The Hiatus

IMG_1851When I can’t sleep, I slip out of bed and sit in the living room windowsill, looking across the water at Manhattan. Sleepless nights seem to be a more and more frequent occurrence. Insomnia and I are well acquainted.

Even though I’ve suffered from bouts of depression since my early teens, it still caught me off guard this time. The signs were there, but I didn’t recognize them until I was already well into the familiar funk. I don’t want to read. I don’t want to write. I don’t want to watch TV. I don’t want to be at home, and I don’t want to go out. None of the things that normally make me happy seem to move me.

All the color drains from the vibrant city. Every color becomes one color. Gray. The gray water that the ferry cuts through on my way to Manhattan each morning. The gray subway tunnels. My gray cubicle at work. Everything had become the same, dull color. Every action seemed pointless. Every decision the wrong one.

Things happened. There was a hurricane. A snowstorm. An anniversary. But all of it seemed to be happening to someone else. I regarded it all with mild interest, but nothing more.

My last, great depression was four years ago, in Seattle, where being sad was as commonplace as Starbucks, and I’d naively thought I was somehow over it for good. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to realize I was in the middle of it this time.

This depression is situational. I know that it’s because I’ve become disconnected. The only person I know in the city is Carlos, and for all his stellar qualities, he’s no replacement for a support network. New York City is a hard place to find a foothold. A smile. A friendly welcome.

I thought when we moved that we’d explore the city together, make friends of our own, and have lives apart and a life with one another. But the reality is that our schedules are at odds, and not very conducive to that particular New York fantasy. While Carlos has made some friends at his work to spend time with, my feeble attempts at making connections here have met with abysmal failure. My workmates are nice enough, and they all seem to love me for some reason, but none of them are people that I’d want to spend time with outside of work. I tried volunteering at the library, hoping that I’d meet people into books and reading, but no one really talked to one another. So, while Carlos goes out with friends, I feel left behind, lonely and abandoned.

I feel like I’m no fun anymore. I feel as drab and gray as the city. My life consists of getting up early while he’s still in bed. Getting dressed quietly in the other room. Kissing him goodbye. A long commute to work. A day in a cubicle, marking time until I can leave and a long commute home. Sometimes I try to stay up for him, but usually I’m too exhausted. He kisses me when he comes in. Then watches videos on his computer in the other room before he comes in to go to sleep.

And I sleep. Or I don’t sleep.

I fantasize about fleeing. Buying a one way ticket back to Austin and going home where it’s warm, where I have family and friends already. Where life is easy. Austin has always been my fall-back. My escape.

When I had my last, great depression, I pulled myself out of it by forcing myself out of my old patterns. I stopped listening to the emo music I normally gravitate toward, and listened to upbeat pop songs instead. I forced myself to work out every day. I forced myself out of my apartment, and made myself go out and socialize a few times a week. And things began to change. Suddenly I was happy. Really happy for the first time I could remember.

I feel like if I take those same steps I’ll get through this depression in much the same way. But because I’m depressed, finding the motivation to do those things has been difficult. So Carlos and I talked, and we planned time together this weekend. We’re going to see the Nutcracker to celebrate his birthday. I made a happy-Lance playlist full of songs that I could dance to. I signed up for a writing group that meets in Manhattan twice a week, and for a gay, board-game group that meets in Chelsea on Sundays.

Still, doubts remain, and the desire to flee ebbs and flows. I can’t imagine New York City ever feeling like home, or ever feeling really comfortable. Maybe time will change that. Or maybe it won’t.

Tonight he gets off work early. He comes in while I’m watching Walking Dead (zombies make me happy) and does the pie dance because there’s pumpkin pie and Reddi-whip. I’m still in my gym clothes from working out in the fitness room downstairs. He kisses me. When he’s here, there’s color in the room. Tonight that’s enough. The desire to flee ebbs, and the desire to curl up next to him with The Simpsons and pie will sustain me for another day.

Brooklyn

IMG_1504“I hate Brooklyn,” Carlos says as soon as we cross the Manhattan bridge. I nod my head in agreement. Before moving to New York I had this idea of what Brooklyn was going to be like, all Brownstones and little cafes and coffee shops, swarthy, Italian men with pizza places, and children of color playing hopscotch on the sidewalk.

Of course all of these things exist. The street we live on in Clinton Hill is lined with beautiful old brownstones and decaying mansions from another, more prosperous era. Mixed in with these are the less desirable brick, New York Housing Authority complexes like the one we live in. Hipsters with ridiculous glasses shop for organic produce at Mr. Coco, our corner market, or get overpriced, gourmet coffee from an obnoxious place called The Coffee Lab. Equally ridiculous are the young, black guys who walk with their pants hanging down to their knees, holding them up with one hand so they don’t fall down completely. People shout entire conversations to one another from across the street.

The only thing that the hipsters and their ghetto neighbors have in common is their propensity for being thoroughly annoying. There are other, nicer neighborhoods in Brooklyn like Brooklyn Heights with it’s views of Manhattan, and claim to fame for being the location of Michael Winners’s film, The Sentinel. The gentrified Cobble Hill and Carroll Gardens, home to writers Paul Auster, Martin Amis, and Tony Kushner are a yuppie paradise.  I understand the charm of Brooklyn. You’re removed from the hectic pace of the city. You can push your spoiled toddlers in their strollers from the Farmer’s Market, to the park and stop at Trader Joe’s on the way home.

For us, Brooklyn is like the city at large, filthy, crowded and overpriced. It’s as expensive as living in Manhattan, without the benefit of, you know, living in Manhattan.

Yesterday we looked at an apartment in Staten Island. The neighborhood was quiet and green. There was a park nearby. The apartment itself was huge. For $1,100 it seemed like a steal, especially since we’re paying $1,000 a month for a just a room in Brooklyn. It was a five minute walk to the ferry, and the ferry ride was 25 minutes, not much longer than the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Living on Staten Island wasn’t something I’d even considered prior to moving, but now it seems like an affordable, if not ideal alternative.

“At least it’s not Brooklyn.” Carlos said as we left the big, white building, built in 1929 before apartments were cookie cutters.  I nodded in agreement, lost in my own thoughts.

It doesn’t matter how much we like, or can tolerate, the apartment in Staten Island, or in Washington Heights, or Harlem, the places we can afford. Until I get a job, we cannot sign a lease, and aside from a couple of temporary assignments, I have no prospects. After applying for jobs non stop for the past 3 and a half months, I’m feeling more than a little demoralized. We’ll be forced to continue to sublet, or go further and further away for a place where Carlos’s income alone would be sufficient for a lease.

“Don’t let it defeat you.” Carlos says. I smile at him and kiss his cheek. But I feel defeated. I didn’t think finding a job would be so hard, considering that I’m not in the least bit picky about what I do at this point. Sitting in our sublet room in the dingy apartment in Brooklyn that we share with a strange and secretive lesbian, I can’t help but think of what I gave up to be in New York City, a job I liked that paid well and allowed me to work from home, an apartment of my own, a comfortable bed, belongings, friends. Part of me wants to just give up, go back to Seattle or Austin and beg for my old job back and live in a city where, for what I’d pay for a closet in Manhattan, I could have a luxury apartment with all the amenities.

For now I have him, and a room. From our window we can see Manhattan rising above the river and the trees, close enough to walk to with just a bridge separating us from it. It might as well be on the moon though, the distance that divides the rich from the poor, us from our dreams, Manhattan from Brooklyn.

 

Hot Times in the City

man1-1Today is hot. A trickle of sweat slides down my back, even though I’m sitting in the shade. A group of men runs, shirtless, through Battery Park, their perfect bronze bodies glistening like Hollister models. Because it’s New York they may very well be Hollister models, or brokers, or bus boys. Beauty appears to be randomly distributed throughout the city with no regard to merit. Even I, despite my perpetual sheen of spray on sunscreen, have developed tan lines, something I never sported during my years in the Pacific Northwest.

A week ago was NYC’s Gay Pride celebration. Even though in years past I cynically dismissed Gay Pride as an excuse for gay men to get their nipples pierced, I was actually excited. We stood on a corner of 5th Avenue and watched the festivities unfold. Cyndi Lauper was the Grand Marshall and passed by in a red car mere feet from me, smiling behind a megaphone. George Takei waved happily in a Boy Scout uniform. Drag queens sauntered by with their faces melting off in the heat. Go go boys with 6 pack abs walked by wearing only underwear and smiles.

The bulk of the spectators were straight families with their children. My cynicism seemed well placed when most of the participants in the parade turned out to be churches, politicians unabashedly fishing for votes, and major corporations unabashedly fishing for gay money. Gay pride seems like such a strange thing to celebrate anyway. It’s like having a parade for people with blue eyes. Well, except for the fact that people with blue eyes can get married everywhere, aren’t in danger of being fired for their eye color, and are usually not singled out for hate crimes.

Carlos was bored and cranky, and I was getting sunburned, so after a quick once around the festival, we went out for Thai food at a place that boasted $8 sangria, having done our part to promote equality through visibility and ogling.

Gay Pride is also a harbinger for another momentous event in human history, the anniversary of my birth. As birthdays go, this one was a non-event. At midnight Carlos gave me my presents which included a LEGO Empire State Building. The next day he took me out for lunch. There was a 45 minute wait at the place I’d picked out in the East Village, and Carlos had to work, so we opted for a low key lunch at a less popular place nearby.

The day after your birthday sucks. You’re just older and there are no presents. It was impossible not to evaluate my life so I could compare myself to other people my age in order to gauge how big a failure I am. At 36 most people have careers, marriage,  children, a house, a car, and possibly even a pet. At 36 I’m unemployed, renting a room from a slightly deranged lesbian, and in a constant state of existential panic.

On the other hand, I’m living in New York City with this guy I kind of have a crush on. Since my last birthday, I’ve started publishing articles on the Huffington Post. I’ve dutifully been submitting short stories out in exchange for rejection letters. Things seem to be heading in the direction that I want, which is progress, even though I spend the biggest part of every day terrified that I’ll never get a job, and I’ll have to live under a bridge in Central Park.

After 3 months of not working out, I was dying to head back to the gym. I’d been waiting for a job before I signed up, but since a job hasn’t happened yet, I decided to treat myself to a gym membership as a birthday present to myself. I was immediately daunted when the first place I went to had a $250 sign up fee, a $30 “processing” fee, and a $100 monthly fee. The sleazy salesman, after talking up the gym’s perks, turned to me to find out what I thought. I thought that was ridiculously expensive and borderline rape-y. When I told him it was more than I’d wanted to spend, he had his manager come over and plink around on his computer before exclaiming that for me, today, he could lower the monthly rate to $90. I told him I was going to look around at some other gyms and get back to him, and he got upset. He actually said, “I just made you an offer to excite you and you aren’t excited!”

I blinked before responding, “I’m not excited because that offer isn’t exciting.” Then I walked down the street and found a gym that offered a membership for $10 a month. Make no doubt, the $10 gym is straight up ghetto, but it has a treadmill and weights, which are all that I require.

In order to meet some new people in New York, I decided to sign up with an umbrella organization that schedules volunteers for non profits all over the city. As soon as the orientation ended, I fled, so I wouldn’t have to meet any new people.

The heat persists. Walking home the other night we saw fireflies blinking on and off through Fort Greene Park. At night we sleep above the blankets. Every time my pillow becomes too drenched with sweat, I turn it over and sleep on the dry side. Or anyway, to attempt to sleep, miserable, with two fans angled toward the bed. Growing up in Texas I’d never heard of an apartment that didn’t have air conditioning. Of course, I’d also never heard of anyone paying $2,000 a month for a closet sized studio apartment. I remind myself that this is temporary, that one day we’ll look back on this hot summer with fondness, our first summer in New York.

I’ll get a job. We’ll get an apartment (with air conditioning). I may never have a house, a car, or a career, but I’ll be happy living my nomadic life, however unconventional. Either that or  I’ll eat some questionable dumplings from a cart in Chinatown and die of dysentery. All I’m saying is that in the city anything is possible. The summer will end, the heat will dissipate, and change will come. No matter what.

The Help

“I’m not your nigger-nanny,” my mom used to say when I was growing up. This was her stock response to me asking her to get me or do something for me that I was perfectly capable of getting or doing myself.

My mother was raised in a time and a place where she saw first-hand black women raising the children of affluent white families. Like me, she was born in a small, southern town where dropping the n-bomb was part of the everyday vocabulary. My father had a friend who he often went ‘coon hunting with called “Nigger Bobby.” This was the name he used to the man’s face.

Even as a child their way of speaking made me cringe. I grew up watching Sesame Street and the Electric Company. The world I came of age in was a politically correct one where everyone was equal, and where people went out of their way to not offend other people. Not that racism didn’t still exist. At home, my family still liberally used the n-word, and at school all the black kids were put in special-ed classes, and my aunt would lock the car doors as we drove through certain neighborhoods.

When I pointed out to my family as a teenager how racist they were, they were genuinely offended. My dad said in his defense, “I’m not racist. There are a lot of niggers that I like!”

Thankfully times have changed. Not only is the president of the United States a black man, but my racist, redneck family actually voted for him. They no longer use the “N” word. My mom, now a pre-school teacher, has adopted the term African-American when she feels that such distinctions need be made. My dad still has a lot of room for progress.

On my last visit home, my mom had me watch the movie, The Help, with her. If you’re somehow unfamiliar with the film, or the book that it was based on, it’s about a young, white protagonist who sees the injustice in how the black servants raising the spoiled children of wealthy, white families are treated, and swoops in to rescue the poor, beleaguered colored folk who couldn’t possibly save themselves, thus ending institutionalized racism once and for all. Aside for the performances of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the film wasn’t much to write home about. My mom and I were both disappointed in it for different reasons.

I flew back to New York City, relieved to leave the South behind me. The small town where I grew up where people still hang confederate flags in their windows, where my cousin proudly brags that he’s a member of the KKK, where I know first-hand what it’s like to be discriminated against.

NYC is a haven of diversity just like Sesame Street promised, where people of every color walk down the busy streets in suits with briefcases, getting in and out of taxis. I feel more comfortable riding the A train where I’m often the only white rider than I do in the small town where I’m from that’s comprised almost entirely of white people. In New York it’s easy to pretend that the divide between white and black is a thing of the past.

When Carlos got a job in TriBeCa, I found myself spending a lot of time in this affluent neighborhood near the World Trade Center. It is full of children and women with strollers, so much so, that we’ve nick-named it Stroller-Town. Walking around Battery Park, I began to notice a strange phenomenon. I kept seeing black women pushing strollers with white babies. My first thought was that white babies must be the Must Have Accessory for rich, black women this season.  There were so many of them, walking down the streets, sitting in the parks, coming in and out of the expensive apartment buildings I could only dream of living in. Then it dawned on me. The women were not the parents, they were just taking care of the white babies of other people. As I watched more closely, I heard the women with Jamaican accents chasing down white toddlers with blond curls, being ordered around by petulant youngsters, demanding to be given ice cream. My stomach sank.

The Help made me believe that the world had changed since the early 60s, but the reality is that even in a diverse, progressive city like New York, certain institutions remain intact. I wonder about these children with their black nannies. Do they grow up to be more tolerant, more blind of something as ridiculous as skin color, or do they just get the idea reinforced that they are the ones who’ll grow up to be the movers and shakers, and black people will forever be their servants?

Last week in my neighborhood in Brooklyn, where everyone is poor, and therefore equal by default, I saw a little black girl walking down the street with her mom, wearing a Wonder Woman outfit, and was hopeful. I hope this little girl grows up knowing that she can be the super hero without needing some great white hope to swoop in and save her. I hope that she grows up never knowing what it’s like to be discriminated against for her color, or her sex, or her sexual preference (whatever that might turn out to be.) I hope that she grows up believing in herself and teaches the rest of her generation to do the same.

The Subway

IMG_1193Every day I ride the subway. Descend the worn steps down into the bowels of the city. The carved out antiquated tunnels that have never seen sunlight. Past the more modern turnstiles with their automated ticket readers, down more steps to wait on platforms. To squeeze into crowded cars, packed tightly, hip to shoulder with a bunch of strangers. Eyes focused diligently on books, cell phones or e-readers. Old women with bags of groceries, tired tourists with overstuffed suitcases headed to the airport, fashionable young men with scruffy beards, eyeing every stranger who gets on.

When Carlos points out that the subway is over 100 years old, I am amazed. In places like Grand Central or Penn Station you can see the decaying grandeur and imagine how splendid it must have been when it was new. Even in it’s current, crumbling sprawl it is amazing. A modern marvel of ingenuity funneling millions of locals and tourists all over the metropolis every day. I’ve never lived in a city where traveling was so convenient and reliable.

I cling, ape-like, with one hand on the overhead bar, going to shops, museums, or more lately job interviews. Shouldering my messenger bag with a portfolio containing copies of my resume. I dutifully put on a tie and fake a smile and firm handshake for temp agencies. Selling myself as a “people person” and “outgoing” to get some entry level job that pays half of what I was making in Seattle.

I’ve applied with every staffing agency listed online. Most recently I found myself at a staffing agency that was designed to help people with disabilities “live and work with dignity.” When I submitted my resume, I didn’t notice their mission statement, so I had an awkward interview with a woman who no doubt wondered what an able bodied person like me was doing there. For me it was another demoralizing blow in an already humiliating search for a source of income.

Sometimes, after these interviews, after taking tests to prove that I can file, or type, or use a web browser, I don’t want to get back on the subway right away. To go back to the coastal neighborhood with the thick, Queens accents and weathered boardwalk. Sometimes I find myself sitting in a park, watching the hustle and bustle of the city. The people in newer, more stylish clothing walking with purpose from high rise office buildings to wait in line at Starbucks or a hot dog cart. Sometimes I find myself reluctant to walk down those steps again, and join the other runners in the race.

At first the well mannered, southern man in me felt compelled to relinquish my seat to every woman standing. But this sentiment quickly faded to cynical feminism after a few weeks of being on my feet all day and having an hour and a half commute out to Rockaway Park where we are staying. Now pregnant women and the elderly are the only people I’d even consider giving up a seat for.

Some of the subway platforms are well lit, spotless. Most are dank, trash strewn, and crawling with rats who scurry through the debris oblivious to, or completely unafraid of, their human observers. Carlos, who has a misplaced fondness for rats, will inevitably exclaim, “Oh look, a baby!”  I’ll turn, to see a mouse scurrying between the tracks.  All I can think about are germs, and I find myself holding my breath and hesitant to touch anything.

Sometimes it is hot and humid, the air heavy and hard to breathe. The musky stench of sweat and stale breathing. Sometimes it’s freezing, and people huddle together or shiver in winter coats. Sometimes we’ll walk into an auspiciously empty car, amazed at our luck in finding a place to sit when the other cars are full, only to be confronted with a homeless person reeking of a year old sour milk smell, or a schizophrenic prostitute pacing the length of the car swearing that she’s going to have the President impeached. We sit, not making eye contact, and quickly change cars at the next stop.

Often people are selling things. A kid who calls himself “The Candyman” sells cookies and candy for $1. A pair of gentleman have a whole, polished comedy routine as they sell pirated DVDs of movies that aren’t even out in theaters yet. Other times musicians, a family who plays the accordion, a man in a wheelchair who plays the electric guitar, or pan flute players will get on, play some tune in varying degrees of incompetence, then walk (or roll) through to collect change. There is a group of women (at least three distinct ones) that get on carrying a toddler with a sign saying they are homeless, and asking for money. But they all have the same accent, nice clothes, and the exact same sign that makes me think that it’s a scam and they’re going back to some nice apartment with their plunder.

Occasionally the person next to me will speak about the weather, or the delays when they happen. Once a signal problem held up all the trains going through one station for over an hour and it took us three hours to get home. But most of the time the trains are running on schedule. I’ll answer politely, pleased with the unexpected human interaction, and then look at my hands again.

We usually ride the A train because it’s the only one that goes to Rockaway Park. For reasons unknown to me, there are two A trains, and a couple of times I’ve gotten on the wrong one, and had to transfer to get back to where I was going. Sometimes I look up to realize that I’m the only white person on the A train, which is an odd sensation, especially moving from Seattle where the lack of diversity sometimes made it feel like a city of Aryans. As odd as that situation seems at time, I’ve never felt uncomfortable on the train. Sometimes I find myself riding just to ride. To go somewhere. Anywhere.

Tomorrow we’re moving to Brooklyn. The A train will be replaced with a hub, a slew of options. There is a new neighborhood to explore in our second-choice borough, having been denied the apartment we were applying for in Manhattan.

Right now Carlos is at work, and I’m sitting in a coffeehouse in TriBeCa with free wifi. I’m wearing a shirt and tie and my nice shoes on the off chance that a temp agency wants me to come in for a last minute assignment in midtown. But as the day wears on, even this hope fades, and I look at my overpriced cup of hot chocolate, thinking better of having spent the money on something nonessential.

He gets off at 10:30, and we’ll go, one last time to the old haunt in Queens, to pack up our things and take it to our new room in Brooklyn. We’ll sit side by side on the orange, or yellow seats that haven’t been refurbished since the 70s it seems. I’ll hold the bag of groceries for him. His knee will press my knee, and I’ll look at him and smile. This familiarity in a strange city, a bit of warmth as we take the long subway ride home.

I <3 NYC!

 Barnes and Noble is a strange place to have an epiphany, but that’s where it happened.  I was sitting upstairs at the store in TriBeCa watching the taxis drive down Warren St, waiting for Carlos who was interviewing for a job at a company nearby.  (He got the job, by the way!) I was feeling exhausted from all the walking we’d been doing, and overwhelmed by the sheer number of people going briskly about their day on the street below, oblivious to me and my splashless arrival; sharp looking men in three piece suits, fashionable women in skirts and $500 pumps, kids in tight jackets and scarves.  And me, the newest addition feeling shabby and wrecked in a pair of worn jeans and a discount hoodie.  There was something about the flow of people on the street below, how they walked with purpose and made way for one another, that instilled in me the first feeling of calm I’d had since arriving. A sense of movement after a long bout of stagnation.

Carlos met me at the airport.  He didn’t have much confidence that I’d be able to navigate the subway on my own.  (A fair assessment given the fact that I’ve done nothing but ride the subway for five days and can still make heads nor tails of it.) We lugged my suitcase and bags (containing everything I own in the world) to the subway and back to our temporary residence in Queens.

The apartment is a nice one, with a view of Manhattan from the bedroom and a view of the ocean from the living room. (The beach literally begins as you step out the front door.) We share it with our host, Ken, who was gracious enough to let us stay with him until we have jobs and an apartment of our own, and two cats named June and Truffaut who mostly ignore us until they’re hungry or want to be rubbed.

Mostly we’ve been out.  The past few days have been a blur.  Sushi in Chelsea.  Hot chocolate at Rockefeller Center.  Walking past Madison Square Gardens and The World Trade Center.  Tourists in Times Square.  Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge.  Seeing the Statue of Liberty.  Getting a key chain in China Town that says, I ❤ NY.  Shopping in Soho.  Going to the Metropolitan Museum.  Eating from food carts and walking through Central Park.

Every corner of the vast city seems to be a landmark that I’d only read about or seen in movies or on TV. Ken is amazed that I was willing to pack up and move to the city, sight unseen.  But New York has always been my dream city.  It just took Carlos’s optimism to convince me that it didn’t have to remain a dream.  So together we decided to make it a reality.

Now we’re checking out neighborhoods we want to live in.  We really like Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan, and it’s the most affordable.  There’s also Park Slope and Williamsburg in Brooklyn that are still possibilities.  We liked Astoria in Queens, but didn’t love it.  And Chelsea is beyond our means.

Of course all of this is dependent upon me getting a job as soon as possible.  The idea that my last paycheck next Friday will be my last paycheck is more than a little terrifying.  We’ve done a good job of saving the past year or so, but this won’t last forever.  I’m relieved that Carlos was able to get a job so quickly, and hope that I’ll have the same luck.

Right now I’m still growing accustomed to the quick pace of my new city.  The Queens accents.  (I’ve already heard someone say “Yous guys!”)  How expensive apartments are and eating out is (except for the hot dog carts and pizza stands that are ridiculously cheap.  $.89 for a hot dog, a dollar for a slice of pizza!)  But every day I feel more and more at home, and I’m really looking forward to the day that Carlos and I get to set up shop in a place that’s entirely our own.