To me, New York City represented everything transgressive
Chinki Sinha | 03 Sep, 2014
To me, New York City represented everything transgressive
“Why is it that they can have it and I didn't? I always felt cheated. I always felt cheated out of things like that.”
– Pepper La Beija, Paris is Burning
I felt cheated out of the city. I was here once, and left, and now only visit as a traveller looking for the unseen places that might exist, but I can’t find them anymore.
The documentary about the New York City drag balls, and the ways of being fabulous, was when I first began to be tempted by New York City. There were heartbreaks, and deaths, and betrayals, and loss, and everything else in the film. But there was realness, and there was vogueing, and that was truly fabulous. That Manhattan skyline, celebrated, and framed in many places, didn’t quite compare to the arched eyebrows on Dorian Corey in the film, who said ‘If everybody went to balls, and did less drugs, it'd be a fun world, wouldn't it?’
Only if one could find these balls, and be those million people you always wanted to be.
"You've erased all the mistakes, all the flaws, all the giveaways, to make your illusion perfect." Venus Xtravaganza says in the film.
After all, we are suckers for illusions. Hallucinations stretch the limits of the world, and cities explode in your head. If you couldn’t belong to anything else, there’s a chance you could belong here.
"You can become anything and do anything, right here, right now. It won't be questioned. I came. I saw. I conquered. That's a ball." Pepper LaBeija, Paris is Burning
They started in Harlem, and then faded out in the 1990s. There were costumes, and lights, and the music, and the dance, and above all, there were dreams, and desires. To be what the white people represented, or others. Like, being the executive, or the super model. You made it seem real perhaps, and for that moment, you were them. Even the traveller who has too many identities picked up from too many places, and people.
To me, New York City represented everything transgressive. There were artists, and there were writers, and they did great things in this city, and wrote about the excesses, and love, and deaths, and passions. I romanticised it out of proportion like you do for a lover who was so perfect that he’d place the spoon wrongly and you’d be facing existential crisis. There’s mystery, and there’s hustle and bustle, and loud music, and drugs on the streets, and those sneaker conventions. On some night that I’d be walking around aimlessly, I’d see people queuing up outside to get the first preview of a sneaker about to be launched, and everyone would wear them, including the migrants, the travellers, the natives, and even me. I was being the conformist. But it was also being rebellious with the multitude. Here, I thought, nothing mattered. But even New York with its neurotic air and its frenzied personality has its reservations.
I want to find the transgressive in everything. I peep into restaurants, and try to look upwards into the windows, and past the floor, and into the basement in this great city, which they say is also full of rats. I find rats scurrying around, but I am walking through its neighbourhoods, and it disorients me. In Soho neighbourhood, where once they wrote their first novels, there are the well-heeled, and the sophisticated who can pronounce the dishes on the menus of the quaint-looking bistros. Perhaps these are all the wrong places. Perhaps the city is the wrong place. But they say in this city, you will never be old, and you can find your tribe, and you can be invisible. Because you are mainly so divided, and so loath to being that it becomes even more enchanting – its myth.
“There is no question that there is an unseen world. The problem is, how far is it from midtown and how late is it open?” ― Woody Allen
I live across the river. In Jersey City. I take the path to and fro from the great city, and stay away enough to see it every morning and afternoon. Taking the ferry they have told me is a beautiful thing to do. But water scares me. I live next to the harbour in an apartment complex that has endless green colour corridors that lead to more such corridors, and on most days, I see nobody but I am aware the person at the reception can see me on his screen. So, I stand in the corner, and look at the floor of the lift till I reach my floor. It is like living amongst ghosts. There are doors that might lead into worlds of charm or otherwise, but they remain shut and silent. I feel like I am living in an asylum. But I came here to escape. So, it is just fine.
Most of them work in New York, but return to the luxury apartments that let them live with the view, and outside of its chaos.
At the harbour, you sit, a book of stories by Gabriel García Márquez in hand, and read about the ghost who disarranges the roses and the 'level of stagnant memories' and then stare at the rich people sailing their yachts, their hair blowing in the wind, and wonder if America is what it is then – the place of aspirations. Here, loneliness is manifest in how men and women walk their dogs on this dull afternoon. The chained beasts are in control. They behave as per the protocols. They stare at you with sad eyes that crave freedom. Their primal instincts no longer exist. They have been neutered. They are leashed, and for all the love, and shampooing they get, there’s this unexplained melancholy that fills the space, and I can no longer look at them. I am used to free dogs running in the streets. There’s the Central Park. But there are no wild things here. There was a man, a friend tells me, who walked into a launder mart in Harlem with a gecko perched on his head, and nobody gave a damn. But such sightings don’t make for an unchained city fast getting gentrified, beautified. An illusion exists. We become delusional because we are such romantics yearning for the freedom of the non-conformist.
The seagulls cry, and flap their ugly wings as they too watch the boats sail past them. On this dull day, there are too many of them. Steaks, and beer. And lonely faces, tanned, and healthy. Their bodies are stretched, and muscles toned. Perfect. Everything. A lovely picture. There's a breeze, and the water behaves itself. Everyone here behaves themselves. A smile, a greeting. These are a must. Else, you'd be a savage. If you aren't pink, you'd be savage, too. But they'd be politically correct about it.
Sitting here, as I wonder about the roses the little girl, who is now old, guards so fiercely in the story, I feel the enormous weight of this American way of life. Of solitude becoming less intense yet heavier by the day. There's money, and more money. You could sail yachts, and wear Balmain, and still be bored. Perhaps these fancy boats are a way to counter boredom. The Statue of Liberty looms in the distance, and so does the famous skyline, and there’s nothing exciting about either of these from where I sit.
Ching, a Chinese waiter in a Thai restaurant, says this is no way to live. Maybe you could go to Broadway, and watch some shows, and live in New York, and be the New Yorker for perhaps a little bit of your lifetime because that's some identity. He points out to the Jersey City skyline and says it is 'boring' here. There is a group of girls wearing spandex outfits and tiaras, and they giggle. They walk into the restaurant across the street.
"Is this life? Oh man, it is so boring," he says. "Look at their names even – Tom, Jack, etc. I'd rather keep my Chinese name."
Others will hit the bars tonight. They will drink, and be merry. In the subways, women will be holding on to the poles, balancing themselves on their heels. I will return home, and sit next to the harbour.
Again, the boats are active. There are parties, and there's an iron grill to keep the uninvited away. On the ground. The waters shimmer. Over the phone, a friend says she doesn't think marriage is the cure for this American life. I think I can see why. There's no cure for this American life.
There is the promise. The promise of a great city. But from this side of the river, I look at Lady Liberty, and measure the cost of freedom. There are ferries going up and down, and I want to go but I sit on the bench, and look out at the water, which turns silver or grey or shimmer depending on the day and the time of the day. There are yachts and boats, and parties. In the night, I can hear them sing, and that drowns the voice of the waves. For the one who grew near water, the river looks too tame. But it’s water, and they say the Manhattan skyline is gorgeous. They also ask me where in the city I am. But I am not. I am only visiting.
In this city of unbelonging, I was only trying to figure if I could be. Because in great cities they say you could be invisible. No, I didn’t want to belong here. Because you belong once, and then you always drift. But New York was a borderline case.
There is hope in isolation. Of a strange kind. Of people trying to find you. Then, you would know if you existed. For them, or this world. Else, there is always the option of drifting around in the city trying to find its core. They say too many things about New York City. They claim to love it. Gil Scott Heron once sang “New York is killing me” and nobody ever says they didn’t ever love this city that presents so many dichotomies that you could spend a lifetime here trying to locate its soul, and still wished on your deathbed you found it. For the city is an old whorehouse to me. There are too many rooms with too many stories, and you unlock and lock the doors, and ride through the darkened corridors in a daze expecting, almost hoping, to find something unexpected. Like how we found Mott Haven the other day.
In the summer of 2014, I found myself in New York City once again. I didn’t want to know anyone. I was here, and I was very much alone, and I had wanted to be. That’s the luxury only great cities can offer. It was familiar enough for me to not feel alienated, and it still befuddled me. Certain places you go once. Or return but you know you wouldn’t stay. But New York wasn’t such a place. You could stay here, as the Egyptian cab driver said as we moved through the traffic in Queens on way to the airport. He had come as a tourist, and then stayed on. Left again because he wasn’t sure. Sometimes you must test your belonging and unbelonging, he says. He returned, and found other Egyptians, and worked illegally at gas stations, and lived in cramped places until he was ready to file for citizenship. In Virginia, he was sponsored by another Egyptian who ran a bakery, and said his was a talent hard to find, and there he was, an American citizen. His accent is thick with his home flavour. He keeps it that way. He drives cabs, and tells me there are Egyptian churches in every city. Belonging then isn’t so hard. He says I can stay, too. New York City is kind to the immigrants. You belong in patches, and in others, you carry on as a traveller. That’s what it is, he says, sipping his coffee. He will go to Egypt to get married because his mother insists, and then bring his sister and mother here for vacation, and life goes on, he says. Marked by such events.
The first time I came here, I took the ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, and rode the bus like many other tourists listening to the guide say many things about the many places we passed. We watched a Broadway show, and let ourselves be dazzled by the million lights in Times Square. Other such things. Everyone’s things. Nothing seemed spectacular about the city then. I moved on to another city. Syracuse, and then to a forsaken town called Utica in upstate New York where I first encountered that thing called nostalgia, and I returned. In between, I would come to the City to get over things.
Of course, you had already seen the famous skyline in postcards sent by cousins and friends, and read about writers that lived here, and wrote great books. You knew mostly everything the city consisted of. You’d imagine it as a place where you could find a million things to do. I knew of people who took jobs that made them very unhappy so they could stay in one of the cramped apartments. They wanted to be the New Yorker. The one who hurried everywhere, and could deal with anything, including storms, and bombings, and onslaughts on personality. They could survive almost everything. Just by being invisible, I think. There’s a solace in being the ordinary, mediocre person. But as I walk in its streets, the inequalities disturb me. The poor have been pushed to the periphery. Harlem is changing, and beyond it, in Bronx, the city transforms. The high rises here are the housing projects.
Didn’t they all escape to these underground ballrooms to escape the rigidity of their lives, and abandonment, and poverty, and loss, and other such things? They were trying to be someone else, someone fabulous. Everything was for the moment. The vogueing, the dancing, the dressing up. These were people who wanted to forget their problems. Like them, in order to forget, I was searching for the realness.
I had been sitting in the window in a Harlem apartment when he waved. Two women walked by dressed in leather tights, and shimmering tops. He said I could wear those, and I asked him who he was. He said he was a nobody, and called me downstairs.
He told me he grew up here, and now lives in the Bronx. He had been in the military, and went all over the world, and was shot once in Pakistan, and begged them to take him home so he could die here. This was home, he said.
Ali is lean, and young. His eyes, you could say, looked tired. He had an easy smile. He returns to this block often to hang with old friends and continue to claim the space that contains memories of childhood.
“It wasn’t as safe then,” he said. “There were drugs, and shootings, and the streets were mean.”
I asked him if he had read James Baldwin’s Sonny’s Blues, a story about a black musician who grew up in Harlem and fell through the cracks.
“All that hatred down there," he said, "all that hatred and misery and love. It's a wonder it doesn't blow the avenue apart.” ― James Baldwin, Sonny's Blues
He tells me more things. His grandmother came from the South in that wave called the Great Migration, and settled here. Harlem was different then. It was much darker, but then they cleaned it up because others started to move in, but something was lost, and he couldn’t tell what it was. But he could feel it. He came up here looking for it, seeking what he had left behind, and in certain times, it came to him.
He pointed to an apartment across the street and said this is where Minister Louis Farrakhan used to come, and hang with friends. Now he is elsewhere, and black people are still suffering. Despite the Nation of Islam, and despite everything else that was invented to provide relief from the streets. But the darkness was too dense to dispel.
He isn’t religious, he said. He is trying to make it. Bronx is unsafe. But what is dangerous comes cheap. You could rent there. Not everybody makes the kind of money they do at the Wall Street. Not everybody is an artist, or can afford to be one. There are other things. Like small time crisis situations that fill your life. Boring things like paying bills. Art is lofty, and poverty can’t afford it.
James Baldwin went away to Paris because the city killed his friend. He went under. And he doesn’t say that metamorphically because in trying to find a place to stay, a place to work, his friend had given up. He couldn’t bear his defeat. Or rather, he had admitted defeat. You got to be tough here. There’s everything, and there’s nothing. You should be willing to accept ‘nothing’ here.
But everything is also in excess. Like the designer clothing the women and men wear, the expensive bags they carry, and the cars they drive, the bars they sit in. The poor hurry to their second or third jobs. They are only trying to keep up.
But illusions help. There are reference points to what we seek but don’t know of. Like in this city with its trains that gurgle underneath you, and overhead, and you wait for the one that will take you home. For the moment. Whatever it is. Across the river. For a few minutes, you go under. Then, you emerge, and you see the hustle and bustle, and you smile. After all, you are never lost here.
I sit for hours watching the skyline. I see the green of the Empire State Building. I once typed useless stories and looked at the building that defied the illusion of great depression and drink coffee thinking if this is what it meant to be in the city. I had no money then. No proper job. But it was this damn city.
But where is it? I am walking around in strange places. I am three levels down in subways to locate it.
Hollow men walked past us in Mott Haven in Bronx. In the windows, they sat or stood fanning themselves or just looking out at the streets. It was more alive in any case than most of Manhattan. In the sense it was more full of everything human – grief, and fear. The NYPD booth at the station itself says something about the area’s notoriety as a ghetto. It is nothing like the New York we are coming from. From Union Square, the number 6 train goes to Harlem, and then to Bronx. On the way, the demographics of the the commuters change. At first, you see expensive bags and watches, and hear conversations about coffee, and dates. Then, it begins to change. Almost sudden. Mothers come in with their children, and workers board it in their spotted pants, and they have sad faces. Often, a man would come and sing, and ask for money. He would invoke God, and mercy, and kindness that we have forgotten, and you reach into your bag, and look for coins or dollar bills to get over the awkwardness of the moment. Two years ago, I had read Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace set in Mott Haven in the Bronx, and the book begins with the No. 6 train.
“When you enter the train, you are in the seventh richest Congressional district in the nation. When you leave, you are in its poorest,” he writes.
Mott Haven with its housing projects, and almost no cafes, is mostly Hispanic, and very poor. There are banners that tell its inhabitants where free food is being distributed. It is a ghetto. And dangerous too. Last time I was here, someone answered our queries with an address he scribbled on a piece of paper, and we ended up at the police station. The officer in charge asked us who we were, and if we knew this was one of the most dangerous parts of the country, and told us to take the train back. We weren’t tourists, I had insisted. We were only trying to find out how Kozol wrote his book. He just shrugged.
This time, we get off at 135th Street, and walk to St. Ann’s Church, and at first, we are afraid. It was raining, and we saw what could have been a brothel. Women and men were drinking in the stairway, and there was drunken banter. We looked at the murals they have painted in order to make the walls feel and look a bit better, but the squalor is too much for them to mitigate. We walk around. In fear, but it is good. New York has its secrets. This isn’t one, but it appears to be.
Is the city poetry then? Riding on the trains, it may be in blank verse. I hear it. It is good in parts, and horrible in places that make me feel stupid like SoHo where we stopped by for drinks the other evening. Everything was happy. Everything was put on. Like some performance. The rich made me nervous.
It is in its contrasts that you find you are a misfit. There’s a man I meet in Dunkin’ Donuts in Utica, a town in upstate New York famous for its refugees, who says he is from the city but moved up here. He couldn’t deal with it. The money was always less. The streets were chaotic. But to the traveller, who seeks chaos among other things feels cheated for his investment in fare. Central Park is a spectacle for the ones who justify the city could be beautiful. I like its Gotham City moments. Late in the night, when the buildings look as if they will pierce the skies and the skies in turn don’t even look their part. Devoid of stars, and anything else that memory associates with it, the skies here look like a blanket of a homeless man with its heaviness, weighed down by dirt, grime, and loss.
For all these are powerful things. Everything here hangs. Everything is suspended. You are on your way somewhere. Destinations matter here. Everyone is going somewhere. To love, or to loss. To power, or to a ghetto to either feel more rage, or be resigned…except me. Whether an exile, or a traveller, I’m not sure of my identity here. It is over rated, I tell myself. It matters that you are here, and looking for something. You go up and down, and try to decipher the darkness that lurks outside the windows of the express trains that go through the tunnels.
On these sooty walls, I see my reflection. It is jarred by the speed, but I see faraway places because the rhythm lulls me into making these encounters. Cities pass me by. Then, a city returns. You get off, and you find your way out of the underground. There’s music that tempts. The subway singers. You stand and you listen. In a moment of generosity, you also reach into your bag and get out some money and in an awkward gesture, you give. Giving is always an odd thing. It creates more barriers. You hurry towards the staircase. you get out, and ask vendors which way to go. As if they could lead you what you are looking. I want to find the fabulous. Not the ones that get photographed for their style for the ones that do the undefined.
In Harlem, they sing the gospel songs. Dressed in red, and standing outside an old church. The streets here are wide, and the windows more colourful. I see flower pots, and lace curtains.
New York then becomes this anachronism. It is everyone’s city, and yet in its own journey, it continues to hold its own, giving up, and yet retaining. Like an old dame that’s fabulous, but contained. Because the new wealth wants to take over, change, disrupt the order, and make cosmetic changes. There are scars. There are more things than scars too. There is rage, and there is hopelessness. There is also homelessness, and one night while we walked to the subway station, I see men sleeping on the pavements with their belongings tied to their shoelace, and I ask if they die here in the winters. Of course, I had known the answer.
“Yes, they do. They push them out of the subway stations, and many of them die. This is New York City. It is kind, and it is ruthless,” my brother says.
“Nobody cares then,” I say.
We return to our harbour-side apartment. To rest in peace for the night. The next day, I’d take the train back to see more.
One afternoon before we board the train to go see my friend in Connecticut from Harlem's 125th street station, I figure the restrooms at the station are closed for police activity.
Harlem doesn't have glass and steel high rises. They have brown sandstone buildings that are beautiful, and achingly melancholic. I read about a woman who is refusing to leave her four-bedroom apartment in a housing project in the area because she is afraid of moving elsewhere. The people in the building are gone. But she insists. So she stays.
But mostly everyone is going. Harlem is becoming expensive. Ali says it is unfair, but the city has always been like this.
He says he doesn't go to downtown much. There is too much intellectual activity going on, he says.
There are feminists, liberalists, nudists, artists, and others. They engage in debates over drinks.
Over one such drink session, I am told the transgressive New York doesn't exist anymore. It was 9/11 that killed it all. People are now afraid of the other, she says.
I am looking out of the window of the taxi.
I am only visiting, and for the nostalgist, the transgressive would be an indulgence, I say.
One night, we are in a bar in downtown near Ludlow Street.
We speak about the 1 per cent and the 99 per cent. The man says the one per cent shall decide for the rest. I say I am the 99 per cent, and he won't decide for me. In such spaces, I'd hoped they would talk about other things.
So I take the train home. I am bored of the same conversations about the rich, and the poor.
I came here to hear the poetry of the city, and I went as far as I could, and I think I heard something, but much of it escaped me. Perhaps next time. Maybe I'd look more, and search harder.