I moved into this room around 11 P.M. on May 3rd, 2007, thirteen hours later than I'd planned on arriving. At 5:30 A.M. on May 3rd, I'd succeeded in leaving the psychiatric emergency room at St. Luke's Hospital without my then-girlfriend, who was still resistant to treatment (another symptom of the issue). On May 1st, when an anonymous phone call from a concerned friend landed her (and consequently us) there, she'd convinced the tired doctors to let her leave with me. Not surprisingly, another phone call sent the police to my apartment on May 2nd, and the doctor that night was less tired. It was a hard few days for everyone.
Just quickly -- these are the factual circumstances, they are important circumstances related to me living in this apartment, which is what I want to write about. I'm not trying to make this into a relationship story about my ex. This is an apartment story, but I must provide the outline for it to begin.
That ex-character doesn't even exist anymore anyhow so it's like vapor, a real ghost story from the past.
I've never felt so restless and yet so stuck as I've felt in this room. In a month, I must move out of it. Beneath the plaster lies ambivalence, or remnants of yellow wallpaper.
So 5 A.M., May 3rd: I hadn't finished packing and I was in the hospital. On the other side of a glass divide, someone resembling someone I loved was pounding at said divide, making gestures that blamed me for all the world's ills. Chase called. She's my friend and a social worker too.
"What do you need?" She'd asked.
I don't like to need or ask people to make grand gestures for me. Sometimes, though, you need something so much it overpowers all other potential emotions, like self-consciousness: "Can you meet me here?"
"I was just about to put on my pajamas ..." But she came. She walked me home.
The next morning I woke up at noon-ish to a heap of voice mails and talked to my girlfriend's brother about what hospital to move her to -- a place she'd stay for the next two weeks.
I found a last-minute mover on craigslist. I was nearly broke and this was more expensive than my initial plan -- my girlfriend had the vehicle and the arms. I recruited Haviland & Chase for extra support, and they came and supported.
I'd picked this place a month earlier -- the only place I'd even looked at 'cause my world was unraveling and I was short on time.
I came on a rainy day. The bright-eyed faces of the boy and girl who live here emanated optimism, radiance, a sort of innocent but educated energy unlike anything I'd been close to in months. I'll live here, I thought, and be this kind of person. It's a clean, well-lit place of sobriety, with holiday decorations. I hadn't thought about the 'hood much. I assumed it couldn't be too different from where Chase lived by Columbia a few blocks farther west or any less convenient to groceries than Sparlem.
Oh, but it is!
Today I read this article in the New York Press about a woman who's moving out of Harlem 'cause the romance has fizzled. I was gonna quote it for auto-fun but I kept writing more and more about it, like the article let loose my hatred for this neighborhood.
I guess I don't have to convince myself to like it here anymore, so I don't.
Did I hate it here right away? I don't know. Life in general was tough, so the crazies didn't bother me at first. There wasn't a huge gap between my real life and the street prophets hawking apocalyptic scriptures and children's coloring books. I wanted a grocery store and I disliked the strung-out people outside the methadone clinic and the rascals in the lot next to it. But like I said, I didn't dwell.
"Harlem is no place for a woman without male protection."
True. Initially, I had my not-white then-girlfriend who, when manic, looked like she could crush a skull open with her eyes.
After we broke up, I didn't know how to travel besides in male drag or not at all. Life was scary then on all levels. Petrifying, even.
My roommates were kind, outgoing, familial, generous, curious, like Sims in the green. For the first few months, it seemed someone's Mom or friend-from-home was always living on the couch.
I wanted them to like me, and so I started paying attention to things I'd never paid attention to before. I obliged ambitious cleanliness standards. I was quiet, neat, sober, friendly.
Sometimes trying hard to be well-behaved meant I'd just stay in my room while they were home, nervous that any public behavior was destined for mishap. When my girlfriend got out of the hospital, I feared they'd notice all the late-night noise and I still don't know if they did.
Later, I'd find ways to make all that late-night noise on my own. I kept my coping mechanisms far after the problems themselves subsided.
My roommates and I are so different, and I didn't want them to know that. I'm a loner, I like my room and my silence. I've got my own dream/drum, we're beat-boxing to it.
Why the self-consciousness? 'Cause I was stunned when M. told me I'd have to move out of my previous much-loved apartment at 106th. Regardless of logistics I'd never expected a friend to do that to a friend, but I'd been too busy to notice that M. had become a better friend of our other roommate than of me (M. and I were friends prior to my September '06 move-in).
So I was scared of that but also of eruption in general.
-- but I've never lived in such a mean, mean neighborhood before. I'm lucky for sure, 'cause I doubt Burma or Ethiopia or Tibet is a better place to live than silly ol' Harlem, but this is my life for me to speak from and I, who must have lived in a lot of nice places I guess, I say this: Central Harlem is mean. 125th from Manhattan Avenue to Lexington is hot and in your face. Streets packed with the craziest people you've ever seen.
The grocery store & everything is packed all day, every day. No morning or 5 P.M. rush hour, every hour is rush hour. It's a corporately invaded block: Dunkin' Donuts next to a perpetually swamped Marshall's where the racks are a mess and the line's never under 30 minutes. Starbucks, a bunch of fast food restaurants, big discount stores and sportswear emporiums selling only the ugliest clothing ever made on earth, Chinese restaurants.
The only place I like around here is Lenox Lounge. I met my ex there in Winter '07, after she'd gotten better. That's where she listened to me tell her what happened to us. That's where she apologized and meant it.
I'm afraid to go there alone though, so I don't go anywhere.
On the corner at 125th and Adam Clayton, camouflage-outfitted men with posters and loudspeakers bellow into the crowds and you're singled out: "Look at the cracker crossing the street," and everyone looks, which is how you already felt anyhow.
The street fairs, hot oiled air, and always the shots and screams and drills. The party that ends in kids jumping on cars and the morning after the party when the street'll smell worse than fish off a Chinatown garbage disposal and there's trash everywhere, just so much trash. They don't clean this neighborhood like they do in other neighborhoods and the political activism that could change that is muffled by so much misdirected anger.
I switched my budget-meal to Ramen last fall 'cause the lines at CVS were shorter than McDonald's, which isn't saying much. I gave up coffee a few weeks ago to avoid all the yelling and panhandling that happens in Starbucks, where the baristas seem more battered every time. Outside Starbucks, there's five fliers to be dodged, a doctrine to duck, products and people hawked up and down like being pelted by birds.
The clothes: big, bright, flashy, gigantic, garish clothes. It's like the rainbow threw up everywhere, and then became the 90's. The woman in the walker who walks clean across the street in the middle of traffic and the Jesus lady who stops yelling to watch her. All the talk of Jesus. Sundays .
i tried to fall in it again my friends took bets
and disappeared in mine
they're sighing violins
i think i'll wait another year
-Amanda Palmer, "Another Year."
I tell Carly this kind of uninvited touch happens to me all the time and she says she's never experienced it. I know Carly is better-looking than me, and no more or less intimidating physically, but there's one thing she's got on her side that I don't -- really short hair and an androgynous style.
So in September I cut off all my hair and ditched girly clothes in hopes I'd go under the radar as a lanky boy or at least a lesbian. And I did. For many months, the yelling almost cut in half. In the winter, I covered my white limbs in sleeves and hats, which made for a relatively pleasant winter.
I'm afraid of the moment when I know something bad's about to happen, not the something bad itself. Not the punch but the fist in the air.
In the summer there's always big loud performances or parades featuring lots of yelling about saving Harlem. In the summer there's more people outside in addition to the standard misfits peeing on the street or the drunk porch-squatters starting conversations with you sans invitation. I'm alone, you want to say. Leave me alone, let me be alone.
The first guy to yell; "Welcome to Planet Harlem, white girl." None of the playful, harmless heckling I'd loathed in Sparlem that now seem like conversations with my oldest, dearest friends. The heckling here is like bullets.
Trust me, I've felt cold contempt all over the place -- the icy glare on the Upper East, the ivy-college snobbery around Columbia, the real-punk disdain lingering in the Lower East, the glowering misplaced tenants of Williamsburg, the Mexicans suspicious of us in Sparlem --
-- it's irrational to hate me or yell at me about anything when I've (me, me, me specifically) done nothing to you.
I know all about the advantages I've had in life but you're not going to even those things out or change anything by yelling at me. It's just gonna be more anger in the air, and I'm hot already.
Not all the people in Harlem are rude, obvs, most aren't. But there are more rude people per square foot here than anywhere else I've been in my life. That probably says something about my life, but actually I won't take that this time. For once: I think it says something about the neighborhood.
Everyone here is so fucking unhappy.
By October, I realized I could go days at a time without leaving my apartment. When my roommates came home, I'd hide in my room and feel crazy. I started feeling such restraint physically w/r/t my interactions @home that I had to let every potential emotion within me unfurl entirely to compensate.
In November, a generous friend enabled me to go to IKEA with Cait and Haviland to get some new furniture and other things to make this place easier to live in.
It was a new lease, I made a new room. New sheets, new life, a new emo cave. Everything changed. Life started getting better.
2008 started. I spent big chunks of time away. This was just a place I sometimes stopped by to check the mail.
But when I was in town, I spent momentous hours in this room, listening to the sirens and the screaming. Sometimes I just want to scream and break my walls open.
Some things got worse, like now I really never go into the living room. I don't know, the other rooms never felt like my space, it was their space that was the way they wanted it and if I went in there I just ruined everything. So I never watch teevee. I eat in there sometimes, but it's awkward (for me) if anyone's around. I wasn't surprised when last week the boy told me it wasn't working out and I'd have to move out in six weeks. I just nodded and said "okay."
When M. told me I had to move out of 106th, I started sobbing. Wailing, I mean it, just wailing, and then M. started crying too, it was a scene of feelings but this time was a scene of the opposite of feelings.
But the roof! The roof, I'll miss you most of all. When I was with you -- and by that I mean on top of you -- I could see distance hovering out there, tiny boxes like flags being waved at me from the future. There's so many lights still on up there, rooms filled with restless people wanting light to look at each other.
From there I have something beneath me and also sky. Vast, violent, vacant violet hours. Because the roof is just way better than those streets I just described, so who in their right mind would ever jump off.
The last time I went up there was with Alex a few weeks ago. She always hops around a lot so she was hopping around alot. It was nice; the siren music and the night-time, and the girl, hopping from here to there.
"The hard luck God, you never had a chance you know,
Incurable romantics never do.
He held a flame I wasn't born to carry. I'll leave the dying young stuff up to you,
You get back on the latest flight to paradise, I found out, from a note taped to the door
I think I saw your airplane in the sky tonight,
Through my window, lying on the kitchen floor. "