Monday, May 16, 2005

Kindred Spirits

From the Washington Post
I'll Take Manhattan -- Every Time
By Maura Kelly

I was getting ready to take a two-year sabbatical from New York for an all-expenses-paid master's program -- the only thing that would ever get me to leave Manhattan -- when I rediscovered Joan Didion's book "Slouching Towards Bethlehem." I flipped to the final essay, "Goodbye to All That," written nearly four decades ago, after she'd dumped Manhattan for Los Angeles. "Everything that was said to me I seemed to have heard before," she complained.
"There were certain parts of the city I had to avoid." Worst of all, she whined, there were no "new faces" in the New York.

Joan Didion, you fool! I thought.

If I were in New York right now, I would listen to all the conversations. I would visit every neighborhood. I wouldn't avoid a single Upper East Side blue-haired society lady, a single toothless street bum, a single street-corner saxophonist. What I wouldn't give for the faces! For a downtown coffee shop scene. Here's what might happen if I went to Doma, my favorite cafe, off Seventh. The Berlin girl with dyed orange hair behind the counter would hand me a Chinese cookie fortune with my change: "To affect the quality of the day is no small achievement." I'd look up from it, eyes wide, delighted; she'd wink and say, "Next?" Smiling, I'd move to a window seat and eavesdrop on a huge, pale, dark-haired man talking to a petite well-coiffed blonde. (An Internet date?) "My family moved here from Russia during the Cold War," he'd say. "Kids called me 'Commie,' thought I had nukes in my lunch box. I was 5. Funny, right? So I became a comedian." A shirtless man would walk by outside with a huge pair of feathered white wings on his back. (An extra from the set of the "Dogma" sequel?)

But no. I'm in a small southwestern Virginia city. Know what I avoid here, Joan Didion? The Valley View Mall, whose very existence has destroyed the vista it boasts of. The Wal-Mart, with the gun department next to the jewelry counter. The omnipresent sports bars, where people in business casual talk about nothing but college football. This town ain't for me because there's no place that gives me the simple hope that I could meet someone here who will change my life. In the Apple, I always knew that, at any moment, I might bump into some bewitching stranger.

Of course, New York could have burned me, like Didion. It could have destroyed me -- almost did. (Anything worthy of being deeply loved should have that power.) I indulged myself with booze and drugs for a long time before finally saying goodbye to all that, after some close calls. Like the time the guy I was flirting with at Jet Lounge bit my cheek so hard that I left with a nasty purple welt. Or those days I woke up next to a stranger. Or the morning someone I couldn't remember had apparently been in my room the night before -- as evidenced by the pile of change and a black lighter he'd left behind on my desk.

But New York also helped me survive -- bringing me comfort in the form of its citizens, appearing like benevolent gods during my darkest moments. As they did when I was walking home from a party late one night -- drunk, alone and broken-hearted. Drifting through a shadowy, lonely part of Hell's Kitchen, I heard two thuggish voices behind me.

I began to think saving on a cab had been a very stupid decision.

"He's gonna go nuts when he sees," one guy said.

"He's not gonna believe what we did," another agreed. "I mean, damn! Look at this thing!"

A gun, I thought as their footsteps got closer.

My heart was thundering in my ears by the time they flanked me. Too petrified to move, I stopped and stared down at my scuffed black boots.

"A lady like you shouldn't be walking by herself,"one said.

"Where you headed?" the other said.

That's when I looked up.

They were holding an arc of variegated balloons over me.

"It's beautiful!" I shouted.

"For our little brother, in a wheelchair," the first one said.

Then, keeping the rainbow force field around me, they escorted me to my door.

There have been so many other strangers in New York who have blessed me, saved me, become friends. Those people, immortalized in my memory, make the city the poem it is. Like the cabbie who gave me a free ride one icy New Year's morning when I had lost my wallet, my friends and my way. The middle-aged businessman who yanked me out of an oncoming car's path, saving my life before disappearing back into the Times Square mob. Or gravel-voiced Willy: He helped me quit smoking by keeping my pack in his register at the Abingdon Square deli and doling out cigarettes to me, one a day. (He died in 2003 of emphysema.) Or Maureen, the old woman in a wheelchair with a face like it was made of cheesecloth -- yet what a new face! -- who called out to roomful of strangers in an ATM center, asking for a volunteer to withdraw money from her account. I obliged; we had breakfast; she told me she moved to New York after she became crippled because it was the easiest place in the world to get around. Or the hipster with a soul patch and Marc Jacobs suit who slid into my booth one night at the M&R Bar and informed me "Ain't No Sunshine When She's Gone" was playing, so I couldn't leave. Dinner followed; then a romance; now a comradeship that's lasted for five years. And there's the bright-eyed writer I discovered at a Williamsburg art opening in the eleventh hour of my New York tenure; we've been corresponding about the meaning of life since.

Yep, I'd tell Joan Didion, "Too bad you didn't see the people who could help keep you strong -- even if only by watching them smile at you on the subway and letting the corners of your mouth curl up in return. Then you'd never have stopped loving the city."

In a couple of autumns, if you notice what seems like a rough beast slouching towards Manhattan to be born again, look again. It's probably just me, returning.