Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Far From the Emerald Coast, Age 25

For y'all that doubt my love of the South, for those of you that question my life up North, a re-post about living and being in both places.

I don’t like not being able to buy strawberries. Blackberries are, of course, out of the question. Avocadoes, peaches and blueberries—never. I suppose that I can no longer afford to eat anything with seeds: the strangeness of it all, in New York City. The roofs somehow grow trees. Husbands and wives sit up there, in the sky, on their chaise longues and patio chairs, reading the daily papers and yelling on their phones. Lower 5th Avenue is the best place to gaze upon these rooftop dramas. The old brown-bricked buildings reach up to the sky like aging men trying to capture the importance they once possessed. Distinguished columns, arches and gargoyles garnish the 9th and 15th floors. I imagine that the owners, like the gargoyles possess sloped foreheads and angular ears. They must be the same ones that buy iced pomegranate kernels at the corner deli.

I am twenty-five years old, you see, and I’m trying to make it my New York City but nothing is all good or bad or nearly as lovely and depressed as Joan Didion’s essays told me it was going to be. There is gorgeousness, sure—I see the silver spires of the Chrysler Building, the golden light cast by West Village brownstones, the water towers fading into Houston Street’s twilight sky. And, too, there are the sultry summer nights alone, children hoisted on shoulders begging for change—tiny Maharajas of the 6 Train morning exodus, boyfriends that leave you in the morning with nothing but lukewarm coffee and Top 40 radio songs. I submit to the city and to her humors—an older sister whose temperaments I can predict, yet whose personality I never quite understand—and I feel lost. Who am I and what is my place in the fabled city?

I know who I am back home, down South—close to the emerald waters of the Gulf, near Alabama’s cotton fields, amid the top-heavy pines of that border town that straddles Alabama and Florida. I am a daughter, sister, friend to most, offending presence to a few. But, most importantly, I am someone—my identity constructed for me from birth. They have always called me the sensitive one, the writer, the little blonde girl with the Mona Lisa smile, some thought always tickling my imagination. Life below the Mason-Dixon Line is warm, chaotic, indulgent and I have left. I want more. Rather, I want it all.

No friends, no job, no connections to the tight, concentric circle of the New York media world (not to mention my ignorance as to the cost of a pair of “7” Blue Jeans): this is how I have begun in the city. At least I have attained some of the trappings of the dream—a one year lease on a downtown studio apartment from where, if I look really closely, I can glimpse West Broadway’s majestic arched windows and pretty cornices. It is even better at night. With my lamps turned off and windows wide open, I watch and listen to the elegant shadows, the music and the idling town cars just a few hundred feet away. I am Nick Carraway mesmerized by the twinkling lights of Jay Gatsby’s grand party on the adjoining lawn. I want to listen to the melodies and the voices all night so I rig up the piece of screen Mamma sent from home (she’s scared I’ll die from a rabid mouse bite) and leave the windows wide and lie down, hoping for a dream-filled night. Eventually, sleep comes with distant ringing telephones and a Dire Strait tune…

And here I am again in this mean old town
And you’re so far away from me.
And where are you when the sun go down
You’re so far away from me, so far I just can’t see.

Morning. Another day. Another chance. I feel good—I still feel lucky. No one has yet turned down my green resume filled with nothing more than internships, scholarships and trips abroad. I can be anyone today. At the coffee shop across the street, a man makes me a $2 cafĂ© au lait and informs me that his price is well under the going rate. I say that’s the price of a dozen oysters back home. He shrugs.

“Make the most of this place and then get the hell out, go back down to that place where you’re from. Trust me, love.”

Somehow, I’m not offended by his brusque talk because I know he’s right. I sweeten my coffee and move along—I’m holding up the line. Downtown is still asleep at 7:30 in the morning so I decide to take a walk—Bedford Street, Grove and all the rest of the nice ones—and don’t think about home, success or becoming a woman in the hard, hard city. Up and out, above and around me, the ladders and fire-escapes on the buildings’ facades cross and run together like honeysuckle vines on a garden trellis. There’s a brisk wind off the Hudson River and the smell of warm butter and eggs from the corner bakery. I’m scared and content all at once. The muddle of emotion must be what a woman intuits when she meets the man she will marry, what an expectant mother feels before the birth of her first child, what an aged lady senses when her time has come: hopefully, you’ve done everything right thus far. Consciously, you decide to let go, you decide to let life take you where you need to be.

I’m growing up, I think. Finally.

I throw away my now cold coffee into an overflowing wastebasket. The oversized cup lies atop a mound of yesterday’s trash: Michelob Light bottles, a crumpled pack of unfiltered Camel cigarettes, an old copy of the Post with a picture of Michael Jackson smiling—oddly serene, a Spanish-language advertisement to lose weight, “Pierda Hasta 15 Kilos en Dos Semanas!” At the very top, splashed with a stain of mocha and milk is a flier appealing to those lost or starting over or out of work. I stare at it and then I back away. My pace quickens. Across Bleeker, down Charles, over Hudson Street and then finally to the West Side Highway—all the way I hear the sound of last night’s black high heels “clippety clop, clippety clop” on the asphalt, the cobblestones and finally the cement. I’m running for many reasons and for no reason at all. The river is all I can think about. Silver half moons cap the Hudson, framing the sky and that seemingly far away world, the New Jersey shoreline. I wander if there is as much life, pressure and beauty over there. Surely not.

The steel railing that runs up and down the river is freezing to the touch, even in the warm, sticky breeze of a summer morning. I wrap my fingers tightly around it and watch my knuckles change colors. They are mottled white, pink and purple with anticipation and excitement. Why did I come here? What am I doing? Where will I go? I remember the vow that I made to my family when we went to buy sheets and plates and household cleaning supplies for the new apartment. “I promise to leave when the Bounty Drier Sheets run out. I’ll give up this dream of a big city life and a writing career, move back home and do something sensible.” I rationalized that without the drier sheets there’d be nothing left to soften the hard edges of my clothing, the seams of the city.

What I wanted, though, what I really wanted was to write books and create other worlds on the page. And then, with that, I would buy an apartment in the sky with enough room for me, my husband, his ego, our love, my ambitions. The thought of this makes me smile. I let go of the railing and watch a tug boat, slow and steady, course through the river. 8:30 a.m.—time to go back home, collect my resume and hit the Midtown streets with my thoughts and dreams in hand.

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