Sarah Seltzer is a New Yorker, a Vermont College of Fine Arts student (and a dg Workshop Survivor) and a freelance journalist who regularly contributes to numerous online news sites including Huffington Post and Daily Beast. She’s also a member of the growing NC community—see her entry, “A Short Craft Lecture,” in the first ever NC Erasure Contest.
What it’s like living here
By Sarah Seltzer in New York City
You sit in a brick-oven pizza place on that brief spit of Broadway where the subway roars up onto a rickety rail, then back beneath the earth. It’s November, and damp. For three years, you have been living a happy, cramped existence in an apartment around the corner. You and your husband have heard the 1 train roll by at intervals each day like receding and advancing ocean waves.
But, with help from friends, you have spent the day moving books from this apartment in Morningside Heights to an airier one below it in Harlem, and you’re dirty and exhausted, ready for the ordeal to end. You yawn over your food, spinning dreams about your new home and speaking of nothing., Halfway through the meal, you notice, four tables ahead, forgotten family friends who have known you since you were two months old and their daughter a month further into the world. Their presence makes you think of the things that have faded from your life.
This happens often in the city. Now you smile and stop at their table, and launch into a game whose parameters you know: grad school plans and publications, marriages and quips about law firms. Inevitably, you will report on the encounter to your friends in the bodega where they’ve been huddled, waiting. You will muse about friendship and why it is lost, when it can be salvaged. You’ll recall the vivid aliveness of a relationship that has become a ghost: lying on a carpet listening to the Beatles or before that, playing pirates in that gnarled tree in Central Park, or after that, smoking a joint in a playground near Stuyvesant town.
Your world feels cramped, the past everywhere, woven into a thick web. You are living in the titular town in a 19th-century British novel. He went to high school with her; his summer job was at her dad’s company; her best friend from Hebrew school was his roommate.
You realize at these moments that you have settled less than two miles from where you grew up, that you haven’t even made it across the bridge to another borough, that you are tightly bound to this span of Upper Manhattan by more than geography–by culture, by comfort, by family, by inertia. You see time change the face of avenues with which you are as intimate as a country girl is with ridges and rivers. You bore people by telling them what used to be here; crack vials in the playgrounds, delis and pizza places as nondescript as they were delicious, blight and character.
A Real New Yorker
Yes, you are a fearless New Yorker; you smack the hoods of cars when they turn too sharply across a crosswalk, jam your limbs into subway doors, stand in the midst of oncoming traffic peering for a cab or a bus, all authoritative impatience (your husband, a New Yorker with more sense, pulls you back). You shout at strangers and give directions to tourists. You say “oy” out loud, in public, constantly. You’ve started forgetting celebrity sightings because they’re so routine; you use neighborhoods as adjectives. You’ve never been to the top of the Empire State Building, nor to Times Square at New Years, but you know to pause at the crest of certain hills, or on corners where the view opens wide. You know where the cherry trees bloom and the best sledding slopes are found.
But the things you don’t know, too. You’re better at riding between subway cars than driving an actual car, and you can count the number of times you’ve been to Wal-Mart on one hand. You’re scared of living where Mexican restaurants don’t advertise “Passover specials,” and Diwali doesn’t mean that parking on alternate sides of the street is suspended. You don’t know what it is to be alone with nature for more than a few weeks, and you long for it sometimes. You long for it a lot of the time.
You’re of New York, but your ravenous worship of the sleeplessness of the city has passed; you are tired by dishes and insurance forms and the cacophony and the drumbeat of the city urging you to be the best, to look the best, to win a race that’s a mirage; you know it’s a mirage, you swear it’s meaningless, really it is.
Now and Then
Once you snuck into grown-up places with that fake ID you got on 4th street, places whose dim confines held dancers with glow-sticks, perhaps, or just more cocky underage drinkers reaching across counters. But those places are all closed, and their replacements are closed too, and their replacements will be. And the people who do know where to go, they still burn with restlessness in the streets at night while you and your husband sit in the apartment in Harlem, legs nudging on the ottoman.
You wake up and go to sleep and you love and hate the flux, the wrecking balls, the scaffolding, the “everything must go” signs and the “grand opening” signs, the diversity and the stratification. You need your city and your corner of it–even as you revile its insular, did-you-know, do-you-know claustrophobia. But you remember that the layers of the past have built up on each other, and that they are so much bigger than you.
You want to leave so badly sometimes, but you can’t–because if you did, you might miss something.
You’re living into Harlem now, and people blink because they were so sure you’d say “Brooklyn.” You like that. Here there are statues to heroes–Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman. The ghosts of Ellington and Coltrane filter out of the window of a brownstone on 123rd street late at night. You move closer, a thrill in your heart, and you see it’s being played by white college boys with reckless curls. You laugh at yourself in the dark.
You marvel at the peace here where the train knows its place and stays underground. You can watch the snow fall or the moon go into eclipse in your courtyard. You’ve found your own slice of the city. You wonder if this was your dream all along.
You get on the C train, the one deep in the ground. You make eye-contact across the car with a woman who knew you as child, although you forget just how. She asks and you reply, and everyone listens in around you. You would, too. You get off the train after three stops. You climb up out of the ground and saunter into the building where you once arrived from the hospital, a newborn tucked next to your twin brother. You are here to make Thanksgiving stuffing. It’s easy to go home.
You will eat bagels and lox for brunch, and go to plays on Broadway just before they close. You will go to free outdoor concerts and film festivals on sticky summer evenings. You’ll go cross-country skiing in Central Park when it snows; you will sing Beatles songs at Strawberry Fields with hundreds of strangers. You will sit on the subway in costume on Halloween, heading down to the Village, to the parade that is an excuse for this impromptu masquerade taking over the streets.
Or maybe you won’t. The city’s life thunders on outside your window, waiting for you to join it when you’re ready.
(Post layout by Mahtem Shiferraw)
Bravo! Thanks for sharing the glimpses, the grit, the glamor, the glory that is NYC through your eyes. You can feel your spunk and heart leap off the page.
You’ve offered up the texture a New York Lifer, wrapped in vivid language. I enjoyed your writing immensely!
“You’re of New York, but your ravenous worship of the sleeplessness of the city has passed; you are tired by dishes and insurance forms and the cacophony and the drumbeat of the city urging you to be the best, to look the best, to win a race that’s a mirage; you know it’s a mirage, you swear it’s meaningless, really it is.”
yep. nothing like my life in franklin, tn. but, your descriptions are so poignantly point to “home.” thanks for sharing about what it feels like to like in harlem.
okay, ditto that comment with no “are”. grrr.
Excellent piece, Sarah. Great opening line to the “Harlem” section.
Thank you, friends. And thanks to the wonderful Mahtem for the sick layout job. M, are we going to see some of your poetry here soon? I hope so!
Really enjoyed this piece, the very New York bravura of it.
I’ve never been to New York. I hope to go someday, catch a little of the thundering city myself.
Delightful! I love how your writing defies the stereotypes of NYC –instead of portraying it as this isolating, lobster-climbing sort of place (though it sometimes can be), you reveal it as home, including meaningful interactions with people from the very beginning of your lifetime, and nostalgia for the places that have meant something to you.
Anna Maria, what is lobster-climbing?
I was thinking of those tanks filled with lobsters, and they are all pinching and climbing over each other trying to reach the top.
you would ask that, John.
ha! I was trying to be more creative than “dog-eat-dog.” Perhaps I went a bit overboard?
The repeated chance encounters with people from your past elegantly showed the depth of your connection with place. I enjoyed reading this – thank you.
Mmmm….you are such an interesting human Sarah. Thanks for this, your magical writing.
“You marvel at the peace here where the train knows its place and stays underground.” Wow. Seltzer, you’re stellar!
Wonderful piece, Sarah. But cafeful smacking the hoods of those cars – did I ever tell you about the time I did that in Williamsburg, kept walking, and the guy got out and roundhoused me from behind? Gave me lockjaw for two months afterward.
Love the way the details and the rhythm of the piece, and the structure too, feel jagged, helping me to feel what it’s like living there.