A son and his father name the engines in Thomas the Tank Engine, on their way back from a Mets game. Thomas, Percy, Henry, Edward, James, Gordon, Toby, Emily. I don’t remember all of their names, because I am not a father and I am no longer my father’s child. New York makes me feel like an in-betweener. If I had to put down a single feeling that I felt throughout my time there, it would be this. New York is intimidating. Things are not far away, yet the city seems infinitely large. I pretend to be part of the conversations I overhear. When I go home every evening, I research the things they talk about. That’s how I learn about the city; from conversations between friends on endless subway rides, from snippets of passerby chatter.
I stay away from Times Square. I glance at the Statue of Liberty on two occasions—once from Brooklyn Heights, and the other from the High Line. On Star Wars Day (May the Fourth) I try to get into two pubs for screenings of the movies, but I’m still 5 months from 21. I wander around Williamsburg instead, and walk into an indie bookstore. It’s called Spoonbill and Sugartown. It’s full of books on architecture and design, but I find Allen Ginsberg and pay $9.95 so that I can have a book from New York. Later, I learn that this bookstore was featured on an episode of HBO’s Girls. Specifically, Lena Dunham’s character gets raunchy with a character played by Donald Glover in it. Apparently, Williamsburg residents hate that this happened. This isn’t just because Williamsburg is known for its hipster reputation and HBO is mainstream as fuck (Ironically, while browsing in Spoonbill, I over the owners discussing the latest episode of Game of Thrones), but because all New Yorkers hate what tourism does to their city. They don’t hate tourists. It’s a matter of pride for a New Yorker to be able to give you directions—”Take the downtown A train 3 stops and transfer to the L at 14th”, and so on—but they hate what you’ve done to Midtown Manhattan and the West Village. You can’t blame them. Hell, I’m probably the gayest person on Christopher Street when I go down there.
II. The One With The Subway (and more wanderings)
The subway is a monster, swallowing and regurgitating the masses; its tunnels swept with icy winds pushed about by trains, like pinballs. The words of the prophet are written on the subway walls, say Simon and Garfunkel. Do they sing of the ageless grime seeping down broken yellowing tiles, the caverns filled with incandescent light from a million bulbs, or the tapping clanking sounds of repair work echoing across the station from an indiscernible distance?
In the cars, a half-dozen ladies play Candy Crush.
There is nothing more intimidating, nor more easy to fall in love with, than the New York City Subway. With 468 stations and trains running 24×7, you come to have high expectations of your ability to traverse the 5 boroughs. But, as luck would have it, the L train that I took every morning isn’t running to Manhattan over the weekends because of repair work. This, or rather the fact that I constantly forget this, makes me miss my bus to Philadelphia and is the cause of many embarrassing rides from Jefferson Street to Bedford Avenue and back.
On my first day in South Bronx, I get lost. The 6 Train takes me to Cypress Avenue which is just a couple of blocks from the place I’m staying. But I take a left turn instead of going right, or I go straight instead of turning at all, but before I know it I’m lost in arguably one of the sketchiest neighbourhoods in NYC at 12 am, with no phone and no internet. There is a basketball game going on in the park I walk past. I think of American History X, and start to get a little worried. I pass this lady yelling on her phone, “This bitch thinks she’s so rough ’cause she’s from the Bronx…”. She draws out the last word, and I feel like I’m in an establishing shot in a terrible movie. I finally enter the only store that’s open and ask the owner if I can use Google Maps on his phone. Sure, he says, and hands me a low-end smartphone. Everything’s in Arabic, I say. I don’t read Arabic. “Oh, I thought you were from the region”, he says, “I am from Yemen”. I finally make my way home and pass out on my mattress on the floor.
III. The One With All The Some Food
As I start this section, I realise I’ve taken exactly ZERO photos of pizza. I find this a matter of shame, and will therefore stop writing and leave you with these. Click on each image to enlarge it.
The newspaper I was interning at had their own kitchen, staffed by Chinese chefs. This meant free lunch every day, which was a huge monetary burden liften off my shoulders. Unfortunately, no one ever told us ‘Westerners’ what exactly the food was. Every day was an adventure.
Xian Famous Foods is a New York legend. Andrew Zimmern’s been here, but I would hardly call their food bizzare. This cumin pork burger was one of the spiciest things I ate in two months. I still have dreams about it sometimes.
This pathetic platter was my late-night staple. Louie on the laptop and Doritos all over my face sounds really sad, but I promise it’s awfully relaxing after a long day at work.
Dumplings and beef scallion pancake in Flushing, Queens. Here, the only reminders that you are still in America are the green and white road signs. Bubble tea was also acquired after this photo was taken.
A mix of Central Asian foods from a Russian supermarket in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The place was packed, and the cashiers were being distinctly nicer to anyone who spoke Russian. “Spasibo” was said multiple times.
A meal I cooked for myslef with ingredients fom Trader Joe’s near the office in Chelsea. The lines are dizzyngly long, but there are some 20 billing counters. I’ve never had a faster checkout. Fusili in a Greek yoghurt dressing, boiled carrots, salt and papper sauteed mushrooms, and a baguette.
The song that you hear in the video is Ain’t Nothin But Nothin, by Seth Hirsch. He lives in Brooklyn, and is a musician, a filmmaker, an actor, and a bunch of other things. Visit sethhirschmusic.com to download his new album Young Misc.
The words stood oppressively still on the screen, in contrast with my head, which was beginning to spin. What is she saying, I thought. She can’t mean David Bowie. She did mean David Bowie, of course. It was hard to comprehend, because I started to realise that David had never really been alive the way she and I were alive.
He existed—and so he must still exist—in the sadness I feel when Five Years finally climaxes into a soaring chorus, in the image of Logan Lerman in the back of a pickup that invariably accompanies the opening guitar wail in Heroes.
I was technically still fifteen when Bowie first made an impression on me. I had heard Golden Years in the Heath Ledger comedy A Knight’s Tale when I was much younger, but it didn’t make me feel as much as Ashes To Ashes did ten minutes before I turned sixteen. Strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low. That’s precisely where I felt I was that night, one step into a more grown-up world. Songs have that nasty habit of being able to express your feelings in another person’s words and voice. Bowie’s songs, more so. His raw vocals make a line like ‘sordid details following’ feel like it carries a ton more emotional weight than it would read.
There’s a scene in this Canadian film called C.R.A.Z.Y where the teenage protagonist Zac paints his face like Ziggy Stardust and sings Space Oddity to the mirror. I love that scene, because Space Oddity Bowie wasn’t even remotely close to Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars Bowie. Zac had appropriated the look to fit the Bowie he had constructed in his head. I think that’s what everyone did with Bowie. He was a construct more than a man. So of course we loved him.
I cried when it hit me that he was dead. I hadn’t cried over anyone’s death since Steve Irwin. Even I was surprised at how much he had meant to me. I didn’t cry because the world had lost him, because I had lost the part of myself that assured me he was going to live forever. It’s odd, because the music he made would always be there and it shouldn’t have mattered if he was there or not. But it did. The aura around that music would forever be tinted by the fact that he isn’t around anymore.
It’s selfish of me to be so affected, not by his death but by his caesurae to exist. I can’t deny that David had, in fact, existed regardless of what I thought of him. He was an iconoclast, a saviour to so many, and, if all his interviews are anything to go by, a genuinely nice person. He, and his music, had meant so much to many, many people. If so many people could have lost a piece of themselves all at once, it could only be through Bowie. That’s really what David was; a figure, larger than life, created out of the most powerful feelings in millions of people.
I will miss him, because he was a part of me. But I will also miss him because we have all lost him, his voice, his guitar playing, his acting, his incredible personality, and his ability to create magic with his stories about space, Major Tom, and the end of the world.
If you thought you’d blow our minds, Bowie, you sure did. Thanks for coming and meeting us.
You don’t beat me up
You aren’t chucking me out of the house
So maybe I should be grateful that you respect me as a person, just not as me.
But there’s violence in your words.
In how you say you love me, but you don’t approve of me
Because after twenty-years of sheltering me in a world where differences are celebrated, you want to teach me that I’m not going to get approval from everyone
Especially not you.
And there’s violence in the silences you keep
In the way you know when a post-it moves from my table to my bathroom mirror yet somehow fail to notice the rainbow I stuck on my cupboard door.
In how I can tell you that I was in love with a girl who wasn’t my girlfriend, but not that I have a crush on my friend.
In how I’m expected to understand where your anxiety and your tears come from without you attempting to comprehend that I like boys.
In how I’m expected to defend myself from relatives asking if this means I’ll never get married and have children like I always said I would
As if the decisions a seven-year-old makes about his adulthood are legal and binding
As if I promised then to be heterosexual and I’m going back on that now.
Mama’s just scared.
Is your head twisted enough to believe that it’s any scarier for her than it is for me?
Eight years knowing, six being afraid to tell you
Imagining your reaction being nothing like it is, but apprehensive that it just might be.
Fear was right.
Courage was wrong.
Just the opposite of what you’d taught me all my life.
“I believe in boys with sad eyes and soft smiles.
I believe in girls who roar back at the thunder
and still kiss like the first time they fell in love.
I believe in the people who’s skin never felt like home to them,
so they carved home out of the dust beneath their shoes
and kept on going.
I believe in all the ones who are told they don’t belong.
I don’t think I belong either.
I don’t know what it means to “belong”
but I know the ones shouting have nothing to offer,
that fitting in is the fad diet we’re all starving ourselves to.
I believe in us.
The ones who have never felt good enough.
I believe in the girl next door, who likes to be called “her”
but who woke up, today, with a gender that felt like
hand spun wool and spilled milk,
and who still doesn’t know how to tell her mother.
I believe in the ones dating the wrong people
so their parents won’t have to know
who it is they want to love.
I believe in a fear like that.
I believe in the kindness of strangers
and I believe that turning a blind eye
isn’t what makes you bad.
It only makes you scared like the rest of us.
I believe people learn to be brave.
I believe in the hands picking flowers as much
as I believe in the hands that plant them.
Because sometimes our hearts are too big for our bodies
and they like to go bumping against each other–
love doesn’t mean what you think it does.
You and I don’t love the same, but we are,
all of us, out here loving.
I believe in the collection of fingerprints you pick up
from everything in the world you have ever touched.
If I believe in anything,
I believe that that
“Because sometimes our hearts are too big for our bodies.”
I don’t know what to feel. I try to cry, but I can’t. It feels like the appropriate response would be to cry. I screw my face up (I’m an ugly crier. I’ve watched myself in the mirror several times), but the tears don’t come. I don’t feel like crying. I go through a list of emotions—troubled, yearning, heartbroken, heavy, light, hanging on. Nothing fits. But I am hanging on. I’ve been hanging on since the night I lay down and discovered that I was realer than the characters in my head.
The universe tries to make childhood’s end less of a shock by having the mat pulled from under us. It hopes we won’t notice. But we notice, and we’re falling. Betrayed.
I talked, for hours, to a boy today. He’s going to be a paeleontologist and a weapons designer. His favourite dinosaur is Spinosaurus. His second favourite is Megalosaurus. He loves playing Minecraft.
He doesn’t stand still. He tells his stories in skips and sways—not of his sentences but of his legs and arms. He isn’t like me. I wanted to be a paelontologist, but my favourite dinosaur was Triceratops. I swayed when I talked, but I hated talking to the older boys. I never ended up becoming paeleontologist. At some point, I realised I didn’t want to. But I want to want to.
Conversations about childhood I have with grown ups centre around the general lack of responsibilities and excess of time. I nod and smile, but it’s far from the truth. There were responsibilities of magnitude, and there was never enough time to fulfill them. The waxing crescent moon was the eye of a monster and we had to get off the island before it opened completely. We didn’t consider then that it would just close again and that what we were really trying to escape was the revolution of the moon, whose each cycle brought us closer to the real monster.
We were beautiful, because we didn’t know it. Time was the apple. We were Adam, Eve and the serpent. All we ever wanted, then, was to grow up, because we saw the adult world through the veil of childhood. Maybe the veil can be kept on—children can be saved from growing up by their Peter Pan, their Catcher in the Rye. Or maybe all children, like me, have no choice.
You must always be a child at heart, the grown-ups say when everyone’s looking. But inside midnight bedrooms, they probably know that to grow up is to grow up completely. But we aren’t children, and we aren’t adults. We can’t be adults. We can’t remember what we lost, but we can’t forget that we lost something, and we can never deal with that.
“I was most happy when pen and paper were taken from me and I was forbidden from doing anything. I had no anxiety about doing nothing by my own fault, my conscience was clear, and I was happy. This was when I was in prison.”
— Daniil Kharms, Today I Wrote Nothing: The Selected Writings
I need to remember this, if I’m to get through another year of college. Artistic perfection can go fuck itself. Give me that pen and paper.
The only thing I really remember is that it was sunny, not unusual for a summer late morning. I was young enough for my mother to have bathed and dressed me, and she was now drying my hair in the balcony. The scratchy sound of and sensation of the towel on my scalp was making me sleepy, but the ferocity with which my head was being thrust back and forth was making me nauseous, and I tried to focus on the street four floors below. What caught my eye wasn’t that the boy had no shirt on, but that his golden-brown skin seemed to make up for it. I pictured my own pale body in the mirror. I looked naked, like something was missing. This boy would have been overdressed in a t-shirt. His worn denim shorts hung precariously on his hips, reaching his kneecaps, and below that he was bare again, calves glistening in the sharp light, his bare feet kicking up tiny stones from the pavement. He looked about ten, but everyone looks older than they are when you’re a child. His lanky arms and the muscles in his athletic torso stretching with every stride were careless. I remember feeling queasy, as if my stomach was being pulled into my chest. I remember having to squirm where I stood because there was something pushing out against the front of my undies, making me uncomfortable in a way I since came to be obsessed with. I wonder if that’s how he felt; the lining of his denim shorts brushing against his skin.
She’s standing with her cheek pressed against his. It’s the kind of photograph they would print out on glossy paper, frame and hang up in their separate bedrooms. The kind they’d find at the bottom of a musty shoebox twenty, thirty years from now, and it would make their hearts drop for a moment. Her hair looks different. A fringe covers half her forehead, and a few strands sweep over her eyes which look hazel in the light. If I squint, she almost looks like someone else. I feel a stab of guilt when I think, she should have been mine. She is so beautiful, so intelligent and so powerful, and she should have been mine so we could be the couple that made peers jealous and little boys like a twelve-year-old me have an ideal to aspire to.
His hair is blown back in an intentionally untidy way. His hair is always like that. His eyes look hazel too in the photograph. They look like eyes do before laughter, and the curves at the ends of his wide smile look like they’re about to break into laughter too. His lips are pink. The same pink they were when we were drunk on the bus, when I put my arm around his shoulders and forced myself to stop thinking about kissing him. He would taste like her now. The way my mouth tasted after all the times I had kissed her. He’s wearing a red bowtie.
What bothers me is that I’m just a part of her story, and barely a part of his. I’ve always wanted to be the biggest part of everyone’s story because I knew that I was worth more than a little inkjet printout on someone’s mirror. The last I saw, I’m an empty space on the glass that was going to be filled by a little inkjet printout of somebody else. Not him. He’s going to be on the wall, inside a frame with her, because I could never take a god damn decent photograph with her.
I’m seventeen and I’m supposed to be studying. I’m sitting at my desk. I have open books in front of me, but I’m not filling them with equations and proofs. There are stories no one can read in them, spreading out from the centre of the notebook like ink from the nib of a pen held too long against the paper, because the ends of the book are too exposed.
About boys I go to school with. Younger boys with red cheeks and laughter in their eyes, and what I would do with them behind locked doors in storerooms and toilet stalls.
Boys on the football team, brown calves not yet hidden beneath coarse black hair, sweat trickling down their necks down their stinking jerseys. I wish I was good at sports so I could be on the team with them, showering with them, watching them soap their bodies and shut their eyes as the water runs over them.
Shorts and knee-socks, the smell of sweat and dust and deodorant, the touch of rough hands clammy and cold in the dark corridors on sunny November afternoons.
I would fuck half my school if I could. I can picture it. Hundreds of bodies writhing in pleasure, the burning sun and the burning sand all over us. Bodies of every size and colour, but mostly brown—the brown of too much football in too many free periods.
I’m so hard, it feels like I could rip out of my jeans. I pull down my zip and a few strokes later, it’s like I’m there with them. Fucking them and being fucked by them. Skin on skin, the sound and smell and touch almost real. I wipe the globules of semen from my hand on to the denim.
I’m afraid. Twenty-year-old me is afraid. I’m afraid sex is the only thing I can write about. All of my other sentences read like a child’s prose, and when I read them I want to tear them up or tear myself up. It’s like I’m seventeen, sitting at my study table, fucking my right hand instead of studying.
Your eyes dart around invisibly
As if searching for something deep under the pile of disconnected thoughts,
In love with the first person you met today,
Wanting to be innocent of the knowledge that they may love you
Or think you’re crazy.
Every minute, every point on the spectrum
Of love and hate and ecstasy and depression and knuckle-cracking
Between wanting to run and wanting to sleep
Curled up in a foetal ball of fire and warmth, barefoot on burning coal,
Anxious of not being burnt.
When we crossed the road together, I knew I loved you.
You felt more deeply, smiled more subtly, lived more immensely;
Ate fire and washed it down with ice
Spoke too loudly, laughed to lovingly, loved too hard
Until my sides burnt and my heart opened and I swallowed you whole.