My first night living in New York
Was it Labor Day weekend that I drove to New York from Washington, D.C. with a pickup truck containing half my worldly possessions? It can’t have been—I think I would remember the traffic, so maybe it was two weeks earlier than that. No. I am sure it was a week after. It was undoubtedly Saturday, the seventh of September, 1996, that I moved into my first New York apartment in Park Slope. The weather was beautiful, and the sun was bright when I drove down President Street for the first time, parked directly in front of my building, and realized I had never gotten the keys to my apartment from the landlady. I had to call her. My friend Dale was on his way to help, coming from Williamsburg by bus, a mode of transportation that he swears by, but which is—in my experience—the least reliable means of getting from place to place, worse than walking. I should have asked Dale to walk, because as the sky grew pale and I paced outside my building, I knew nobody else in New York whom I trusted to stand guard by my pickup truck, and in these hazy pre-cellphone years, I would have to knock on some stranger’s door to use their phone. It was that Saturday, the seventh of September, 1996, that I learned my first lesson about New York—people tend not to allow strangers to use their phones, especially in their houses.
This is how I met William Armstrong, who lived below me. Armstrong had lived on the ground floor of 800 President Street for thirty years before I ever signed a lease on my apartment. He had survived three changes in ownership, and was paying for his apartment, which was twice the size of mine, less than half my monthly rent. He was not the super, though he took the trash to the curb twice a week, and he was perfectly willing to let me use his phone, though it was not cordless. Leading me into his apartment, he assured me that nobody would steal my futon from the back of the truck, and dialed Rosemary’s number for me. For the next three years, my familiarity with William Armstrong would be based strictly on his Saturday-night games of poker with local women, which I could hear through the floorboards. At four in the morning, he would always play “Blueberry Hill” as loud as possible. Because of this small favor he paid me on my arrival, I never bothered him about it.
I ran to get the keys as Armstrong watched my stuff, and Dale arrived while I was gone. When I returned, Dale and his girlfriend Lisa were standing by the truck, and the sun was going down. It took us about fifteen minutes to take everything upstairs, and I felt like a jerk for even asking Dale and Lisa to help, but I was already growing anxious about the first night. I had packed for survival. I had a futon mattress and comforter, two pillows, a trunk full of books, a broom, a military-issue square table, two plastic folding chairs, and a phone. No radio or television, because I hadn’t used either while I was in college; I would regret not having these a few hours later.
As Dale and I dragged the trunk into my studio, I folded back the wooden shutters on my windows and looked around at the walls in the fading light, following the cracks in the paint. I reached to turn on the overhead light—nothing. Fortunately, I was prepared for exactly this scenario, and pulled a new light bulb from my travel bag. It took all three of us to remove the giant globe from around the hanging fixture, and Dale and Lisa placed it to the side as I unscrewed the old bulb. All at once—a sharp bang, sparks raining down on my head, leaping from the plastic folding chair, total darkness. It was nine p.m.; I realized that I would spend my first night in New York alone, in the dark.
I bought Dale and Lisa some pizza before they caught the bus home, and I walked to a pay phone to call anybody I could. I wanted to avoid the apartment; it was already beating me on two counts—a poorly-wired light fixture, and a phone line that I had forgotten to turn on. Nobody picked up their phones, and I quickly ran out of quarters. I called my parents, gave the impression of nonchalant accomplishment, hung up the phone, and walked home.
In the guarded light of the streetlamps outside my open windows, I lay on my futon, without a sheet or a bedframe, on the splintered floorboards. I remember wanting more than anything to watch Saturday Night Live. I wanted someone to cook food for me, and to be able to walk away from the table and listen to music. I wanted to be back in school, living a life subsidized by my parents and by low-interest loans. I didn’t want the job I had gotten, at a company that designed databases for retailers of Persian rugs and wedding gowns. I was convinced I had made a mistake, and I was sleeping on the floor, in the dark, in the city, stir-crazy and alone.
The first problem is always the car alarms. You cannot sleep in New York, because the car alarms are constantly sounding. This is something you have to become conditioned to, because you cannot hide from it. Car alarms are the great equalizers of residential society here—they blare all night, regardless of your rent or the size of your apartment. That first night in my apartment, I couldn’t even begin to sleep—every alarm meant another car stolen, and every moment it might be my own car, because I didn’t have an alarm, and how would I know unless I looked outside, which I did often. The fact is, no cars were being stolen. That was my second lesson about New York: the car alarms go off only when the cars are not being stolen.
I slept a few hours that night, and I had to drive back the next day to pick up the rest of my things, which included my stereo (thank god) and a very small television and microwave that my Chinese grandmother had bought for me (thank her). I did wake up after my first night living in New York with a sense of having survived the gauntlet. This was my own dark, yellowed room. Its smell, of dust and water, would be the scent of my home. I showered without a curtain in the morning, having forgotten that too, and stared at myself in the mirror over my sink for a long time. The bathroom had spectacular light, and in my reflection, with my hair matted over my forehead and the water pooled at my neck, I was almost glowing.
The next night I stayed in my apartment, a few days later, I ate Hamburger Helper and watched The Simpsons.