Saturday, October 01, 2005

New York Stories

There’s a scene in “25th Hour,” the Spike Lee joint, where Montgomery, the hero who’s spending his last twenty-four hours as a free man tying up what ends he can in New York, is at his father’s Irish pub, in the bathroom. He looks in the mirror, sees the words “fuck you” penned there, stares. He has a conversation with himself, unleashes a tirade of fuck you’s about New York, fuck the Korean grocers who arrange their melons in pyramids, fuck the Upper East Side geezer woman who still thinks she can fool the world with her dozen face-lifts, fuck the Pakistani and Sikh cab drivers who are fucking up the town and warming up as future terrorists, fuck bin Laden (of course) and his cave-dwelling motherfuckers, fuck uptown brothers who sweat and play basketball on public courts and never pass the ball, fuck Wall Street brokers and their Gordon Gekko complex… and on he goes, fucking everything that crosses your New York sight, in Artemio Cruz fashion, almost better, but not quite as brilliant as you want it to be. It’s my favorite scene in the movie because it captures all those images of New York as we knew it in its grinning grimy gruesome grumpy granular grandiose self, and because it’s all the things I loved and hated every day, even after leaving it, when I would get the chance to walk its streets and smell its grime all over again. When the house is sold and there won’t be a place to call ours anymore I might get the chance to make it up there. I might even spring for a hotel room if necessary, or stay in Princeton and cross over for a daylong visit. But it won’t be the same. I won’t feel as if it’s home, as if I could linger anywhere I please because I knew I could take a train or a cab any time of night and be home within forty five minutes at the latest. Not just home, but walking that stretch of streets between the subway stop and the park, across the street from the co-op, cussing the icy air that grabs at your skin as you walk down 52nd, walking at that clip that gets your legs going only in New York. So what if I can visit? Half the pleasure of those walks in Manhattan were embedded in the thought of the return home, of the Number 7’s emergence from Hunters Point Avenue into the Queens air, with Manhattan at its back and your sense of good riddance just then (the city having taken it out of you yet again), of the stop at Courthouse Square where the station sways, at Queensboro Plaza where the cold air rushes in from Astoria, at 40th Street (I’ve never figured out why it’s called Lowery), where memories of those seven years on 42nd Street flooded in every time, and finally at 52nd Street, Billy Joel Street, the total emptiness of the place late at night, its busyiness any other time of day—the commuters, the street-side vendors, the shops, the traffic on Roosevelt Avenue, the late-middle-age tenants sitting on their stoops or stooping from their seats and watching us walk by, the dog-walkers shitting up the place and the battling invalids with their metal walkers and the future street-walkers flirting with the tank-topped toughies and the invisible night-stalkers following you with their gaze as you make your way home, home from Kerouac’s “whorey smell of a big city” to the familiar smell of a lifetime’s security, the smell you will never smell again. They have a smell in their apartments at the internment camps. But they’re mostly the smell of antiseptics, or of the place itself, or of their own individual things. In New York it was the mingling of the smells that made their smell, and that mingling is gone for good.