What I Found in the City
I was taking the bus from Pittsburgh to see her. It was a midnight bus. I boarded at 11:15pm afraid of being late. I’d assumed there would be no other passengers on the bus with me. I was almost right. I’d walked up the tiny, curled staircase to the second deck and slunk to a seat in the back. For a half hour I was the only person up there. I stared out the window at an exit sign lit above an entrance to the David L. Lawrence convention center near Penn Ave.
I man walked to the top step, saw 100 open seats and walked straight for me. He sat down. He had a ferret in a cage on his lap. I knew that because I asked him what was inside. I’d thought it was a rat or a fucked up dog.
Melanie had left three months before. We’d been fucking. That was all. She made that very clear as she tore her coat from a hook on the wall, nearly knocked over my mom’s favorite potted plant. She moved to New York a week after that. And we didn’t talk. Or should I say she didn’t talk? I suppose I should because “we didn’t talk” implies intent from both parties when that wasn’t exactly the case.
I did plenty of talking across various media. I emailed her, I called her and I texted her. I even sent her a postcard for Christ’s sake. It had a picture of the Pittsburgh Skyline on it taken from Mt. Washington. I was trying to make her nostalgic. We’d gone there on her birthday and I’d said we should get married. And she said that we were only 18. And I told her that it was okay because I’d recently gotten another job in the men’s shoes department at the South Hills Village Macy’s. The picture was taken at night, the tall buildings rising from the river in a massive three dimensional triangle, and then being shone back onto the river, Heinz Field and PNC Park bright and sturdy on the left side of the post card.
I wrote that I loved her. And that I would like it if she talked to me again. I said that she didn’t have to return my message in postcard form if that was too much trouble. She could just call. I just wanted to hear her voice.
One time after my dad and mom fought at the dinner table and my mom had stormed off and slammed the door to her bedroom above us and I was moving a piece of rice across my plate like a hockey puck, my dad looked at me and said, “Don’t worry about that. Your mother is very emotional. You’ll learn. Women are very emotional.” I think he’s wrong. From what I’ve gathered, we’re the emotional ones. My dad would fly off the handle at a moment’s notice. Dinner’s late, hissy fit. Mom’s home late, hole in the wall. And I asked a girl to marry me on her birthday as I pressed her against a the railing of an overlook. Then I cried because I couldn’t help it. Melanie just walked back to the car, turned on the Walkmen, and drove me home. She told me I was an idiot when I left the car. But warmed up to my proposal and asked if I was serious later that night when she called me once she got home.
I’d taken the postcard to Melanie’s house on Maryland Ave in Oakland on the off chance that she’d answer the door. But when I got there her mom, Rose, said she’d moved to New York and was crashing with our friend from middle school, Dennis Mixman, you know the ginger boy with the father who was killed by that drunk driver the summer before high school. Yes, I remembered. They were in the East Village somewhere. She was crashing there. Maybe going to art school in the summer. It must be noted that Rose wore a Christmas sweater despite the fact that it was getting close to April. She’s a nice woman, I don’t mean to judge, but she could be rather odd.
So, I decided that I would bring the postcard to Melanie in New York City myself. And that’s how I found myself on the bus next to a tired man with a perky mustache and his ferret. I told my parents I was going out. The bus was making its way down north of highway 80, near State College. There had been a dusting of snow since the ride began and the snow swirled in the wind as if it were magnetic. The short grass on the farms to our right and left and our front and back will be taller in just a matter of months. Living in a city, you really do forget how much of the country is just rolling crop.
My family, my dad, mom and little brother, Ed, used to take trips to Atlantic City so we could “see the beach.” Or, more accurately, so my dad could gamble away two months worth of work and could get into an argument with my mom for the duration of the 6 and a half hour car ride back to Pittsburgh during which he would blame her for all the money he lost because she’d agreed to go in the first place. I’d try to mute the screaming by staring at one point in the fields as we passed them going well above the speed limit. The eye has to play catch up the entire time and it tires your brain out and then you can sleep.
The ferret man, who went by Mac, though I wasn’t completely convinced that that was his name, offered me a hunk of jerky. “Made it myself. Shot the deer right through the gut. Saw it die,” he told me. I politely declined and reached into my backpack for a tin of cashews I’d brought with me and realized I’d forgotten the goddamn postcard. I smashed my forehead into the window and sighed and the window fogged and I could smell that I’d also forgotten to brush my teeth. Mac told me to calm down. His ferret was sleeping. I told him to move. He crossed his legs.
When we got to New York it was 8:00 in the morning. I’d slept maybe an hour. Unfortunately, that hour had come as we were entering the city, so I saw none of the buildings in person that you see on the news or in the movies. Instead, I woke up when the bus stopped and my head whipped to the side, smashing against the ferret’s cage. The ferret didn’t stir, which made me think that the ferret was dead. Or there was no ferret.
We were hastily dumped on what I think was 27th street and 7th avenue. There was a subway next to me. A “1” with a red circle around it. There was vomit and a green puddle near the curb and the city smelled vaguely of my backyard the summer our septic tank overflowed combined with my kitchen when mom makes pasta.
New Yorkers passed by us and I didn’t think they looked sadder or meaner than the average person. I’d heard there was a special brooding to the city but that didn’t strike me on first impression. The girls were bundled up and I thought they looked really sexy. I don’t know why I always preferred a girl bundled up to one in a summer dress or a bathing suit.
I wasn’t sure why I was there anymore, and I thought that people make a lot of stupid fucking decisions chasing love. And then I thought that sounded cliche, and I should get some breakfast and then try to find Melanie. I wanted a New York Bagel. But first I thought I had to figure out how to get to the East Village or if the East Village was actually a thing.
I asked a tall man in a suit which way the East Village was. He said that way, pointing toward 26th street. I started walking. A homeless man told me he needed help getting a bit to eat. And I said I was in the same boat. I offered to buy him breakfast if he told me where I could find a real New York bagel.
We walked a few blocks to a corner deli, which I assumed was as good as any place to find what I was looking for. I bought him eggs and pancakes and ordered a poppy seed bagel with veggie cream cheese. Toasted. I ate it quickly and bid my homeless friend good bye and kept walking south, past the pizza shops and the faux-italian restaurants and the Starbucks and the local coffee shops that are trying to keep pace. At some point, I must have found my way into a gay neighborhood. Rainbow flags flown outside bars. Two sex shops right next to each other. Competition is the bedrock of our economy.
I asked a short, older couple who’d been walking arm-in-arm where the East Village was. They said that if I turned and walked east I would hit it.
So, I turned east and walked past the record shops and the breakfast nooks. Another couple of Starbucks and another couple of local, trendy coffee shops trying to keep pace. Past a bookstore that claimed to be more than 125 years old and a jeweler who had just set up his station on a sidewalk, in front of a 10-feet high stone wall that blocked public view from what looked like an ancient cemetery. I turned into the bookstore.
There were postcards on a rack near the front of the store. I chose one that had the Statue of Liberty illustrated in a 1950s style on the front. I took a pen from my backpack and wrote, “From Pittsburgh to New York” on the back. I felt like I couldn’t just show up empty handed and this was better than nothing. I bought the card and left. I walked until the streets were no longer numbered but lettered, and I thought I was lost.
And then I saw Melanie. Across the street. She wore a tweed jacket and baggy jeans. Odd. She was alone. I waited at the crosswalk across from her. There were no cars coming so she started crossing. I felt like I should turn and run away. Instead, I froze up. Her blonde hair poked out from underneath a winter hat. She had a scar under her left eye. No, she didn’t. Or, no, Melanie didn’t. I smiled at this woman, who, now that I could see her, was probably in her thirties. I turned around and went the way I was going. I was lost. I asked a man my age where I needed to go, but his directions were vague and I saw the water so I thought I’d go that way. It was a little afternoon.
I made my way across an overpass and felt stupid for having bought the card and for being in New York City looking for someone who surely didn’t want me there. And the odds of me even finding her where remote to put it optimistically. I found a bench that looked out onto the Hudson River. No, the kid my age told me this was the East River.
Brooklyn was stretched out in front of me. It looked industrial and curved out of my view up-river. Brown faced buildings looked grey from the distance. The sky was spotted with clouds, grey on the bottom. There was a bridge to my right that seemed almost fragile as a train rolled over it. A barge carrying coal slugged through the choppy water. The water itself came dark toward me and crashed into a white foam on the cement wall. It reminded me of Pittsburgh.
Before Melanie tore her coat from the hook and almost broke my mom’s favorite potted plant, we’d been talking on the stoop. Or I was apologizing. I’d slept with another girl from our neighborhood the night before. It wasn’t anything. We were at a party and this girl pulled me into a room to drink some beers with her friends and then her friends left and I was kind of stuck, or, rather, I should have left, I know I should have left, but I didn’t because, I don’t know, Melanie, listen to me, I don’t know. But why? I don’t know, I said, that’s what I told you, I don’t know, because I’m stupid, but I still want you, I want you so badly. And she turned her face to the ground and I asked her to look at me but she just got up and then she nearly threw in the screen on the front door when she went inside. My mom shot down the stairs and said, “Honey, are you okay?” and Melanie said she was okay through tears.
A NYPD water patrol boat skipped along the water and a man in tight spandex running pants jogged past me. I got up and walked back to where the bus had dropped me off. A bus pulled up and the driver told me this is where they dropped people off but buses left from another stop a half hour walk from where I was. So, I got a slice of pizza and made my way there. I caught the midnight bus back to Pittsburgh and talked for a while with a woman who was visiting her daughter at the University of Pittsburgh. She asked if she could introduce me to her daughter. I told her I had a girlfriend.
When I got home my mom asked me where the fuck I’d been.