I Love New York
It’s a State of Mind
Love. Charred beef. Dangerous oysters. Cheap green wine. Buckets of ice. Ankle socks. The parade of tiny bodies in tiny clothes. Afternoons of drifting across the boroughs in search of a tiny poke of titillation. Crossing the bridges backwards and forwards with no destination in mind. Three in the afternoon on a Monday in Central Park, shorts and sandals, your favorite tunes, the arts section of the paper and a mild hangover. The birds are cooing songs in Khmer or an equally beautiful language and the outrageous sun is slowly drilling a hole in your cranium. Nowhere to go, no expectations, future earnings: uncertain. In a city that spends most of the year working itself to death, the best way to celebrate summer in New York is to be unemployed.
These days Manhattan’s become an island of millionaires and four hundred dollars will buy you a few ounces of Kobe beef, but back then life was easier. When summer came, we were giddy with the possibilities of goofing off, celebrating the best gift a New Yorker can give oneself: the gift of not caring.
We didn’t care. We fell out of bed around noon, dusted ourselves off and made very tentative plans. “I’ll see you maybe around, five, um, in Williamsburg, somewhere, but later, with that guy who’s visiting from…” With friends you could fall into a kind of summertime drawl, not too bright, not too introspective. One day after falling asleep on some kind of giant red brick by the West Side Highway, the Statue of Liberty baking feverishly in the distance, I woke up and said to my unemployed companion, “Wubbuduh?” which I think meant, “What’s become of us?” And he said something noncommital that sounded like, “Muhuum.” And off we went to get some beer and a plate of salt-baked chicken, completely in agreement with one another.
Then it got even better. Even though we were broke, someone’s rich uncle usually keeled over from the heat - et voila - a rooftop with a magnificent view opened up for the rest of us. There’s nothing more delicious than a pretty bad hamburger served fifteen stories in the sky by someone you love like a brother. There’s sweat on you, sweat on the bottle of Gewurztraminer, but the wine tastes like sugar spun off a waterfall and sometimes a gust comes over the Hudson River, sweeping chickpea and grilled lamb smells past the miniaturized tenements of the West Village and the glassy edifices of Midtown, making you feel more fresh and young and human than ever.
At these rooftop parties - these events seemed to come together and fall apart with no discernable warning - people appraised each other like raw meat. Everybody looked good, and if they didn’t look good they at least knew how to flirt (back then people still got their conversation from good books and films) and pretty soon you wouldn’t mind if the person you were talking to had a missing set of teeth or a red neck or a third leg; you’d just say, “The hell with it.” And so you set off arm-in-arm, on these ridiculously long walks with this person you just met, who was appealing in some vague way and usually more than a little bit tipsy and lonely to boot. You’d walk from a party on West 10th Street, down the pin-striped canyons of the Financial District, under the lattice sweep of the Brooklyn Bridge, and over to a neighborhood you never heard of. Nowadays you know every last bit of real estate in the five boroughs, but back then a place in the lower reaches of Brooklyn like Red Hook might as well have been Patagonia.
You might end up in some sleazy maritime bar with your new friend, eating dubious clams and drinking beer into which you’d awkwardly bleed a slice of lime, and you’d listen to them talk about themselves, and you’d start to realize, slowly, just how flawed and unhappy they seemed, while at the same time also noticing how tanned and lightly covered their bodies were, how a current of warmth spread out from their center, how enticingly they dabbed at a bead of sweat with a crummy bar napkin. There’s a kind of reproductive hope in the summertime that turns an oversized mole or tentanus shot gone wrong into a revelation. And all of a sudden you felt happy and tired, exhilarated and confused. You didn’t know what to do, and often you just ended up doing what came naturally on some ridiculous futon in some ridiculous apartment with the sun refusing to come down from the sky and the heat steady and ever-present, like a third person in the room.
It’s all behind me now. These days I work like a pack mule and the summers bleed into the springs and autumns and winters and whatever new seasons global warming will soon send our way. But I still feel a shiver of excitement when I think of a summer full of lazy fun. I want to devolve from the adult world of responsibility and health care premiums and pension plans and just pick up the phone on some scorching Tuesday afternoon and say, “Hey, man.” “Whuh?” “You wanna see a movie?” “What time is it?” “Two o’clock” “Already?” “Yeah.” “Which movie?” “I dunno.” “That one with the guy who does stuff?” “With that girl?” “Yeah.” “Okay.” “Let’s get a drink first.” “Yeah.” “And stop by C’s house.” “Muhuum.” “Are you hungry?” “Uh-huh.” “Yeah, me too.” “Let’s get something.”
Yes let’s. I want to eat a street knish with such ravenous hunger that I bite my fingers and have to stop in my tracks and look up. Where am I? What is this place? Did I get off at the wrong subway stop? Should I buy one of those live chickens that guy is selling from the back of his truck? Is it almost my birthday? Did I once fall in love on this very street corner in the middle of a heat wave? Was this where I was first handed an arepa stuffed with chicken-avocado salad and hot sauce and was told: “You know, I think you might like this.” Is there a municipal office where these summertime memories are stored and tagged and a gentle counselor reminds us once more how we used to be and what we may still become?
- Gary Shteyngart