Boroughing

city buildings

Out the door, flowers hang potted and suspended from hooks on each porch I pass. Awnings yawn in the evening sun. My walk is steady, and already, I think of the mulberry trees I will find across the bridge. It used to be living in a borough, you burrowed there, you never crossed the bridge. You had everything you needed, groceries and Laundromats a ten-minute foray from your apartment. It used to be when you wrote New York, people read Manhattan.

 One thing everybody tells me not to write about is New York. How it’s changed, how if you’re a writer you’ll one day exile yourself to some pastoral place–give up the noise for a stream in which you can stick your hot feet while you balance a computer on your knees, neurosis so far you don’t think about the future plunge. All files lost to nature, thrashed against cragged rocks. Poor prognosis for any Apple products resting in peace on the banks! But don’t think about that. Think about the stream and how nice it sounds, like bells.

One thing everybody tells me not to write about is New York, because the readers have already left for greener pastures. But I live in Queens, and sometimes there are flowers here. Sometimes even, there are readers here. After the awnings, apartment buildings stacked but still low, lower than the Manhattan skyline, low enough so if you look westward you can see the sun reflect from the tops of midtown buildings, a river away but not far enough to obscure. A building nearby is frescoed in bright paint. The sun rises in the mural, while in the city, down the street, the sun sets. It’s about the real and mirrored here, the sun in the town’s name, in the mural’s white lettering. The sun too hot come summer.

To be young in New York is to never see the sun. I am not a New Yorker, and I will admit that I never wanted to be. Though it seems antithetical, I moved here for convenience. After a stint at a school upstate, it was a natural progression to migrate down river, where all my friends were trying to make it. Take all of this with a grain of salt. I have nothing concrete to say about New York because I am not a New Yorker. I live here for the time being; I clog the streets; am one more body on the subway waiting for my next stop. But I am in New York and young, and the sun sets despite.

In Queens, the streets are covered in shit because there are no trashcans, and I don’t blame people for refusing to carry bagged excrement the six avenues it takes to get home. In Queens, there are also gardens. I pass the courts with kids playing across their elders; watch the ball slam ritually against the wall while grown men seek physical solace from their lives. Six laundromats are spaced out in increments along the street; I wonder how any of them sustain their businesses or how any of us is able to make an informed choice when everything’s rated comparably on Yelp.

Don’t write about New York, the greats advise. Don’t even think of it. New York is nothing like it once was, is unreadable. I visit my aunt and uncle at their house in Flatbush and they tell me how it’s changed. Used to be able to rent a place in The Village for two-fifty, used to only need one roommate as opposed to three. Diaspora to the boroughs, where nobody ventured unless they grew up there, and if they grew up there, now they are gone.

I have three roommates in Queens and we live five avenues from the 7 train, forced to run marathons each morning we miss our alarms. We have similar stories. We can’t afford Brooklyn; Brooklyn can’t afford more of us. White, young, financially adrift. We are privileged enough to be ashamed.

L is an actress, moved from Cleveland, college close friend of my close friend. Redheaded, lithe, actress playing bartender, who keeps many plants alive in her room. Ours die waiting for her care.

C is my best friend from summer camp. I’ve known her since we were twelve; I was as awkward and fat then as she was awkward and skinny. Now she is tall, well groomed, and freckled. A former bartender, she works at Planned Parenthood and wears a necklace shaped to look like an intrauterine device.

M is a preschool teacher and musician; she is sensuous and short with hairy armpits and a penchant for body modifications. She is a friend who traveled down the river with me from school. We didn’t know each other well during our college years, but she walked with me in the bitter New York cold on our way back from meeting with a realtor. We stopped in a cheap Italian place just to warm up, our bellies filled with heavy cream and pasta. As we tried unsuccessfully to find our way to the train, it was clear we would be close.

We later found out the train was a straight shot up the street from the apartment we were looking at, but we agreed to forget that fact for the embarrassment of our frostbite, which we hadn’t before endured, even in the bitter Hudson Valley winters. We accepted the apartment over the phone, breathing hard to keep our hands warm. C and L followed, a year and a year and a half later, respectively.

Benches outside the twenty-four hour grocery on forty-sixth-street are where L sits when it gets dark, when she realizes the apartment is too small to fit four of us comfortably. Once, she came home at night with mulberries picked fresh from somewhere in our neighborhood and she wouldn’t tell me where she found them until I begged. Now, I know where the mulberries are, but it doesn’t matter because I don’t have the means to scale the tree like the kids do, like L does, to reach for the branches up high that haven’t yet been picked over. L comes home like that often, arms full of berries or bark or flowers arranged in colorful bouquets, later scattered about our apartment, in our bathroom by the sink, by the window looking out onto concrete wall, flowers from neighbor’s yards living and dying in our apartment.

The sun sets as I cross below the train tracks, make it to the other side where mostly the wealthier Irish immigrants live, where brick houses are lined up by the street, and the street is tunneled by the twisted branches of many birch trees. Great white, they are most gorgeous in the summer months when they reach for one another and actually succeed in touch, buds rubbing up against one another in full bloom. Between each street is a network of bricked alleyways covered in trees and brush.  I showed the alleys to C when she first moved to the neighborhood and she took a picture of our favorite house nearby. One with mixed origins, half facaded in white, boasting a Victorian porch and laced curtains, the other half enclosed, a medieval door up front with heavy wood and thick metal hinges. A house is split exactly down the middle. No transition from Victorian to Medieval, just a thick line light on one side, dark on the other. C posts it to Instagram. It is one of her first photographs of our neighborhood. I walk through the alleys with these strange houses because it makes me feel like I’m in the secret garden, my vision of the empire state building visible at the end of the avenue completely obscured by sundials and houses with quiet porches adorned with beat but friendly furniture. It doesn’t sound quite like the city, does it? I say, describing the neighborhood to a friend. It’s not the city, she responds.

But I’m not sure that city exists anymore, which is why the greats don’t want to hear about it. They sit by their streams and grieve. They have enough money now they could afford to move back to Brooklyn. They just don’t want to live in Brooklyn because they’ve made it unlivable. Remember what it was like to be a young artist here? Remember when this neighborhood was rough? Look at the American Apparel on the corner. We’re all going to be priced out and pushed in and crowded together on the Queens-bound subway. No one is speaking English on this train, so where are we? Let’s see a Mets game! Never seen one before, but the stadium’s nearby, and there’s a first for everything in this city. That’s what’s so great about New York. The greats write about the boroughs. This is the real New York, where the real New Yorkers live. Look at all those millennials with their big glasses and sketching notebooks. Look at L with flowers in her hair. Look at C in her young professional attire. Look at M with her septum piercing. Look at them trying. You think you create things. Read this: real artists leave when New York dies.

These flat tops are full of families. I try to take up as little space as possible while making this neighborhood a home where I know my neighbors, where I care for neighborhood children and bring them to run through the sprinklers in Rainbow Park when it’s hot and the air is filled with trash. One of the girls I watch wants to go to the movies, so we walk all the way to Astoria, me carrying her atop my shoulders because glass litters the bridge and the cross-walks are not safe, even when the walking man, as she calls it, lights up in the traffic box, she cannot cross because cars speed by without looking. I point this out to her. If we were in a place where it was safe for you to cross on the ground, we would, but here is not safe so stay on my back. She nods and we make it to the air-conditioned movie theater where she is no longer a city kid but a little girl entranced.

It’s hard to get any job besides this. N+1 won’t take me, I’m sure of it. Hachette doesn’t even read my applications. Nothing is paid. “Work is for experience, don’t work for money,” say the CEOs who get paid for their experience. I work in a Manhattan preschool where the three-year-olds have math homework. I tutor at a college in Brooklyn where the students have never been taught the parts of speech. I remind them what a noun is over and over. Sometimes they remember. They want to graduate and pay off their debt. A Bachelors degree is the new GED equivalent.

I am young in New York so I never see the sun. I take the little girl I nanny for to the waterfront, to the art store down thirty-third-street. I could stay here all day, she says. We almost do.

When I get home, C is tired from work. The house is a mess and both of the faucets on the sink are broken. Our landlord hates us. We are afraid to ask him to fix things. I try to fix it myself with crazy glue, but my fingers end up stuck together in a grimace. Downstairs our neighbors smoke and the smell of it ends up in our rooms, nicotine’s kiss to our mattresses. Sometimes we make ourselves gin and tonics, but we don’t always have real limes. We eat a lot of kale, even when kale loses its flavor. Kale is no longer healthful– it’s analogous to eating metal straight. Before, kale was the cure for cancer, now it makes you lose your hair. Why do we live here, why do we live now, M and I ask one another.

Our landlord enters our apartment without asking, but the apartment is sunny. I refuse shades on my windows so I can wake up with the sun each morning, much to the chagrin of those who share my bed. One day we will move back to the Hudson Valley, when we get priced out. But the greats will price us out of the Hudson Valley too. I hope we will never have to leave Queens, I hope we are not making Queens a bad place for these families to live. I hope more people who look like us don’t move in. I hope more people with hearts like us do move in. I visit my extended family in Brooklyn and Queens and Manhattan. They have lived here for years. My best friend from college grew up in this Queens neighborhood. Am I allowed to take up space?

Three years before my mother died of cancer, she was struck by a taxi in Midtown. I write about this a lot; I don’t think I could write about New York without mentioning it. After seeing the musical Hairspray, we hailed a cab, my mother with her silver cane–recently the cancer had spread to her bone– and my father, brother, and I watched as she tried to ease herself into the back seat, rejecting our offers for help, and then the cab driver took off before she was seated. She fell onto the street. It was 42nd street. The taxi wheeled over her leg. My mother did not want to go to the hospital. She spent her adult life in the hospital. We were all in shock, so we did not report the cab driver, even when he drove off as my brother was trying to get out of the car, history almost repeating itself except that he stayed healthy in the end. We watched Hairspray in our heads; bruises purple and yellow snaked around my mother’s ankles. They remained there until she was no longer.

I thought I would hate New York after that. I didn’t, though for all I know that cab driver is still out there, ignoring the silver signs of disability, driving into the bruised sunset, ignorance is bliss. Living here, ignorance is still bliss. I walk by the homeless, sometimes emptying the change in my pocket, I live in the glare of gentrification and by the hatred of all those I’ve wronged in existing. I think of my mother, how she had loved this city, how she and her sister sojourned to Broadway as often as they could to see the shows, how she had not been fazed by her accident, not really. She still loved New York. So, I move to Queens. She does not know where I am. C sat with me at my mother’s funeral. C lives with me in this apartment.

The greats can disdain me for writing about New York, and because I am a millennial. I’ll visit them in the Hudson Valley and I’ll list their sage advice Buzzfeed style. I will not call it a ‘listicle’ but I will publish it on the Internet. I will tell all my friends to read it with a grain of salt. I will not learn from the past. How can I, when the past is dead? When New York is dead? How can I write if told I’m too young to make things, how can I exist in a space where I am told I should not exist? If you say New York is dead, you’re killing all the people who live here. Come to Queens for a minute. Allow the mulberries dye your tongue violet. Cross the BQE via bus and sit by the water. Let L pick you a neighbor’s flowers, M serenade you with her song, C comfort you and make you a drink with real limes. If you visit from your stream upstate, remember to value them, this struggling youth. Remember what it was like to be here when you were small and thought you could build anything you wanted. Take a picture of the house with its split identity and do not post it to Instagram, write instead a fictional account of its Medieval-Victorian inhabitants cohabitating. Sit with me and watch the sun sink, listen to this and that; prove to the greats that not all our readers are dead◊

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3 responses to “Boroughing

  1. I’m not claiming to be. I admit to being a gentrifier. I admit to not belonging in the city. I am criticizing the gentrifiers who say that because they have left New York, New York is dead.

    Because this is ignoring all the people who are still there.

    Like

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