New York rain is a rain of exile. Beneath the awning students kept in tight knots to keep dry, smoking cigarettes, unmindful of the pedestrian traffic. The water ran along the sidewalk, pressing forth in concave ripples like fan motif wallpaper, shapes moving smoothly, psychedelically, over the drab pavement. Abundant, viscous and dense, it pours down tirelessly between the high cubes of cement into avenues plunged suddenly into the darkness of a well. No city I have lived in knew how to properly drain itself.
I am no stranger to the rain, having grown up in Oregon’s Willamette river valley. “True Oregonians don’t need umbrellas.” A saying commonly heard from those who can afford good raincoats. I never used an umbrella out of laziness—cumbersome things—but in the City I have come round. I had not gone five minutes with a mini umbrella borrowed from my uncle when a mean gust down Lexington Avenue flipped it. The buildings sculpt the winds, channel them as they loom in the gray mist like gigantic tombstones for a city of the dead.
Several times I have nearly lost my footing underground, my shoes scuffling on the slick floors of the subway stations. I have to give up my own movement and ride on the crush of passengers descending the stairs. Bodies all around me. And yet the very height of solitude. “Please, I’m very hungry, please.” A man without legs chanted with a voice lodged behind his tongue, seated on the mud-smeared floor next to a MetroCard kiosk. I have seen him wheeled across the street by a kind stranger, without the crosswalk signal, naturally. When I got off at my stop the train hesitated. Further ahead, an NYPD officer was straddling the threshold, snapping at another rider not to get involved, in what I could not tell. Even if I were to clasp all the people in the world against me it would protect me from nothing.
New York is nothing without its sky. The apartment towers block off the horizon, the azure space above them cut off so that it only gains more power as a solid color field. On days like those I can spend a good five minutes looking at the way the water towers stand out against the groundless blue. From the uninterrupted flow of gently, smoothly running cars, from time to time there suddenly rises a song that recalls the sound of breaking waves. The clear sky grades to evening with tenderness as I walk through Greenwich Village past the shop windows, whose lights are turned on well before nightfall. On other evenings I stroll around the reservoir in Central Park, evenings so gentle and so swift they break your heart. The blue hour is less oppressive here than in Portland. The lamps strike out in long Van Gogh streaks on the lake’s surface. The City’s beautiful parks can almost compensate for the absence of nature. Clouds of Black children are striking balls with wooden bats, shouting with joy; while dog walkers keep their wards from getting tangled (Corgi-Beagle mixes seem popular); while squirrels burrow into the earth at their feet in search of unknown tidbits; while a pigeon buffs out its neck feathers, pressing himself against another (a male, I think) and cooing a solo line. But when the sky grows dull, or the daylight fades, then once again New York becomes the big city, prison by day and funeral pyre by night.
From the window in my friend’s apartment in Brooklyn we see at night the colors of the Empire State building, the Chrystler, the LED screens in the upper east side towers. Millions of lighted windows amid immense stretches of blackened walls carry these swarming lights halfway up the sky…smoldering carcasses still pierced with dots of flame.
“You’re from Portland? Everybody wants to move there. It’s the city to be in these days.” Portland is a little city, or at most a little big one. Nothing there approximates the temporality of the City. I have no business dawdling, roaming like a priest in the Chinese classics, as I was free to do in Portland. I took a moment in one of the campus buildings to walk back and forth alone along the elevator bank, to inspect the stairwell leading to a turquoise gate, the silver water fire extinguisher, and—
“Exit’s this way, boss, read the signs!” a security guard’s head barked at me from the corner.
“So do you want to stay in New York or go back to Portland after you’ve got your master’s?” Not once have I considered the City my future home. I cherish it as a place of exile, for when the family proves too suffocating, and your friends have long stopped answering your texts. “This is perfect, actually,” a psychologist I only visited once told me. “In New York you can reinvent yourself. Your grad program’s in the Village. That’s basically queer mecca, right?” This scene in his office is peculiar in my memory because I visualize it in the third person: I can see myself on the plastic chair, black hoodie, black jeans, left knee bouncing, brown eyes darting here and there from behind my bangs.
Oregon persists in New York with my identity card. The plastic is flimsy and it lacks gaudy holograms; at the more pretentious bars and clubs it is often accused of being fake. “You want me to get NYPD here?” said a broad-shouldered bouncer. “I know you’re a student, I don’t want to do this to you.” “Sir, that is my real ID,” I said, “but if this is going to cause a problem, I’ll walk away.” We locked eyes for ten seconds before he shoved the card back in my hand. “Go inside, have fun,” he said under his breath. I reminded him that he still had to give me a wristband. I tried to appear indignant even as my voice quavered. My other strategy was to avoid contesting it when it happened—an awful mistake; it only damns you further. The City can smell weakness on the nape of your neck. These days I keep my head up and a smile pinned on, a smile that says I’m a hopeless idiot. I’m left alone now.
In short, I am out of my depth when I think of New York. I wrestle with the morning fruit juices, the national Scotch and soda and its relationship to romance—the stuffed elephants and wax indigenous in the Museum of Natural History (Twisted Teddy’s House of Horrors, I call it)—the temperature that swings from hot to cold in two hours—the wind whistling through my ribcage—the excessive luxury of bad taste reflected even in the stupefying neckties—the video screens in the bar showing hardcore gay porn: a man straddling his partner, facing the camera, his free cock a swinging metronome rod—perfunctory cluster chords of car horns—the barber shops where you can get a shave at three in the morning—Take a minute for Amnesty International! Time Out New York, read all about it, folks! Someone must have jumped on the tracks in the Union Square station one night; my normal route was cordoned off and I spent an extra hour among those broken columns like war ruins, welded wires exposed, there in the subway that reminds you of Sing Sing prison, ads filled with clouds of smiles proclaiming from every wall that life is not tragic. Even the notices from Columbia Medical for experimental addiction treatment display the most voluptuous lines of cocaine, the frostiest buds of marijuana, cigarette exhaust from flawless glossy lips. I curled my thumb and index finger around the metal pole and felt to my horror that the spot was warm—not that it really makes a difference. I still leave my pack on top of my bed, forgetting where it has been.
Yes, I am out of my depth when I think of New York. The City knows how to annoy you, overwhelm you, and lay bare your soul, its scorching contact, scandalous and delightful at the same time, clings to every pore of your body. Portland is quiet, Portland is peaceful enough if you came from good breeding, Portland does not strike me like a foreign body in the eye. Portland where I have seen police throw students to the ground, where radical-thinking immigrants seek sanctuary in the churches, where angry white men plow through protesters in their luxury SUVs. There is nothing for me in Portland.
The obvious difference between Portland and the City is the former’s whiteness. Every person I interacted with above was black. I like to visit a Five Guys on Fourteenth Street, and the Southeast Asian workers there communicate with a wonderful key sound—ayep!—that stretches like taffy after bouncing off the a, rising to a shrill pitch. Some white patrons visibly cringe under it every time. Portland has severe homelessness—entire compounds have been flushed out by police in the southeast parks. While growing up my friends and I defied our parents and gave their money to them freely. It’s still hard for me to close my heart to the City’s preterite, they who have let themselves drift into poverty in this city of bankers. One night I was walking along Fourteenth to class when a young black man chased me down and stopped me. “Can I just talk to you?” I paused and looked him. He wore a gray knitted cap and sweater and had a short beard. “I’m sick of people like you,” he said, “always running away scared. I’m not a bad guy. I’m not gonna hurt you.” I nodded. “I just need some food. I have two little girls at home and I can’t feed them.” We set off for the Wendy’s nearby, and my foot caught itself on a concrete square jutting out of the sidewalk. My upper half flung itself forward but I had some heavy books in my pack that night and they pulled me upright again. “Man, you trippin hard,” he said after me.
As we stood in line he asked me for my phone. “I wanna call my wife, let her know.” Without thinking I handed over my iPhone, brushing his knitted fingerless gloves. As he kept redialing, I wondered if his stratagem was to find a nervous twerp saddled with white guilt, let the food and the mark’s anxiety serve as a misdirection while he swiped my phone, to be fenced off one avenue over. Jesus, Lanz, how anti-black can you be? He ordered two double cheeseburger meals, two fruit juices, and a baked potato. We sat at a table, his order number crinkled in one hand, my phone in the other. Eventually he gave it back to me and mouthed Thank you. “You’re cool then?” I said. He nodded. He couldn’t look at me. I said good night and left. I did not feel good about what I did.
I can go a long while forgetting that this desert of iron and cement is also an island. When I crane my neck at my dorm window I can see a hint of the East River. Some evenings I leave the abstract avenues and let myself ride into parts of Brooklyn where the graffiti still endures. My sister sends a text from time to time: man stabbed near Central Park, man opens fire in an upper west side station. “New York is actually pretty safe,” I’ve answered. I’m pleased for the laughing couples around me. Some evenings you feel like you’d like to know their lives. The urban landscape is becoming suburbanized. Individuals report on social media that the Bronx is the new frontier: police have increased their presence, and a Starbucks has opened on one corner. But no amount of fern bars or ultramodern architecture will scour away what it’s like to walk through the smells of the City, the stale cigarette smoke, sizzling kebabs, a belt of dank weed, the openings to the sewer. Perhaps I am just hoping.
Amid so much hopelessness in the City there is also a wonderment that so many can live together with what meager trust we have. And while I feel New York time encroaching on my mindset when the woman in front of me takes her time finding her MetroCard, I also bask in the kindness and smiles of strangers. I loved New York, with that powerful love that sometimes leaves you full of uncertainties and hatred: sometimes one needs exile. The capillaries of the City require you stay in the moment, so that you know when to make space in the elevators and the subway cars, and this requirement has all but banished the voice I took with me from Portland that nestles itself somewhere in my cerebellum and softly chants Death. There is at least one place of deliverance in this world, where you, together with a whole people and for as long as you want, can finally lose yourself forever. But it is not for as long as you want. Water will come not from above, but below. The west Antarctic ice shelf is collapsing, and the City will one day be submerged, creating exile at an incredible scale. The meaning home will irrevocably change, and so will that of water, running through the streets then lifting up in curtains of steam, to fall again on a gentler, doomed city.
Alex Lanz is currently an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the New School. More prose by him appears in The Seventh Wave. He enjoys listening to the music his friends like, and is at work on a family memoir.