Friday, June 18, 2010

Memories of Summer in NYC

About three years ago, I decided, like many young and industrious folks, that New York City was the place for me. I was still in college at the time, and I thought there would be no better way to spend my summer than to get an internship in the Big Apple and live right there, in the heart of it all.

I applied to publisher after publisher and heard nothing. Finally, I found someone receptive. For about a month, we corresponded by email. "Call me when you get to New York," he said, "we'll sort it out then." So I paid NYU to live in their dorms. I scheduled a flight and packed my bags full of books and new clothes with sharp collars and matching ties.

And when I arrived in New York City, I gave the internship coordinator a call. "How about we meet up next week?" he said, and I set about seeing the city. I passed the week slowly, wandering up and down the streets of Manhattan. I rode the subway up to Harlem and then walked back to the Village, getting lost in Central Park again and again. I found the library and marveled at its stone lions (in Arizona, most libraries, like most buildings, have been around since the 70's, and they are ugly and blocky and grey). And then, I went to go meet with the coordinator.

"Yeah, uhm, it looks like we just don't have the space. Maybe you could do something for the research department." I went up to the research department, and the woman there seemed baffled. Was I supposed to be doing something for research? There was nothing to do. She pointed me to the exit. And like that, New York started to turn sour for me.

The dorm in which I was living was populated by four other guys with no walls separating us. They knew each other. They were business majors with close-shorn haircuts and internships at financial firms that have, by now, gone belly up and been set to swimming again by massive government aid. I felt nothing in common with them. I was a writer with a pony tail and no reason to be there. At one point they flipped the dresser to make a beer-pong table. I once found one of them drunk and lying in the hallway, grinding with a girl who was in just as bad a state. When I approached, my roommate said, "Shh, shh, someone's here," and they froze as though I were the T-Rex from Jurassic Park and would not notice them so long as they stayed still. One of my roommates fell asleep every night with his television blaring, and I'd wait to hear Girls Gone Wild commercials before I flicked it off to get some rest myself. I became nocturnal. I stayed out of my room when I could. But really, I had nowhere to go.

I walked a lot. I tried to explore. I became weary of New Yorkers, how they rarely speak to you without wanting something, the way they have cultivated of ignoring everyone to avoid being pulled in by scams and street vendors, beggars and sharks. I went entire days without speaking a word, and I found myself buying things just to have someone say hello. I spent hours in the basement lounge of the dorms, writing and talking out plots to myself, looking sheepish and bashful and trying to pretend I wasn't going mad when someone else came in.

In many ways, it was the worst summer of my life. I have never felt so alone, so close to crossing the line between eccentric writer-type and certifiably insane. Recently I went back there on a trip with my girlfriend, and though by the end of the day we were having fun, when the bus first crossed into Manhattan, I felt an overwhelming sadness, like I was suddenly useless and aimless and small.

But thinking about that summer, I'm also filled with a sense of gratitude, a very specific and focused one. I was lucky enough to be near the Strand, and I went weaving through its shelves again and again, picking through staff recommendations and piles of fiction remainders. I discovered Rushdie there. I read Lolita for the first time.

When it was open and I was awake, I went to the library and I studied literary magazines, reading story after story, making scrawls in my notebook. I broke everything down into lines, into words. I digested names and titles. I gathered a manic energy about me. Every word I read had to be a part of a key, a code to how I could do this, how I could write. I became arrogant and scornful of stories that I felt were jerking me around or delaying too long.

I am one of those people, I have realized, who keeps books around him as a safety net, as a security blanket, and in times of loneliness, as friends. I'm one of those people who will turn to a book when there's no one to talk to, when human beings become ghostly images, passing without touch, without turning an eye.

I do not know who I would be now if I were not a reader. I don't know what I would do, where I would work, who my friends would be. But I know that what was the worst summer of my life could have been worse still, that so many dark times could have been darker. And I am so grateful that I don't even know how to say.

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