With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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I arrived in Manhattan fresh out of school and immediately found myself a second-floor sublet in a lovely old brownstone (since demolished) on West Fifty-fourth Street. From the rooftop patio, I would listen to summer jazz concerts at the Museum of Modern Art a few doors down; I was perfectly blasé about my good fortune.
I met my first husband at the advertising agency where I worked. Like many other young people in the early sixties, we claimed to hate the city and talked incessantly about getting back to the land. But except for a year in Istanbul and a short stint on a farm, we remained in New York for the first fifteen years of our marriage.
Eventually we secured a rent-controlled apartment in a five-story walk-up on East Eighty-seventh Street. Our neighbors included a couple of old friends and their spouses and children, and together we formed a community. Although we maintained our separate living spaces, we shared shopping, renovating apartments, and raising children. I never had to hire a baby sitter, and nearly every week someone baked bread and made enough for everyone.
Our suburban friends and family thought we were nuts, but it was a wonderful environment. A rainy Saturday meant a cross-town bus to the Museum of Natural History, which was still free then. And it was perfectly safe for the kids to play out on the sidewalk — half a dozen grandmothers leaned out their front windows and kept an eye on things.
The year after we mothers went back to work was the year my family had its first break-in; our bicycles were stolen from the second-floor hall where we’d always stored them. Two years later the school-budget cutbacks resulted in our learning-disabled daughter being placed in a class with thirty-five other second-graders. Feeling increasingly crowded in our small apartment as the girls reached adolescence, we also worried about the drugs that were invading city schools at all levels.
In 1979, we left Manhattan for a semirural area of New Jersey. Although this move bought our daughters a couple of extra years of childhood, it rocked everything else in our lives. The kids were shocked by their uniformly white, generally conservative classmates. Free of the support system in New York, my marriage cracked and disintegrated along fault lines that had always been there. I ended up commuting to my job in the city for six years — a daily five-hour nightmare if all transportation systems were in working order (which was seldom).
I still love New York, but I guess I’ve grown to love my garden and the peaceful country lifestyle more. Recently I was having lunch with a couple of colleagues and talk turned, as it often does, to “the city”: how dangerous it’s become; how it isn’t the way it used to be. One man disagreed. “It’s not the city,” he said. “The city is always changing; that’s its nature. What’s really different is us — we’ve changed.”
The others weren’t buying it, but I know he was right.
Califon, New Jersey
When I was growing up, my world was as far as I could walk without crossing any major streets. Within these boundaries were most of my friends, my school, the penny-candy store, and the drugstore where I bought comic books.
My family lived in a first-floor apartment over the furnace, so we were never cold. Sometimes my mother would send me to pay the rent. I’d have to walk outside to get to the other end of the building. In the winter, when it was cold and windy, I’d be afraid the money would blow out of my hand. The landlord and his wife were elderly and their apartment smelled funny.
Big poplar trees grew in the front lawn, and there was a sycamore with peeling bark across the street. The back yard was a paved driveway. We had to halt our games of “Mother May I?” and “Red Light-Green Light” when the men pulled their cars in after work.
The sidewalk served as our bike path and roller rink. Some of the cracks were uneven so we had to be careful. A man who had been on the TV show This Is Your Life lived down the street. He was very friendly and said hello whenever I passed by.
One summer a friend’s father would take her, me, and her older sister to the public beach in the early evening. He’d buy us popcorn and candy. By the time twilight fell, we’d be covered with sand.
It was the midfifties. Recently graduated from the wisteria-scented haven of a women’s college in the nearby mountains, two friends and I went to live in downtown Richmond, Virginia.
Just a few blocks from our apartment, we discovered glamorous department stores where uniformed elevator operators called out the merchandise on each floor, and perfumed fountains, dried flowers, glass counter tops, rustling fabrics, and the subdued tinkling of crystal and silver surrounded us. There was take-out Chinese a few blocks in the other direction, a restaurant serving Chianti wine with home-cooked Italian dinners around the corner, and flower vendors everywhere.
Nobody could tell us we did not absolutely own the city. Walking to our jobs in public relations, radio, and corporate finance, we would sing “Side by Side” in three-part harmony as if the sidewalk were ours alone.
Off our back porch and down a flight of stairs was a small courtyard abutting a narrow alley, which several generations earlier had provided back-door access for carriages. We planted flowers along the alley and hung Japanese lanterns in the courtyard on summer evenings.
It was about midnight on one of those evenings when we heard the sounds through the open door of the back porch: first, heavy, hurrying footsteps and a harsh scraping and grunting, like something being dragged into our flower-bordered alley; then the awful, dull thud of punches — like baseballs flung into a pillow — and guttural, agonized moans.
“No! Stop!” we screamed into the darkness; then, in terror, we closed and locked the door. I grabbed the phone and called the police.
“Please,” I said. “They’re beating someone in our alley.” My heart was racing as I gave the address, forcing the words past the huge lump in my throat.
“Could I have your name?” the voice at the other end said.
My name? I gently put the phone back in its cradle. We hastily lowered the shades on the back windows and left the light on in the front room all night.
In the morning the same people crowded the sidewalks, the same glittering displays appeared in the shop windows, the same brass doors opened into polished marble hallways. But the city and I had changed.
Fran Moreland Johns
San Francisco, California
I recently moved from my quiet, rural home in the Catskills — where deer sauntered across my meadow each morning and mist swirled around the pine trees on hot summer evenings — to the city: Toronto. I feel as though I have stepped into the unknown.
I walk to the corner, and within ten minutes I encounter at least three hookers and as many pimps, one of them yelling, “You gave him a blow job for free?” Next, I stand outside a produce store watching a woman careening in and out of traffic. She is wearing only a long T-shirt, which she periodically pulls up to her waist, exposing her naked, wasted body. She preens and waves to passing motorists.
The next day I walk my dogs down by the lake shore. At least there is some open space here. I pick up their poop (I swore I’d never do this) and it feels disgustingly warm inside the plastic bag I have made into a glove for the occasion. There is also goose shit everywhere and my terrier rolls in it with great abandon. I flinch as my dogs drink from the lake, then I see a sign fastened to the back of the lifeguard’s chair warning children not to pick up needles, and to tell their parents or the lifeguard if they find any. When I was a child there was no such thing, I tell myself. But the truth is, the dark side was just hidden then, covered over with pretense.
Later, I order a pizza. The man who delivers it says he is afraid of my dogs. Two weeks ago, some people actually sicked their dog on him while mocking him for being East Indian; he needed stitches as a result. I am in awe of his power to persist: here he is, still delivering pizzas. I give him a friendly smile and wish him better experiences with dogs in the future.
My garage looks like a little cottage with white stucco walls and black trim, but when I roll up the garage door to leave, right before my eyes is a crack house. Lost souls float in and out of the nearby alley looking for sex and drugs at every hour of the day. This is the dark side; why do I feel safer now being so close to it, seeing it firsthand? Is it because the hidden dark side scares me much more?
In the Catskills, I had huge forests to wander in. Now, that little dewdrop on the small bush in the back yard seems so precious; I would not have seen it in the woods. Gratitude is heightened here, and I feel wide-eyed and innocent once again, but wiser. I am seeing the city through newborn eyes connected directly to my heart, and I think that the more I accept all the different parts of life, the dark and the light, the less I need to defend against them.
In the city now, my eyes are aimed either ahead or down. On subways I stare vaguely at the air or at the row of advertisements above the dirty windows. I stand with my hand in a strap and sway with everyone else, barely noticing the motion.
I used to move through the city with ease, navigating among the crowds, not minding the sleaze of Forty-second Street, the porno-movie houses, the stores hawking imported radios or embroidered tablecloths. I was confident and unseeing for I had somewhere to go — shopping on Thirty-fourth Street, a dance class, a concert, a demonstration.
My best friend and I sometimes used to make believe on the subway that we were deaf and dumb. We would pretend to sign to each other until we reached the Greenwich Village station, where we’d shout, “Time to get off!” shocking the women who had whispered about us in pity. Then we’d climb the stairs and head for notoriously bohemian West Fourth Street, where I’d always be vaguely disappointed because the people looked so, well . . . ordinary.
I grew up in a small town in a corner of the Mojave Desert. My family rented a two-bedroom house on the outskirts of town and got a break on the rent by taking care of the landlord’s animals on the property: two horses, a Shetland pony, and a barn full of chickens and peacocks. There was a cement-lined reservoir that my mother would drain every summer, sweeping out the muck with a push broom, then refill for use as a swimming pool and tadpole farm. In the cold winter months, the reservoir became an ice-skating rink. Our landlord also ran an orphanage for abandoned appliances; it became my playground. I had total freedom to explore and have adventures, yet I was ashamed of my surroundings and preoccupied with daydreams of a glamorous city life.
I grew up and moved to the city, where souls atrophy from lack of space; where lives are confined by suffocating boundaries; where people clip their dogs’ vocal cords to keep the neighbors from calling the police if the animals bark too loud; where people are prisoners within their homes, looking out of barred windows at their reflections across the street. In the city, exploration is restricted by crowds of other frustrated adventurers, while imagination walks the labyrinth of city streets with a bag over its head.
I regret now that I spent my youth ashamed of my small-town existence. Although I know I can never go back, I am renting a two-bedroom house in a quiet canyon on the outskirts of the city, sharing space with my landlord’s two horses and a chicken coop, looking for a second chance.
Canoga Park, California
I left my sketch class late, around 10:00 P.M., and headed toward the subway for the ride back to my car. At the subway entrance, I stepped around the stranger holding out his cup. Walking through the turnstile, I bypassed another person seeking my spare change.
On the platform, there were only a few people around, so I sat down, expecting a long wait. A man sat down next to me. He took out two mallets, a small toy xylophone — the kind with different-colored bars — and a plastic cup. Then he began to play. His hands moved so fast the mallets blurred, and sweet, clean music floated out over the pungent smell of urine and exhaust.
Another man descended the stairs onto the platform. He was the kind of man I had been taught to fear, his face hidden behind long, dark braids. I tried to act cool and bored as he walked right up to me and reached into his loose, stained pants. Digging around, he pulled out some change, dropped it in the musician’s cup, and kept on walking. The musician nodded his head in thanks. Guilt, shame, and relief washed over me.
My train pulled in and, as I got up, I reached for some money, fumbled putting it in the cup, and leaned over to say thanks just as the train’s warning bell split the air. I turned around in time to see the train doors closing, and I panicked. But then, the same man I’d feared held the doors open for me. Again I felt ashamed, but also moved, and I thanked him as well, feeling a connection that perhaps transcended our different worlds.
When I got off the train and found my car, I noticed the interior light was on and the door was slightly ajar. My car had been broken into — proving something about the law of opposites, but I’m not sure what.
I grew up only three blocks from an industrial district where my dad, and everyone’s dad, worked. Sometimes at night, I would hear the freight cars jockeying around the yards, waiting to be loaded, and think how they connected us to the world. Everything anyone could want was manufactured right on Sixty-fifth Street by Bethlehem Steel, Johnson & Johnson, S.O.S., Nabisco, Ace Hardware, Continental Can. Our days were structured by the shrill noon and quitting-time whistles. Though it wasn’t said out loud, everyone in my family expected me to someday join the ranks of the factory workers.
When I began writing poetry in high school, my family thought it was “kid’s play,” although I was already seventeen. My friend Tammy, who had progressive parents and an optimistic confidence I admired, liked my poems and constantly begged me to read them. One night I brought them along when I went to sleep over at her house. Once her parents had gone out for the evening, to my surprise, we did, too. We took a bus, then the el, and ended up in downtown Chicago. I had never gone downtown at night before — I wasn’t allowed to — but Tammy knew her way around.
She led me to a basement coffeehouse where the walls were all painted black and the lights were so dim we could hardly find our way to a table. A man dressed in black sat on a stool and read his poems to the crowd while a similarly dressed figure with dark glasses beat bongos in the background. When the poet finished, everyone snapped their fingers instead of applauding. Soon an open-mike began, and Tammy urged me to go up and share my poems, but I feared rejection and couldn’t bring myself to try.
On the way home, Tammy picked up a couple of sailors, and they rode part of the way with us on the el. I couldn’t have cared less about them. I was still thinking about the poetry reading, amazed that people read their poems in front of an audience, and that the audience appreciated their work. For the first time in my life, poetry seemed alive and real to me. After that, I knew I would never work in the factories.
Nada J. Misunas
Santa Cruz, California
In 1977 I bought my first home in Tampa, a seven-hundred-square-foot block house painted white with pink trim. It sat on a pie-shaped lot landscaped with eight-foot-tall pink and purple azaleas. Four grand oaks festooned with Spanish moss lined the front of the yard. I lived there alone for years, unafraid.
The neighborhood was in the heart of the city, a few blocks from I-275, and bounded on the east and south by the Hillsborough River, its banks thick with vegetation. Oaks canopied the streets, providing shade from the hot Florida sun. When I bought my house, the neighborhood was a bit run-down — the old cracker-box houses were in need of some patching and painting — but it had a kind of natural wildness to it, as well as some of the charm of the old South. Because housing was affordable and the neighborhood was near the University of South Florida, many of my neighbors were, like myself, hippie college students. We shared a feeling of community.
When the city council approved a zoning change from single- to multi-family residential, the neighborhood began to decline. The old houses were torn down and replaced with cheap, generic duplexes. My friends and neighbors moved away. My house was burglarized three times. I became afraid and put bars in the windows. Finally, I gave up and moved.
My old neighborhood is now a slum. Trash lines the streets. Old couches, tires, and bags of garbage are dumped in vacant lots. It has become notorious for crack houses. Most of the things I loved about this city are gone. I lie in my bed at night, listening to the gunfire, the sirens, the car alarms, the helicopters circling overhead, and dream of moving to the country.
Teresa K. White
I directed a downtown historic district in Denver for two years. I saw the neighborhood, which started out as a collection of opium dens, whorehouses, and warehouses, transformed into galleries, restaurants, and loft condominiums.
I remember leading a tour of the district for a busload of second-graders from across the river. They got off the bus and a boy immediately asked, “Where are the bums?” They were eager to see the infamous neighborhood their parents had always avoided — an authentically dangerous place that had vanished from sight but that thrived within collective memory and imagination.
The children loved seeing one-hundred-year-old brick pavers and trolley tracks in the streets, faded advertisements for plows and carriages painted on the sides of buildings, patches of dirt along Cherry Creek where the Arapaho had camped. They wanted to know if the canaries in the lobby of the Oxford Hotel were also a hundred years old.
They were most excited, though, to glimpse what appeared to be an authentic hobo campfire smoldering under an old trolley viaduct — until they learned that the fire had been left behind by a TV crew filming a Perry Mason episode.
Now Denver is making itself into a giant playground with a downtown amusement park, a baseball stadium, a basketball arena, a football stadium, and a new airport. The city is marketing itself out of existence, making progressively flatter representations of its once authentic culture to sell to tourists. I feel like a visitor in my hometown.
What a New York day. First it stops raining, then the sun comes out, and suddenly it’s spring. Everyone changes plans, buys lunch at the deli, and takes it out in front of the building to sit in the sun and watch the traffic and each other: secretaries, messengers, lawyers, brokers, analysts, maintenance workers. I leave my office to go to the best kind of lunch: someone else is paying.
The plaza in front of my building is playing host to a country-and-western band. The singer moans, “He may be young, but I love him just as much.” A couple in country dress is two-stepping to the music. This being New York, it’s hard to tell whether they are part of the paid entertainment or people who just happened along.
In Grand Central Station it is France: a guitarist is doing really well with “La Vie en Rose.” I have no change, so I give him a thumbs up as I go by. On my way through Grand Central to the back entrance of the Hyatt, I pass a young accordion player with a ponytail going at a tango that makes me want to grab the first woman who walks by and give her a dip. Inside the hotel restaurant, the cocktail pianist is turning Cole Porter into mock Debussy — not really worth listening to, but a definite statement.
My lunch date is late, and, as I wait, I think about other street musicians around the city: the Peruvian band with its reed flutes and ancient rhythms in the Fifth Avenue subway station beneath the Museum of Modern Art; the way-out albino jazz pianist playing his battery-pack keyboard in front of the World Trade Center; the classical violinist who plays in the Fifty-third Street station, entertaining the homeward bound with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons; the blind accordion player on the same platform, whose Viennese waltzes and old show tunes are like the soundtrack from a Brechtian film noir; the beggar with the tin pipe who sits at the top of the escalator playing the Andy Griffith Show theme over and over and over; the Gypsy brothers with their violins slightly out of tune who saw their way through Eine Kleine Nachtmusik in teeth-grinding double time. The music rises through the air, mixing with the street talk, the taxi horns, the jackhammer-subway screech.
Robbinsville, New Jersey
As a child in Manhattan, I played a game that would probably get you killed if you tried it now. Here’s how it worked:
First, it had to be spring, when children were in the streets, a sweet ozone smell rose up from the park, and people’s windows were often open. And you needed a rubber ball, a dusty pink one that smelled like a brand-new eraser.
Next, you cased the street for open windows, reading the fronts of the buildings, imagining the inside layout in your head. Settling on a likely prospect, you took aim and threw the ball as hard as possible at the target.
Sometimes a head appeared and began to yell: strike one. Or you heard the sound of breaking crockery and took off down the street: strike two. Or the building superintendent came out and threatened to call the police: strike three.
At last you scored a hit. The ball flew through the open window into a strange apartment, and there was no response. Now, you ran into the lobby and told the doorman that your ball had somehow landed in 4B. Then into the elevator and off at the fourth floor, you walked quickly down the carpeted hall, found the door, and rang the doorbell. Locks unfastened, the door opened, and, presto, a total stranger led you into a dark warren of rooms, filled with the smells of a meal cooking.
This was what you wanted, a chance to look around. Your ball could be anywhere in the rich clutter of stuff: photographs in silver frames, Oriental screens, dried flowers, china bric-a-brac, jigsaw puzzles, porcelain candy dishes full of pink and blue mints, magazines spilling over on tables, bundles of laundry, underwear hanging in bathrooms — all the sweet debris of a life. You were not really an intruder. You were just looking for your ball. Then suddenly there it was, and the adventure was over.
East Haddam, Connecticut
A month after I turned twenty-one, I moved to an apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan that eighty years ago would have been called a tenement.
I was subletting from an NYU classmate who was gone for the summer. It was a top-floor apartment, which I enjoyed because I could get to the roof easily from my fire escape. It was cooler up there and I could see the stars, view the Manhattan skyline, and look into the windows of the apartments across the alley to see who was fighting, who was painting their kitchen, who was tending their plants.
One day I forgot my keys and had to break into my apartment. I went to the roof, descended the fire escape, and walked out on a very narrow ledge to reach the window beside my bed. It was a dangerous maneuver, eight stories up, but I managed to push in a window fan and climb through the opening. I was proud of my daring accomplishment.
A week later I was awakened by a man kneeling beside me and holding a large switchblade to my ribs; he’d broken in the same way I had. I screamed. I gripped the hand that held the knife with all my might and, keeping my head, asked repeatedly, “Are you my friend?”
He answered in a Spanish accent, “I just want your pussy,” and proceeded to rape me. At some point he put down the knife and I had a chance to grab it; I chose to play dead.
Before he left he said, “This is all your fault, you know,” and, “You’ll never forget this as long as you live.”
The next morning I had bars installed on my windows, swearing that I wouldn’t let this get to me. A week later I came home and found my apartment ransacked. Someone had jimmied the brand-new bars, smashed in the window, and taken everything of value except my guitar and my journals.
I reported the break-in to the cops and mentioned an “attempted” rape, hoping to avoid such humiliating questions as “What were you wearing?” and “Are you sure you’d never seen this man before?” But they asked them anyway, and I spent four and a half hours looking at photos of Hispanic convicted rapists. When they asked if I wanted to look at pictures of black and white convicted rapists, I declined and left.
I had trouble sleeping after that. Three days later I heard breaking glass at 2 A.M. and called the cops. They caught a man robbing the apartment one floor below mine. They handcuffed him and brought him by so I could get a look at him: “Is this the guy who broke into your apartment?” Unfortunately, there was little resemblance beyond general height and hair color. I shook my head, and the cops dragged him off.
That night I decided it was just a matter of time before the rapist returned, so I wrote out a will, not because I had much left in the way of property, but because I wanted to specify what kind of funeral I’d like. After sealing the will in an envelope, I went to the kitchen, got a butcher knife, and placed it carefully under my pillow, thinking, If he comes back, I’ll use it.
The next morning I woke up, called my brother, and told him something had happened; I wasn’t myself anymore. I begged him to come and take me away from the city.
Joanne “Rocky” Delaplaine
I’ve only been to New York once, in 1978. It was Christmas, and we were visiting my stepmother’s family on the East Coast. I was fourteen years old and trying to live with divorce, remarriage, and adolescence. My dad and stepmom decided we should see the city while we were there; it was only a train ride away, after all.
Each of us got to choose one thing we wanted to see or do that day. My dad wanted to eat at a delicatessen on the Lower East Side, so we started there.
We went into the first delicatessen that we came to, one with huge salamis hanging in the window and a sign that said, “Send a salami to your boy in the army.” The elderly waiters shuffled through the place with towels draped over one arm. They took orders slowly and looked at you as if they were predicting what you would have before the words came out of your mouth; there were no surprises for them.
I ordered corned beef on rye. My stepmother had something absolutely her, like egg salad on white with the crusts cut off. I thought, This for a WASP who married not one Jew but one right after another? You’d think she would like the food by now. I don’t remember what my five-year-old stepbrother had: probably peanut butter and jelly. I was disappointed in my corned beef — it was fatty — but I ate it because my dad said it was good. He ate his meal with absolute delight.
I wanted to go to Bloomingdale’s, and my stepmother wanted to see Rockefeller Center and its big Christmas tree, so we needed to take the subway uptown. This was what my stepbrother wanted to see — the subway. We got our tokens, squeezed through the turnstiles, and rushed along the concrete platform. I sat next to my dad on the train, looking out the window at the blackness as we swung around the curves. It was the first time I had seen substantial amounts of graffiti, and I was fascinated.
When the train reached our stop I noticed the change in scenery. This was a handsome station with lots of brass. There were women wearing furs carrying armloads of boxes and shopping bags. This was television New York, the New York everyone wanted to remember.
Clear-plastic jeans were the rage that year, and Bloomingdale’s was decked out for the holidays in full disco regalia. It was a metallic, sexy, strobe-lighted fantasy any fourteen-year-old girl from Denver, Colorado, would have been happy to sink all her college savings into. I had to see each floor — which drove my father crazy. Why did I have to see every floor, he asked, when they were all selling merchandise I couldn’t afford? I dragged them slowly through the displays and even managed to find a Christmas present for my mother.
The walk to Rockefeller Center was miserably cold, and I wished we could have taken a cab. Still, I liked the rhythm of the sidewalk, the men in business suits, the honking cabs, the women walking poodles, the banners flying from windows above. A few stray snowflakes blew this way and that, and from behind us I heard someone yell, “Sandwich coming through, on your right!” No kidding, two men carrying a six-foot submarine sandwich rushed by us and into an office building. I smiled at my dad.
Rockefeller Center was also television New York, with twelve or so gigantic gold angels heralding our arrival (I’d seen them two days before on the Today Show). The giant Christmas tree was all lit up. The skaters skated. My stepmother stood at the edge of the rink watching, her son at her side. He wanted to go skating, but we didn’t have time.
We stood on the sidewalk while my stepmother casually whistled for a cab, and that instant I remembered she’d lived in New York before. Just that act of hailing a cab set her apart from anyone I knew in Denver, and for a moment I was in awe.
Amanda Morris Conti
Los Angeles, California