October 2001 was difficult for me in a lot of ways, and I remember much of it in particular moments; the one when, while striding down Madison Avenue on my way home from the advertising agency, I first floated to my father the idea of moving back in with my family. Not long after that, I sat in the office of the business manager of my department and pegged the 26th as my final day with their firm.
That latter wasn’t difficult, exactly, but certainly occurred with some finality.
Over the following few weeks, I caught up with old friends as a sort of last huzzah before I left the City. And during one of those evenings, I went out with a group of girls in Hell’s Kitchen. I always was lucky to find myself surrounded by beautiful and intelligent women and privy to conversations I was lucky to hear (always cognizant that I was being allowed to hear them, and only allowed to hear what they chose), and that night was no exception; the girls I went out with had worked at the Firehouse up on the Upper West Side, somewhere around Columbus and 84th or Amsterdam and 85th, I can never remember which. Back then, we would meet up there for drinks, then go out to another bar to continue dancing and drinking, and then return to the Firehouse, which would by then be closed. I’m not sure I ever saw the sunrise through its windows, but there were several occasions I think I came pretty close.
That night, we met up in Hell’s Kitchen. Or Gotham. One of the two. At the Cinema cafe? Or bar? Something like that. It was a low-key spot on 9th or 10th avenue up around 47th, or so. This location will become important in a bit. I don’t remember much about that bar, not because we were drinking, but rather because it really was that low-key; I think the most interesting thing about it was that Ethan Hawke showed up at some point.
I remember I wasn’t the only one with plans to leave. One of the girls was returning to Colorado (Denver? Boulder? Something like that), while another was . . . I’m not exactly sure. But I don’t think she was sticking around.
And so we sat and chatted and laughed, until it started getting later and later. Someone might have had to work a brunch or something the following morning.
When we left, the girls were headed back uptown, toward the Firehouse, while I was headed downtown, toward the PATH stop at 33rd Street/Herald Square and all points Jersey, back to my crummy little apartment in Jersey City. It was late by then, but it wasn’t like we were in a bad section of town, exactly, just a couple blocks off Times Square. If the buildings around us hadn’t been so high, we probably would have been able to see the neon. As it stood, we could only feel it.
That feeling got the better of us, headed East from our bar. Someone had some pot, and we decided it would be a fantastic idea to partake of some, and so we found ourselves a random stoop while one girl removed her pouch from her bag and proceeded to prepare the party. We passed it around, and then, and I kid you not, a cop passed by. On a horse.
This was hysterical. I mean, we’d barely started by then. But seriously, just try to stand on, what, 46th(?), something like that, getting high with a group of awesome girls you have just been drinking with, and watch a horsed cop clop down the street. I mean, what’s he going to do? Do horsed cops have a siren? Double-u tee eff, yo.
I don’t know how we kept it together. I don’t know how I kept it together, of that much I am sure. I haven’t used such a substance in many years (and never used it much in the first place, to be candid), since before I left for Hollywood, in fact, but those times I did, when I didn’t bug completely out, I became a giggling simpleton. Giggling simpleton is not an unusual state for me, provided, but I can at least usually function.
Then? Not so much. I’ve been known to fall off benches and giggle on the floor for five minutes, completely unable to stop. Because my life is awesome.
Anyway. The cop passed, and I guess we managed not to be idiots until after both he and his horse were well out of earshot. Who knows? I don’t. I walked the girls to their subway stop, and by then we were all smiles and pupils and giggles and sloppy, tear-filmed goodbye hugs and half-kisses and you-take-care-of-yourselfs and all the while trying to pretend we believed we would see each other again. And I’m sure they probably have, but I know I’ve only remained friends with one since that evening, but then again, she and I were friends right away upon meeting.
So the girls left me there, somewhere around 47th and 9th or wherever. 45th and 8th? I knew where I was, of course (one of the things I love Manhattan is that I always tend to); I had taken the bus from Port Authority south often enough I knew that area decently well, and I figured that was the best way for me to go. So I headed down to 42nd and 8th, where I planned to cut East to Times Square and follow Broadway south to the PATH. It was a journey I had made often enough to be able to follow it nearly automatically, which I figured was a bonus in the altered state I was in, and it’s worth highlighting that it was then around 2 or 3 in the morning, I think.
Thing is, Manhattan doesn’t get dark, mostly. Sinatra is famous for calling it the City that never sleeps, but he’s really only half there; if the City ever goes to bed, it is only because it’s sharing the bed with someone beautiful. If I were allowed to design and market an energy drink from the ground up, it would taste like hot-pink neon bubblegum, and I would call it Manhattan, and I would decorate the cans with Times Square and Gray’s Papaya and Famous Ray’s and Lindy’s and the Garden and time-lapse subways and the two beams of light that memorialize the World Trade Center. “Manhattan: Drink the City. Never Sleep.”
This is especially true for Manhattan up that way, which was, back then, still decorated with porn shops and peep shows and leering, winking displays that leave nothing to the imagination and less to chance. It was not uncommon to see homeless people and prostitutes up that way, and while I can’t remember if I saw any that night, I know I did passing through the same neighborhood just a week or so later.
In that altered state, in fact, I don’t remember much about making my way down to 42nd and 8th, though I know I got there. And this must have been the first thing I saw:
Which would have stopped me, and made me look a little higher, to see this:
If you look closely at those pictures, you can see where I was. That’s B.B. King’s nightclub, there on the left, and look up to see Madame Tussaud’s sign. Which I think is right next door to Ripley’s Believe It or Not!
(I generally do. I’ve seen way too many things to be very skeptical, most times, barring a few exceptions)
So I must have seen those things, but this is the very first thing I really remember about that night:
Unfortunately, what I saw doesn’t exactly show up in the picture. I tried to capture it to do it justice, but the thing is this: they ground glass into the concrete sidewalk there, on that block, and it glitters. And you’d think it glitters most during the bright hours of daytime, when the sun shines down on it as people cross to and fro, hither and yon, but it doesn’t. It’s only at night that it spangles like you wouldn’t believe, like diamonds, like a laser-shone discoball. Because, of course, it’s dark but never really. Because it captures the streetlamps and the neon all around it, and there’s no shortage of that.
To really appreciate it, you need to walk it at 2 a.m. Otherwise it’s just a somewhat glittery sidewalk. At 2 a.m., though, it’s fucking magic.
That’s the first thing I remember, then, after the cop on the horse. The first image I really have.
But it’s a killer, because it so grounded me. It made me so completely and totally aware of where I was in the world. At that moment, I was right there, walking that sidewalk. It was 2 a.m., and yes, I knew where I was. I’m not sure I can describe a more intense feeling.
No, wait. Of course I can.
Because that grounding made me look around, and up. That grounding made me so much more aware of the world around me, and this is what was around me:
I think you can even see the Ripley’s sign there. But if you really want to know how magical Manhattan actually is, look:
These are, of course, not pictures I took that night. I didn’t own a camera or cameraphone back then (there are moments I wish I had owned one on September 11th). No, I took these shots the other week, when I returned to Manhattan with one of my dearest friends in the world. These were taken on the night of my interview, in fact, after I had first spoken to my old profs, and then taken the PATH to Ground Zero, from which I walked way the Hell uptown to 20th Street, where I observed a class another of my best friends taught (I’m so lucky to have so many best friends. Radness). That class didn’t end until 1:30, at which point I bought mojitos and told Hannah we were going to Times Square after sucking down a couple.
I took these pictures that night. My math always sucks, but that makes it, what, almost 8 years since that night? And even were those things not there, that neon would be. Barring worse catastrophe, a thought I would rather not consider at too much length. Not after “What I Saw That Day,” thanks very much.
So that was Times Square McDonald’s at, like, 2 in the morning or so. Might’ve been later. I have no idea what time we were there. Mattered?
Not even a little.
And yeah, that’s a limo in front of the Mickey D’s:
Which is kind of awesome enough, isn’t it? Who would think Mickey D’s would be cool, but that’s the thing about Manhattan; it brushes everything open to it, and when you do open to it, it lends you energy like you wouldn’t believe. You can feel the pulse and thrum not just of the City and its inhabitants but of the whole world, all around you.
And it just gets better.
This is a moment that changed my life:
One of my favorite CDs in the world is the soundtrack to The Beach. Which is an underrated movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Tilda Swinton. The last track on the soundtrack contains a voiceover from the movie itself:
You hope, and you dream. But you never believe that something’s gonna happen for you. Not like it does in the movies. And when it actually does, you want it to feel different, more visceral, more real. I was waiting for it to hit me, but it just wouldn’t happen.
Trust me, it’s paradise. This is where the hungry come to feed. For mine is a generation that circles the globe and searches for something we haven’t tried before. So never refuse an invitation, never resist the unfamiliar, never fail to be polite and never outstay your welcome. Just keep your mind open and suck in the experience. And if it hurts, you know what? It’s probably worth it.
And me, I still believe in paradise. But now at least I know it’s not some place you can look for, ’cause it’s not where you go. It’s how you feel for a moment in your life when you’re a part of something, and if you find that moment… it lasts forever…
Which I realize seems a digression, but it’s part of what I believe about life. Never refuse an invitation? Keep your mind open?
And that was the moment I discovered all that, which is why that moment, for me, will last forever. Because there I was drunk and high and freshly kissed and walking on a glittery sidewalk, and there I hit the corner of Times Square (which didn’t exactly look like that. In the intervening years, a giant Walgreen’s seems to have replaced the Warner Brothers store), and I realized and felt I was part of something, some giant mosaic, some amazing endeavor I would never understand, but that was okay because, I realized, nobody else ever does, either. We do our best with what we have, and we are born and live and die and curse and fuck (in the beginning), and we live every day and perform some function that hopefully sustains us, whether merely financially or on some deeper, greater level, and then we return to our places most familiar, and we disrobe, and we wash the world from our bodies and return to our beds to do it all over again another day, and so rarely do we wonder what it all means because when we do it’s a question more brilliant and awesome and enormous than we can imagine, and we feel that. Was it Nietzsche who said that when you stare deeply enough into the abyss, the abyss stares back? Maybe Goethe? I think someone German said it, but the thing is that it’s true not just for the abyss but for the hopeful parts, the brilliant parts, the awesome parts, too.
When we stare into honesty, honesty stares back. When we stare into goodness, goodness stares back.
Which makes me think back to my Catholic school days, when we would all chant “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the world and I will be healed,” like we so fully believed it, and it’s one of the saddest thoughts I know because what makes us think that? We stare at our own goodness but disbelieve it. We stare at our own world and our insecurities and doubts and fears mask our own awesome. We blush at every tiny compliment, like we’re embarrassed about how ab-clenchingly, jaw-droppingly amazing we all are.
Because we all are.
I have read a couple of people comment disparagingly about the “Awesome is a state of mind” I used as the tagline for this blog, but it’s struck me that perhaps I never did a good enough job explaining its meaning. At least what it means to me.
Because it doesn’t mean that my state of mind is awesome and so I must be. Quite the opposite, in fact.
I mean what I learned during that moment; that the world is so jaw-droppingly awesome it is insane, and that being open to that awesome is what allows you to appreciate and experience it.
I tend to call that moment my last of confidence, because I’ve always felt like something about it rendered confidence moot, to me. Why pretend? Why not open yourself? I mean, I know, opening yourself, fully and widely and completely, can get you hurt sometimes, but so what? If it gets you moments like that, isn’t it worth it? Isn’t exquisite pain as beautiful and pure an experience as delirious pleasure? And if we’re all in this together and nobody really ever knows what we’re doing, why bother pretending we do? Me, I worry constantly about what other people are going to think of me until I remember they’re probably worrying about what other people think of them, and if we’re all always worrying about what other people think, when are we ever doing our own thinking? If I devoted half the mental energy I dedicate to worrying about what people think instead to appreciating how awesome they are, well . . .
Well, that’s what I try to do. Sometimes I’m more successful than others, but that’s the thing about life; some times are always more successful than others.
When I’m lucky, though, and when I’m most successful, I tend to goggle at the people in my life, the people I meet, the world I experience.
I mean, how do you not goggle at this:
Lifehouse has a song on their first CD called “Everything”:
“And how can I stand here with you, and not be moved by you?”
Standing there, I felt like I actually could feel not just life and the world and the universe but even the revolution of the Earth through it, because no matter where you are and how still you try to be, we’re all in constant, vibrant, brilliant motion, whether on a planetary scale or one subatomic. How can we stand here and not be moved?
And yes, of course, I realize that’s precisely the sort of stoned-out thought that has become a cliche, but still I don’t know the answer. Still I don’t know any answers, in fact, but that moment taught me that’s okay if only because there is absolutely nothing more awesome than the question.