BY JULIA AIZUSS
He hasn’t even gone near, say, the Empire State Building yet—or at least, he doesn’t think he has. Now that he’s in New York City, a city brimming with wild, overwhelming life on every square inch of its surface if there is one, he spends most of his time submerged, subterranean, in the Subway. The only crowds he mingles in are those riding to their day jobs, briefcases perched on trousered knees, knuckles whitened as they grip the poles to keep their balance. These are the ones who don’t notice his stares, already deep into a protective layer of unreflective ennui needed to keep their sanity in office life.
These are the cogs and wheels of New York City, he realized in his first week, after giving them more than a perfunctory second glance, after watching them trudge into familiar office buildings and post offices and managerial positions in supermarkets. The sharp churn in his stomach wasn’t something that could be placated by food. Even New York City needs them, these cogs and wheels, even New York City has people who aren’t seeking to Live but just live, and make enough money for a decent home-cooked dinner on the side. Didn’t he leave these people behind in Ohio?
His announcement to leave Ohio for New York City was the departure itself, and he entertained several differing fantasies of his parents’ reactions: his father, red-cheeked and monologuing to no one but the television; his mother, tearful or maybe even angrier than her husband, waiting vengefully, eagerly, to see New York City snap up her son like the shark she and her girlfriends have agreed it is. What he doesn’t know is that his parents scarcely had one at all. “A taste of college and they think the only place they can live unrestrained is there,” his father had said, unnecessarily jerking his head to the side, indicating the city. And then a moment later, dropping the pretense of “they,” he had snorted and said, almost more to himself than to his wife, “A little bit of weed at Ohio State and he thinks he’s a revolutionary.”
It was the 60s, the 70s, the 80s—it didn’t really matter; college students and weed and the idea of a revolution, it happened no matter how big or choppy the waves were outside, roiling with soon-historic subculture or lack thereof. He heard a Beatles song on the radio shortly after arriving (feeling cinematic, slightly fictional, he had wished it to be “She’s Leaving Home” but it was some bland crowd-pleaser, “Let It Be” or “Yesterday”) but the Beatles’ pervasive influence was such that their presence was indicative of no time period or mood or anything else, just of themselves. Sure, he left home, his physical body, but it occurs to him on a day where the weather is just as grey as the Subway that he left the budding wannabe New Yorker back at Ohio State. What he’s been doing is not retracing his paths, leaving them ingrained in a burgeoning map of his own New York, but creating countless intersecting ephemeral ones. He’ll ride from stop to stop and eighteen stops later will have buried the name of wherever he got on and ceased wearing the figurative mourning black. Sprawled across a sweat-flecked plastic seat, he’ll finger the ever-shrinking border on his neck where his unfortunately mouse-brown hair ends and his bare skin begins; he’ll replay fragments of some popular but not too popular underground song about to burst upwards into the people’s consciousness—deceivingly calm folk rock, maybe, or some urgent, furious growl and scream, whatever’s infusing the subculture of that period. He’ll feel restless and full of unused potential for something great. Forever unfulfilled, though—lacking the money, the connections, fancies himself against The Man, always filled with that unrealized potential because he’s too obscure to discover and wouldn’t want to give in to the straight and narrow life anyway. He’ll pretend like he hasn’t been too busy riding the pathways of New York to figure them out. He’ll pretend the only reason he ever gets home—a cheap apartment shared with an acquaintance found through a tangled string of friends and second cousins—isn’t because he has money from a savings account his solid, dependable parents made for him, which he can use endlessly for taxi rides back to the one address he knows.
Not a meandering exploration (like he’ll call it with a shrug to his roommate), but an escape from up above where the real action’s happening, where a wet-behind-the-ears Midwestern do-gooder would have to prove himself worthy of a future as a New Yorker.
He gets off the Subway one stifling night and is greeted by cigarette smoke, especially cheap and foul-smelling, Marlboro Red maybe, blown into his face by a twentysomething whose trenchant air and to-the-eartips hair he first mistakes for a man’s. When he finally succeeds in hailing a taxi (beaten by that girl, who winks at him while pulling her girlfriend, he realizes, in with her), the driver barely even glances at him but says, “You again?” He’s in not just a city but The City and the only person who recognizes him is a taxi driver? This is where he’s been spending his time by choice?
That savings account sure is handy—a week later and this time the announcement is his arrival, his hesitant knock on the door. His mom opens the door, doesn’t even blink an eye, says, “And how was your vacation?”
Saying nothing would at least have been something, but he says, “Just fine, Mom,” and he knows he’s fooled no one, least of all himself, as he brushes his shoes on the mat on the doorstep so as not to scuff his mother’s favorite rug in the hallway.