So, I’m back in the City.
I retired from the Army back in March, free and clear, 25 years of combined service completed, with nothing to show for it but a tiny pension and some pictures in my mind–graying perhaps, but still capable of producing the occasional emotional response, like muscles twitching to a spasm of electricity.
Retirement was followed by an exodus from the City, a midnight escape from a Orwellian girlfriend; 10 hours in the little GTI, only to be dumped into a convoluted family crisis in Ohio that ended with jail and yet another midnight flight, this time to an old SWAT buddy, living in the horse country of central Kentucky. I’ll revisit that emotional swamp in later posts, but for now, suffice it to say that the circle has come full round, and here I am back in New York.
It’s different, though, from the four years I spent in Bay Ridge and Staten Island, and not just because of the stern education of family drama, incarceration, and pushing around 55 gallon drums of hydrofluoric acid in some back woods chemical plant for six weeks. I’m in Astoria, somehow significantly different from southern Brooklyn, and an utterly alien world to the American midwest. Driving here, I was amazed to find that it *is* actually on the same planet, unless I missed some dimensional portal languishing in the green hills of Pennsylvania, hidden along some forgotten curve of I-70.
Astoria feels more like the “real” New York experience. It’s actually part of Queens, and is nestled around the Queensborough bridge; just a few hundred yards from mid-town Manhattan. It’s become a transition zone, a melting point between the varied immigrant neighborhoods of Queens and the uber-cool of Manhattan–but not uber-rich, and therefore unable to afford the stratospheric prices of living in the actual City. Astoria is crowded; highly diverse in every way–ethnic, sexual orientation, financial income, everything–and without the buffer of living in the gated community that was Fort Hamilton. No alarmed fences, no armed Military Police guarding the gate, no institutional order and enforced discipline to keep the trash off the lawn and the parking lots empty, oh no. Here the City intrudes into our tiny apartment every single minute of every day, a constant inescapable violation, incessant, rude, brutalizing.
The El train thundering by at third floor window level, less than a block away.The horns and indignant profanities of frustrated motorists at the intersection below. The sounds of motorcycles, deep voiced and guttural, coming to and from the dealerships just down the road. Construction noise from whatever impossible project the Department of Transportation decides to visit upon the locals today, like something from a Terry Gilliam movie, all hissing steampipes and twisting hoses and conspiratorial jackhammers at 6 in the morning.
Snippets of impossible conversations from the sidewalk, sidebar conversations between friends, or shouted into cellphones, echoing off the dour walls of the street and into my open windows, preternaturally clear. The missives are always devoid of self consciousness or filtering in that way that only New Yorkers are, shameless, and are unknown to the streets of Lexington or Cincinnati.
“Yeah, but you know he likes my pussy more than anything else.”
“Where’s Pacho? I can’t find that motherfucker anywhere. It’s like “where’s Waldo” every fuckin’ day….”
“You’re killing him, you know that, don’t you?”
“YOU’RE JUST LIKE YOUR MOTHER!”, followed by a woman’s quiet, almost unheard whisper, shocked: “Seriously?”
For a combat veteran, the neighborhood has untold delights, seemingly deliberately crafted to bring unexpected jolts of PTSD to the unwary. A storefront mosque hides a few blocks away, and groups of dish-dash swaddled men appear at random intervals, perfectly costumed in woven white caps and improbable beards, walking intently down the concrete sidewalks and muttering to each other in Arabic.
I’m not a big fan of whining about PTSD, but the transitory, almost hallucinatory nature of it gets a wonderful workout here. I’m used to that jolt of recognition when I see something that triggers a memory; a broken down car parked in an unusual spot, or a bulging bag left under a table, or the occasional car backfiring–but I look at it and say ‘it’s nothing’ and move on.
It’s different when the hallucination is real, even after that second, startled glance. Just now, writing this, a car drove by in the street below, its stereo blasting some hyperactive wailing number, no doubt fresh off the Lebanon Top 10, and just guaranteed to make the walls blur from Queens to Baghdad and back again, disconcertingly.
So, anyway, I’m here. Back in the City, and with the woman I am supposed to be with, and should have been since we met 2 years ago. Yes, there is another story there, and a good one. I’ll return to it later, I’m sure. But for now, I want to do something completely different from the military, or law enforcement, and so I’m turning back to that old Baghdad delight: writing. What I hope to do with this category, New York Snapshots, is to record those images I see every day, like the ones I just talked about–those moments of beauty or ugliness or just everyday life; particularly those that seem to be particularly ‘New York’ in nature.
I hope you’ll join me in experiencing them.