Dispatch from under the Overpass



151st St. & Riverside Dr. 10031

Neighborhood: Harlem

It’s weird, how often you’ll find in out-of-the-way urban areas—below an overpass, next to a river or stream, next to railroad tracks—a pair of jeans, a pair of shoes, unmatching dirty socks, filthy underwear, cast off as if these places were just other rooms, were the private dressing quarters of the damned. I’ve always wondered at this: “These goddamned jeans are pissing me off,” only to be thrown away as the owner walks off into the sunrise in his underwear to find some even more secluded area to sleep off the night, the booze, the whatever. The jeans have that story, the striped tube sock turned tan has that story, the underwear definitely has that story.

Once while living in Harlem, finishing a run on the bike path in Riverside Park, I chanced upon a high-powered drug-addled couple fucking in one of the stairways that leads from the park up to Riverside Drive. For a split second they didn’t notice me, and I saw an act of sex that was almost ridiculous in its urgency because you could tell that neither the man nor the woman were there. Both seemed to feel nothing. It scared me, two people in this act, unfeeling, uncaring, stuck in their respective other worlds. When they noticed me I was already walking by them (I had to get up the stairs, I had to get home) as if I hadn’t seen a thing, and the woman started to pull her pants up, embarrassed, but the man convinced her to turn around and keep taking it. I think about this and wonder why. He seemed to get nothing out of it, but he kept pumping away at four in the afternoon, rush hour traffic twenty feet above on Riverside Drive whizzing by, the smell of urine on those stairs almost alive, and he was looking off, dead, at a completely different reality than the one in which he was living, the woman nothing but putty. Why even continue?

My wife and I lived on Riverside Drive at the corner of 151st Street in a huge (by Manhattan standards) dimly-lit two-bedroom apartment. The apartment building itself was one of these urban hideaways. Sometimes coming home late at night from work at the restaurant I would enter at street level and walk up the cramped hidden stairway from the lobby to the first floor, and the smell of urine would attack me, and there in front of the door leading out to the hallway would be a small puddle, drying in the heat. The next day the stairs would be hosed down and bleached, but again that night I would smell urine.

Our nextdoor neighbor often stayed up all night, smoking crack in our hallway, because when he was like this his parents locked him out of the apartment. He was probably in his forties, his parents in their early to mid sixties. Again, I wondered why the hell he picked this spot. He obviously felt safe from the authorities, but it seemed too public, neighbors entering and leaving their apartments, even in the wee morning hours. My wife often had to step over him, passed out, on her way to work breakfast and brunch Sunday mornings at Café Luxembourg. This man, who would greet neighbors when sober, ignored everyone when he was high, creating his own privacy. I hated it when he did this. I felt trapped in my own apartment, and if I went out there he was often blabbering to himself, playing with a glove, a pile of dust, any stupid little thing, and well on his way to bliss or hell or wherever he was headed.

Another of the neighbors did the opposite. He would get disgusting drunk and high on I don’t know what-all and, sitting on the hallway windowsill, he would greet us on our way in from work or from our own night on the town. These meetings were always scary because, though talkative and friendly, this man betrayed an anger that showed even more readily in his state of disrepair. You often couldn’t understand him, and you just wanted to get by and into your apartment. Unlike the other man, however, this guy was always gone in the morning, having been taken in by his momma, an unbelievably patient and nice woman.

As you can imagine, I never felt at home in this apartment, coming from Kentucky, raised in a house, plenty of space to get into trouble in our own backyard. But, of course, the backyard can’t compete with the creek running just beyond it or the train tracks across the cornfields or the trails running through the woods just beyond the creek. These places held mystery and, surely, adventure. I needed the equivalent of these places when I first moved to the city, and the bars were it. But, though I often felt jocular and alive, pumped by music as the nights wore on, I never felt truly comfortable. Eventually, in need of less adventure and more quiet, I graduated to the libraries and the bookstores, the parks when it was nice out, anyplace I could find peace enough to read myself into another world.

Which is why, on a morning before work, in my new town in North Carolina, killing a couple hours before I have to walk to work a couple blocks away, I am ecstatic to have found my own urban hideaway under an overpass by a stream. The area is green with mimosa, young oak, bamboo and elm, and the banks are swimming in kudzu. Water striders dance on the calm waters just before the rocks turn the water into miniature burbling rapids. Joggers pass periodically behind me, and the early-morning light makes the place look like heaven. Though decidedly less urban and urine-soaked than the stairway descending from Riverside Drive or the tunnel running under Henry Hudson Parkway to Riverside Park there are still the obligatory pair of jeans, a pair of shoes, beer cans and empty potato chip bags. But there are no smokers of crack, at least not right now.

One morning soon after my wife and I had returned to Harlem from a long road trip to Alaska, during which we had eaten way too much ice cream and had drunk too much wine and microbrew, we were running stairs, not on the same stairway as the drugged sex, but across a walkway that spans over the Amtrak tracks that run parallel to Riverside Drive. As we neared the top of the stairs a lady wheeled her cart to the landing and stood, watching, and each time we reached the top she would say things like, “Ya’ll sure are getting’ it this morning” or “Damn, ya’ll are sweatin’”. And we were sweating terribly, because, though cool, it was a damp September morning. After a few more minutes a man met her at the top of the stairs, and they talked quietly for a second before the lady rummaged through her cart and pulled out her fixings. They stood up there, leaning on the railings, watching us, smoking crack. You expect people to smoke the occasional spliff in the park or, sometimes, walking down the streets of Manhattan, though it’s gotten rarer, it seems to me, since the days of Giuliani. But the wake and rev of a crack morning, acting as if nothing in particular is going on, is a little weird.

They didn’t try to hide it, not really. They just continued to watch while our lungs burned and our thighs turned to acid, and they even continued to offer encouragement, or at least incredulity. “Damn, how many are ya’ll gonna do?” I answered, “Just a couple more,” smiling as if exchanging pleasantries with neighbors. Finally, we finished and, impatient to get home, said our good-byes and jogged up to the “normal world” of our apartment.

I’ve come to realize that these hideaways are necessary to escape the madness of the city or even the large town, and if you’re enjoying the privacy and the solitude of one of these places you feel violated when someone barges into what for you has become a sort of sacristy. But you learn the places aren’t just yours. Others have found solace here, as well, and will continue to do so, and though I still don’t like to I’ve learned, through a three-and-a-half-year apprenticeship in New York, to share the space with whoever needs it. So I sit down here near this stream bed, far far from Harlem and far from my new job at the garden center and far from any responsibility I may have “up there,” and I write and let the joggers (I don’t do it too much myself anymore) do what they will, and I hope that no one wants to come down here and discard their jeans or smoke crack, but if they must I will mind my own business and let them escape however they deem necessary.

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§ One Response to “Dispatch from under the Overpass”

  • Jessica Faller says:

    I loved this story. It was vivid, heartfelt, and really, really funny. I have spent my entire adulthood in this city, and I relate so much to the situations you have laid out, the beauty and the anger and the exhaustion of having to endure such situations. You’re an excellent writer, I wish you well in all your projects and hope to read more of your work!

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