The car wouldn’t move. He punched the gearshift and nothing. A wall of light was barreling toward us by way of four lanes of shrieking traffic. He looked at me, eyes wide as headlights I can’t go! I said nothing, my mind blank. My head turned slowly to the right, toward the bright wail of oncoming vehicles. A car was in our lane heading straight into my door my ribs I thought. It was maybe twenty feet away. I could see the person driving. A woman. Angry. Her mouth was long and contorted into obscenity, mercilessly silenced by layers of window and feet of air all quickly disappearing. She had skin like mine; maybe she is Egyptian, too. She was fifteen feet away. Her strangeness becoming less strange with every inch that evaporated between our cars. Ten feet. I could see she had nice eyes. My chest tightened. Small flecks of light flashing in the brown of her left eye. Our car lurched forward into the next lane, he swung the wheel around, his whole body bent, eyes and face and knuckles rushed white. We sped away. We were fine. We weren’t dead. It was my first minutes in Brooklyn and we were still alive.
I have lived the majority of my life without access to a vehicle. Cars have always scared me which is why I am twenty-five and have never had a driver’s license. Having spent months deliberating the pros and cons of moving to New York City, The New York City, I hadn’t thought about not having a car. I had never had one; I only assumed it would be the same as always. Those first few moments in Brooklyn I realized it was completely different. It was all going to be completely different. The city would soon become a beast more foreign than I had anticipated.
The cars drove faster and with less law; the cars and people in them were more expensive and with a nonexistent threshold for tourist ignorance; the streets were wider; the buildings obviously taller and more cocky in their glass and steel than anything in the handful of Midwestern cities I’d grown up in. The honking was a constant one-note soundtrack. Back home people honked if they were seconds from rear-ending you or if someone was curbside and holding a sign that said HONK IF YOU LOVE _______. Here people honked for everything: HONK go faster ! HONKget out of this lane ! HONK don’t be an asshole ! HONK pigeons ! HONK my wife is mad at me ! HONK the Yankees.
I have spent my life on buses and small moments in taxis. I rode the L in Chicago for a year while dating a guy who couldn’t know how to fall in love with me but would later drive me halfway across the country and have his car stall out in an intersection in downtown Brooklyn in front of the Barclays Center on a Saturday night.
How could transportation be that vastly different in New York? The city may be one endless hum of light and siren but I refused to believe that New York City could really be that different from the cities I’d called home.
I was wrong.
The Q train came every seven minutes, which was great considering buses back home came every half hour, if you were lucky, and even greater considering my seeming inability to be on time. I have been early to anything only once: my own birth, which happened for a myriad of reasons, none of them, of course, my doing, and is maybe, more honestly, a way to say I was born months early and spent weeks in an incubator waiting for my ears to form. Having, like most people, an insatiable gnawing to figure out our whys and hows I ended up reading a lot about premature birth. I learned that premies, as we are affectionately called, are often heavier in the gut, because of the calorie-dense food they pump into you while you’re in the incubator, and more anxious, because of genetically soaking up the mothers disposition (and stress often being the culprit of early delivery). Some may also have difficulty forming trustful relationships due to weeks or months spent inside the waxy plastic walls of an incubator while most newborns in their first days are cradled by the thick forearms of family.
And that’s who I was my first morning standing on the subway platform: paunch-bellied, anxious, distrustful, staring down the long tunnel waiting to see light.
My eyes sparked as the train approached. My heart flew up in my chest at the sheer velocity of a train that has yet to hit its breaks and then dropped quickly to the trash-strewn cement of the subway platform as the train slowed and through its windows I saw that each car was one solid mass of person. I realized my effortless rides into “The City”and getting to pick a window seat facing the Statue of Liberty as we slid over the bridge were now over, and all at once reality came to a stuttered halt in front of me. The metallic doors swung open and I crammed my body as closely and desperately to strangers as I have done only at dance clubs in the sweaty arch of bar time.
Living in New York City wasn’t going to be waking up slowly in the fat of a summer afternoon and casually taking an empty train to Coney Island and not having to spend money at the pier because eager friends rush to buy you (over-priced) welcome beers. Living in New York quickly became standing room only on a train so thick with stranger’s hot morning breath that you writhe in a quiet nausea. Living in New York meant getting off at the wrong stop but not realizing until you’ve already left the station and poked your dumb-beautiful head out onto the street and, somehow, always into a cloud of cigarette smoke, and in order to get where you’re going you have to pay again to re-enter the tunnel. Living in New York meant throwing wide Midwestern smiles at every stranger and learning quickly how to fold that tradition and hide it under your smallest tooth. Living in New York meant being all at once entirely visible to nine million people and also completely see-through.
One morning, in an epiphany that I either learn to love this mess or risk spending my morning commutes crying, I turned my focus to the sliver of window I could see between bodies. Between suit jacket and backpack and stroller and interlocked fists with diamonds the size of my hunger was the sparkle of the East River. This, I would soon learn, was my favorite part: the crawl over the Manhattan Bridge; the scatter of light that happens whenever glass and water are built close to one another. This is why you’re here. Beyond the static of smells in the train and beyond the anxiety mounting in my blood there was the broad metal shoulder of the Financial District, and beyond that Chinatown, and beyond that Little Italy, and beyond that Greenwich and Tribeca, and beyond that all the neighborhoods so far undiscovered by my body raised in empty corn fields and mosquito-bit front porches, and all of it, all of it, has its head tilted toward the Statue of Liberty, standing valiantly in a river of sequins and trash.
Everything that surrounds me is where they make movies, why they write books, and what has held and broken the most beautiful poets. I didn’t move here to go to the beach. If that were what I had wanted I could have moved to Palm Springs. This is what I wanted; stop blaming reality for not being a daydream. I wanted New York, didn’t I? I wanted the packed trains and the sweltering platforms and the men who carelessly spread their body over two and ahalf seats so that I can’t sit down despite my heavy bags and waning patience for other people’s bullshit. I didn’t move here to drink cheap beers and sleep in.
If I want the Empire State Building then I want the dog shit on the sidewalk beneath it. If I want Beyoncé and Broadway and Central Park then I want everything to smell like a gradient of burnt piss and rotted lettuce. If I want the bars where Lawrence Ferlinghetti sat then I want high rent and shit under my boot. If I want the museums and the skyline and the Q train then I want to learn how to eat two meals a day on five bucks. If I want to meet my favorite poet in a bar in the Bowery then I also want to be so lonely that time is nothing but a blade for my doubts to break themselves on.
I looked at the man standing in front of me and forgot to see him as the object blocking the window. His hair was thinning and I saw the shifty way he escaped my eye contact, I saw his expensive shoes, his well-tailored insecurity. I saw the woman across from him anxiously scanning the train, checking her phone repeatedly even though none of us had service this far underground. Next to her a tall woman sat in ripped black everything and long black hair, her eyes burning holes through everything in front of her; me, the old woman seated to my left, the aluminum holding us all together. We’re all a little miserable. We’re all a little too broke to be positive at seven in the morning while a strange man spends the forty minute commute staring directly into the cleavage you’ve purposefully tried to camouflage. The New York City is a muse, of course, and also a neon-lit Petri dish where you flail because of everything it is, and, regardless, of everything it is, you find reasons and tactics to stay.