Photo by Ronn Aldaman
“No, it is not only our fate but our business to lose innocence, and once we have lost that, it is futile to attempt a picnic in Eden.”
— Elizabeth Bowen
There’s a man across the street. He’s seventy-five, maybe eighty years old. He comes out of a red door in the apartment building kitty-corner from my own, a green gardening glove on his left hand and a plastic bag in the other. It’s the same kind of bag we use for deliveries at the restaurant where I work. He stoops over the curb, examining the refuse all around him. He strains his back, his spine poking out from under a worn white undershirt, as he awkwardly bends with one foot on the curb and one on the street. He hops this way down half the block, gracelessly, as if every step is a careful negotiation with his body to keep himself going. He picks up plastic bottles, receipts, flyers, cigarettes, and stuffs them, methodically, in the plastic bag.
I’m sitting on the back of a U-Haul truck, watching this man. I instantly recognize him. I’ve seen him before, around the same time of night, carrying out the same task. It had made me stop then, too, but only for a moment before I unlocked my door and remembered about dinner and forgot about him. The secret knowledge of this man’s intimate routine washes over me. He does this every night! But how long has this been going on, and to what end? Through several wars, through several mayors, through exponential gentrification, this man has been picking up the litter on this block every single night. I felt at once completely alone in the world, as we all are, and completely at home. Here was my neighborhood. My old man across the street.
I’m waiting by the truck because my roommate and her boyfriend are bringing down the last of the things that she’s moving to her new apartment in a new neighborhood to start a new chapter of her life. I’m tired from a day of work at the restaurant and all I can think of is tomorrow I’m going to wake up and be back at work and the day after that too and in two weeks this will be my U-Haul and I’ll be moving into a new apartment in a new neighborhood to start a new chapter of my life.
This will be the thirteenth time I’ve moved in fourteen years. Five of those times have been in New York City. The hassle and frustration of moving here–the anxious last minute craze to find a place, the ridiculous expense, the narrow walk-ups to maneuver, the lack of privacy, the feeling of claustrophobia–bring up to the surface my dislike of this place I keep coming back to. I am discovering it’s something I constantly suppress, my wariness of New York City. Everyone that lives here has her or his own love-hate relationship with this city, but as I make plans to stay here indefinitely I’ve found that the scale leans to one side. I always find myself reassuring tourists, though, and friends that live elsewhere that I love it. That there really is no place like it. Secretly, I’m repeating the title of a recent Onion article to myself like a mantra every time I see a rat or am forced to touch a subway pole, “8.4 Million New Yorkers Suddenly Realize NYC Is a Horrible Place to Live.” Still, I feel a part of it. A friend once told me New York City is the only real “American” place in this country and it made me proud. Maybe I’m just tired of moving and New York City feels like home in a way that is empty because it’s so full.
And here is this man, who, contrary to all the defiling forces of this city, gets something out of his impossible task. He doesn’t look particularly sweet, I think, for an old man, and that thought is confirmed when I catch him blatantly checking out a woman’s body as she walks by. His face is all concentration and no joy as he picks up the trash. I’ve invented a backstory for him already and I can feel that the part of the block painted green–a weird, unplaceable color between Home Depot’s “Island Getaway” and “Fresh Mint”–is all his, and all the plants between the gate on the sidewalk and the front door are his. He’s the landlord. He bought this building in the seventies, back when South Williamsburg was exclusively factories and Hasidim and puertorriqueños and dominicanos. And he made it his home.
The old man finishes with the trash collection for the day and rifles through the two black garbage cans in the little patio area. He rummages through the plastic bag and transfers everything to the garbage can, using both hands now. His white hair is crazy and sticking up and his glasses seem to be falling to the tip of his nose, because every so often he uses the back of his gloved hand to push them up. He finishes emptying out the bag and goes around his garden, picking off leaves, placing them in the bag, and then empties those into the pail, too. And then he walks back inside, the empty plastic bag still in hand. I’m reminded of a pillar that stays standing in high winds. I’m reminded of my college application, that fateful collection of short answers that landed me in this city in the first place, and how I wanted to come here to follow my passion, any passion. I’d quoted Susan Orlean, that part in Adaptation about needing something that would whittle the world down to a more manageable size.
My roommate comes out and all I can manage is “Check out that man over there.”
“Which one?” But she’s already turned away, working on getting her mattress wedged perfectly between her dresser and headboard. I want to say something grand about how Sisyphus is alive before us and how maybe, just maybe, we’d come out ahead for all our restlessness, but I just help her with the mattress.
Manuela Silvestre is a recent graduate. She wrote the longest thesis in her graduating group. Ironically, she writes short fiction. Her work can be found at http://www.smokelong.com/flash/manuelasilvestre39q.asp.