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the long way around

The living room is a forest of mic stands and cables. A cup of coffee, a large glass of water and a shallow shot of whiskey sit on the tiny white table. I alternate between them, making sure the guitar is in tune, trying to understand if the chair will creak when I lean my head back on the second chorus.  There is a hush in the room. I can hear my own heartbeat. The lyrics are printed out on a fresh piece of paper, large and thick so I can read them easily even though I sing with my eyes closed and will surely forget a handful of words no matter what I do.

The guitar sounds dry, perfect - even honest. I can play a simple D chord with a long strum, or the side of my thumb and it sounds so different. I record a few takes, barefoot in the bright room. I am going too fast in some parts, and my fingers are already sore from the chord changes.

And then all at once, I am thinking of a show I played in an old factory in Brooklyn, way back when I had just started writing songs almost twenty y…

this is the city

Kissing N on the corner of 27th and 6th, I watch her head uptown. The streetlights are not working below 25th. I am in a sort of demilitarized zone where handfuls of people huddle against the windows of stores that are closed but still have wifi. 

Walking quickly, the past few days wash over me. I think about the myth of New York and Brooklyn that I teach E about, the desperate choice I made to paint an over-simple picture of tough, kind, honest people who handle life with a comic grace. Someday she will decide for herself, and maybe tell me I was full of shit but for now she reflects the stories back to me. 
"Everything is going to be fine." She says. "You are New Yorkers!"

I remember the blackout. I remember everything, as Broadway twists into Fifth Avenue. I see the reserved faces, lips tight. These are people on a marathon that has no predictable finish line. Police sirens are whirling. The streets are getting a little dicey. There are people dragging their feet, leering from the corners of their eyes. There are cars that drive slowly, rolling next to me then pulling away fast around the corner. I haven't felt nervous downtown in a long time. Whole trees are ripped from the earth, their dirt clodded roots pointing to the sky. The buildings stand dark and empty. They are like giants, the empty shells of giants.

Faces look upwards now. I see a pile of bricks on the sidewalk. I turn east, towards the old neighborhood. 

Climbing eleven flights of stairs with a tiny flashlight N bought for me, my heart pounds. My head spinning, I read the names on the doors in the hallway until I find the right one. No one is home. The sink is full of dishes and dirty water. I reach for the light switch out of instinct. 

My new guitar sits in the center of the rug. It has already gone on some adventures. I take a picture from the window. The sky is beautiful.

Walking back down the stairs and outside into the fresh, wet air I decide to go past Katz's. I need to say goodbye. 

I see soldiers, and giant trucks. There is a long line of people on Grand Street waiting for bags of food and water. The guitar case thumps against my leg. There are faces, that combination of proud and stubborn and familiar. 
People stop me and ask where they can charge their cel phones. 
A woman asks me if I know anyone that needs medical help, her hand stretched out to show the long bus that idles next to her.
"We will be here all day." She says.

"Time for the unplugged version!" A man calls out to me, from the front steps of a church.
I smile, nod. 
People need toilet paper and water and I have a shiny new guitar. It feels so foolish.
"Woho, a Gretsch!" he adds. "Be careful where ya walkin'."

The crazies are coming out, and I realize how much I miss them as they press their fingers into payphones looking for stray quarters. 
An old man sits in front of a bar with a filthy dog at his feet. He waves at a girl on a bicycle as she passes, going against the traffic.
"Hey sweetie." He calls out to her.
She waves back.

Katz's lights are dark, but as I look past my reflection in the window I see they are open. Yanking the door open I get my ticket and order just a hotdog, not the pastrami. Maybe I have learned something on this trip. After the past few days I would probably throw up if I ate a whole sandwich.

The dog snaps with the first bite, the mustard curling into the corner of my lips, the kraut seeping into the soft roll. It tastes as good as the one I grabbed a week ago. The cream soda is cold, sweating in my hand. There is a small patch of lights on over some of the tables. I sit in the darkness, watching the the tourists snapping flash pictures. The workers are not smiling. They are tired. They are not sad. They are working. There is something very noble about this hand slicing of meat in half darkness.

I finish the dog, and hope someday E can come to this place. 
This is where she comes from. 
We could sit at one of my favorite tables about two-thirds back. 
The tourists walk past me.
The workers pour sugar into giant cups of coffee, fix their baseball hats and look out at everyone hunched over plates of food.
This the city.


Mely said…
Love this post.
Hope you guys are back safe.

liv said…
Every American feels a tiny bit a New Yorker. We carry her in our hearts and tether our dreams to her, whether we've ever visited her or not. She is our pinnacle and our anchor and you describe her with such tenderness and truth as to make her tangible no matter how far away we are.

Great job. Glad you are both safe and hope you will write about how you describe your trip to E.
Can not BELIEVE we missed you, M. So close and yet so far. We're back and running. And I miss eye contact. I do. People looking up and around, even the occasional smile. Now, they're back with eyes down, fingers dancing on so called Smart phones... Anyway, next time.

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