After spending a week knocking around Manhattan during the holidays, I came home to discover that almost none of the photos I took have any people in them. How in the hell does that happen? And what does that say about me? On second thought, never mind. I don’t want to know.
My relationship with NYC has always been a complicated one. If I’d taken up photography during the two and a half years that I’d lived in the city, I suspect that most of my photos would’ve featured hobos, crack whores, and suckers like this . . .
But if the latest batch of photos is any measure of my nostalgia level for my former home, it seems that a few years of living in the comparatively reasonable setting of Durham, NC have made me go all warm and fuzzy on New York City in retrospect. Heck, if anyone had told me eight years ago that I’d ever get all misty about NYC, I’d have told them that they were flat-out weasel-nuts.
Moving from my hometown of Milwaukee to NYC was a transition that was tantamount to whiplash. To me, life in New York seemed completely ass-backwards. Roaches were enormous, lived right in your house, and many folks acted as if they had a perfect right to be there. People insisted on calling them “water bugs” as if they were fat, chortling babies in bumble bee suits awaiting a Kodak moment in a wading pool. In contrast to the giant roaches were the shoebox-sized grocery stores, which were dirty and stank of armpits and rotten potatoes. Occasionally fresh produce from one of these stores would reveal unexpected bonuses, like the praying mantis that once rose up from a package of cilantro and began prancing about my cutting board like a Fosse dancer. Its tiny head was cocked coyly to one side and became even more so when I bashed it in with a meat hammer. This was an action that I immediately regretted, and one that was indicative of how big city life affected me. I’m not the type of person who kills tiny creatures just for shits and giggles. Since I’ve lived in North Carolina, I’ve cupped many a moth in my bare hands and shuttled it outside, away from the evil eye of my living room lamp. But, as Jackie Wilson once sang, “There’s no pity in the Naked City” and some poor bastards just have to learn that lesson the hard way.
The worst part about living in the city was that everything just seemed so damned complicated. There were no quick errands. If I wanted to shop for dinner, I had to walk 20 minutes to Astoria’s shopping district and spend two hours muscling my way through several different establishments (grocer, butcher, bakery, produce market, maybe another produce market if the first one didn’t have what I needed). Then there was another 20-minute walk back home with fifteen pounds of groceries. And laundry? Don’t get me started. Since the laundromat closest to my apartment consistently dirtied my clothes rather than cleaned them, I had to drag them to the laundromat eight blocks away and waste half a day sitting there, plugging quarters into machines that would either tie my delicates into sailor’s knots or incinerate them.
To the city’s credit, I found New York residents surprisingly friendly and helpful unless they were getting paid to be so. I had more than my share of pleasant conversations with folks on the subway platform or in grocery lines. All bets are off when New Yorkers are on the move, though. I was walking down Madison Avenue at rush hour once when someone bumped into me pretty hard from behind. I stumbled forward and accidentally caught the back of some woman’s shoe with my foot. The woman was in her late sixties, and obviously well-to-do. I apologized profusely to which she responded, “Why don’t you watch where you’re going, you idiot.” The Milwaukee Me probably would’ve slunk off into a dark alley and burst into tears, but new-improved New York Me replied, “Well, f*ck it -- I’m not sorry, you crazy old bat.” It’s a good thing there wasn’t a meat hammer handy, or I might’ve bashed her on the head with it.
But I spent this past week bopping around New York with the sugary optimism of a teenage girl who goes to see Christian rock bands for fun. When I walked down a block that smelled of urine and rotting trash, I grinned and said, “Ah, yes! That’s the New York I remember.” I turned on the shower to find that there was no hot water for the second morning in a row. “Ha! Good ol’ New York livin’,” I said, as I splashed ice-cold water from the sink onto my shivering torso. I made eye contact with homeless people. I accepted fliers from giant hot dogs on street corners. I sat right next to the stinky man on the train and didn’t budge.
New York City, I discovered, is quite a wonderful place when you know you don’t have to stay there. It’s kind of pretty, even.