Monday, March 1, 2010

Urban Decay

It's been ages. You thought I had abandoned you, didn't you? I did.

But I need an escape again, so we're back to our codependent relationship of me giving you content and you giving me approval. This time, it is to share the expanded version of the post I used to start the blog I was cheating on you with. Enjoy.


I woke up at noon that Sunday morning, in my hotel room, slightly hung-over and craving nicotine. There wasn’t anything particularly out-of-the-ordinary about this situation, except that I was in Massachusetts, not New York. It took me a second to realize this as I coughed up the phlegm that had comfortably settled itself in the back of my throat. I was there on business. Or, at least, that’s what I would say to sound important and pretentious. I was attending the National Conference on Peer Tutoring in Writing with my boss, Brian, and some of my fellow tutors. I had worked as a peer writing consultant at FIT for about a year by that point, and I was incredibly happy with both my position and work environment. This trip was like the cherry in a Rob Roy. I had spent the weekend at Mount Holyoke College, one of the seven sisters, hearing presentations on the art of tutoring and, to an extent, the power of linguistics and literacy. I was enjoying myself.

I grabbed for my coat, careful not to disturb my roommate, and headed outside for a smoke. Thankfully we were able to sleep in that day, as on previous days we had to wake up at seven to attend the numerous presentations. Because of this, I went out for dinner with three other tutors (there were nine of us at the conference, in all) at an Armenian restaurant where I had delicious hummus and perhaps a tad too much to drink. I didn’t find it unprofessional, though; I was still twenty, after all.

When I walked outside into the sharp chill of the autumn wind, I discovered that I had only one cigarette left. Remembering the location of a nearby CVS (only a block and a half away) I went to replenish my stock before lighting it. When I arrived, though, I nearly smashed my face into the glass doors. Closed. I glanced at my phone; it was 12:30 PM. The sign said it opened at noon on Sundays.

This unusual setback cemented my feeling that Massachusetts was a strange, unholy land. I was finally made aware that I had unexpectedly entered a world with deer crossing signs, pristine streets free of used condoms and broken liquor bottles, and a town populated by mainly white, middle-aged heterosexuals. I tried to ignore this, since I was genuinely enjoying myself at the conference, but it was hard for me to extract myself from this environment now. Despite the fun I was having at Mount Holyoke, South Hadley was not a town I wanted to be in for much longer. Especially since I had no cigarettes left.

I figured I’d stay outside the CVS, half-hoping the owner or an employee would show up to open it, half-wanting to relish what may have been the last amounts of nicotine to enter my system that day. As I stood, brooding, a small white car pulled up at the curb in front of me. A stout woman came out, clad in a bright coral sweatshirt, light-wash jeans, and crocs. She came towards me. Frightened as I was by the sight of her, I refused to abandon my post.

“Good Morning!” She said with an excruciatingly perky cadence. I glared at her and took a drag as she walked to the door. When I realized she wasn’t opening it, I felt defeated once again.

“It’s closed.” I said, mistakenly eliciting a response from her.

“Oh, no…” She rummaged in her purse for something. “You know, this isn’t unusual; the owner usually goes out for breakfast after church with his family.” I could find about five things wrong with this sentence, “church” and “family” being at the top of my list. The proprietor of a tobacco dispensary shouldn’t spend his Sundays eating pancakes; he should be providing drugs to customers. She extracted two quarters from her coin purse (yes, she had an actual coin purse) and headed to the payphone beside me.

“My husband and I went to 9 o’clock mass this morning, and his sister is coming over to our house this afternoon with her husband and her three precious little girls. I’m making potato salad and roast beef sandwiches, a nice meal, but when I opened the fridge I saw we were out of tonic!” She laughed and dialed. It wasn’t until later that I found out that by “tonic” she meant soda, not a mixer containing quinine. I nodded, and looked down.

“What are you here for?”

“Cigarettes.” I said. “I heard they were cheap in Massachusetts.”

“Where’re you from?” She held the receiver to her ear.

“New York.” I tried to be as abrupt in my answers as possible. What on Earth had I done to this woman to make her want to talk to me?

“Is that right?” She smiled, and continued talking, holding the grimy receiver up to her chubby ear. I had absolutely no idea why her husband hadn’t answered the phone already. It felt like she had been chewing my ear off for a half hour. “How do you like it?”

“It’s fabulous.”

“I was in New York City this past summer. We took the kids to see The Lion King, took the train down for the day. Ah, shoot…” She hung up the phone. “I guess he’s watching football or something. Do those games start this early in the day?”

“I have no idea.” I wasn’t being totally dismissive. I really didn’t, and still don’t.

“Well, I guess I should go to Big Y and buy some stuff for later. It was nice talking to you!” She smiled again, waved, and walked to her car. I stubbed out my cigarette on the building.

The woman was insane.

I was incredibly anxious to go home. The conference was over, and I hadn’t been alone in three days. Not a moment was absent of another person, not even when I was deserted. I needed to be back in the city, back to civilization, back to solitary confinement.

After five hours of bumper-to-bumper traffic, we returned to New York that evening. Buildings replaced trees, smoke replaced air, vagrants replaced chipmunks. Nobody spoke to me unprovoked. I was happy to be back in the city. Initially.

But on my train ride home, alone, I sat ruminating on the nature of my weekend in the continental United States. The tone of South Hadley was something I’ve never really experienced; growing up in the suburbs, everyone was naturally nice, but not without artifice. There was always an unspoken air of competition that, as a child, I never picked up on, but soon discovered when I got older. A mother may invite you over for a play date with her daughter, but only in hopes that your mother would reciprocate. That way, she could have the freedom to spend her afternoon shopping, gossiping, popping pills and/or having an affair.

Manhattan was a little different. The artifice is still there, but not nearly as much; most New Yorkers have no problem being honest or even curt. I wouldn’t characterize New Yorkers as mean or uncaring, not necessarily, nor would I classify myself as such. I just feel that they exhibit a certain sense of detachment from the populous. Their lives are busy, and they know everyone else’s are. They live on an island, removed from the very land on which most other Americans live. They embrace the sort of relationship Woody Allen and Mia Farrow had.
When they were a couple, they lived in separate apartments on each side of Central Park, and when they spoke on the phone they would wave towels out of their windows to see one another. New Yorkers are solitary creatures, but they know that when they want intimacy from someone they can have it. And, more importantly, if they don’t want it, they don’t need it.
I always planned to live my life this way.

But now I felt slightly soured, and a little confused. I’ve always enjoyed being unsocial and cynical. I’ve always enjoyed being dwarfed by the shimmering steel and glass of skyscrapers. I’ve always enjoyed having everything I wanted at my fingertips. But was what that woman did at CVS really that horrible? She was just being nice. Maybe if I incorporated that obnoxious sunshine into my character, I wouldn’t be so fucking miserable all of the time.

The problem is, I’ve grown fond of misery.

Since I see the world in very definite terms (black & white, smart & dumb, gay & straight) I figured there were two paths I could take in my life from growing up in what some could describe as a Hegelian dialectic: being in the suburbs (synthesis) I could decide to progress either to the city (thesis) or the country (antithesis.) And since I had only experienced “the country” through films like Deliverance, I naturally chose the city. It seemed to be the obvious choice, especially since I had frequented Manhattan in my youth and viewed it as the Mecca of sophistication, culture, and intelligence. But my trip to Massachusetts has made me reexamine this choice. Just a little bit.
See, like William James and Abraham Lincoln, I am an “INTP” personality type according to the Myers-Briggs test. I like tests, especially those that define you as a person and reduce you to no more than four adjectives written on a piece of paper. I took it three times, each about six months apart, to be sure about my results. I was, ontologically, an introverted, intuitive, thinking, perceptive person. I don’t necessarily think that this was something I could cheat, a test that I could manipulate to get the results I wanted, and I’m pretty sated with knowing that this is my temperament. I live in my head, obsess over problems and try to find logical and rational solutions to them. I see everything in terms of how it can be improved and what it can become. I don’t normally like people, and I especially don’t understand those who succumb to their emotions on a regular basis.

Hearing this, it’s possibly easy to assume I would probably function better in a remote cabin in the woods, secluded from society, not a metropolis populated by some 8.4 million citizens. But, that still doesn’t feel quite right. I don’t think I ever want to leave New York.

Maybe I’m a masochist.


Cassandra said...

Have I told you lately how hilarious you are?
I love the way you write.

TheNYCourier said...

You flatter me.