NOVEL EXCERPT: from THAT PLACE AND THAT TIME

Two days later I woke up and was back to seeing things for myself. A month after that Jonathan was back from New Mexico sharing Emma’s apartment until he found something of his own. Six months after that Sam called me and the next week I was in South Station waiting for the Metroliner to take me to New York.

I hadn’t been to New York since college. I could still remember going there for the first time. The change I’d felt when the train crossed into it. The way my guard came up in fear I’d need it. It had been like entering another civilization, a mythical science fiction land populated with indestructible monsters. Sam had made it seem that way again. On the phone he more or less expressed the same sentiment I’d felt eight years earlier. I knew what he meant when he told me it was time to join the world, to break out of the narrow geography of Cambridge, to do myself a favor, to get away from that safe house and come down to visit him.

“You see, living around there makes you want to stay forever. It’s nice, just like a sedative’s nice.”

That was on April 18th. I’d moved away from Vermont and David and the cabin on the lake almost a year to the day before that. Except for a bi-monthly visit to Felton and a few other local trips, I hadn’t left Cambridge in all that time. A full year had passed and I hadn’t been anywhere else. I wondered if David was having second thoughts about staying up there? Months had gone by since I’d spoken with him. There wasn’t much to say anymore. I was an anvil in the city. His point had been made. If he wanted to join that world he would have done it by then. He preferred putting up with low rent and mud season and long periods of isolation to moving to the city and working for a company that made you hang on for a year before you got to take two consecutive weeks off.

I was in Boston at eight a.m. The Metroliner left at eight-thirty. I’d be in New York by one. I closed my eyes after we left Providence. I woke up at the station in New London with pictures of East Cambridge still in my head. I was in between one world and another. It felt like a great journey even though I’d be going back in a week.

Coming up to the street outside Penn Station New York was still awesome in scale and pace. Early in the afternoon there were thousands of people on Seventh Ave. Dozens of yellow taxis whooshed past. Nonstop horns and voices in many languages. Motion and sounds came at me from every direction. New York, I thought, was where only the tough and talented and ambitious settled. Out of all the places there were to be a drummer in it was where Sam had moved to. If not for the ambition, the scale, he might still be in Cambridge, playing in the clubs there.

The New York I was in awe of and knew a little about was still an enormous, intimidating and forbidding city, just as it seemed when I was nineteen. It was a place where Sam feared he might never get on a winning streak he’d be able to tell people about, that Eugene avoided coming to in fear he’d get lost in the huge number of artists.

But the foremost mental picture I formed there, in New York, on that afternoon at one-twenty on April 18th, wasn’t of me, or of Sam, but of my grandparents just over from Italy. They would have been the men driving the yellow cabs at too fast a pace. They would have sold newspapers and cigarettes and candy in the green corner stalls. They would have been the figures behind the counters of the hundreds of small storefronts that people entered in and out of. Coming from small southern Italian towns they must have been overwhelmed by this monstrous place. I wondered if they’d ever thought of going back? If they thought their trip there had been futile?

But I knew for many who went to New York the wild hopes it inspired were like a drug you took everyday and kept wanting more of. And when I compared it to my life in Cambridge, the busyness and indifference of New York, the mass of people moving all around me, the buildings I had to bend my neck to look up at, the great wealth and ambition, it seemed small and absurd. It gave me a new understanding of Sam’s courage to go there. I thought how he’d turned his back on that life and community, how he just left it all behind and jumped into the greater world.

I still had my life in Cambridge. It would be there when I got back. I came to New York for a vacation and to see Sam, that was all. I hadn’t taken the train down there for any other reason.

Sam, I found out right away, hadn’t changed. He still talked fast. He still liked to joke around. He still smiled a lot. He still wore bluejeans and white shirts he left open at the collar. He had a two-day growth of whiskers on his cheeks.

Greeting him outside his building on Avenue A and Fourth Street, I said, “I finally get to be with you in the city that stays up all night.”

He said, “I hope you’re rested. I’m going to show you what’s possible on four hours sleep.”

That first afternoon, in his kitchen, sitting at the second-hand wood table, his roommate from Baltimore at his job up in midtown, we drank cans of Rheingold and talked about New York. All the while I was awed he’d made moving there look so easy even though I remembered the anxiety he felt doing it on his own.

He said, “You shouldn’t come here unless there’s something you want from it. There was for me, so that made it easy.”

Dinner time we walked from his place three blocks south on Avenue A to eat enchiladas verde at Lupe’s, his favorite Mexican restaurant. Over the next days we crisscrossed the entire grid of Manhattan below 42nd Street. It was exciting to see it all through Sam’s eyes even if he no longer felt the same excitement for it as I did. To have him point buildings out to me. To have him take me out of the way to show me a small club he’d played in. To have him show me ones with bigger names he hoped to play in. To have him tell me the details of a seminal event that happened a block from the Sullivan Square subway stop.

He was working in a bookstore on Astor Place. He took me past it and pointed at the register he stood behind ringing up sales. When he wasn’t doing that he walked the aisles straightening out the shelves, answering questions and making recommendations.

The upheaval from Boston to New York hadn’t been as bad for him as I’d thought it would be. Still, he wasn’t content with it. He didn’t like his job very much. He didn’t like being rejected. He didn’t like a lot of things that had to do with the fact that he hadn’t come close to starting on his own streak of fame. Yet, he wouldn’t go back. Even though I felt no envy, without trying, Sam had brought out fears about who and what I was that I hadn’t felt in a long time.

All during that week I tried to show Sam I wasn’t so drawn to life in New York as he described it to me, as he showed it to me, as he introduced me to the people he knew, a painter, a novelist, a juggler, that I felt a magnetic pull to leave Cambridge and go live there. I knew life in an apartment on a dirty, broken-down block of buildings on Avenue A hadn’t made me want to do anything more than be a visitor in it. I was with him in New York, but I didn’t want to know so much about it that I might think about following him there.

When Sam was at work I walked up and down Avenue A. To the north, it ended at the huge public housing complexes near the Williamsburg Bridge. To the south it led past the restaurants and bars to the park with basketball games going nonstop on all three courts. There were benches where mothers with baby carriages stopped to rest. There was a roller blade rink. Walking through it one afternoon the Bird Man, that was what Sam called him, arrived with a paper bag of bread crumbs. “He comes the same time every day, Sunday’s too,” he said.

All the birds in the park knew he was there the moment he stopped on an area of asphalt near one of the entry points. They hadn’t waited for him to empty his bag. They came from every treetop to feed on the food he’d brought them even before he sprinkled it on the grass. The result was a maddening rush of activity at his feet.

When you were in the park near the spot where Bird Man spread his offering, you saw it was surrounded on all sides by buildings that rose four and five stories, some even taller. The sight of it made you know you were in a huge city that had been built over the dirt and rock until every space, except for the park, was taken up for the purpose of holding more and more people, to accept new arrivals like Sam that would always keep going there.

Sam said, “Everyone from everywhere comes here to live and look for something they’re not getting back home.” He brought my attention to the great mix of nationalities and cultures in the park. The many skin shades, from pale like Sam’s and mine, to mocha, to deep brown. He added. “You know you’re listening to someone who’s just about in the same position. But if you have the focus and energy you can find a way to keep something together here that’s better than what you left back from wherever you came from.”

That was how Sam tried to show me that, difficult as New York was, life there was fuller and richer. It was his new home. He could never leave it. He could never go back to Boston. There was no going anywhere else. He had his eye on a goal. He saw what he needed to do to get there and he went for it. To the place he wanted to play music in. To the place that would give him the best chance to succeed as he wanted to. It was a risk, he knew. If it was going to happen he’d put himself in the position to let it. That was all he could do.

Back in his living room after a walk, I told Sam he’d done it. Once again he’d seen through the impediments that got in your way if you let them, that might have kept him in one place doing one thing he didn’t want to. Instead, he’d gone on to what was vital. He was happy, despite his struggle. Those days with him made me think about finding an equivalent experience for myself. They also depressed me when I considered how I perceived the world. How careful I was. How I wouldn’t take risks. How I knew what I wanted, or thought I did. Like Sam, I’d put myself in a position that would give me the best chance to have the life I thought I should have. But I did it without any other considerations. It made me think Sam was one step ahead, and had always been. It was a thought that sent me back to Cambridge filled with anxiety and dread.

(2002)

 

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