Thursday, August 28, 2008

Coming Into New York City: 1988

So, I was living in Champaign, Illinois with Fru until about mid-february. Life with her was going well, but work and a hard cold winter (and I was not used to hard cold winters then) were not. Jimmy--from Florida--had asked if I wanted to meet him in NYC and rent a sublet in Queens. I said yes. I'd never been to NYC, had had little interest in NYC or the Northeast in general (I'd always favored the West--Southwest, Northwest, Mountain West, didn't matter--and had a snobbish or anti-snobbish midwesterner's view of New York, Boston, New England and the Mid-Atlantic/Eastern Seaboard; so why visit?) but I was ready to see it and did not want to pass the chance up.
But how the heck was I going to get out there?
I owned a car, but didn't want to own one while in a big city, while in a crazy non-car town like New York. So, that was out. I could have flown, but I didn't fly very much and had an anti-flight, too-costly view to go along with my anti-east-coast-big-city view. There was the old Greyhound Bus, but it's a long freaking way from Illinois to NYC on a bus. The train? Sure, I kind of like the train, but for some reason I didn't consider it. So, I did the thing I'd been wanting to do, which was contact a car delivery service in Chicago to see if they needed anyone to drive a car out to the NYC area. I can't recall where or how I got their name and number, but I called and they had a car from a Chicago suburb car dealer that needed to be driven to some kind of co-dealer in Elizabeth, New Jersey. And so, Fru and I went to Chicago (by train or maybe Don drove us up), spent the day and night and then I went to the service's office on Michigan Avenue in the Loop, handed over a photo, a copy of my driver's license and I was good to go.
Either Don or Ted (who we had stayed with) gave me a ride to the dealer who had the car. I went in and they signed me up and took me out to the lot and here was this new big Pontiac--gold, four door sedan--that they wanted delivered. It was winter--cold and grey with humps of old snow plowed in the corners of the lot--and the car wasn't all that clean on the outside. But it was nicer than anything I'd been driving. They were very nonchalant, I was very nonchalant, and they gave me the keys, the address of where it was supposed to go and that was it. I think I said goodbye to Fru right there and then and drove off into the clogged Chicago highways, down the Dan Ryan, down around Calumet City, Gary and the Indiana Parkway toll road. I hated toll roads, but it was my best shot across the midwest. I was headed for Cleveland, where a friend from Iowa days now lived--Keith--and where I'd stay the first night.
The Indiana Toll Road became the Ohio Toll Road and it took me into Cleveland. Keith lived in a town called Solon, where he taught high school, and I found my way there. He lived with his first wife and I'd met her in Iowa City and he had a couple of cats and they took me around the little town, then into Cleveland. I'd never seen Cleveland. I like Cleveland. It was winter and stark and cold and gritty gray and we saw the city and the football stadium by Lake Erie and the stadium was dark with big ugly empty parking lots where snow huge lumps of dirty snow were piled up: cool. They took me to a spot with bars and clubs and eateries along the fabled Cayahoga River (a river which had actually caught fire once) and we did a little drinking there and it was blue-collar inner-city pleasant enough: cool again. And the next day I was on my way to Pennsylvania. And Pennsylvania may as well have been Transylvania for all I knew about it, but it was a long drive between rolled cold hills.
The thing was, sludge and ice and frozen slush had built up all over the delivery car by then. It was ugly ugly ugly. The stuff was thick around the wheel wells and between the hood and the windshield so that the windshield cleaner fluid did not work. I'd hit the button, the wipers would flap, but no fluid could escape--so I drove half blind into the night and New Jersey and the Poconos. It was night now and my vision was even more clouded as I headed to the great expanse of outer NYC. I was surprised I had to pay, like, ten bucks just to take a crazy tunnel to get into the city. What was with all these tolls just to get out East? But I paid and drove into New York and was properly astounded and confused. I had a map and was trying to find the direction Jimmy had given me and before I knew it I was in downtown Manhattan and then past downtown Manhattan and into Queens, going down this wild-traffic road that followed the East River. It took me a while to realize that the map of the city was very detailed, very small of scale, and that what I thought would take many minutes to get to on the map actually came right up in  almost-seconds. I pulled over to get some gas at this weird semi-station and made a phone call to Jimmy for better directions.
Jimmy wasn't at the place in Queens. He was with some musician friends in Brooklyn and I was supposed to meet him there. That was the number he'd given me. So, I made another mad and confused dash with the giant pulsing electric skyline of Manhattan on my right, heading into a dark quilt of streets in Brooklyn. By then, I'd adjusted to the map scale of my map and actually found the place. These two guys lived upstairs in some brick building and inside their apartment they were playing music (Jimmy was a musician) and had their own artwork all over the walls. I was worn out, beat, addled from driving and the city and lack of sleep. I was subdued and quiet, shy and Jimmy couldn't figure out why I wouldn't join in (I sang, sang strange and funny songs that I made up off the top of my head). But I was too worn out to be extroverted, too sober. Eventually we left and went to the place in Queens.
The place was an upstairs to a less than modest house on 69th Street in Flushing. But it was fine. I had to clear out a back room that was used for storage and through a small thin mattress on the floor for a bed. But the great thing was, that storage room looked out over the rooftops, across the river and right square at the Manhattan skyline (when Jimmy discovered this fact later, he wanted to switch rooms with me, give me the big master bed room--which he let me use when Fru came to visit--but I said, "No way").
So, I had been wrong about New York City. Foolish. Just looking at it, just being in it jolted me with energy and excitement (it still can). I realized I was in one of the great cities of the world. No doubt about it. Fantastic, baby. And though I elected not to stay, though I was broke and hungry, man, I had a great time.

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