I return to New York on the direct flight Delta has running back and forth from Kansas City. I have done this flight so often that the traveling concoction is all set out before me: two airplane bottles of whiskey, 50 pages of reading, a music induced nap, and a quarter of an hour rubbing a chubby out between my thighs – these activities are the equivalent to a three hour plane ride. The city to the left below is astonishing – always is. The curve of the city, unmistakable, once a romantic enterprise I likened it to the full body of a woman, conniving, tempting, and brutish, without apology or concern. She was the mistress, the lover, the thrill. Now the reality of the city is not one that has me reeling in prose of a lady-city but of an empty promise. The city is unable to keep any promise, for it’s no human thing. A lot of advocates for talking-poetry will keep up this aforementioned image; but there is no woman, there is no man, there is no heart or soul, there is only a mechanized thing that is a marvel of wasted energy and to participate demands a sense of pride and glory that can only arrive after the delusional belief that what you’re doing matters and that you are bigger than the picture itself. The place, this city, the concrete walls and sirens and horns, petty human arguments and beliefs are the smallest and the most futile, but your participation in them is absolute. To live in New York City is to believe you have purpose along with the growing hums of human error, busying themselves to unending numbers in a loop that yells from the inside out. In that internal yell is the recognition that beneath the city, beneath the moving parts, beneath every floor of every ceiling and below that, below your feet and your own tingling humanity is the answer that rests in the truest part of every man and woman who behaves in the city: that there is no answer and that the constant participation in the city is the only answer to ilk from mankind’s belief that cultural investment will save us all. The man who bows prostrate over and over on the dirty muslin sack on Canal Street knows this, or must. It is the same act, the same revolving misunderstanding that brings them here, or anywhere. If not this city, then somewhere else.
If the unrecognized internal yell is the answer, the only answer, we then all live and die in New York City. And the city we cannot escape. And the city cannot escape. It is the city that lives in us that is human, not the city outside.
This is what I consider stepping into LaGuardia, being ushered with the flow of hard bodies from my flight down the steps and out, out into the first whiff of the city. I want to pause for a moment, take time to recognize or to say a prayer or a wish. The allowance isn’t there. A choice has to be made immediately and it will always be the taxi cue. Returning home otherwise takes so many transfers, so many wheels and so many people – your energy is exhausted in one trip. If you were to take the bus to the train to the train to the train, you would get home and never leave again.
You know it is there, the city is all there, waiting for you and not waiting for you.
The taxi is the luxury of putting off full participation in the city until the following morning, when things will, inevitably, not go your way.
And in the cue you see your fellow New Yorkers, all coming from some other place, all destined for whatever squat existence they’ve been able to carve out for themselves here. Many of them are beautiful. Waiting in lines, sitting in trains you have an infinite limited-run romances. The blonde, she catches my eye this time (is it the same blonde from such-and-such a time), she’s thirty-something year old (maybe) and with what looks like a husband. But here she is, now, looking at me. Our eyes catch and fall apart, we move across the crowd and then we fall into each other again. I tense. My back starts to sweat. I am guilty. I flirt back and forth between all of these women, not making any definite choices but letting my eyes sleep with all of them for the briefest of moments until I turn a corner or a door is shut or a yell comes from outside that shakes me free and forces removal.
Brooklyn. Bed-Stuy to the cabbie. Always a gruff response, dismay. He won’t be getting a tourist. It’s a local. From Brooklyn. The cabbie argues with the dispatcher. He doesn’t want to take me where I’m going. He asks me if I know where I’m going because he doesn’t know. This is the first annoyance and it will grow. The ethical decision this man has made to not know. His decision will haunt me as I move forward and grow as I encounter others, his resounding I don’t know will grow in me and when asked I will respond I don’t know. Your introduction is a dismal ignorance and you repeat the ignorance yourself with every actor on the street.
I am polite and I do my best to direct him, but all I feel is how much he doesn’t want me in his car. I tense all my muscles – to gravitate above the seat. If my muscles could only raise me above this car and into the sky then I could fly home. And if I could fly home I could fly anywhere. Instead of flying I let my eyes take soft focus on the city and beyond and back – into Queens. How does this work? How does this place sustain itself? And the answer always comes back: It doesn’t. This is very last of it. It is a dying city. The recent plastic surgery suggests otherwise, but those who know its center, its core, understand that it no longer exists. Manhattan is Madame Toussade and its boroughs are the disassembled guts, masking as fond memories. To remember the city otherwise used to cause turmoil – to remember the language of the lady-city; its bridges acting as pearl necklaces lacing and criss-crossing across the robust flowing body of this aging human temple. All of its organs have been washed away and sent further out to sea than is retrievable.
The cabbie drops me off in front of the apartment and there goes my week’s allowance. The whiskey drink I was planning for Friday is now canceled and instead I will spend the night masturbating or at best, at dinner alone, talking to myself with charm and affability, with the invalidated confidence that if a woman were here, she’d be having a good time too. This cab ride was done upon me, it had to be. I kick myself at my idiotic lack of display. But no, it was a choice I had to make, and quickly, and the residue reflects into my time, my dwindling, marked time in the city. The city outside and the city inside. They are crumbling. No mistake.
Entering into the apartment there is the stench of man, of man-residue that has laid its musky print upon every surface. I turn on the lights in the kitchen and a few roaches scurry. I go after them with anger and disgust. Why kill them? It is endless and they are everywhere. My back tickles at night with knowledge of their constant presence. I must print out an invitation at some point and make it formal, perhaps this would make me feel more at ease and give their squatting rights some recognition.
The room mates are home. The bald one is dirty and makes me feel ashamed about not abusing my youth at an earlier time. Unchecked sex and drugs should have been endured longer and at an early age, as opposed to the brief year I mentally participated in the balancing act. His lack of concern marvels me and his sleeping fits (lasting up to twelve hours at a time) leave me red with envy. The hairy one, my senior by five years, gives me hope in humanity – that there are some people who work hard enough and there is crowning redemption in their achievements, small and large, moment by moment. But my time with them is limited to my patience, my patience for anyone and anything. I love people so much but can only love so much for a short time and then I retreat to the city inside and warm my body in its shallow pools, flirting with eternity inside the city.
I fear the dark so I don’t go to bed yet, but I think of it. I think of the bed and that I will be alone in the bed and that through the night there will be the city outside and it will never quiet and it will never rest. There is no true darkness in the city. It is all false. Night is false, morning is false. The comical enforcement of time rears its head in the city. All time is false, it is a show, an engagement that we agree to show up for and then wait through. I think of the hour when I will have to wake and I fear the sleep even more, knowing that is a necessity, it is waiting.
On the other side of the night is the rush and walk and the beat and rhythm. There is joy in the rhythm. When the city swells and you are moving through the beast and the beast is moving through you, this is the sex of the city and you are androgynous with it. You spend time with the rhythm and you understand this. That it is not the lady-city, no, you mistakenly made love to some hole at some point and knew it as the city. Yes, you gave it a name without asking. The city moves and you move in response, at times, in junction. If you can jump into that move there is the creed that “You’ll make it anywhere.” But that is empty too. It means very little because no one is watching out for you. There is no mother or father, or sage or lover, or god or monster. There is an empty promise that only you can uphold and when you remember it, you hold it up to the light to see if it still sparkles. And the rhythm reminds you that if it wasn’t sparkling yesterday, maybe today it will, or tomorrow, or again for eternity.
The first day the bubbling surge that this is what I am supposed to be – a dweller on the threshold, as it was pegged, and that I am in control and that there is freedom in the anonymity. Until the stranger on the train melds into a familiar face from past fictions and the fear that this city is smaller than it appears, creating the sort of paranoia that only exists in commuting from train to train to your final destination above ground. All of the faces in the train become signifiers of Others inside you – your inside city.
It is a city that revels in itself. Its providing supports are invisible and the city is not a city. Its animals are pests and its people are less sacred because they have challenged time in an unholy way. The role you play, the mask you wear, the false enterprise you engage in, your I am are compromised by the deli and the post office and the work. And only in this city does your compromise come from the trivialities of daily necessities. In other places, in other cities, it is forgetful – here it is a hell to remind you that time is against you and that by challenging you have been sanctioned to the lair of demon-beasts. This is your sentence. It is all your choice. From the initial cab ride to your home, to every quick decision you must make – it is your city you are making and the city outside is the reflection of the city within. Other cities reflect other parts of this. But the reflection of this city is too marked, too heavy, the chips in the mirror have been sanded down. There is no beauty in that anymore.
The city and the internal yell drown here and no one is listening, because they’ve had to choose, in the quickest moment, by the most resolute prompt, to deafen it all.
The First Chapter to the Untitled Exhaustively Long New York Novel
Adam R. Burnett