Thursday, September 1, 2011

Persistence

Usually my drunk train home is boisterous and noisy. As I write about my evening, it is with my head down, desperately trying to block out the heterosexual melee going on around me. The same cannot be said for the NYC subway at night. After midnight, the subway takes on a quiet, filthy reverence. Little eye contact is made, conversations are non-existent. And waiting for the train is even less eventful. The platforms are empty, preventing the usual entertainment watching people can bring. There is no phone service, nor Internet connection. It is just you alone with your thoughts for as long as it takes for the next train to finally arrive.

There is such a late night scene in an early chapter of my new book, When Nightlife Falls. It is me, alone on the platform waiting for the 2 Train home to Harlem, getting emotional after a night of drinking out at Vlada with Ben Harvey. That night on my iPod the song of choice was the k.d. lang cover of the theme from Valley of the Dolls. Tonight, years later in the future, as I waited for the 2 Train to take me up to Times Square, I flipped through my iPhone for Amy Winehouse’s Tears Dry On Their Own. She is gone now, as is Nick Ashford who co-wrote the song, as is my iPod and even the reason I am emotional all over again. But tonight it is just nostalgia, for a time and a place that maybe was never really there.

I guess it is a function of being young that you see time as a linear function. This happened and then that happened and then this happened. It is lazy writing, like the story plotting (plodding?) on The A List or any of those other excruciating reality shows that take place excrementally. As you get older, time starts to crisscross a bit. People you knew leave and then come back. But it is beyond that grid now and I see for the first time so clearly why the clock is melting in Salvador Dali’s The Persistence of Memory. Time is like cutting a cake, if you slice it but never remove the pieces. At first the cuts are smooth, but the more you cut, the messier it gets and as you cut and cut and cut again, eventually the integrity of the cake itself is gone and the whole thing falls away into a sloppy unrecognizable mess. And as you peer down into the pile of frosting and layers, you alone can still see the cake as it used to be, staring back at you. The original promise is gone, but the taste lingers.

Ben Harvey was hosting Gekko, his usual last Wednesday of the month party down at Gild Hall. It is hard to believe that Ben and I met more than four years ago. It doesn’t seem possible. But as we talked about the good times and caught up on current events, it reminded me of the conversations I was always desperate to have with him back in 2007. Our friendship that started with our mutual careers in radio and our shared love of Rosie on The View came flooding back to me anew as we talked about our shows and the eminent return to TV of Rosie this fall. Everything old was shiny and new again.

Writing my latest book brought back all those early memories of Ben, and all the other things of that time, both good and bad but mostly bad. New York City is a hard place to be if you don’t want to remember the past. It changes constantly but the persistence of your memory is hard to shake. I suppose it is like a living embodiment of what Alzheimer’s must feel like. You walk down the street and you swear there used to be a Circuit City right there or was it an Office Max, a Fotomat, Gimbel’s or Woolworth. The new buildings around you melt away before your very eyes and you can see, right in front of you, what used to be there, almost as if it never left. But it did.

This time of year the city is awash in newness. Recent college graduates have all started their new jobs in the city, like Tommy who stumbled over to talk to us tonight. Or new students at Columbia or NYU are getting settled and starting classes, like my new friend Ryan, the object of Tommy’s brazen drunken move in our direction. So I embrace the new and enjoy it, even as the past draws in and out all around us like labored breathing or waves on a shore.

“Have you been to Provincetown?” Ryan asks me, looking for tips before he heads there himself this weekend. Yes, I was there, almost exactly ten years ago. It is all in my first book. Hooking up with the guy from Naked Boys Singing, the terrifying flight on Cape Air, how tiny the Statue of Liberty looked when we flew back into Newark Airport. I can’t escape it as keywords randomly access those parts of my memory.

Tommy amused me very much tonight because he was the perfect stranger to write about. This should have been all about him. He was not tall, maybe 5’9”. His hair was short and he was decidedly unshaven, which is the fashion for 22 year olds like him. He was in jeans and a white polo shirt. This was old school preppy but with a few hints of Brooklyn hipster about it. Just the barest minimum his new corporate career in midtown allows. He lives around the corner from the bar, something he repeated so often, it couldn’t have been anything but an open invitation to drop by.

He expressed a lot of concerns about his new career and fitting in there. Both Ryan and I tried to explain to him that all he needed to do was act confident and pretend like he knew what he was doing. That’s 90% of success in business anyway. Few people are Warren Buffett or Jack Welch, men who see the forest of the trees. The rest are all just good at repeating what they heard once or have a casual grace about them when ordering drinks that cleverly masks everything else. It seemed that most of his insecurity grew out of the large shadow cast by his older brother, who also lives nearby. “He’s prettier than me,” Tommy told us, puffing up his shoulders as if to indicate that he believes the only thing that really matters in the looks department is big arms, which, if you are gay, is truth.

But the most important thing about Tommy, aside from the fact that he was the second person of the evening with a Y at the end of their name, was that he was so very drunk. It was clear he hadn’t been in Manhattan long because he was the kind of drunk that happens here when you are young and haven’t yet learned that only you can prevent forest fires. When bars stay open until 4am on a school night and you don’t ever need to think about driving home, the only thing stopping your liver from dropping out of your body from sheer exhaustion is your own ability to say no. I wager it takes at least six months for the average person in New York to discover when to say when, but the younger you are, the longer that lesson will take to learn. Tommy has not yet learned that lesson.

As the DJ played pre-Glittered Mariah Carey, we all got funky on the dance floor remembering a simpler time before terrorism and the Kardashians changed America. Tommy kept circling back around trying to get Ryan to go home with him, but no reasonable person would have gone back there with someone so blind drunk. I suppose if he was still able to work his phone when he got up to that no doubt tiny apartment that made his arms looks bigger, he probably ordered someone off Grindr, delivered in thirty minutes or less. Manhattan is nothing if not convenient.

I can’t drink like Tommy anymore, and it isn’t just because I have lived here longer and I know better. Walking up the stairs from the subway onto 41st Street at Seventh Avenue, I could feel the two drinks I had and the lateness of the hour in the heaviness of my legs. But then suddenly, there I was staring up at my first office building in the city: 1440 Broadway. The street has changed so much since 2001, the smell of pot and WiFi is everywhere in the new walking promenade outside the building. I guess we have all changed a lot since then.

But I am done thinking about the past, now that I have emerged from the ethereal stench of the subway. The future is ahead of me. And there is no point in waxing nostalgic about meeting Dan by the lions in front of the New York Public Library or any of the other millions of memories that melt and rise around me as I trot past block after block.

The ghosts are everywhere but if all you do is look at them you won’t see the real living people around you. Ben Harvey isn’t a fading memory of a drunken night long past, he is a current event, a drunken night happening right now. And Ryan is a fun new friend, who braved the advice of a stranger and headed downtown for his own fresh adventure. That’s New York for you: the past and the present, side by side, melting together as one. There is something interesting waiting around every corner, even if you don’t always remember what used to be there.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. Thank you.

(I found your XM show one night when I just couldn't listen to the 5th straight repeat of Dr. Jenn. It's a fun listen. So thanks for that too.)

From / Another lady fan - this one in Boston