Sunday, March 24, 2013

Signal Malfunctions

“You come here in 1995 and you could shack up, and live life, and that was that. But now? New York—it's f*cking Disney World.”

I was sitting on a Queens-bound N train, trying desperately to read my magazine. But a man, who looked like Jared Leto from Fight Club, and a woman who sounded like a mobster’s wife from the 1930’s, were far too entertaining… and loud.

“The whole city can go f*ck itself!” she chimed in with her squeaky, character voice. They both sounded like disgruntled actors, ready for a change.  

“I just hate America's mentality. And New York's mentality? No, it's all goal-orientated. Everyone’s hung up on something. But then where is the community?” said Fight Club Wannabe.

Doll Face bobbed her blonde head up and down in agreement. “Yeah, yeah,” she said. I couldn’t help but think her accent was a fake, unless maybe she’d grown up in New Jersey. No one moves to New York City and suddenly sounds like a character from 42nd Street.

“When is it enough?” Doll Face continued. “I keep thinking I'm going to make it—what's making it? What is that?Then more quietly, she asks, “After years of the same shit, I think, ‘Is this it?’” Her question sounded like a sad, defeated statement, weighing down the air around us.

I’ve always told myself the moment I start to hate New York more than I love it, the time to leave this both exasperating and enchanting city will have presented itself. You see, NYC will save you from the horrors of boredom and normalcy. You’ll achieve more, do much, and see it all—but such frantic liberation from the dreaded “ordinary” comes at a price.

New York City will break you; she’ll beat you to the ground, eat you alive, and then spit up some redesigned version of your former being. This will happen. It is inevitable. You will lose yourself, for better or worse, for a moment or a lifetime. And yet, how you survive is sometimes based on what you were fighting for in the beginning, when you first stepped foot in Manhattan. Do we remember what that was? 

I’m not sure these subway riders did.

“I could leave this damn city and have a half-decent life somewhere else,” the brilliantly blonde man continued. It was obvious something had pushed him over the edge today. His eyes were angry and a sneer lined his lips, making him appear cruel.

“You can't just keep raising prices on everything and not raise salaries. We can't live,” Fight Club said in exasperation. By now, I was no longer attempting to read my magazine and, instead, waiting for them to confirm my assumptions.

“There’s no money is Broadway!” they both said in unison, as though it was their morning mantra.

Assumptions confirmed.

“I feel guilty for eating. I SHOULDN'T feel guilty for eating... But I do because I'm over budget,” he continued. “I'm always over budget and I don't know how to save. How did we make it when we first got here!?”

I could ask myself that same question. But the days of plastic bag suitcases, and surviving off eggs in the sticky, summertime heat are maybe still memories in the making.

“I’ve just had enough.” Ironically, our train arrived at the Broadway stop in Astoria, Queens. I wondered if this sign mocked them.

“Aaaaattention, attention! Everyone, listen up!” the conductor’s voice spurred an audible groan from the entire subway car. Conductors rarely offer tired commuters any good news.

“Because of a signal malfunction at the Astoria-Ditmars stop, this train has been instructed to wait here. More details to come momentarily.”

“Damnit! Are you kidding me, New York?!” Fight Club Wannabe shouted in vain. The city probably didn’t hear him, but he shouted anyway. “This is what I’m talking about. I can’t take this! I can’t TAKE THIS,” he said.

What he really meant (and what we were all thinking) was, “There is nothing worse than knowing your complete lack of power.”

“Let’s catch a cab,” he said to ever-agreeable Doll Face. They stormed off the train with a wave of angry riders, and I followed half-intrigued, half-restless.

We were down the first set of stairs when the conductor’s voice reappeared, louder than before. “Wait a minute! Get back on this train!” he said in a (genuine) New York accent. “It’s a miracle! They fixed the problem!” he continued, with more enthusiasm than I’ve ever heard from a subway conductor.

Now, quite suddenly, something about life had become amusing to Fight Club and Doll Face. They started laughing as they ran back up the stairs, racing each other and sliding into the first subway car.

They laughed, and laughed, until there was no sound, and they were doubled over in joyful pain. I ran past their tear-streaked faces and sprinted to the next car down, wondering if, maybe, they still had some small shred of love left for this city.

Because New York can be quite a redemptive little 
witch, when she wants to be. But most importantly:
She’ll always make you laugh.
Or cry.
Or just feel something.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

Let Your Feet Do The Talking

I’m not a dancer.

I can hop around and rave at concerts, or mingle at some seedy club—but let’s be clear: I don’t know actual steps, and while occasionally I have rhythm, the lack of knowledge about professional dancing leaves me rigid and confused when I’m reluctantly pulled onto any dance floor.

(You’d think after 22 weddings and middle school cotillion, I could handle myself more gracefully. Alas…)

So please imagine my insecurity as I walked toward a swing dancing club in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen. The weather was moderate, but an angry wind made the air feel more like impending winter than spring. Still, I sat outside wrapped in my red coat for a lingering moment, looking the swanky joint up and down. 

“Urgh.” A small twinge of discomfort floated around my stomach.

But as soon as those butterflies appeared, I knew not dancing was no longer an option. I’ve learned over the years how to read that unsettling feeling; certain anxieties must simply become the next challenge or adventure. 

Besides, who doesn’t grow tired of the same bars and repetitive evenings? With this thought, I walked inside.

Ten or 12 friends were already circled up, learning how to “rock step” in time to a big band beat. The room was full of nervous faces, excited feet, and tiny tables illuminated with tea candles. Wine colored walls and a wooden dance floor gave the club an antique touch. The band was tuning on stage as our teacher counted out movements…

Whoops. What did he say? I should've been paying better attention, but my mind was taking in details. Thank goodness Kristin, an avid swing dancer and friend, could give me a private lesson.

“Always rock step with your right foot. It’s like the period of a sentence; it’s always the same,” she said, moving back on her heel with ease. I appreciated the grammar metaphor.

After mastering this very simple step, I rewarded myself with a glass of wine. But standing on the sidelines is dangerous at a swing club: Well-practiced dancers are always looking for partners.

“May I dance with you?” a man asked, offering his hand.

“Oh. Um, yes…” I heard myself mutter.
Simultaneously, my mind was whispering something along
 the lines of, Bad [bleeping] move Brit.”

“But I actually can’t dance!” I exclaimed with true fear. He turned me in a perfectly executed twirl, and then another. “Sure you can,” he replied.

“No, really,” I said, suddenly unable to remember anything about the dumb “rock step.” But my partner just smiled. He twirled me again, and I wondered if my dress might be revealing a bit too much?

“Okay, well… uh, I’m just following you then,” I said with a little shrug.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” he smiled, effectively ending my anxious inner dialogue.

And may I just say… I think it was the best dance of my life. Spin, spin, rock, dip; this guy could truly dance! I became something like to a pile of spaghetti wearing a dress, and stuck closely to his every move.  When we ended in a dip so low my hair touched the floor, I laughed in relief.

After both feet were back on the ground, I promptly hugged Best Dancer Ever (which may or may not be kosher) and made him promise to dance with all my friends. He gladly accepted the challenge, whisking away one girl after another.

As I sat there in the dim lighting, watching the room twist to and fro, I remembered something important: How wonderful it does, in fact, feel to let New York City take lead, and occasionally choreograph life. 
Just for us. 
The lucky 8.5 million.