Tuesday, May 6, 2003

Goodbye to New York, Part 6

The first thing I see when I open my eyes as we descend into LaGuardia is the New York City skyline jutting into my window. The transition from Cleveland (or rather Oberlin, Ohio) to airports to New York City is not a smooth one. I missed New York and I didn’t even realize it. Sometimes living in Manhattan makes us forget that we live on a tiny island and makes us dismiss the word “glorious” as touristy when it applies so well. Who could disregard such awesome man-made beauty, despite the sea of dirt and concrete and all the excrements of too many peoples’ lives? As we descend I watch the island from my aerial angle. I can see down all the streets, straight from east to west the reds and yellows that litter the perfect lines and comforting symmetrical grids. Now I’m stuck in the traffic I pinpointed from the plane when I muttered to myself “shit look at all that red, it’ll take forever to get back to the city,” spoken like a true New Yorker. I’m starting to realize that this will become my commute, this half-day trek from flat normalcy to vibrant hectic heights. I will be leaving the city behind, and it will not wait for me. I will come back a foreigner to the city that has been my home for eight years. I will get in a cab from the airport and frantically write in the dark backseat about how the city sucks me in and spits me out and no matter how much I keep up I will always be behind. Yet there is no other way to live the city life, to breathe the dirty city air and thrive on it. When I’m gone I will compare everything to how it’s done in the city, but after a few weeks my definition of the city will be entirely obsolete. When I return to it I will have to start again, rebuilding my definition, only to do it again and again for a lifetime. This is not a bad thing, though, for every time I return to Oberlin, Ohio, it will be waiting for me just as I left it, with everything in its proper place. I will know it and own it and I will not need a rhythm or a vibe because nothing will require that kind of synchrony. That kind of familiarity will be nice for a few days, but this city, the city, does not suffer from monotony, and its constant deformities and reformations will keep me from sinking into passivity, into “okay” and normalcy. The city makes do; it goes on what it has and doesn’t pause for departures. The city will not miss me; it will take my absence with nothing more than a grain of salt. I will never say goodbye to the city, because it has never said goodbye to me.

Monday, May 5, 2003

Goodbye to New York, Part 4

I loved Miracle on 34th Street until I became a New Yorker. On that first Thanksgiving in the city, for that’s when Christmas starts here, the holiday became my third symbol of New York. I love the Christmas season because everything is so happy, even the women Goodwill Santas collecting dimes from wealthy Long Island shoppers outside of Macy's during a blizzard or even in slush. It seems like everything is dying around me even while remaining so hiddenly vibrant. Call me sentimental but I cried during the Christmas All-School chapel this year, when the first graders processed down the isle with plastic candles in all their glory, the children's eyes focused intently on the outstretched arms of squatting teachers at their destination. I picked out you and Bobby and Giulia and Laurence, vicariously remembering you when you were six through these unfamiliar children, at the same time mixing future with the past and present and wondering if my children will be repeating the same holiday ritual in a few years. Then during "Once in Royal David's City," the words to a song I hear only here serenaded me and the strong beautiful voices of the thirty other people in chorus surrounded me like the timbre of a tympani drum. My eyes watered and I looked around at all the other seniors near me and saw similar tears in their eyes. We knew security was quickly leaving us and tradition slowly releasing its grip on us, ready to exclude us the next time around, though we may not be ready to let go.

Our eyes danced over the rows and rows of Trinity students in their uniforms and formal attire, and for once we did not spite the rules we loathe nor did we desire to change the system we criticize, but rather we accepted it for what it is indeed and found the beauty somehow, somewhere, in the moment. Some of us remembered the Messiah Sing-In two nights before and how we stood outside singing carols, as always, and were not ready to shed the tears we knew we would later shed over the moment. And then when Mr. Rupcich told us he would be conducting next year at that event, smiles and tears all around in the basement of that old church that only we know by heart, some happy because they will see him in all his glory, some sad knowing they will not be able to return for it. In a heartbeat the service was over and we didn't know exactly how to feel. Lost?

Saturday, May 3, 2003

Goodbye to New York, Part 3

On the day of my graduation from eighth grade I went to a party at the Canfield house, my second symbol of New York. At the time it was to me Nick’s penthouse, but it has become my haunt, saturated with awkward memories.

We’re listening to Nix Mix again, in the backroom of the Canfield house, where we have spent many indecisive nights. I put on Less Than Jake and everyone screams in revolt. This is the group I have known since fifth grade but didn't really befriend until ninth. We don't really know why we are friends except because we commuted to that urban Cathedral close with peacocks and choirs for a few years. We are growing apart but we cling to that common experience for stability, for the reminder that we are really all that we have to hold on to. I hide myself in the covers of Suzie's bed because we're watching some stupid action movie in the dark, and Madeleine comes over and gets in bed with me. We pull the blankets up to our chins to fight the air conditioning and whisper about loving and hating this place-- the same old people, the same old motions and movements, the same old Domino's and Coke, the same old shushing and laughing. The light is flipped on and Nick pounces on us and doesn't move, so we are three in a bed, pulling at flower sheets and fluffy pillows, and Max comes in with his yamhaca and feels unloved. Lights out again and the movie is resumed with Max in a chair and the rest on the couch, except for the three of us still performing a balancing act on the bed. We talk for hours when the movie ends, sharing stories about the sex we’re not having and whispering our fears. Someone shouts “hey remember that time on this very couch…” and the victim of the story blushes at the revelation of a memory she had hoped had been forgotten. In the Canfield house I have learned about the nature of secrets. I have learned that the city itself has too many secrets that they aren’t even secrets because no one’s keeping them, because no one knows they’re there. I have learned that you can’t have a secret if you don’t know you’re keeping it. So another night winds down at the Canfield house and everyone grabs trash on the way out, waving goodbye when it never really is.

Friday, May 2, 2003

Goodbye to New York, Part 2

"Who's playing tonight?"

"Wayne," responds a tiny, hunched-over man with a black and yellow cap sitting placidly outside a tiny, brick-lined doorway. "It's ten bucks," he says, as two twenty-somethings in Columbia tee-shirts enter the narrow stairwell with Heinekens in hand and smug faces, amused by themselves for inquiring about the musicians of a jazz world with which they are entirely unfamiliar.

We enter behind them, paying with crumpled, used and reused ten dollar bills, and follow them down the stairs into a dark, musky, scarcely-populated room. In the corner, a few disheveled musicians sit on a bookshelf, staring blankly at a half-full pitcher of cranberry juice on the dry bar. Small's has forks, barstools, cups, and even a microwave, but has never served anything but cranberry or the occasional apple juice, as I learned on my first visit there, when I attempted to order a Coke. Fifteen or so trips later, I have learned my lesson and now carry a bottle of water and a candy bar with me, in case the jazz inspires some chocolate craving in me.

I tell Katie, who has never been here, that the musicians arrive when they like. At 10:30, they've set up and begin to play. As they swing into their first number, I enter a trance, fixated on the welcoming picture of Louie Armstrong directly behind the band. I had been convinced it was a photograph of Duke Ellington, but after the set that night, the owner told me otherwise. Despite this new information, the photograph still looms in my memory constantly, as my first symbol of New York, a reminder of smoky, hazy nights spent at Small's and the eerie familiarity of a single smiling face.

Nick, an aspiring jazz musician and connoisseur of sorts, introduced me to Small's two years ago. Now, when I ask him to accompany me on one of my many trips there, he refuses, claiming it is "selling out and losing its cool." To me, though, Small’s is just beginning. I can't get enough of that dark enclosed space where New Yorkers blend with an occasional out-of-towner, businessmen fare well with musicians, and where both nobodies and somebodies go for relaxation and a good rhythm. I find myself constantly drawn to its sepulchral feel and familiar tunes, its secretive existence and early morning hours, its good taste in jazz and its ability to make me feel at home downtown. The dissenting chords, giant bass plucks, and harsh sax notes make me think, ponder, question, and perhaps most importantly, live.

When we leave Small's, I stay to talk to Mitch, the owner and peaceful collector of the cover charge. He begins our conversation with a simple, "good?", and I respond, "as always." We launch into a discussion of hungry mice, how to salvage the dying Fat Cat (his billiards/jazz club joint that isn't doing so well), what makes a musician (and a good one at that), the importance of style, and Walt Whitman. He tells me he's his biggest fan, and that in the 1950s, before this small hole in the ground was Small's, it was home to Lenny's Hideaway, one of the first gay clubs in New York, a place patronized by many of the famous Beat poets. I'm in awe of the history of such a tiny room and go back downstairs for a minute to see if I can feel the presence of ghosts or history or maybe have some lines come to mind, and they do. Duke Ellington saying “playing ‘bop’ is like playing Scrabble with all the vowels missing.” Whitman's "What is it then between us? What is the count of the scores or hundreds of years between us?" Whitman's "Whoever you are, now I place my hand upon you, that you be my poem." I go back upstairs, haunted, and continue my back-and-forth chat with Mitch, who plays violin on 68th and Columbus during the day and reminds me of an owl in some way, holding deposits of information and releasing them slowly to people who tap into them enough. I promise to return soon, and at one a.m., hail a cab to my uptown abode, fulfilled once again by an evening of rich jazz and conversation I've found only in New York.

Thursday, May 1, 2003

My City is Scrabble without Vowels: Goodbye to New York, Part 1

Dear D.,

It’s Friday night and a woman with a heavy covered voice is crooning down from the crooked stage, and someone is chanting in the background, keeping her beat with deep vocals. Her name is Sugar and she’s black, big and black with cornrows, lots of them, and eyes of color cafĂ© and roots in Harlem and Ghana, and a lover in every South American country, and round hips and large perfect thighs with purple brown stretch marks that she reveals when she’s feeling sexy, when she glides that jean skirt up her leg to show some big black skin and scream “I’m black and I’m proud, I’m morena and I don’t give a shit what you are just listen to me and love what you hear, love what you preach and don’t you give up on your dreams girl, I don’t care the color of your skin.” She’s rich with salsa rhythm constantly keeping her gliding those notes out like a queen, a big black queen, and she lets the loud heavy real sounds drip out of her mouth like nutella or water from a faucet, smooth and so simple and concrete. She’s spitting out phrases like saliva and scatting all over the place, left right and around her curves and up her spine and yours and down your throat. We’re in the corner, clapping and laughing, screaming shaking watching her go go go and we wish we were black, or at least I do, we wish we were ethnic and could sing like that and have people laugh with us and not at us, we wish we could shake our big bosoms and big asses and have everyone call us sexy and not fat, have everyone say we’re beautiful and not just another white girl. We’re the only white ones there and that scared us the first time, made us feel alone and uncomfortable and we thought we couldn’t clap, but now we’re jaded and we don’t care what they think and they don’t care either, here we don’t even think, we don’t know the color of your skin and it doesn’t matter what you are or where you’re from as long as you can get that beat into you and exist with it and for it, and move to that rhythm like you mean it, and when you’re here you do. When we leave the underground club, it’s raining in Harlem, and the streets are glistening with wetness, mimicking our sweaty faces and damp bodies. Everyone’s shouting goodbye and good luck girl and shit man I gotta piss and we’re waving and scatting and you might say we’re acting black but not even a black person can define black, so can you? We’re tired of being racist and going to a white school and shunning Spanglish as unintelligent and we violate our standards and are vulgar and that’s the way the city life is, our city life. We are selfish, we don’t want the whites to come here, we don’t want to lose the black flavor and the Latino taste and the vulgarity and dignity of minorities. We don’t tell them, especially not the tourists who think they want to see real New York but shit in their pants at the mention of 125th street and can’t conceive of a New York that is poor and struggling, that curses and spits and pees on itself when it has to and shares mixed drinks and salsas, Latinos and whites, and dances in the streets.

I wish you would have shared this New York with me. I wish you would have escaped your confines of the Upper East Side and released yourself into the depths of this city. Why can’t we teach each other to live? Now I’m leaving, leaving you and this city, and you haven’t seen my places, seen where I have learned to live, seen where I have become who I am. In the time we have been together you have taught me to fit into your book, your land of Tasti-Delite and Central Park and seventh floor apartments and Duane Reades, your existence of the M86 and gummy bears and 91st and Columbus, please, and step on it, it’s already 8:11. Why is every Friday a Blockbuster night when this city is rolling over in its grave a hundred times a minute while you bask in tasks that occur everywhere, all the time, except for in this city? Why are we suburbanites in the middle of urban bliss? We don’t share the same appreciations. Candlelight vigils on Columbia campus are “boring and such a waste of time” to you, a walk down Columbus is “pointless” and an $8 concert at CBGBs is “bad music, and downtown is too far anyway, let’s just stay here.” I have obliged pretty much every time, and now I am leaving this city, and leaving you, and we will never know what could have been of those long quiet Friday nights. In these last few months let me show you my New York. Let me show you my city that is made up of symbols, thousands of memory-joggers compiled.