At the end of class last week, one of my NYU students asked me where I was from and when I told her that I was originally from the midwest, she looked surprised. “You seem like I always imagined a New Yorker would be,” she said.
I’m not going to hazard what she might have meant by that comment (fast talking? highly functioning crazy lady? digressive to the extreme?) because I was too busy realizing that as of this fall, I’ve lived in NYC for twenty years. Two decades.
Which means that for all intents and purposes I AM a New Yorker.
Which means that to Palin et al, I’m Scary Urban Sinner; to the Rudy G. who showed up in St. Paul, I’m cosmopolitan (said sneeringly) and flashy.
But I digress.
How to trace the journey of two decades? Ostensibly, I moved here in 1988 for a doctoral program in English at NYU, but really I moved here for a boy who said he loved me, and who I’d loved from afar for five years.
The boy didn’t last. The doctorate did. And although I’d planned to come here, get my degree, and leave (with said boy) … I stayed.
Stayed, and stayed, and stayed. Lived in a variety of hellish apartments, moving so often that my mother back there in the heart-land wrote my address in pencil because she was tired of scribbling out the entries in her address book (remember, kids, this was in the days BEFORE palms, treos, blackberries, iWhatevers).
Devastated by the boy’s betrayal, I felt helpless against Manhattan’s onslaught: the labyrinths of the subway, the nonsensical intersections of the West Village. (HOW could West 4th intersect with West 10th? Greenwich STREET and Greenwich AVENUE?)
I crumbled against the cacophony of Washington Square Park, that mythic heart of “the village” and the closest thing that NYU has to a campus. At college, tucked in the quiet heart of New England, I had been funky — barefoot in my Indian print skirt. Here? I was just another girl in paisley leggings and hightops.
Back in those days, the late 1980s and early 90s, drug dealers patrolled each entrance to Washington Square. Each man had a few square feet of sidewalk as his personal fiefdom but they all had the same chant: “cocaine, loose joints, tripsfoyohead … cocaine, loose joints, tripsfoyohead …”
I never patronized that particular sales force, but the remnants of their wares could be found all over the park. All over the city, for that matter. It took me almost a year before I realized that the sidewalk was NOT littered with the nubs of Bic ballpoint pens. (This is what happens when you’re in graduate school: EVERYTHING is about studying.)
Those little blue and red doodads everywhere were the tops to crack vials.
Where did those vials came from? Were they, in fact, sawed-off pens? (Better a sawed-off pen than a sawed-off shotgun, I always say.) Or were giant discount bags of nubbin lids available at office supply stores? I imagined the signs: “Crack-vial Lids on Special! 1000 Lids for Ten Bucks!”
But somewhere along the way during this last twenty years, the crack vials went away; the drug dealers went away (due to Rudy G.’s tough-on-crime days as mayor of this cosmopolitan, flashy city. Do those people in St. Paul know what Rudy looks like in a dress? Gawjus, jes’ gawjes…
But I stayed.
I got a job. I got married. I got a kid. I got another kid.
I got a family. In Manhattan. Now THAT is “tripsfoyohead.”
Sometimes I look around wildly when one or another of my children calls out “mommy!” as we walk through the city…certainly it’s not ME they’re talking to, is it?
The only singsong chanting I hear in Washington Square (besides the eternally earnest folkies who sit under the trees doing Dylan singalongs) is me: “becareful, slowdown, don’tpushyourbrother.”
Just for the record, I never smoked crack, but that’s mostly because in my ill-spent youth, I loved cocaine WAY too much and knew that just one crack rock would send me straight to the gutter and an early death.
There is, however, a new drug in my life and its remnants are everywhere: in my living room, under my dining table, the coffee table, my desk.
Legos are the new crack: you need more and more to get off. A small set, innocently purchased as a “let’s see what this is like,” becomes a quest for the ExoForce Mobile Devastator (1009 pieces; my junkie eldest son, 6 ½ at the time, put it together by himself in about 2 hours. God only knows what he’s going to be building when he becomes a disaffected adolescent.)
There is a particular lego piece, however, that we should notice: the nubbin. Perfect for capping a light-saber handle, a space-ship steering column, a treasure chest, a crack vial.