Ghost in the city
I was born in New York City and spent most of my life there. My last apartment was a loft in an artist’s housing project that I sublet illegally and moved out of early in 2006 when the listed tenant, who was also my best friend, committed suicide in it. For the next four years, I continued to spend a day or two in the city every week or so, but now I was a guest, a guest in two senses. I was a guest of the friends who opened their homes to me; this is a huge kindness, when you consider how small most New Yorkers’ homes are, and how embattled, by the incursions of landlords, coop boards, management agents, supers, handymen, dirt and noise. It’s amazing that New Yorkers allow their family members into their apartments. Their children.
But I was also conscious of being a guest in the city itself, or a guest of it. I was there on sufferance rather than by birthright, though really what right does birth give you? (When Americans speak of the Right to Life, they mean only until you leave your mother’s body. After that you’re S.O.L.)
My changed relation to the city became more apparent when I moved, first to Berkeley and then to Pittsburgh, where I’ve worked and lived for the past three years. Instead of visiting New York every week, I now came there once a month, or every other month, and the trip took me a good part of the day. And every trip was a series of shocks. The openings and shutterings of shops and restaurants, the demolition of old buildings and their replacement by shining new ones, the tides that drain whole neighborhoods of their familiar inhabitants and inundate them with strangers with money.
I reeled around the streets in bewilderment. Where was The Holiday, where I used to drink back when I was drinking, where I once heard a guy affectionately tell his friend that he hoped to live to piss in his coffee? Where was the little Italian place on Bank Street where my wife and I used to gaze at each other by candlelight, stuffing our faces with nice things? Or the Chinese one where my friends went for Christmas dinner like good Jews, even though they weren’t Jewish?
Where were all the Army-Navy stores? The clubs stinking of beery vomit? Where was an apartment whose rent I might dream of being able to afford, because even dreams have to be half-way plausible, at least in the beginning?
Buddhism speaks of hungry ghosts, and that’s what I was then. A specter of craving, drifting through a banquet hall where it couldn’t eat. Its hunger more wretched because of the shame of being hungry. How uncool to long for what you can’t have, and to be unable to stop bitching about it. Sometimes a hungry ghost sees itself reflected in a shiny surface and shrinks from what it sees, the shrunken, toothless mouth, the pipe cleaner neck, the distended belly. Of course, nothing in the city was really closed to me. I was welcome anyplace I could pay the tariff. But aside from money, what I missed was the sense of the city as a place that belonged to me. Isn’t that what home is? Not just where you come from but “the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”? Picture that line of Frost’s as an algebraic equation, one whose operative term is have to.
I’ve been in New York a week now, and will be a while longer. It’ll be the longest I’ve stayed here since I moved away. I came for the memorial of an old friend who died suddenly and horribly and as blamelessly, in her husband’s words, as if she’d been hit by a bus. I stayed on to see friends. A few times I saw them unexpectedly, as at a gallery show, where as I said hello to one of the artists, I suddenly heard someone yell my name and turned to see Ann Watts gaping at me as if she’d thought I was dead. I hadn’t seen her since 1995 or 6, and that was in Baltimore. How wonderful it was to see her, looking happy and lovely, a rock star (though what she plays is really more art music) with white hair.
Maybe this is what’s making me more generous, less embittered by the array of untouchable delicacies in the banquet hall. Not every ghost is hungry. And while some moan for the life they once had, others are content to glide above it, remembering.
Loving even what they can’t have.