I came to New York City for this conference, to present a paper and to hear papers about cities, their histories, their representations, their repercussions, their present states, their future possibilities.
What didn’t occur to me until this evening, though, is that my visits to this city are always a retracing of steps, a remapping of my past onto my present. I subconsciously perform some of the work various scholars spoke of in their presentations this week with every visit to this place. I always stay in my grandmother’s upper east side apartment when I come here, but only because the apartment she used to live in with my grandfather, the one in Murray Hill across from the McDonalds, was sold when they moved to Connecticut almost two decades ago, though the McDonalds is still there. When I first moved to NYC when I was 18, this apartment was my second home, because my first home, my dorm room at Wagner College, was unsuitable, to say the least.
But this mapping starts before I was 18. It starts before I can even remember. I have always come here. I have come here before even being born. That’s a story I’m interested in telling, but not right now. It involves Rockettes and chocolate turkeys and these little geometric magnets and the Macy’s Day Parade and the Fitzpatrick Hotel and discovering literature and discovering romance and discovering desire. But it’s too long.
I recently received a phone call from my X, and it is he is who is largely responsible for my romanticization of this city. When we first met in high school, I discovered that he loved NYC as much as I did, was also planning to move [t]here for college [though him first because he is 2.5 years older than I], and this drastically increased my attraction to both him and to NYC. Most of my non-childhood memories of this place are related to him, the places he’d take me when I would visit, the benches we’d sit on, the stairs we’d climb, the restaurants where we’d eat.
As I was falling asleep last night, I couldn’t help but remember all the people who have occupied this bed with me. X, but well before him, his sister, and before her, my college roommate who came into the city with me one weekend that semester that I lived here. And I also think of who hasn’t shared this space with me. Most of the nights I’ve spent in this bed have been sad ones. When I lived here back in 2006, I’d just had my heart broken for the first time by my high school boyfriend, and I would lie in this bed, in its yellow sheets surrounded by its friendly yellow walls, and I would be dying in that way you feel like you are dying when you first have your heart broken. And that is my main memory of this apartment. No matter how much time has passed, no matter that I now love this place and that it now brings me happiness and unspeakable comfort, what lies in this bed with me first and always is that ghost of my devastated 18 year old self.
When I was 16 or so, maybe 17, I came here to visit colleges. I saw X that weekend, and I introduced him to my family for the very first time. I was hesitant to do so, so we lingered outside across from the apartment building for awhile, standing next to this winding metal staircase that belonged to one of the brownstones on 68th. What I remember about that moment is giggling nervously, happily, after a day spent in Central Park with the boy I loved, who didn’t love me back, but who could love me someday, I thought, though 10 years, a 5 year relationship, and a near engagement and subsequent disaster later, I have been proven wrong. When I visited the city with his sister a couple years after that staircase time, I either photographed or made her photograph the staircase so I could have it always. When I arrived here this May after returning from Israel, I noticed that the staircase and the entire building to which it belonged no longer exists, and we no longer exist. Which is funny in the saddest way something can be funny.
|Here it is in 2008.|
|And in 2013.|
X used to text me photos of garbage piles back when he was at NYU and I was still in Colorado. Back at the very beginning, before the real beginning, back when we had an almost-beginning, a proto-beginning. I took this photo of trash in Brooklyn just a couple of months after our sudden and heart wrenching breakup last year, and at the time I took it, I still had hope for us, but I don’t remember romanticizing that proto-time when I took this. I remember laughing and thinking to myself how insufficient his expression of love always was. How the best he could do—because he couldn’t let himself love me, or couldn’t tell me he loved me, or just simply couldn’t love me—was to send me a photo of garbage.
But this isn’t only about him. Back in 2013 I saw this truck parked outside Hunter College, which is two blocks from my apartment. “Stor” probably references someone’s tagger name, but for me it is an inside joke with my high school friends [hail!], and when I saw this, it had that similar comforting, depressing effect on me as everything I’ve mentioned already, because I am no longer close with my closest friend from that time, and that split and the one with X feel very similar, and in this city that is usually filled with X’s ghost, I also found this other ghost as well. And in such an aesthetically pleasing form. Today, I saw this same truck parked outside Hunter, with different graffiti now. Maybe it’s materially a different truck, but really, that doesn’t matter. It’s the same truck.
|Here’s the truck this summer, in June 2014.|
|Here’s the truck right now, in November 2014.|
The smell in this apartment hasn’t changed in 10 years. The views haven’t changed. I watched this building as it was being built in the fall of 2006.
And now it is built. And has been built for a long time. And it is visible through the east facing window in this apartment, the window you see when you are in the living room looking toward the grand piano that X one time played while my glass of champagne rested on top of it, while my family bustled around us on the day they met him, the day of the staircase, the day of Bethesda Terrace, the day that turned out to mean nothing to anyone except to me, who lived off the romance of that memory until I could finally be with the person it represented. That is another type of ghost.
When I first came back to NYC in 2008 after shamefully moving away at the end of ’06, I looked in my grandma’s cupboard and found that the cinnamon toast crunch cereal I used to eat mid-breakup, my sole sustenance from that time, was still there.
Back then, in the time of cinnamon toast crunch and sobbing phone calls to my mom and my Staten Island Ferry/6-train commute to and from school, the only other thing I would do was walk to MoMA almost every day and sit in front of this Cy Twombly series.
It’s part of the permanent collection at MoMA, but I haven’t seen it there since January 2007, and to this day I swear it is the thing that got me through that time.
I know this all sounds like such a sad story. But it isn’t. It is everything I care about. It is love and city and hope and failure and past and future and graffiti and art and romance and heartbreak and beginnings and growth. When I notice myself walking by a Papaya King and remembering the first time X took me there [much to my confusion, because wtf, hot dogs and juice = a thing people do?], I don’t feel sad. Or I do feel sad. But not in a sad way. I feel sad in the way I feel sad when I read a sad thing in a story. I read my life this way, and in this way my past is still sad, but doesn’t make my present sad. I think this is happening now because this week I somehow ended up at a conference about mapping cities in the city I have mapped the most in my life at a time when I am finally shaking free of the hold of a 12 year love affair? obsession? relationship? had on me immediately after the object of that obsession called me out of the blue this week and wanted to talk or rehash or connect or something. And this city is thinking me through all the things I can’t think through myself. And it’s comforting. And I’m not sad. I’m ecstatic. Because now I get to see my history from the other side, from a place where it can no longer hurt me because it no longer offers something I want but can’t have. And I can start to map something new.