May 062011


Here’s a gorgeous “What it’s like living here” piece from a former student and old friend, Laura Catherine Brown, who lives, yes, in Manhattan. I can’t even date our first meeting. I was teaching novel-writing at the New York State Writers Institute Summer Workshop; Laura had lovely growing-up in upstate New York novel-in-progress about a young woman from a place called Ransomeville, about the death of a parent, unexpected pregnancy, and the struggle to find some moment of control in a world of poverty, limited chances and no support systems (since the Great Recession more and more of America has fallen to this estate; this is a must-read book against despair).  That novel became her debut book, a fine first novel called Quickening, which Random House published 2000. Her shorter pieces have appeared in two anthologies, Before: The Big Book on Parenting, from Overlook Press and The Bigger the Better the Tighter the Sweater with Seal Press. She has been a resident at The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Djerassi Program, Millay Colony, Vermont Studio Center, Ucross Foundation, Ragdale Foundation and The Hambidge Center.



What It’s Like Living Here

by Laura Catherine Brown in Manhattan

Any time of day except, perhaps, early Sunday morning, I cross the threshold of my building and step out onto an obstacle course generated by people. In the swarming thick of it, there is no clear line where they end and I begin. We’re parts of an incomprehensible whole. The clamor and din, the grit and anxiety, the need for haste, all swirl inside me. Any time of day. Breathe it in, breathe it out. It’s enough to make me dizzy.

Approximately eight million people dwell in New York City, a million or so in Manhattan. Two hundred fifteen thousand of them pass through Union Square, my neighborhood, on a typical busy day. Considering the volume, considering how each person rules their individual space, a remarkable accord prevails, and somehow everyone negotiates, barely touching anyone else. Amazing how we manage that.

Negotiating becomes a dance, delicate and nimble, and the freestyle stepping lifts me from the stupor of my treadmill—that unconscious state of mind through which I mark time as I move through my daily routine—and I flow then, the dancer and the dance, the blossom, bole and body. Absorbed in a babbling slipstream of a hundred different languages like a song swimming over street noise, I inwardly chant to all who cross my path, May you have peace, may you have happiness, even if I actually wish them nothing but to get out of my way. Students, hospital workers, Con Ed employees, parents with strollers, zigzagging children, shoppers laden with bags or carts, tourists who stroll obliviously three and four abreast, hustlers, buskers, beggars, freelancers, skateboarders, cyclists, models, gymnasts, artists, dancers, bankers, yogis, druggies, goths, hipsters, panhandlers, food vendors, scooter-riders, and all manner of humanity from lowly to exalted, with all manner of modern device in hand: Blackberries, cell phones, smart phones, head phones, and sometimes it seems that absolutely nobody but me is bothering to watch where they are going.

Chanting carries the power, so the sages say, to shift the mind even if the intention isn’t yet manifest. And given the choice, since there seems to be a choice, compassion, kindness and a kind of oneness is preferable to the perpetual tension of antagonism. As I go to work or come home or run errands, I have the power to make that choice. May you be healthy, I silently say. May you be free. Sometimes it works, and we are all of a piece, sharing the space.

Other times, each inhale only reminds me of the tightness in my chest and the list of things not done and all the people sick or gone, and I become an inept warrior in a kinetic theater so meaningless I cannot fathom why I or anyone else is alive at all. Wherever I veer, open space eludes me. A series of near collisions ensue, the side-to-side dodge as I try to foresee which direction this person or that might swerve. What I want seems simple enough: to stride unobstructed at my own pace. Instead, I must dodge and duck in stops and starts, and the persecution is circular. For everyone who impedes my progress, I am myself an impediment. Hurtling toward the edge of my capacity for physical closeness to strangers, I become unavoidably hostile. To say the least.

The crowded sidewalks present only part of the chaos. The avenues and cross streets bring further hazard or excitement. Power drills tear up concrete at a deafening decibel level. Vehicles race through yellow lights or turn aggressively into crosswalks. Drivers on cell phones in tanklike SUVs zoom by obliviously. Taxis lay on the horn rather than the brake as they lurch and weave. Busses block the intersections because they’re big and they can, and cyclists, particularly food delivery guys—they’re always guys with Chinese food or pizza—ride the wrong way on one-way streets, sometimes while simultaneously smoking cigarettes. Even if I shut my eyes, the shrill of sirens will pierce through my fragile equilibrium. The squeak of air breaks on trucks will chafe. I am a speck in the center of the universe and the unceasing abrasion of noise and activity reinforces my irrelevance, provoking unease so profound and pervasive that I risk collapse into permanent panic. Agoraphobia is never far away.

And the smells, oh the smells that waft and float through the air, enveloping me in their vapors! Meat cooking on the grill of a street cart, fresh pungent urine outside a pub, nag champa incense, bunches of basil and clusters of eucalyptus at the farmers market, oil and rot and dry cleaning and roses and mothballs and garbage.

I was born in New York City and, having lived here virtually all my life, I can’t avoid the obvious conclusion that I am the kind of person who stays put. I have resided in Washington Heights, the upper east side, various neighborhoods in Brooklyn and, briefly, Astoria, Queens. Though I harbor a fantasy of myself as adventurer, this neighborhood, just east of Union Square, has been my home now for over twenty years.

The architecture of the Square, with its vast sweep to the north end and its lovely stepped curve on the south, never diminishes the individual the way the architecture of, say, the Wall Street area does. I work down in the Wall Street area three days a week. I cannot, from my cubicle, see the sky or know what the weather is doing so I rely on the internet to assess the necessity of an umbrella, sunglasses or an extra sweater before I go outside. The skyscrapers cast eternal shadows so that sunlight shines in small geometric areas of the caverned streets at short intervals on certain times of day. I seek them out, the warm bright spots of sun, like a cat.

But Union Square is wide open, light-filled and its landscape celebrates fraternity. I may be diminished by the frenetic energy and the unceasing diffusion of activity, but never by the architecture. It is not built to crush.

Burberry ten DAHLlahs! a man hawks stolen coats from a wheeled rack on the corner of fourteenth and University. Another man with severely bloodshot eyes presides over a stand displaying bongs, pipes, gas masks and blinking magnets with a crudely written sign hanging down the front: “For tobacco use only.” Methadone clinic refugees argue vociferously at the fifteenth street subway entrance. Ah fuckin’ balls, says one, We’re fucked. The down and out woman who sits before cages of bedraggled kittens sleeping like they’ve been drugged puts out a wooden lockbox for donations. Kids wander around with handwritten signs offering free hugs. At dusk when the weather permits, a drumming circle metamorphoses from somewhere, seemingly spontaneously. An artist in thick black kneepads draws elaborate mandalas in chalk on the sidewalk. Break-dancers practice gymnastics to rally a crowd, blaring their portable stereo so loudly the music goes fuzzy with distortion. Vendors sell cheap scarves, hats, sunglasses and cell phone chargers. The Capoeira practitioners gather at the top of the south steps: part yoga, part martial arts, part gymnastics, they circle and leap and balance on their hands, taking turns. Skateboarders erect ramps with planks down the steps and up overturned garbage cans and they fly past in all directions with a rumble of wheels and the smack of boards hitting the ground.

Early in the morning on Saturday, before the artists have set up their kiosks, if I happen to be out on the south side of the square across from Whole Foods Supermarket, I’ll catch a pep rally of the T-shirted chuggers, which is what we call the charity muggers, those clear-skinned young people who wave with frantic bright smiles that show off their white teeth. Got a minute to save a child? Hi! You look like you care about the environment!

Once, trying to avoid one, I snapped, How about an environment where I can walk down the street without being accosted? Barging past his protests, I wasn’t accosting! I was being friendly! I disliked the kind of person I have become.

The offshoot members of the Nation of Islam with scabbards and swords in their thick studded belts shout out about the evil white devil. Evangelists pass out granola bars with notes about Jesus. Sometimes the Hare Krishnas turn up to chant and drum and dance and pass out leaflets. The white guy with the megaphone screams a conspiracy screed: George Bush masterminded 9/11.

Which reminds me that ten years has flashed by so quickly, the idea of a decade is an indefinable mystery. The metronome, an enormous installation erected on a building on the southern side of Union Square in 1999, features a digital clock that displays time coming and going relative to midnight. Beside it, a giant beveled gold-leafed dial turns according to the phases of the moon. In the center of the dial is an opening from which steam gushes to symbolize, apparently, the beginning of time. The digital clock has been inaccurate for years, I have never witnessed the gold-leafed dial turning, and only once observed a steam emission and I believe the edifice is meant ironically to convey the falseness of the construct we call time. Blink and ten years has gone by.

After 9/11, Union Square became the center for mourning and communion, sad and self-referential, full of people recording the attack’s aftermath in real time. The living mingled with the missing, thousands of photos of loved ones lost in the rubble. When the wind blew toxic fumes up Broadway, we wanted only to converge at Union Square among bewildered, grieving strangers. Then, even the crass displays of commerce—the candles for sale (Honor their Memory: 3 for $5) gave me hope in the continuity and tenacity of life and spirit.

Then there are the trees, how I love the trees in Union Square Park! Artful and majestic, they’re visible from several blocks away, a filigree of curling branches and now, in April, flowers and buds. Japanese Pagoda, Cypress, Northern Catalpa, Golden Raintree and Dawn Redwood, I got these names from the internet because I can’t identify them otherwise. I admit my ignorance. I have asked the parks employees and passers by but no one seems to know. Yet everyone can appreciate the solidity and elegance with which the trees border the paths and the north side playground. Despite all I have said about the crowds and the noise, the trees create a lovely fertile oasis of Union Square.

I am a seeker of the oases. Once a day, during the three days per week I spend at my graphic design job in my assigned cubicle near Wall Street, I make it a point to visit Trinity Church. The church stands on lower Broadway alongside a graveyard full of stones so weathered the names of the dead have been almost completely eroded. There, on the path that winds through the cemetery, where flowers seasonally bloom and birds sing even in the winter, I catch a glimpse of perspective. Not religion but perspective.

Graveyards comfort me. Growing up in northern Manhattan where the terrain is hilly, with bluffs overlooking the Hudson River, we lived across the street from an enormous cemetery. On snowy days we’d throw our sleds over the fence, scale the palings ourselves and sled for hours down the unplowed hills, life among the dead.

In the Trinity Church graveyard, just like Union Square after 9/11, this perspective widens to allow me an experience of the ephemeral nature of all living things, impersonal and vast. When a pigeon alights on the crest of a worn gravestone, resting momentarily before lifting off, I feel most keenly alive, as sharp as the broken glass glittering on the sidewalk.

Cubicle at work

Later, on the subway ride home during rush hour when everyone packs themselves so tightly into the train that I don’t need to hold on since there’s no space to fall, and the train lurches and screeches through the tunnels, or worse, simply stops with no explanation, I will remember again that we’re all here for only a short time. The stranger who shoved me aside on the platform to push his way ahead, saying, I know you see me, bitch, might be the person who saves my life when the next bomb explodes.

Four days a week, if I include the weekend, I devote to writing. My desk sits in an alcove that used to be a terrace that we never used or sat outside in because of the black dust that required washing off before “relaxing” on our outdoor idyll. The apartment is quiet. Outside traffic is muted because the apartment is in the rear of the building, not on the avenue. On the third floor, we don’t get much light but we’ll take quiet. Overlooking a courtyard we’re not allowed to step foot in for obscure “insurance” reasons, the windows of our apartment face a white brick wall. Two cats sleep on top of my bookshelf. The humidifier hums with a peaceful white noise.

Cats, at home

The sound of footsteps from the apartment above, voices in the hall, the lurch and thump of the elevator, the singing of water in the pipes when other tenants shower, are all profoundly comforting. Life goes on around me without too much intrusion. Harmony is contained in the domestic sounds. Construction from the renovation of neighboring apartments, however, even several floors above, transforms my sanctuary into a hellish din that even earplugs cannot insulate. The floors are concrete and vibrations drill through my brain until I despair and despise indiscriminately. My refuge then is found outside, on the obstacle course.

As I swing between extremes of gratitude and rage, love and sadness, while aspiring for some middle way, New York City swings inside my skin. It runs in my blood, my psyche, my soul. There is no separation between the people, the buildings and me. So, I guess I will remain here for a while longer. Perhaps, until I die.

—Laura Catherine Brown

—Post design by Natalia Sarkissian

  4 Responses to “What It’s Like Living Here — Laura Catherine Brown in Manhattan”

  1. Laura – Love your writing–it draws a very vivid picture of the City and living there.

    Susie and I will be in NYC tomorrow and seeing “Million Dollar Quartet” Its been a long cold winter here in Sullivan County and been looking forward to this weekend in NYC with Susie. Have “The Quickening” on my book shelf.

  2. Laura,

    What a wonderful addition to the growing library of “What It’s Like Living Here” essays. The writing is vivid and cracks with the sights, sounds and smells of the city. It’s a rare thing to read an essay like this and to be transported so effortlessly into heart of a place. Thank you for bringing this to NC. Really a stunning piece.

  3. Wow. This is a spectacular rendering of home, a place deeply woven into self. May you be well.

  4. “For everyone who impedes my progress, I am myself an impediment.”
    Food for thought.
    Lovely. Thank you.

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