We had agreed to meet in the lobby of the Park Sheraton. I realize, of course, that this story about becoming a writer could easily be read as a story about becoming a whore. My early days readily devolved into a lewd blur. I was down for it. I was in my town.
But I hated how the early fall weather was in New York. You just didn’t have a chance. The buildings were really close and the sun was hot and it was humid in a way that simply made you feel filthy, no matter how clean you were. Years later I learned to love this weather. ’Cause you’d go down into the subway and you’d think you were in hell. For some reason I liked that. Though it took years, I think you just need more experience to understand hell as something possibly good. For instance, living in New Mexico for a summer made me understand dry heat and so did sitting in a sauna, which I actually did quite frequently a few years later. Once there was a distinction between dry heat and humidity you could know where you were. In New York you’d look at the lady in the Laundromat. You’d go, hot. And she’d shoot back, humid. But right now I was twenty-four and had never felt anything like this. I also remember the first time I saw the New York City subway. I was with my family and we were going to the World’s Fair. My father had been dead a couple of years and we were all still getting the hang of this new understanding of family. My father was the person who always “wanted” to do things, for instance go on trips like this, but my mother was the person who made them possible. So now the person who “could” do things, but didn’t know why, was in charge of our trip. So we were in New York and my mother had found us a cheap motel to stay in in Jackson Heights. That’s Queens. I don’t know how she found this place. There was a teevee show called “Car 54 Where Are You?” and the theme song went duh duh duh duh to Harlem all the way to Jackson Heights. Here we were, staying in a place that was on teevee. It was a mint-colored little place, maybe built in the ’40s, revamped in the late ’50s to look kind of California cool, and they had a station wagon we would pile into with some other weird-looking people and it took us to the subway in Flushing and down we would go. The Main Street Flushing line, so hideous and great. Unlike the gross modern subway in Boston with its bright designer colors so everyone could think about the T from outside, and say: Boston, how Scandinavian! Marimekko! How DR! You were supposed to have educated mid-’60s Helvetica feelings and I resented them. I wanted the Latin mass, the obscurity of church, and I needed my subway dirty and old so that when I entered the city with my mother and later when I went on my adult own I would feel surrounded by a hallway of corruption. It was so old, it was new. The train that took us to the World’s Fair was dark green and military-looking in its public harrowed use. It was like a broken-down Nazi. New York didn’t have to go around pleasing people. I was plunging with my family into this past. The ads in the subway were rye bread and corn pads. My mother patted my bleach-spattered cut-off jean thigh to reassure me that we would be okay in this loud creaky ride in an old dark amusement-park train full of dark people who were all riding with us to Flushing. I rolled my eyes. Mom! And she huffed in reply.
Just before I actually lived there, on the eve of an aborted attempt to move to California a couple of years before, I had also come to New York and stayed with Helene and Herbie and I had gotten the inside outsiders tour. They showed me the New York that illustrated the myth of why living here was heaven on earth. We strolled past Bob Dylan’s townhouse on MacDougal. He lives here just like that, I said. He owns the building, Herbie said. Everybody owned their house in Arlington so I thought yeah, what else would Bob Dylan do. But he’s real, and he lives right there. We walked through his neighborhood park, Washington Square Park, and it looked summery, free and open like it never would again. I mean this was maybe ’71 or ’72 so maybe it was perfect then. I remember a woman in a broad-brimmed hat, maybe a leather hat, or a straw one. She was strolling with the evenness of a city/country person. New York was so cool. There was a relaxed approach to time which I had been encountering in my readings in college. Paul Goodman told us about “Negro time,” which was the infinite day of the ghetto. Herbie, I should mention, was black. He knew, he knew. He walked us over to Max’s Kansas City. I guess it’s a little early for a drink, he chuckled. This is where Andy Warhol hangs out. I never thought of people residing anywhere at all. I knew history talked about moments, maybe in Paris, between the wars. But New York was right now. The people I had read about, seen in magazines, simply walked out the door, onto the sidewalk, stood right here. Stepped in there and got a drink. In these stone corridors, life began. The myth was true.
But the subway was always the best. A train pulled into the station in 1972 and it was the dirtiest, most decorated cartoon monster, drooling red lips, delirious screaming bright-blue baby names in cloud writing and dates and big eyes, and then the teeth parted and we stepped in. What is that, I asked Herbie. What is what, he grinned. Like he really didn’t know. The outside of the train. It looks like someone drew all over it. Kids, he laughed, kids do that. Which kids. What kids think a train is their notebook? Oh, Leena, there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on here. He was giving me profile now, whether I was embarrassing him, or he knew something about this world and he was in it now and I wasn’t so I had to go away. It’s called graffiti, Helene butted in with a light in her eyes. Herbie’s got some friends who live way uptown. He doesn’t like to talk about it, do you, Herbie. She rubbed his head, and he bent and rolled towards her like a dog. We were all sitting down now. And the train screamed and moaned and churned on.
t was different three years later to be almost twenty-five and excreting beer sweat out of my pores as I walked up to West 4th to get the F to take me to the Park Sheraton. Eli, do you have a dollar? Hold on, he said, the phone slipping onto his chest. He was my neighbor. Undoubtedly, he was rolling out of his loft bed across the street where he often lay in the late afternoon, and now he was looking on the floor under the loft. Nope, he spoke into the receiver, nothing in here, hold on, let me get my pants. I could hear change falling out of his pockets. He had a dark reddish wood floor. ’Cause I had passed out on it. Let me see, I have twenty-eight, thirty-five -- looking good. Yup, I got a buck. Coming over?
Subway fare, he asked, curious, staring at me. Exactly, I replied. I wasn’t ashamed of my evening’s plan, but talking about it might make me think too much. So you’re going out, he said. Uptown, I acknowledged. Train fare, he shrugged. I had my palm opened as one coin after another tumbled into the rest, sealing my measly fate. What’re you doing, I asked. I could see his guitar up on the loft bed. He was wearing a shirt I liked, a dark brown safari shirt with a lot of pockets. The woman who dumped him had given him this shirt. I just thought of love as travel. In your twenties you just kind of chug along, dredging up feelings as you go. It seemed like people then had a lot of feelings and you could get all bundled up like Eli had and brood with them for a while, or you could recoil entirely like I was doing (for professional reasons) and consider your behavior just art, grist for the mill. I read this book once called Hunger by a Scandinavian writer named Knut Hamsun. He would just walk about Bergen chasing some girl in a red dress with big fat braids. Something drove men, and meanwhile they wrote about it. It seemed like nothing mattered but it was more absurd to do something than plain old existentialism. It would be embarrassing behavior if the person was real. But he wasn’t. He was a writer. The character was going to starve unless he made money on his art. Which was basically my ideal. Nobody ever told me how to live, they told me what not to do. In all these books about the lives of artists that I read, I mean they weren’t guide books but they took the simple beliefs in art and freedom and carried them to outrageous lengths. I could do that. There were several versions of innocence, productive of writing. For instance, I was now testing the possibility that I could sell my body. It was mine, wasn’t it. I needed to be extreme, to test my limits. But before I could write, before I even knew how to spell, I went out with my best friend Billy LeBlanc and we created a bunch of letters out of symbols we knew: sun, wave, stick -- we made letters. We had so much to say to everyone and we pronounced our ideas carefully with crayons on paper and we folded them up and placed them in one mailbox on a house on our street. We were so excited because the silence of our childhood was over. We wrote. We sat on the sidewalk outside of that house. We anticipated a response. We waited and waited. Then we simply forgot. But that sun, the first tiny symbol, still sits there, blazing in my head.
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