March 2009 will mark the ten-year anniversary of returning to New York City.
The first year I lived here, in 1993-94 was a blur: an apartment in the Bronx, working with kids at a neighborhood center, $10 all-you-could-drink Saturday nights at Rockridge on Bleecker, 6 a.m. 4-train rides home, and smoking blunts with the janitor who also dealt crack and “managed” the immortal hip-hop trio You may remember them; the DJ was the only one who wore a hat. I was broke, the city was cheap, and it was glorious. The second time I lived here, the spring and summer of 1995, was more of a slog: a free 8×8 room in a Jesuit retreat house on Staten Island, a job as a day laborer and an endless stream of “hey college boy, you fuckin’ worthless college boy, can’t even mix cement, fuckin’ college boy,” of carrying a suit in the trunk of my car for all the job interviews I didn’t get, of hauling pallet of sheetrock down stairs, by myself, on 100-degree day at an empty Queens bank while the truck driver sat and watched because its against “union rules” and he could lose his job by helping me, and of ultimately getting loaded on my friend Eric’s expense account, waking up at his hotel, quitting the construction business and leaving New York until it had something to offer me…or until I had something to offer it.
I returned in 1999, this time with a piece of paper declaring that I am a professional writer, make that, a master of professional writing. I also returned with a roommate, Kim, a girlfriend of eight years who had built a career in the midwest while I credentialed myself on the west coast.
I was ready to return.
It’s a funny thing about ten years, it’s a significant length of time, but it’s either too long or too short, or maybe neither, or maybe both. By actuarial tables, I have two more years before my life is half over, so ten years means little. By the fact that nobody says “your young, you’ve got all the time in the world” anymore, ten years means a lot.
Ten years does mean I’ve spent a quarter of my life in this town of New York City, more than anywhere else except my hometown of Billings Montana, and it won’t be that long now. A decade is more than enough time to collect a lot of stories, but too much time to remember the exact details, the days, hours, people, places and things that make living in Metropolis and endless source of anecdotes, a sort of currency for all that is given up in this crowded, expensive, loud, rude, smelly polyglot of bodies, buildings and broken dreams.
Oh, but there are stories, the stories we can live here to tell:
- It is my first night back. My brother Daniel comes to help me move in, which takes all of twenty minutes. We hit an Irish dive on Third Avenue whose name I’ve forgotten, but still recall they had a $4 Bud bottle and shot of Jameson special that I would indulge later that summer when I finished my first book around 3 a.m. That night, Daniel and I do longshoreman’s work on the $4 special. On the way home, we find an off-white leather loveseat, no holes, solid padding. It’s small, barely fits Kim and I, but all it needed was a coating of Murphy’s oil soap and some tender love-seating care. I will be hanging my legs over the side of that particular piece of street furniture for the next seven years.
- I am laying on that loveseat watching television, thinking I could use a cold drink, which wouldn’t require moving since the fridge was within reaching distance. But it would require sitting up….when a pounding on the door and an angry “NYPD OPEN UP!” gets me right up off the couch. There’s a moustache, a trenchcoat, a badge, a belly, a living breathing Andy Sipowicz. “You hear any fighting yesterday night?” “No.” “You didn’t hear a guy get thrown off the roof last night?” “No…is he dead?” “He got thrown off the roof, what the fuck do you think?” “Oh. Who was he?” “He was a fucking drug dealer that’s who. Here’s my card, call me if you hear anything.” Then onto the next door…BAM! BAM! BAM! Later, I went up to the roof to check it out. See my very own cop show crime scene….Nothing. I never hear anything about any drug dealer getting thrown off the roof.
- People don’t ask as much as they used to, but sure, I remember where I was when I first heard. I was half-asleep. It was quarter to nine in the morning. My radio alarm had gone off and someone on WNYC , if memory serves Brian Lehrer , was reporting that it was a news helicopter that crashed into the building. Then the phone rang. It was Daniel, “Dude, turn on CNN…”
- My 30th birthday, a surprise party, a bunch of people hiding in the stairwell at Grand Central Station. Surprise! We’re going to a Mets game! Alas, it was cold, the stadium was mostly empty and the Mets got clobbered. However, Kim did come running back to the seats at one point to excitedly tell me that one of the couples in our little group was in a stall together. And one of them was on their knees. But not the one you’re thinking of. The best birthday present I got that year was having a friend go down on his best girl in the best upper deck bathroom stall at Shea Stadium. A memorable game, no. A memorable afternoon…Lets Go Mets!
- On the afternoon of my wedding, I walked to the church, trying desperately not to scuff my shoes between our digs on Christopher St. and St. Xavier Church on 16th. Somehow, I managed, but also managed to be way out of character by showing up 45 minutes early. That was entirely too much time to stand around obsessing about whether I was sweating too much. A homeless woman struck up a conversation about the impending nuptials and when I started fidgeting with my tie, she slapped my hand. “It looks good, leave it alone!” She was right. I exhaled and stopped sweating.
It’s the day after Thanksgiving and a family argument breaks out over the best route from the Upper West Side bar where we we’re enjoying happy hours to Daniel’s apartment in Ft. Greene. A wager is made. Daniel and the three sisters-in-law will hop on the 1-train and transfer, whereas I will walk with my brother Brian, in from San Francisco, down to 59th and hop the A-train all the way to Atlantic. Losers have to serve the Thanksgiving leftovers and do the still “soaking” dishes. I am so certain we will win, we stop to have a beer, only to get to Brooklyn to find them all smiling and waiting on the stoop. Daniel is a chef, so the dishes end up taking two hours. Years later, after he’s long left Brooklyn, he confesses that they took a cab. The brazen cheating, especially by my wife, appalls me, but I take solace in knowing my train route would have won without their performance-enhancing taxi ride.
- My friend Eric and I volunteer to run a weekend gym class at the Yung Wing School down in Chinatown. All of the kids are of Asian descent, minus the one black kid who had no desire to do anything but shoot one jump shot after another. With this group, we try dodgeball. We try basketball. We try flag football. We try wiffleball. We try soccer. We try games without a point that get the kids moving around. We try jumping jacks. The boys play along, but with all of the joy of Oliver Twist being marched into the workhouse. We make an arrangement. Fifteen minutes of freeze tag then we can play the game they want to play. That afternoon, Eric and I learn how to play Yu-Gi-Oh cards. Physical fitness be damned, the kids are having fun. I wonder if Eric will teach his young kids Yu-Gi-Oh cards back in Chicago. I hope not, it’s nowhere near as fun as freeze tag.
- If I had to pick one person to stand in for the city, I’m going with my barber Frankie at Anthony’s on 26th and Third. A Sicily native, he’s always got stories of his island youth, of the best place in Queens for German food, of 9/11 possibly being an inside job, and of what drives hot ladies to lesbianism. I started going to him the first month, will go to him until I die. Or move away. Whichever comes first. He’s a haircutter extraordinaire, a homemade vintner, and a raconteur of the first order. One visit, he shared a glass of his new batch of red wine with me while we discussed Italian movies and he offered the single greatest piece of film criticism this side of Pauline Kael. “Last Tango in Paris…that movie really got a lot of people into ass-fucking.” I am quite certain I would not get an insight like that at Supercuts.
- It was the day we started dropping bombs on the Taliban. It was cold and Kim had made chili. We’d watched some football in a bar, so maybe there was some liquid courage. Kim saw them first. Huddled in a doorway. They each couldn’t have been more than twenty, shivering without coats and a pathetic change cup that they weren’t even paying attention to. He worked off-the-books at the Fulton fish market, but it was still shut down, so they had to give up the room at the pay-by-the-week hotel. Her folks lived on Staten Island, she’d called and told them she was alive, but they hated him, so she stayed with the freelance fishmonger. Love won out over shelter. The only thing he seemed to be carrying was the Kurt Cobain Diairies. They enjoyed the chili, ate a ton of it, and both of them managed to sleep on the loveseat. They left at dawn. Maybe Kurt’s right that all alone is all we are….but not being alone sure helped those few months afterward.
- It’s February 2009, and the news today…oh boy. I’ve come full circle, ten years to get back to where I started. At least the piece of paper still says I’m a professional writer. It’s been said, in the first Great Depression, that the movie industry boomed because people wanted to escape. On a Tuesday, Kim and I became those people, blowing off responsibilities, or lack of anything better to do, to take in a matinee at the Ziegfeld Theater, the massive midtown movie palace with plush red seats, ornate design and a ticket-taker who wished everyone “the best of times right here at the Ziegfeld Theater.” Before the show we wonder if the guy in the suit is lying to his wife about being at work. We start to write his story …but then the lights go down, projectionist starts up the film, the palace goes dark, we don our 3-D glasses and lose ourselves in the dark heart of the warm city.
What the hell…We sign the lease.
The next ten years begin.
Raised in Billings, Montana, Patrick Sauer now lives in Greenwich Village. A senior editor at www.TheDailyTube.com and a contributing editor at Inc., Sauer has also written for Fast Company, City, Details, Desert Living, Success, Essence, Time Out New York, Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood and Smith. He is the author of Court TV Presents: You Be the Judge and the Complete Idiot’s Guide to the American Presidents. Read more at his website: patricksauer.com