. You told me you couldn't stop fixing. You told me you couldn't stop fixing. If I let you stop biting your nails, will you get up?
You told me you didn't want to be part of the problem. You're on the floor of the subway like a drunk. You're glitching like a drunk. I thought your decisions weren't just twitches in a cage. If you ask me to hold you back your problems will find new ways to the surface. I thought you knew I couldn't fix them. I'm sorry.
Maybe you're pretending you're somewhere else right now. No. You're not listening to me. You know I'm not really the executive. You know I'd be useless if you never made bad decisions. You know you taught me. You know thinking of me to solve your problems will only bring up problems somewhere else. You know you can find your way around the subway. You know you can find your way in New York. You know you can still make links without feeling like you're glitching. You're getting up. You're sitting on the bench. You're not taking your headphones out. You're closing your eyes. You're calm. You're not thinking of me.