For the month of February, each writer’s post will begin with the same line, which we’ve borrowed from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.
All this happened, more or less.
Do you know
That feel so real
They make you jump awake?
I’ve been in New York and New Jersey. Oh I’m sorry you have to go to New Jersey, is what people say. I say, I like New Jersey. My brother tells a joke that New Jersey got first pick between lawyers and toxic waste and they chose toxic waste. Come on, it’s great, I say.
If you see the bad parts of any state, it’s bad. New Jersey’s problem is that the bad parts are broadcast from the highways. Acres of train tracks, miles of shipyards, and nine yellow tower cranes in the meadowlands, standing at attention. They’ve been there for eight years, bored.
Oh that’s amazing you get to go to New York, is what people say. New York City is amazing. Logistically, it’s a miracle. 8.4 million people living on top of each other, going to work, going to school, eating, drinking, flushing, showering, all on top of each other. “You know what I always think about when I’m in a big city?” I was in Chicago with Scott, and he said, “plumbing.” I was not expecting him to say “plumbing.” “I think of all the pipes that must go into every single building and where that water goes in, and where it goes out, and how much must be underground, and so on, and so forth.”
I walk from meeting to meeting in New York. Takes one minute longer to walk than to take the train, two minutes longer to walk than a taxi. I like walking because it’s exactly what you think it will be. You step out of a large building onto a living street and join the continuous chorus of the city, already in mid-song.
A man who looks like he’ll be asking for money holds the door for two women and says, “You two ladies look absolutely beautiful this morning,” and then he asks for money.
A guy is pulling a dolly overfilled with boxes. It squeaks and rattles along the concrete.
A woman with a thick New York accent, which is hard to find in New York, yells at her husband and he yells, “You think you can do better, go ahead!” He yells so people can hear, challenging her to find a better man, the same way he has for years, probably.
An electric bicyclist flies through a red light, whirring and shaking like a ceiling fan trying to break free of its mooring.
A grown man in a suit, on a Razor scooter, scoots past.
A woman in high heels walks by me, turns around and says to herself, “I actually don’t want to go that way, I want to go this way,” and she walks past me again in the opposite direction. And she’ll never trip down those stairs, that nice boy in medical school won’t catch her halfway, they won’t raise three kids, won’t move to that farm in Vermont.
Do you have trouble sleeping?
Do you have night sweats?
Do you suffer from anxiety?
No more than anyone else, I tell the nurse. Why, what do other people say? Are other people suffering from anxiety? If so how much? One to ten?
“Beware of Falling Ice,” a sign reads. It should say, “Stop, Go Indoors.” I look up, and think about falling ice hitting me just as raise my eyes, and the New York Post title of “ICED: MAN SLAIN BY GIANT ICICLE.” In a meeting last week, a man told a story about a piece of plywood that flew off a seventeen-story building in New York. “It cut a woman in half,” he said. And so it goes.
I walk over the metal grates of the subway and hear the rattle of the train, smell the warm air of brake-dust and electricity, and look down. The ground, even though you can’t see that far, is covered in gum wrappers and spent cigarettes. The grate creeks and I move to step off, but it snaps under my weight. I’m falling. I thought I could grab the side of the sidewalk, but I can’t.
The train lurches forward and I wake up and freak out at the same time. I’m in Jersey City again, riding the train back to 33rd Street. I look around the train, embarrassed, and wipe my mouth with the back of my hand and take a deep breath.
In Manhattan, the bad parts are harder to see somehow. They are hidden underground or obscured by a giant park or minimized by massive towers. You are distracted from them. Ugliness is hidden, and we love New York for that. In Jersey, ugliness is in plain sight. New York is human. We want everyone to see our best qualities, to be so distracted by our great job, great spouse, great haircut, that they won’t see what’s buried deep underground. New Jersey is human. New Jersey doesn’t have the shine and the celebrity that is New York. It has industry and factory and the nine tower cranes in the Meadowlands, blinking at planes, waiting to do something, anything.