Solstice Specters: Four Midsummer Ghost and Faerie Stories

“Midsummer Eve was one of the spirit nights of the year, when the boundaries between the worlds were thin and porous. Evil spirits and witches were active. Men were proverbially subject to fairy tricks and queer fancies, as portrayed by Shakespeare.”Mythology Matters


A Midsummer Night’s Dream


I routinely have vivid dreams I rarely remember. When I can recall them, it is only in fragments, like a person recovering from amnesia after a terrible car accident. Because no one ever gets amnesia on account of a fortunate event, I assume the dreams I know I’ve dreamt but am unable to remember are not the kind I’d want to anyway and allow my subconscious its private traumas.


Dreams I do remember upon waking are often loose adaptations of some mundane event from my waking life. For example, the other day my cat was trying to get into the windowsill behind my bed. Oscar was a large tom in good health, but has grown to a Bulgakov-sized Behemoth as a side effect of daily steroids. A 20lb black tux with queerly human behaviors (I recently found him brushing himself with his brush clamped between his two front paws) he’d fit nicely into Woland’s entourage, but not the window. He’s grown too large to slink between the curlicued bars of the bed frame to taunt and be taunted by urban wildlife. I was always a bit anxious he’d fall from the precariously framed screen, so perhaps life behind bars is best for him. Then I dreamt my cat was on the window ledge. See? Mundane. But for this “thin and porous” business…


I dreamt there was a tornado, a plot device also plagiarized from real-life and more mundane than you might imagine here in the Midwestern summer. I looked around for Oscar as a funnel cloud barreled toward us from the horizon, all Dorothy and Toto-like. On the window ledge behind my bed, on the exterior side of the screen, lay my cat. My mother’s cat, to be precise. I’d inherited the fat white cat after her death, and the cat itself had passed away many years ago. “Bella! You have to get inside!” I dream-screamed. She paid no attention to my demands, attached determinedly to the concrete ledge. The wind picked up. “Bellakin!” I fought to wrench her from her perch, but she simply would not move. I awoke in a panic.


White cats are bad omens. That’s what my mother believed. Her head was full of superstitions and faerie tales and god knows what or how it got there. Mind you, her own cat, Bella, was mostly white. But a mysterious white cat showing up outside of one’s home was bad mojo. When a massive, long-haired, solid white cat came lurking around our house one year, she said it was a “harbinger of death.” I protested. “Mom, it’s beautiful. It’s a stray; can’t we please bring it in?” We’d brought in all types of animals over the years. But inviting this creature into our house was verboten. It sat each night outside the sliding glass kitchen door, under our windows or on our porch in front of the door. Bella would cry and howl and growl and hiss. Eventually I too became afraid. When I arrived home one night to spy it sitting under my bedroom window, I genuflected and slept on the couch. We talked at length about calling a priest but opted for animal control instead. It was a crazy thing to get caught up in over a poor stray… My mother was dead within the year.


I can’t for anything imagine Bella out there in the afterlife doing Uber but for Death. And whose soul had she come for? Perhaps the cat was a representation of my mother, slipped through the porous boundary of the spirit world and planted firmly on the threshold between me and a coming storm. Perhaps, as Puck would implore, it was just a dream.


City Gates


I went to the store for coffee.


I’d put off going until there was no coffee and only a tin of tuna and some ramen left in the cabinet. I’d put off going because storms had threatened daily for the previous week, and I’m doing my part to save the earth by walking and using canvas bags. I’d put off going because I get vaguely ambivalent when the food v. bills v. everything else times hit. But I am not ambivalent about coffee. And once I was inside the store, I was no longer ambivalent about food. Blueberry carrot hempseed bars? Organic peanut butter with flax and chia? Sprouted wheat bread? Superfruit spread? Australian lemon curd yogurt? Watermelon water? I am the novelty food market’s target demographic: a single white female freelancer whose ridiculous lack of money is matched only by her ridiculous abundance of curiosity. Momentarily giddy and greedy, I justified my purchase of fruit with the prefix “Super-” by the fact that I was in a German supermarket for poor people: so continental, yet so practical! I wondered if there were even any poor people left in Germany or why there wasn’t more German food here and remembered the coffee. And milk. And eggs. As the cashier muttered my total, I realized I totally could have gotten the watermelon water.


I returned home on foot in the blazing late sun like a little mule laden with canvas sacks of treasure, wobbly and strained. I scanned for cracks in the treacherously underfunded sidewalk infrastructure and for rogue summer children, either of which could send me crashing to the pavement. I successfully dodged dogs and bikes and paleteros and women in majestic, sail-like abaya. The earth’s strong gravitational pull keeps things upright on the solstice, I remember.


And so it was that I was not knocked into the street when just steps from my building, a large black iron gate clanked unlatched and opened onto the sidewalk blocking my passage. It had opened neither too slowly with a spooky creak nor too swiftly as if thrown open by the wind. It just … opened. I stopped abruptly, set down my bags and waited a moment for it to close again before continuing, as if it had been a proper human who had opened the gate. And in fairness, at one time, I suppose it may have been. “Hey, howabout you look where you’re going next time, huh?” I complained aloud as would to anyone who’d flung a giant iron gate open in my face. As I continued on my journey, I threw an accusatory look back in its direction and grumbled something about why do ghosts even open doors and gates when they can go right through them? Like, what the hell is that about?


Some days I think everything I know about living in the city I learned from Seinfeld. Hardly a day passes that my friends and I don’t share tales of the infuriating, inexplicable or downright absurd situations we’ve been subjected to throughout the day, and the equally absurd schemes we’ve come up with in response. I do love living in the city though, precisely because you can yell out loud at a ghost gate to have some fucking respect and literally no one is talking about it at the supermarket the next day when you go back for that watermelon water. Because the inhabitants of cities have lives.


Even those who no longer do.


A Romance in 3 Acts, by either Shakespeare or Chekov, I don’t know. But it’s utter, utter crap. See Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 instead.


I’d been witnessed having a bit of a low-key row at the pub over vodka tonics, and he’d checked in with me when my boyfriend got up to use the bathroom. He came back to check on me each time my boyfriend excused himself. He seemed a bit shy and sweet. Not at all like my boyfriend, who was not in the bathroom because he had to relieve himself, who thought American Psycho was a how-to manual. Things eventually ended with Patrick Bateman and I. Meanwhile, I became accustomed to my server at the pub, a preferred meeting place for my client. I was there routinely for work, and so was he. He had raven hair, pale olive skin and a subtle Slavic accent. He told me he wanted to get out of Chicago and move to Moscow. I wasn’t lying when I replied, “Me too.”


I know people who immediately become friends in such situations, dropping in unannounced, inviting each other to shows, saying things like, “My friend Kristian so-and-so… Do you know him? Oh I’ll have to introduce you…” These people usually bang on about being loners but know someone at literally every establishment in town. Then there are people who draw hard and fast lines between their waiters and their peers, who cloak class anxiety under pretense of professionalism but fuck the coat girl. These people fancy themselves well-adjusted but are horrible humans. Me? I was just happy to see him every month. It was nice to be around a nice person in a cruel world. It helped that he was devastatingly handsome, a cross between Rami Malek and a young Vladislav Surkov. Macedonian. He could have been one of those hackers for all I know, but he was so beautiful I couldn’t possibly care. And I was content to leave it at that. I was in no mood for relationships after Bateman. A routine lament for Moscow with a beautiful man was enough romance for me.


One day I showed up to the pub, and he wasn’t there. Earlier in the year my scarf had disappeared from this very same pub and then inexplicably reappeared, so I didn’t panic. Schedules change. To be honest, I was a bit sadder than I thought I would be. A young girl busing tables came up and asked me how to get involved in our organization. “Who are you and what have you done with Kristian?” I thought as the long memorized lines from the bylaws rolled off my tongue. As I headed toward the door, my waitress inquired if she could ask a personal question. I was done talking. “You can ask, but I can’t promise I’ll answer.” “Are you … dating anyone?” She seemed like a nice person, but that’s not my scene. “Who is asking?” “Kristian. Do you know Kristian? He works here. He thinks you’re so beautiful.” “No. I mean, Yes. I mean I know him, and I’m not dating anyone.”


And then I left. Like an idiot.


There was much ado about if I should call the pub, but I decided I would just see him the next time I was there, like my scarf. Because now I believed in magic. The next time, however, moved increasingly farther down the calendar. No matter, he had been there for ages… Until he wasn’t. There were over a hundred people crammed into the event room to see the kind of person a hundred people should cram into a room to see, but not one of them was him. If he had wanted to see me, then… why… It was hot and damp from the torrential evening rains and I wanted to weep a little but I didn’t. Before leaving, I staked out the waitress he’d asked to ask me personal questions. “I was rather hoping Kristian would be here.” “He doesn’t work here anymore,” she explained. “Why?” “He’s moved away.”


I wanted to weep a lot and I did.


After a summer rain, my mother would take us children into the back yard to see the drops of dew on the tree leaves, which she would have us believe were faeries. Rain, or idiot faeries who fuck up people’s romantic lives… Workplace, or magical Irish pub where things strangely materialize and vanish… Psychologically moving between the realms of the material and immaterial seems no more preposterous to me than physically moving from Avondale to Moscow. But I can think of few things more absurd than when the living become ghosts to one another.


For Sentimental Reasons


It’s always raining these summers now. Searing heat and flooded underpasses. We’re far enough north for there to be fewer hours of darkness than required for sleep, but the weather feels more like that of a subtropical developing nation. The trauma of climate change, like terrorism, is best responded to by maintaining a sense of normalcy. And by leaving the AC off. And by walking places. So one sweltering evening, a friend and I headed out for ice creams. A light drop of cold sky water here and there on our sweat-slick skin felt exhilarating. We arrived at a busy paleteria and debated eating inside or nah while making obnoxious guesses about the flavors. “It’s black, so black currant.” “No, look at it. It’s black brown. It’s tamarind or coffee.” We brazenly settled on scoops in cups, chocolate chip and strawberry cheesecake, straight up owning our basic whiteness. But we chose to eat them in the rain on our way home. We weren’t so basic we couldn’t get our hair messed up. I didn’t mention the matter in deliberations, but I think everything is better in the rain. Everything.


Living in my neighborhood requires navigating both cultural barriers and dangerous streets. “Basic white girl.” There is in fact no confirmation of my ethnicity, and most people here don’t see me as an interloper since I am on the swarthy end of the Caucasian spectrum, and everyone here is from somewhere else. But guilt is guilt. And girl is girl. So when I hear a lone man’s voice behind me on a dark side street, I move into the light. Which is what I did when about three blocks from home we heard a voice behind us that put the hair on my neck on end.


I stepped into the parkway and turned around. Emerging from the inky night and backlit by the rain-blurred neon lights of the city, an older man approached, passed, and continued down the block, acknowledging neither us nor any of his surroundings. The words I had been unable to make out earlier were lyrics.

I love you and you alone were meant for me
Please give your loving heart to me
And say we’ll never part

I think of you every morning
Dream of you every night
Darling, I’m never lonely
Whenever you are in sight

I love you for sentimental reasons
I hope you do believe me
I’ve given you my heart


He sang the song slowly and sonorously in a professionally trained, and I suspect professionally performed, baritone voice as luscious as our ice creams. We followed behind, mirroring his pace despite the increasingly inclement weather, caught up in whatever spell had been cast upon him. I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone sing so beautifully, so intentionally, outside of a concert, and even then maybe only at La Traviata. This isn’t the kind of neighborhood Lyric Opera singers reside in. It’s not even the kind of neighborhood season ticket holders reside in. I wanted to approach him to pay a compliment and perhaps to inquire, but I feared doing so would break the spell.


“You really missed something out there,” I announced as I whirled into the apartment, dripping with rain and delirious with noirish romance. “I know. That’s why I don’t go out there,” my roommate joked. I scowled and began singing in an unfortunate tone but with all the cheeky swagger of Bill Murray’s lounge act. “I love you. For sentimental reasons. I think of you every morning. I dream of you every night. I love you. For sentimental reasons.” I looked like a drown rat, my ice cream had melted, and I was really hamming it up for my audience of confused felines. Everything and I mean everything this week had been so fucking awful, it felt good to blow off steam. But I meant each word I sang. About my mom. About my dead pets. About my mercurial Macedonian. About everyone who is still around until they no longer are. And then I simply could not stop singing, as if possessed.


“You’ve been pixilated,” my mom would say whenever I fell into these silly moods. Pixilated meant gotten to by the pixies. By the faeries. By Puck. There was nothing she couldn’t explain in terms of the supernatural. And maybe it’s just where the sun’s been in the sky, but I confess there seem increasingly fewer events I can explain using logic. And those I can? They frighten me more than ghosts.


Besides, even though faeries can fuck things up for no good reason at all, they at least apologize:


If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And, as I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friends,
And Robin shall restore amends


–Shakespeare, from A Midsummers Night’s Dream


Stormy Weather

It was dark as dusk that afternoon when I lay down on the bed and gazed mournfully out the window. Our third floor walk-up on a narrow side street rose directly from a narrow sidewalk, on the other side of which was a narrow parkway lined with elms. A distinctly urban arrangement, yet one of forced intimacy with nature. The canopy of elms wrapped snugly around the sun room and grasped threateningly at my window, just out of its reach. In the growing darkness I rolled over and latched the frame closed to barricade myself from the approaching deluge.

Outside, a ritual summoning of the rain began. The branches thrashed. The limbs on the branches thrashed. The leaves on the limbs of the branches thrashed. It would start erratically, violently, as if possessed and intensify until they eventually thrashed together as one, in slow motion, gyrating like the last rotation of a spinning coin. Then, stillness. Silence. The entire performance would be repeated again and again until the rain arrived, sometimes lasting hours. Flashes of lightning captured the affair in lurid snapshots. I looked at my phone. No messages.

It had stormed every evening for days, for weeks. Every afternoon was oppressively hot and thick with humidity. People took water bottles with them to walk to the corner store it was so draining. People returned home bleary-eyed and monosyllabic it was so suffocating. Then at a certain point in the second half of the day, never the same time from day to day, never anyway to plan for it, never abiding forecasts, the sky would darken, trees would assume garish contortions, thunder would moan across the western border of the city and you’d hear the raucous clang of rain and hail before you saw it … like a warning. The entire city endured a daily meteorological Blitzkrieg.

Outside, people ran in all directions. Inside, people stood in windows and anxiously watched them. The narrow street became a narrow stream. The apartment shook. And it would all end as abruptly as it began. Except for the heat that refused to dissipate, always leaving it feeling unfinished somehow.

The previous evening I’d gotten out of the shower to find the day’s tempest had arrived at least three hours off schedule. He’d offered to come pick me up “all formal like” for dinner, and I had declined. I hadn’t even told him my name. I certainly wasn’t going to tell him my address. I towel dried my hair, poured a drink and monitored the storm and the clock. Storm. Clock. Sip. Storm. Clock. Sip. Thunder clapped. I cracked.”I’d like to request your chauffeur services after all.” “I’m in a cab.” Fuck. “I can have the cab swing by and pick you up.” Panic.

“No.” Continue reading

A Week In Autumn

It began as bleak as anything could be. Going on day four of solitude, alternating between pacing the room, writing down everything frantically for posterity, for clarity, for any idea of what to do next, then curling up in a fetal position under a pile of down blankets, I was running empty on my own resources. I wished myself no harm, nor others, I just wanted everything to. go. away. But no amount of fluffy bedding could muffle the sound of the cat’s worried mews, of the hellish symphony of construction next door, of the ominous howl of the wind through the drafty window, of my own racing thoughts. I had to get out of this noisy apartment.


It was a quiet, grey Tuesday afternoon in October. I exited the Jarvis el stop, lit a cigarette and held my head up high. I was there to meet a friend, a friend who had always been there for me like he was there for me today, whom my former beau had informed me only kept my acquaintance because he wanted to get into my pants. I didn’t have the luxury of debating if men and women could ever really be friends at this point though and resented that I was going to have to explain why I’d been ignoring his texts. I saw him waiting for me. Chin up. He gave me a hug, and I burst into sobs. Sobs I’d been holding back for days. In silence we walked down the sidewalk, tears streamed down my cheeks. We sat on a wooden bench overlooking the beach at the end of the street, I offered him a cigarette, told him everything, every dark and confused thought, every fear, every way I had fucked up, every regret. I sat looking straight ahead, across the horizon, eyes scanning the small hill of grey stones, the smooth sand, the dark, turbulent waters, the overcast sky, the lilac clouds in the distance giving way to those promising rain. An icy wind scalded our cheeks and threatened our cigarettes and snapped me out of it. After a half hour of crying and confessing with abandon, I gathered my composure and dug about in my bag for something to wipe the mascara and mucus from my face while he doled out advice and shared stories of his own screw ups and struggles. “I care about you, as a friend. Do you understand? I have no ulterior motives.” “I want to believe you, but it’ll be a while before I can trust a man again. Or myself.” “I know.” The wind kicked up, assaulting us with sand, water, leaves and bark, and we headed inside. We warmed ourselves with black coffee at the dining table and chatted about work, vacations, life while two cats vied for our attention. The sky grew dark, and a small lamp in the corner cast everything in chestnut tones. “You seem better now.” “I feel better now.”


By the following evening, all hell was breaking loose. Outside, pedestrians were losing battles with umbrellas. Inside, I sat in a booth drinking a “pumpkin spice latte” and picking at a whole wheat “bagel” with “hazelnut cream cheese.” I had no appetite, but needed to get the manufactured, cloyingly sweet taste of pumpkin goo off my palate, and I had to keep drinking the coffee to stay awake. The evening was not going well. I’d just been given a lecture on how my lack of interest in marriage and a family, along with my penchant for sleeping with artists, must mean I enjoy being miserable and unstable. As if people with spouses and children have inoculated themselves against misery and instability. As if my ambivalence to the institution were not a consequence of my own miserable and unstable family. As if I had ever dated an artist before. As if I’d plans to do it again. As if I thought it were helpful to speak of people in stereotypes. I’d left the office shaken. What the fuck was wrong with people? I hadn’t even gone there to discuss relationships. I needed paperwork signed. Doctors should really stick to doing what they know, like paperwork, and not try to analyze people they see for 5 minutes every 2 months. In the coffee shop I tried to read. Well, his wife is dying. I should not take that marriage stuff personally. Still… Jesus, this latte is disgusting. I was supposed to be meeting someone for coffee. I texted, called, nothing. Well, traffic was a mess, and I was in no hurry to venture out into the gale. I wrote a bit, tried to read. I’d been in a boring normal appropriate relationship for 8 years, and that made me miserable. What the hell did he know? I thought if I took another sip of my seasonal concoction I’d puke. Still no texts. Things were getting chaotic out there in way that encouraged me to leave sooner rather than later. “Hey, L-, it’s T-. Not sure where you are but I’ve been waiting for you forever and I am not waiting any longer. I mean, I hope you’re not trapped under a fallen branch or something.” I left, wrapped my trench coat tight around me, gave up on the umbrella, tugged my beret down over my head, found a doorway where I eventually was able to light a smoke. The night out there was wet and black and slick and wild and everyone was either running or holding on for their lives. People enjoy being miserable and unstable my ass.


Storms departed, leaving warm orange days in their wake. Friends poured wine. Family phoned. Ex-therapist e-mailed. Cat stopped behaving upsettingly (except when I caught him watching a slasher flick, his eyes dilated and bulging from their sockets, all cartoon-like.) I cooked, slept, did yoga, wrote, paid visits, read a bit about Buddhism, read a bit about Fascism. I picked up a Reader and put it back down. Fuck all, he’s probably sick of himself at this rate… I gathered myself. I watched a documentary on Catholicism. God is love. But what the hell is love? Continue reading

Montrose Point

Late one June morning I rolled out of bed in the black tank that is my second skin, pulled on some thrift-store jeans and Merrills (me, in hiking shoes), brushed my teeth, put on black eyeshadow and sunglasses, got a to-go cappuccino and headed to Montrose Point. And it occurred to me then that regardless how forlorn or otherwise stricken I feel, I can always manage to get to Montrose Point for a stroll, or walk, or hike or just to lie in the sun and read and write and watch.


“I wanna see zees beek beeldings, your beek beeldings,” a friend visiting from Paris once insisted. Yes, we have big, big buildings. But Chicago, though notorious for segregating its citizens, has managed to integrate its Industrial Revolution decay and grime with oases of nature and tranquility, to balance the yang of its tall structures and hard edges with the yin of verdant parks and a lapping waterfront. Our skyline of concrete and steel edifice is dramatically underlined by what is possibly the best front yard on the planet, “forever open, clear and free”. By law. For what “law” means in Chicago. Which isn’t much. Which makes its continued existence all the more incredible.


Between me and the lake lies a quintessentially dangerous and colorful inner-city neighborhood known for its crime, deteriorating Jazz-age facades and the invention of poetry reading as contact sport. Between this neighborhood and the lake lies a talon-shaped slice of heaven.


Montrose Beach

My trek often begins at the northwest base of the park where the beach shoulders Lake Shore Drive and, in the warmer months, involves traipsing through the shallow water, petting other people’s dogs, tripping over other people’s children and fantasizing of stealing away in a kayak all the way out to the Atlantic ocean. In the colder months, I just sit and let the wind smack sense into me. After the blizzard this year, the beach was lined with massive freak sand-ice glaciers; it looked lunar.


“Montrose beach is Chicago’s largest beach. It is located in Uptown.[12] It also houses the most parking of any beach in Chicago. It is one of few beaches patrons may launch non-motorized watercraft, such as kayaks and catamarans into Lake Michigan. It also has one of only two dog beaches in the Chicago Park District, making it a popular beach for dog lovers. In the fenced off dog-friendly section at the north end of the beach leashless dogs are permitted once on the sand. Montrose beach hosts the Junior Guard regional championships, the annual Beach Soccer Festival, and numerous runs and walks for various charities. The beach house on the south-end of the beach was designed by E.V. Buchsbaum, it was modeled after the North Avenue Beach House, and looks like a lake steamer. Unfortunately, in the 1950s, the east wing of the beach house burned in a fire, which was not rebuilt.[13] The beach house was recently remodeled with a 3,000 square foot patio deck, it will house only the third full service restaurant, named “The Dock at Montrose Beach”, at a Chicago beach after Oak Street Beachstro and North Avenue’s Castaways. It is part of the Park District’s plan to add “more upscale concessions to the lakefront”.[14] Due to budget constraints Chicago eliminated the traditional July 3 fireworks in Grant Park, instead opting for a down-scaled fireworks displays in three different locations in Chicago on the 4th of July, the north side display will now be held at Montrose Beach every year.[15]” ~from Wikipedia: Montrose Beach


That’s not true. Rahm cancelled the fireworks this year. All of them. He’s the Grinch who stole fireworks. I love fireworks. They remind me of my mother who died tragically of cancer, because she loved fireworks. I never did, but now they remind me of her. And Rahm has taken that away from me. My dead mother is waiting in hell to thank Mayor Emanuel personally.


Conventionally the beaches nearest downtown, Oak Street and North Avenue beach, have been considered the sun and sand destination points for residents who actually seek out that kind of thing. The rest of us who are honest with ourselves about where we live, which is not Miami or LA, just go to the neighborhood beach, largely out of a sense of obligation. “Shame not to take advantage of this weather. We get so few nice days like this.” But according to a recent poll, my neighborhood beach is the best one in Chicago. They’ve cleaned up the trash, added pretty blue chaise lounges with umbrellas, a patio bar/restaurant, pretty blue recycling containers, pretty security and lifeguards. Even the kayak rentals and volleyball courts that have always been there no longer look post-apocalyptic. There is also a popular section just for dogs. Pretty dogs. On my latest pilgrimage to Montrose beach (previously called Wilson Ave. beach when it was covered with used syringes and invasive zebra mussel shells, and while it actually remains located nearest Wilson Ave., Montrose, the name of the street on the opposite side of the park, is, well, prettier…) I half expected to spy the cast of Baywatch running in slow motion across the shore. Somehow neighborhood yahoos have quickly adapted to their new beachfront. High-tops and Doritos bags have been exchanged for sarongs and Nalgene bottles. I’m afraid to ask what they did with the poor people, or when Rahm will begin charging admission. Or cancelling summer. Continue reading

Les Misanthropes Take Manhattan

I came in like a wrecking ball… I was slumped in the backseat with my luggage, singing along to the faint emissions of the radio as the cab climbed the Queensboro Bridge out of Manhattan en route to La Guardia. I fantasized of a million wrecking balls destroying the city behind me so I would never be able to return. Not even in my memories. I fought back tears and tried to distract myself with the changing scenery. It was late in the evening when we escaped the steel behemoth sliced through with blazing sun, crossed the East River and descended into street level shade. Queens was gritty and gaudy and pulsing with life. While I was ready to be leaving New York, I was struck with regret that only on my journey home was I privy to a glimpse into its unpolished soul. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.” He meant driving into Manhattan of course. Leaving it was another thing entirely, especially if one were fleeing a claustrophobic hotel room all wrong-headed on pricey cocktails and danger. You, you wre-eh-eck me.


It could have been the Triborough Bridge.


I grew up in a small Midwestern town living vicariously through 1970’s & 80’s children’s books set in New York City. Books about school kids who take buses and subways by themselves or who spend nights in museums. But each time I visit I am always a bit sad that it does not inspire in me a marvelous reverie. The New York City of my reality has never lived up to the New York City of my imagination, of my expectations. Maybe I’ve seen too many movies is the problem. Mind you, I don’t dislike New York. Quite the opposite. It feels too comfortable to provoke exhilaration. Too familiar to be disorienting. Too everything to be anything terribly unique. Possibly something in me is broken. Perhaps it is perfectly logical, my disappointment. I accept without debate that this city is the penultimate specimen of human existence, a microcosm of our “condition,” that the entire rest of the world could break off and fall into space forever and still anyone could get a pretty accurate understanding of Homo sapiens from New York City. Certainly my ambivalence is justified. The working title for Annie Hall was Anhedonia.


We sat in Central Park atop a stone bench with a frozen pond to our backs, watching people watch tumblers and buskers and each other. Someone under a bridge was singing an aria, a homeless woman or a ghost, I wasn’t sure. I told him I wasn’t sure why I was here. In New York. I suggested he was fundamentally unhappy, impossible to satisfy. He spoke of Molière’s Le Misanthrope, of the cheerful optimist who accepts life as it is and of the misanthrope who believes things could be better. That, in fact, the unhappy man is an idealist, whereas the happy man is a cynic. There we were, a couple of misanthropes out for an afternoon of recreational people watching. The story of Molière’s protagonist made me feel better about being sad in New York, but I still didn’t know why I was there. We got up, and he gathered a snowball. I panicked and implored him not to. But rather than hurling it at me, he turned around and threw it into the pond with a splash. “Thin ice,” he confirmed, smiling widely, eyes too aglitter. I surveyed the hole in the pond. It really was. Continue reading