Before I went to Toronto, I spent a night in New York City at my friend Gabriela’s apartment which would also be my accommodation after the trip to Canada. Walking from the subway station to the apartment in DUMBO – a ‘hip’ part of Brooklyn under the Brooklyn and Manhattan bridges (the acronym is: Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) – I got my first whiff of the city I’d dreamt about visiting for a long time.
And the smell was just as I imagined.
Out of the city’s pores I could smell: sugar, a billion chewed sticks of gum, rotting fruit, damp concrete, sea-spray, sludgy river, and boiled bread. It wasn’t repulsive at all, like the pheromones of someone you’re attracted to. I thought of the expression: “I wouldn’t kick them out of bed if they farted”, and how in my honeymoon with New York City, I’d taken to bed a real winner.
On top of Gabriela’s apartment you can see the Manhattan skyline – the Chrysler and the Empire State Buildings proudly defining the jagged outline of the city I realised I’d grown up with all my life. It took its place in the back of my mind, where déjà vu and lost family members reside. From Sesame Street, to most action films (the type where aliens or ferocious beasts go on killing sprees – my favourites); Seinfeld, and Sex and the City – the city had been framed by every lens and sold to my subconscious as what every city should look like; or City™.
Every time I took my mini-adventures into the concrete jungle of the Big Apple (any more clichés in that clause and it would be Sleepless in Seattle), I started to fetishise the city: yes, that’s it, baby, your brown brick apartments look sexy with water tanks on top and fire-escapes on the outside; woah, how hot are these street vendor carts? I’d let them twist my pretzel any day. I loved the degradation of the streets; they looked like they’d suffered the same erosion of time as an ancient desert-scape, with scores of different footpath surfaces in one street. The subway system, a tangled mess, straightened out to split ends: the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) only ever fixing it, never improving the crumbling ceilings, or dusty platforms. And “fuck you” if you don’t triple-check what train you’ve boarded – have fun in Queens, you schmuck. For some reason this attitude only drew me in more to the heaving, sweaty bosom of skyscrapers and bin bags left out on the street, dripping with middle-class waste for rummaging bums and artists. As far as I could see, New York was a bitch goddess, promising anything you wanted in return for her world-weary facade. Who cared if she was a slut? Every one’s had a big bite out of the saucy hot dog. And I wanted one too.
I had many mini-adventures: even with the cold of Autumn descending, I found the chutzpah to venture out to different areas of the city: the university influenced Lower East Side; the queer and gallery-filled Chelsea; the ‘little Russia’ of Brighton Beach and seaside tack of Coney Island; the third-world inspired Fulton Mall in Brooklyn; the actually-looks-like-China Chinatown district; and, of course, the gold heart of the city, Central Park. It’s not often you come across a city so loved by the people who live there, a city where all the famous places are revered and used by everyone: a place where those action films, and those romantic comedies, and short films, and crime thrillers are filmed daily. Through the lens of my gushing, rose-tinted glasses, every other tourist was having the same experience as me, though of course, everyone loved it for their own special reasons. For some, it was seeing Yankee Stadium, or going to a Knicks game; for others, it was taking a horse and cart through Central Park, or admiring the great waste of electricity in Times Square. I suppose I was experiencing what most people refer to when they say America is the “Land of Opportunity”. I definitely felt that there was some part of my fate in New York. Luckily, my New York bubble hadn’t burst by the time I looked into the logistics of staying there.
The best way to stay in New York is to study there, so I ventured to NYU (New York University), asked around, and was sent to the post-grad creative writing faculty – an old townhouse on leafy 11th – and got an unsolicited half-hour with an academic. He told me that if my application was successful, I would have two years of studying, with the opportunity to work off my tuition fees by teaching workshops and undergrads. Then, usually you get a year to prove to the American government you are a practicing artist and when you attain the Artist Visa, the world (ie the States) is your oyster. Huzzah!
However, a funny thing happened after this meeting.
My New York bubble hadn’t burst – but I had. Not literally, of course – that would’ve been messy. Though, now that I knew that there was a definite way of moving to New York City, my mind subtly hoisted its bindle and made ready for retreat. What was I doing daydreaming of London again: thinking of the culture I innately understood, and the history I could plumb? And then, as soon as my mind recalled the financial problem I’d have in England, I moved on from there to Berlin – but there, I didn’t want to learn German, and the staidness of Europe depressed me. So what about staying in Adelaide? Why did I even want this challenge?
And that was the point. It was a challenge. Repeated behaviour in my past showed that I retreated or wanted desperately to retreat whenever things became a challenge. For some reason I assume life will unfold naturally and with as little effort as possible, and I keep learning the opposite is true. I voiced this reaction to Gabriela and she was brutally honest with me. I had to stop cock-blocking my own dreams. I had wanted to live in New York the moment I stepped out of the Brooklyn Bridge (High Street) subway station and dodged a dead rat. It was obvious that my sudden change of heart had nothing to do with a restricting reality. I could do whatever I wanted. And I wanted this, didn’t I?
I find that question the hardest to answer. Honestly. What do I want? Anytime I’m pressed, I picture myself not doing very much, usually on a desert island somewhere, just roaming around, spouting self-conceived truisms, escaping into fantasy-land. Of course, I’d be angry with myself if that’s what I found myself doing. But the alternatives are many and too varied for me to feel like committing to one of them. That’s why I’ve always relied on writing: this is where I feel most comfortable – alone, and yet with an audience in mind – typing away those same self-conceived truisms, hoping that etched in ink, they reveal something truer, and a better perspective on my condition.
This brings me back to fetishising the city. I saw it as the ‘perfect’ place, it looked and sounded like the daydream, it seemed to offer me a vibrant creative community to immerse myself in; it had awesome pizza. And then it turned into something I didn’t deserve: something that also happens to potential partners through my low self-esteem lens. Through this lens I frame all objects of my lust as unconquerable, thereby keeping them in that fantasy-land, and leaving me feeling insatiable. As recently as the last few years I’ve started making the effort to control this low self-esteem, working hard on projects I’m passionate about, though those projects are easier to sell to the world because they are not just me – they aren’t personal projects. Do I still feel unacceptable by the world? Is it safer, and therefore not a challenge, to remain a pimp? God, even Sarah Jessica Parker got under my skin – stupid Carrie-like questions.
Thinking about this, I moved through New York willing its failings to irritate me, trying to knock it off its pedestal. But the city retained its allure, which I suppose is a good thing, if I’m destined to return to it.