13 August 2012

A Hell of a Town

I wrote most of this ~ 3 weeks prior to leaving New York. "Here," then, refers to NYC.

There are two ways to parse that.
Before moving here, I thought HELLUVA town. Hells yeah.
Moving here? a HELL of a town.
Now – it’s both. Everything is both. Everything is ambivalence.

I bike to work – felt like a legit NYC commuter today, messenger bag and all. Door-to-door, to bustling Long Island City and the DOHMH* with the secure bike room. Used my ID three times to get into the most secure building I've ever entered, belonging there. I rode under the BQE, across the Pulaski Bridge, right into Queensborough plaza.

*Department of Health and Mental Hygiene

That felt like the boldest part, first time. I used to commute to school, from my old apartment/old schedule. But that’s all in Brooklyn. Now, crossing the bridge. Crossing boroughs. And as I cross the bridge, to my left, across the East River, is midtown Manhattan. One of these days I’ll pull over to take a picture. It’s a narrow, two-way path, up up and over, with pedestrians and bikers--all commuters, at that hour. So I watch, crane a little. It’s beautiful. I don’t go to work before sunrise, anymore, and I go home before sunset. At this time of year.

Dawn at the DOHMH, before going to Riker's Island jail to do Hep C education

For my first rotation of my third year of medical school, I was in ob/gyn at Highland, Oakland’s county hospital. Living in San Francisco, I had a reverse commute--thank everything--against the traffic that barely crawls into the city in the morning and out again at night. Leaving my house at 5:45, I could make it to the hospital around 6:10 – it's 17 miles. Only at that time of day and with that kind of (no) traffic. Traversing the Bay Bridge is more magical than the Golden Gate, in some ways--because you can see Golden Gate Bridge. And it was sunrise, every morning, and sunset, every night. Sun setting over the ocean. Sun rising. Marin, the green green hills that would pass for mountains on the east coast. The port, in front. And the cars at a standstill on the other side.

You pay going to San Francisco, not coming from. And I’ve always thought that the compensation is, coming back to the city, you’re on the top of the bridge. You see better. The view is worth it. Beautiful, beloved city, the mystifying blanket of fog, some days, up to the radio tower. As I got off 580, onto 101, curving toward Duboce, I’d see it. Home is somewhere under there.

After that rotation, I spent a week at Naropa, for a writing conference/retreat. And I wrote a poem about that, about my commute. About my breathtaking commute, returning home, over that same bridge, 14 hours – or more like 30 – hours after I’d crossed it in the first place.

Breathtaking, meaning breath-stopping. 

(Poem about my commute – this is excerpted from the series “Your lapidarium feels wrought.”)

When the bay collapsed
                        on Tuesday, it wasn’t
                        shrapnel some
                                    jumpers survive. Like
                        cobblestones, side-by-side and
                        radiant. Sightless
waking ships are from Japan
                        or everywhere, almost
                        alone. While listing away
            from the sun, no one
                        moves. Or

Not a lot of poems to write about commutes. That one. But I could write it about driving in San Francisco, about being on a bus, about walking, about that sudden moment where you see the Pacific, the Bay, Golden Gate park, or just that beautiful, beautiful city, over the hill. And when I say breathtaking I mean that even after 3 years, there, it got to me. Every time. Even when I knew it was coming. It’s enough to supersede that. Surprise all over again--I get to live here. I get to live here.

San Francisco is getting a series of poems, all on its own (currently, there are 3? 4? It’s probably the first thing I’ll work on, when I get back. A propos. City on a hill, City of no left turns, city of most sickness, city of  .... ).
I’ve missed you.

(And yes, the poem above is referring to the Bay Bridge collapse in October 2009. It was on a Tuesday. Promise).

A good friend who lives in Cambridge bikes to her job in Boston. Not quite opposite ends of those cities, but close enough. It sounded like a long commute to me, long-long, knowing the geography of those cities, when that used to be my scale.
Used to be.
Then she told me it was 4 miles.

My commute to work in NY is 4.5 miles. I live very close to work.
My commute to school was 4 miles. And those are the shortest distances I go anywhere (well, groceries is more like 2 miles). Subway takes a similar amount of time, when you count walking to and from the station and waiting for the train.

Scale, everything has changed. Work is 6 stops on the subway – that’s nothing. That’s crossing all of Cambridge on the red line. But still you get to know people in the bodegas on your corner – the old man where you go buy the little finger bananas, the store where the cat lives. The cat who almost wouldn’t let you leave. He closes his store – maybe 11pm, maybe midnight. It’s surprising. So many things never close. Anything that does – say, your favorite cafe at midnight (and the more challenging nights it closes at 11!) In neighborhoods with such blurred boundaries, public housing across from organic grocery stores, the subway stop that was on the news because an 82-year old man was beaten up for his iPhone. Graham Ave changes eponyms every few blocks – la Avenida de Puerto Rico, then via Vespucci, then it’s Greenpoint and Polish, and then suddenly you’re in Queens, and…
A few blocks away, the Lubavitchers or other Hasidim live in a completely different century, and further south, the Chabads of Crown Heights bleed into West Indian stores, then back up to the mosques on Fulton St, next to the revival churches, west to the few Yemenite blocks. I forget now where the Hungarians are in Brooklyn, though, of course, everyone knows the Hungarian Pastry Shop in Morningside Heights. Where else would you write a novel, except everywhere. Across the street from St. John’s the Divine, largest cathedral in North America. The Georgian, as in the country, store. And you're also in Harlem.

I can measure this year in the towers being built where the World Trade Center was. One and Two. I’ve watched the panes spiral up the angled scaffolding. The radio antenna that makes one, yes, the tallest building in Manhattan. I didn’t believe that until I was flying over the city. I saw. Trademarked, stereotyped, TV’ed and movied and storybooked city, recognizing so many buildings from that height. A clear evening. But it’s different now. The Citibank building near the 59th St bridge is near work, and on that corner is the coffee cart I go to (not every day, once I discovered the fount of free coffee in the office), where the man working there calls me – and everyone else – sweetie. Tracing smaller routes. The Empire State Building is next to school, actually (CUNY Grad Center), and on the west side of the lobby is where I get coffee before class (yes, there’s a theme). I didn’t notice for two weeks it was the Empire State Building. I didn’t know it was right in Herald Square. Why the tourists, why the tour guides in front, why, why – and then the lesson. To look up. And the financial district, those two new towers, will always, always mean Poets House. It’s a short walk. And my favorite bodega on the way, to get coffee, closed. Rent, in Manhattan. Walking down 14th st, avoiding any more subway stops than necessary, I once ran into a friend. Happenstance in Brooklyn, too. Several places. That’s how you know you live somewhere. Eight million people. Coincidences. That’s when you feel like you live somewhere.

But I haven’t lived anywhere that wasn’t lucky in some way. 

The way to work, here. In San Francisco, going to work, school, everywhere, includes the Pacific, the Bay, the Bridges, mountains and forests and etc. So it’s midtown Manhattan. A different kind of beauty. I haven’t gotten immune to that either, I try. 
On the way to Poets House.

Chambers St subway station

This isn’t a salutatory address, New York.

There’s no place like this one. It’s an organism. Living, breathing, shitting, f*cking. Hell. It’s alive and teeming with not-just-people. With itself. City more diverse? Not many. Any?

Then there are things like money that you can’t ever not think about. Subways. MetroCards. How late you’re getting home every night, how loud it is, always, how dirty, how much cement, how many people, many people, many people, pushing through them, elbows and fists past umbrellas, elbow in your back and jostling for finger space on the pole, book in one hand or e-book and headphones and everyone staring into space in the particular way that means you’re looking at nothing and no one.

On my bucket list for New York, this time, is biking into Manhattan. (To Poets House, most likely. Rather, the Greenway along the Hudson). Biking across the Brooklyn Bridge. At one time I was afraid of cars (biking with). Now I bike in Brooklyn and Queens. It’s all NYC. Then Manhattan (Bronx and Staten Island…not this go around). The only problem with biking is it’s harder to stop and stare.

I didn’t have time to do everything. New York, we have unfinished business. Besides the unfinished MFA.

I look forward to getting to know SF in this way. I already know it walking – most of it, walking. In truth. And I know it well enough from walking and driving to approximate the Wiggle and imagine how I’ll get places while avoiding things like, say, 17th St.

(Hills? There’s a bit up the Pulaski. There was going north on Franklin, people said that was a hill. That’ll be the new challenge).

Dear New York, I will compare you now to Mark Doty. I had to read his book for class. I hated it. Poetry? Hardly. Sequins. Silks. Kimonos, and, for some reason, mostly in cascading tercets. Sparkles. But I was presenting, so I read it again. And again. And at some point I fell in, completely, immersed, completely, and I’ve now read most of his other books. Incredible writer. Heart-stopping. When I met him, at AWP this year, I told him that. How much I hadn’t liked his work. And then. The book I asked him to sign is dog-eared, underlined, full of post-it notes. The best kind of book. He noted that. Maybe that’s more real kind of love – you fall already knowing the faults. Loving with and anyway.

If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Damn straight.

Bring it on, New York – and you did. Bring it all on.

But I’m going home.


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