Studies in Claustrophobia
by KARA VANDERBIJL
On the back of a postcard I scrawl, “New York City: smaller than expected.”
That’s it; those are the only notes I managed to take during my seventy-two hours in Manhattan. Exactly what I planned for the extensive scribbling I meant to do eludes me now, three weeks of outlining and imagining and remembering later. After beginning this essay a thousand times, I became convinced that the only thing more difficult than living in New York is writing about New York.
It’s strange that I should be overwhelmed with the subject when I did find Manhattan petite — a water-lapped gray island of which I could see every last corner from the plane. I spent my weekend there navigating tiny spaces. Restaurant tables were so close together that I stood on tiptoes and bent in awkward angles to get to my seat. In public restrooms (of which there were few), my arms touched the walls on either side of the toilet and I had to duck my head to wash my hands. I stepped out of restrooms into kitchens and backed into bookshelves that doubled as wine cellars.
On the High Line, we walked single file between rows of native shrubs, not-so-native Germans, and two couples taking engagement photos. Behind them, buildings crowded en masse to fit inside the small screen of the digital camera. I covered a distant skyscraper with the tip of my finger, feeling like that primordial ape attempting to catch the toy city whirring around my head.
Below ground, the air was close and smelled like what it sounds like when brakes squeal against iron rails: burnt. The subway cars were long but squat, as if the tunnels had been pressing against their ceilings for decades. Inside one, I slid slowly off the tiny plastic seat into the crush of people talking about work and ugh, really? in Brooklyn? We climbed steep stairs to come up for air. I thought I could smell the Atlantic but I also smelled pizza, sewer, coffee, metal and perfume. New Jersey loomed close over Manhattan’s shoulder, the less desirable bank of the river.
Sitting on a stranger’s stoop hip-to-hip to eat a slice, we went through a thick wad of napkins mopping up grease. Entering Central Park through the Women’s Gate, we caught a whiff of fermenting November leaves and ducks. After a perfunctory stroll, we exited onto 5th Avenue somewhere in the 70s. At a book stand, they were selling stiff new copies of The Great Gatsby with Cugat’s original cover, that yellow blue silhouette somehow bigger, somehow brighter than the city blurring into the dusk around me.
Before long the crowds made me feel anxious, and we caught the subway downtown, watching groups of friends get on and off and plan to meet for drinks later. In an exhausted stupor, we lifted miraculously out of our seats at the right stop by the promise of Katz’s pastrami on rye and half-sour pickles. The deli was the only thing in New York that was bigger than I thought it would be, tables going on forever, people biting into sandwiches under pictures of Johnny Depp and Bill Clinton and the Kennedys clasping Katz's hand and smiling.
Meat slid out the back of sandwiches, plopping soft onto plates in greasy folds. An Eastern European bus boy, or rather, middle-aged gentleman, came by to shove napkin-covered plates into a dirty tub. At the neighboring table, two ladies compared cosmetics and sipped Diet Cokes. “Hope you have what she had!” crowed a sign above the table where Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan sat in When Harry Met Sally. We hope you’ll all have what we’re having.
Even after a day during which I had done everything I could think of to experience the city, to feel its pulse underneath all the kitsch, it was here — on this holy kosher-style ground — that I realized I’d been hearing the New York City narrative running through the crowds the whole time, like a half-muffled scream.
It’s a survivor’s tale, except instead of chopping through jungles to flee a starving tiger, the survivor is a girl crying on the subway, her mascara running down her cheeks, and she’s on her way to her entry-level job (which, in Manhattan, is probably located in some basement far below street level). And nobody is looking at her, because she’s just another anonymous survivor who won’t quit the city because this — this story of living in less-than-humane conditions is what thrills her, this always reaching and never getting is the greatest story she thinks she can write, because after all, this is the greatest city in the world…
This, I think, is what makes it hard to live in and write about New York. The city will always be bigger than you, her sense of self will always be more important than yours, and no matter how many times you laugh at someone who moves away, breathlessly saying, “They just weren’t tough enough,” a small, stifled part of you wonders if you, too, will be swallowed by this machine that chews, and chews, and chews away at your sanity, your guts spilling out the back into the Hudson like so much pastrami. Writing a New York City story is a study in claustrophobia.
It takes a good ego-squashing to be a writer, but squash someone far enough below ground and they’re mining for salt to chew on between paychecks, not stories. There’s a name for the condition that makes a person vow To Leave or Never To Leave New York, and it’s “identity crisis”: when the setting of the story has engulfed its main character. Nor is the main character wholly to blame; everything in New York seems built to induce this crisis, from its perfectly miniature coffee shops blasting Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong down to the lox on your bagel. I worried at the small apartments that had no windows.
In the morning, I woke up early while the city slept on, West Village streets yawning sunbeams into one another, sidewalks stubbly with last night’s litter. I took my maps and my empty notebook and stopped at Patisserie Claude to buy a croissant and a cappuccino. From there I wandered to Washington Square Park, where I found the famed monument thinner than its Parisian cousin, living on a starvation diet of pigeons and piano music. At my feet, two squirrels fought over the crumbs from my pastry. The peddler pianist launched into Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
I wondered then, sitting alone on a bench in the sunshine, what I might have been if I had chosen to live here, how I might have molded my life to fit into the narrative of New York City. Would I have become best friends with Ambien or fashioned, out of a budding creative bent, an oxygen mask to filter out the high rent, the four-dollar coffees I finished in two sips? Would I have caught the tiny city whirring in dreams around my head? Would I have sacrificed the morning, my favorite time of day, for Manhattan’s endless night?
Kara VanderBijl is the managing editor of This Recording. She last wrote in these pages about Donna Tartt's latest disappointment. She is a writer living in Chicago. She tumbls here and twitters here.
Photographs by the author.
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