On Ennui

During one of the first dizzying months I lived in New York, I sliced my finger opening a bag of frozen peas. The fingertip wasn’t severed, but it was cut to the bone and I haven’t felt anything in it since.

Having been a resident almost a year now, I worry the numbness has spread.

It takes an enormous amount of effort to exist in this city. Just to be. You’re constantly jostled — the subways, the sidewalks, the office corridors. Always making space for someone else and fighting to keep enough room for yourself. I feel I’m always swiveling my hips to let someone pass. I haven’t approached a building square on in weeks.

It’s noise too. Sitting in my apartment, the one place I have the pleasure of no one else’s company, I look out the window and see my neighbors. I hear cars. Voices. Music. I’ve learned that everyone in New York is lonely, no matter how many friends you have. I’m lucky enough to have a huge and loving support system in the city (and I’m not counting the compression stockings my parents insist I wear on airplanes), but sometimes the pace — and the place — is overwhelming.

A good friend (a man who listens about my encounters with other guys,  that kind of good friend) told me that the key to living in New York is to find your church. Not a religious experience, but a ritual for you and you alone. To be done every week. He used to ride the G through Brooklyn to volunteer at a museum. He said this would counter my feelings of isolation.

So many people have tried to explain the loneliness in New York.  I don’t want to go much into the philosophy of this effect in America’s most-populated city. I’ll just tell you how it is for me.

I alternately crave putting my head in or taking my head out of an invisible vice. I waver between the two but neither mental containment nor expansion ever seems like the right thing.  I always feel like I’m posing for a picture.  My heart breaks when I make eye contact with someone I don’t know.

The thing about church is that, ultimately, it’s creating a connection between you and God. It’s a personal, private, solitary thing that can’t be shared with other humans. The definition of lonely. But how can my church — reading a book by the Hudson’s tidal waters in Astoria Park — satisfy me if there’s no deity on the other end of the line?

I guess in that case, it’s just me and the city.

Fire Escapism

I am the extremely proud owner (renter) of a fire escape.

It is my first.

Having lived in both Chicago and Washington D.C., I consider myself well-versed in roofs and stoops – not to mention porches — but I am only just being introduced to the joys of a chipped black F.E.

I met mine when I moved to Queens as a 23-year-old reporter trying to avoid moving to New York to be a 23-year-old writer.  (The distinction may be wasted on you. Don’t bother trying to puzzle it out.)

Attached to the fire escape is my one-bedroom apartment, all housed in a three-story brick building that smells like Clorox. The clean smell was the single greatest factor in my decision to move in. I later learned the scent was my neighbor’s cologne, but that’s another story.

I first really became acquainted with my fire escape when my patient father, helping me move into the apartment, insisted I install my air conditioning units.

“Open up the window,” he said. I did and even thought to push up the screen. “Now crawl out.”

I peered out the window to the ten-foot drop below.


“Crawl out,” my father said, balancing the air conditioner on his thigh.

“Crawl out where?”

“Onto the fire escape.”

“What if it collapses?”


I put the tip of my index finger over the ledge of the window. I touched the rusting metal strips. I measured the two-inch wide gaps against my knuckles.

I leaned back into the room. My father raised his eyebrows.  Eventually he convinced me that a fire escape’s only purpose is to not collapse, so I clambered out and looked around.

Fire Escapism

My window looks out on a concrete courtyard where old Greek men clean their cars. I could throw a discus to the back windows of my neighbors Across the Way. But in between are several leafy trees. They aren’t the maples I grew up with, but they’re big and knobbly and strong. They are the kind of trees that would look good with a few names carved in them.

My landlord tells me Astoria was put together before the war – I have not asked which – and all its buildings are low-lying. Five-stories is the most you’ll see here, so I have a big view of open sky. After my initial hesitation, my fire escape started to live up to its name. It became my escape. I sit here at night when no one can see me and on Sunday mornings with Martha Stewart’s magazine and some coffee.

Today I am on the metal bars, listening to the downstairs girl practice her saxophone and admiring the way even the city smells good after it rains.  Between the slats, I can see a puddle on the ground below. Three tawny birds are splashing in the water.  Birds need very little water to get clean. Someone should make a commercial about how eco-friendly they are.

There is something relaxing, in a private way, about sitting on a fire escape. It differs from a stoop or a porch. It is the only place to be alone outside in New York.

And mine hasn’t collapsed yet.

Fire Escapism