West Side Rag
The Upper West Side was his before it was mine.
He took me there for the first time when I was 18, to the two-bedroom apartment on Riverside Drive. I can’t remember what that December night was like, nor my first impressions of the space when he opened the door. I think it was the twelfth floor but it’s been awhile.
I can remember that big window in his room, that gorgeous big window overlooking the Hudson. From his bed I could watch the New Jersey lights color the water, spy on a couple in Riverside Park as they watched them too. I didn’t sleep that first night. It made sense over a year later when I read one of Edmund Wilson’s old journals: On a blue night in July, from a bench in the park, he wrote how even the “hot and heavy fumes” from the Jersey glue factories were lovely at that vantage. It wasn’t a window and it wasn’t December but I knew how he felt.
For two years, the boy in the Riverside apartment was my Upper West Side. In some ways he still is. Every time I cross town at 72nd I see us climbing out of the 1 train, tired after a morning at Chelsea Piers. And when I drive down Amsterdam there we are, walking to Fred’s on 83rd to get drunk on cheap Cabernet.
When the boy left that fall, he took with him the big window. The stop at 72nd and the cheap Cabernet.
I didn’t think about the Upper West Side much after that. Stowed it away with the ticket stubs and photographs and birthday cards and all the rest. I still loved New York, of course. In the spring I took the Metro-North twice a week to my internship in Midtown. Tried to make that place mine—the stop on the E train and the old Rizzoli and the Lunch Box on 9th. But that place was not mine, never would be. New York does not let you choose.
Summer came and it was time to go back. Ever since I first touched New York it’s always been time to go back.
The difference is that this time it would be a one-bedroom. I figured I’d grab someplace downtown like everyone else. Union Square or maybe the Lower East Side. I’m still not sure why I got on Craigslist and searched only the Upper West Side. I hadn’t thought about West End and Amsterdam and Riverside in months. Why would I go back to those corners alone, where the memories stood like landmarks?
But June 1 there it was, the little one-bedroom. A walkup on 82nd and Columbus. The only white building on that stretch of street, camouflaged by trees.
The stairs moaned as I urged my suitcase to the fourth floor. A hot day. The key got stuck in the lock but the door budged open. I threw down my bag and peeled off my shirt. Felt it slouch in my hands under the sweat. Finally looked at this place.
I looked at the oversized photo of a zebra next to one of the Brooklyn Bridge. The bright green shag rug, crimson curtains ripped at the edges. Pulled them open to catch the sunlight. I turned to the kitchen. One fork and twenty-two spoons. Broken fan. A roach. No—two roaches.
A miserable little place, but my place.
I left the Upper West Side because of the stop at 72nd and the cheap Cabernet at Fred’s. The big window and the boy who lived behind it. On that first morning, I realized why I came back.
8 a.m., a silver morning. Reminders of last night’s rain glistened on the window. A liquid prism for the early light. I walked to the bathroom to start a shower but there was no water.
With dirty hair I left the fourth-floor walkup for the C train at 81st. It was my first day at work. I was told to arrive at 9 but it would be a long while before I made it. That morning and most mornings.
It would be a long while because when I turned right on Central Park West, the Natural History Museum flickered into view. Almost a mirage, its hard gray lines chiseled into the blue sky. Beckoning. I sighed and walked past the station because New York does not let you choose.
I settled onto a step near President Roosevelt. Watched sunlight wash the trees and pour over the leaves, etch shadows in the sidewalk. I watched one woman buy a bagel from a food cart, pay with exact change. I watched a man behind another cart wrap a kabob in wax paper. His customer only had a fifty-dollar bill. She said, I’ve been coming here every day for four years. He shook his head and she stormed off, a relationship broken. I watched him throw away the kabob but keep the wax paper.
Central Park in the background. Lots of people, and their dogs. Didn’t they have work—or were they late, watching like I was?
I was interrupted when a child, 6 or 7 years old, stole my fork. My one fork. I had set it on my notebook, to use later with my fruit. I didn’t notice him until he was already crouched next to me. He turned the fork over in his hands. A picky thief. He decided it was worthy, placed it in his back pocket. Locked eyes with me when he stood—big honeyed eyes—and kept walking. I opened my mouth to protest but what can you do? His mom never looked back. Snapped at him. Keep up.
If this had happened in any other neighborhood in New York I would say, this is the neighborhood where the boy stole my fork. Or this is the neighborhood where a woman lost her loyalty. But in the Upper West Side, these moments are not the story.
Here is what it is: A group of school kids scale the steps behind me. I want to be a dinosaur when I grow up. Laughter unravels in Roosevelt Park, something about the heat and this damn bird and God why is the custard always so good. And then a warm breeze—always a warm breeze—blankets the trees. Mutes the heat and the damn bird and the custard and all the rest. The leaves shiver with pleasure.
Turn a few blocks west and there’s the Hudson, lapping the crust of Riverside. The steaming pavement wants it, needs it, cries for that water. To the south, girls chat and skip and argue at GreenFlea. Nine blocks up at Good Enough to Eat, strawberry-butter pancakes sizzle on the griddle. James Taylor croons at Westsider Records near Broadway. It’s like a honey to the bee, baby. Applause wraps Lincoln Center. A thick silence fills the spaces in between.
Put your ear to the street. Listen to the symphony because you won’t find it anywhere else.
On the last night, I realized why I stayed.
It was close to midnight. A little chill in the June sky. I was wearing a white sweater.
We, a boy and I, had met at the Gin Mill for drinks an hour or so before. 81st and Amsterdam, our first time together. The beer and conversation flowed. At last call he asked if I wanted to take a walk.
We moved outside and debated where to go. Settled on Central Park. We walked slowly, cloaked in thick silence and the icy sheet of stars. He pointed ahead. See those tire swings? I did. They were tucked in a piece of park at the foot of my street.
We hopped the fence and began swinging, side-by-side. Talked about everything—God, judgment, morality, cocaine. Stifled our laughter lest a police officer catch us. An intoxicating night, warm and still. A night you sink into. An impossible night anywhere but here.
I pumped my swing higher.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this happens in your place, too. Maybe, in the place New York chose for you, you don’t count it when the boy steals your fork. Maybe your place has symphonies and tire swings and maybe some nights are warm and still and make you feel young. Maybe it’s not just here.
All I know is that my swing reached its peak and I finally looked up and out toward 82nd. That’s when I saw it. Right there, glancing above a row of buildings, beneath the black sky. The glow of a tiny window.
Photo by Michael Huitt.