Last Friday I went on an impromptu bus tour of Manhattan and the Bronx. I had organized a picnic for the tenants at the building where I work, thinking we would take a lovely Friday afternoon trip to Van Cortlandt Park. When we left, the sky was overcast and drizzly, so we told the bus driver to "take the scenic route," hoping that by the time we got to the Bronx the sun would be out and we'd have a lovely day. Well, when we got up to 242nd St., there was thunder and a downpour, so no picnic. But we came back again into Manhattan, taking the scenic route all the way down Broadway.

The experience was amazing. I always love riding through New York City in a motor vehicle. Somehow one's experience of the city changes; it is slowed down and put into a frame. It's an experience somewhat akin to Brecht's verfremdungseffekt ("making strange"), whereby that which is familiar is recontextualized and thus made strange or "new." As we rode across town, neighborhoods that I knew well started to blend into ones that I didn't. We rode along E. 23rd St., down which I used to walk every day when I went to work but haven't set foot on in months. No sooner did we turn uptown but we were in Murray Hill and then the Upper East Side, neighborhoods so unfamiliar to me that they might have been foreign countries. Why are there so many Japanese restaurants around here, I asked myself?

On the way back I dozed off a bit; when I awoke I felt a curious sense of impending familiarity. I looked around at buildings that I had never seen before but somehow I had a sense that we were about the enter a nieghborhood I knew. Then it clicked: we were back in Manhattan and about to pass by Columbia. No sooner had I realized this than the campus appeared on my left and I saw the gate that I've been passing through a few times a week for the past 6 months, to visit S in his Columbia dorm (but no more, he's in the real world now).

It's amazing how the areas that you know in a city, especially this city, sneak up on you like that. Amazing how the parts of town that you feel you have "claimed" interlock with parts that you have no interest in or no command of. Drop me off in some parts of midtwon (9th Ave. in Hell's kitchen, say) and I can tell you where to find a decent Thai restaurant, but drop me off a few blocks northeast and I would be in terra incognita.

Riding in the bus I started to think of new ways to map the city. I think the visual image of the five boroughs that most New Yorkers carry in their heads is this one, drawn up and conveniently scaled by the MTA. The map is deceptive: Manhattan takes centerstage; Brooklyn is drastically smaller, a suburban satellite instead of the vast metropolis you see on a correctly scaled map. Interesting, too, are the wastelands, the undocumented regions that are left blank or "blanker" because no subway lines run there. Someone is always talking about the "proposed Second Avenue subway line" that will open up the East Side, but there are also vast areas of Brooklyn, located between and beyond the branching veins of the subway lines that are quite literally unrepresented. Look at the map: what's out beyond the end of the 2 train?

I actually took the 2 to the end last weekend to go to my co-worker's birthday party in Flatbush. People out there in Brooklyn drive cars when they wanna get into the city. That seems so foreign to me.

For one reason or another, I've actually visited the terminuses (termini?) or quite a few train lines recently. I rode the L all the way out to Canarsie in April to pick up a wayward UPS package and discovered a hinterland of warehouses and liminal spaces, in which somnambulant voyagers from all across Brooklyn stood in line waiting to claim the items that had been mailed to them. In the past week, I rode the 4 train to it's end (origin?) in the Bronx in order to visit DeWitt Clinton High School, where I was recruiting students for the theater program I teach in; I rode past Yankee Stadium (a first for me) and emerged at the end of the line into a world of pastoral beauty on a lovely spring day, the high school building nestled into the "emerald necklace" of Mosholu Parkway and Van Cortlandt.

(Taking a train out to its extremity makes you ask whether the stop you arrive at is the beginning or end of the line. All depends on your perspective, I guess, your point of departure. Strange how the "heart" of every subway line -- except the G -- occurs about halfway through its length, when it passes through Manhattan. That is where much of the line's character is defined. Does is pass through Grand Central, Times Square, or Penn Station? And yet, it's possible to ride the train at either end and to experience none of this. How interesting it would be to watch a time lapse photograph or sped-up video and to see how the demographics of subway riders change and morph over the course of a single trip from end to end, how the cars start to fill up with white people in fancy clothes, and then how the process is reversed.)

Thinking of my city in this way makes me feel like an explorer, like Magellan. I think of the days when the "known world" had a finite stopping point, days when cartographers left blank spaces and said things like "here be dragons" (thank you for that one, James Baldwin). The other day, I happened to be in the first car of the C train and you do feel like you're at the prow of a ship, thundering into the darkness. (I stole this image, too, from the opening pages of Don DeLillo's Libra, in which the young Lee Harvey Oswald rides the subway lines from the Bronx all the way out to Brooklyn.)

What would an alternative map of New York City look like? One that disregarded geography and instead tried to capture familiarity, experience? There are certain blocks that feel as if they belong to you: the obvious ones, of course, ones that you walk down every day on your way from home to work, but also ones that -- for whatever reason -- you just know, ones for which you have instant mental recall of the storefronts that line the street (and you can test yourself on the A9 Yellowpages site, which serves as a sort of photgraphic walking tour of Manhattan block by block, though I've noticed that it doesn't get updated very frequently; a lot of businesses seem to have come and gone...)

Maybe one could start an experiential map of New York City by taking a highlighter to the map we already know. Streets that have been trod and trod again would be overlayed in bright neon yellow, whereas unctouched streets would be left blank. Everyone's map would be different. In my case, certain parts of town would be thoroughly filled in (by now, for example, I can pretty much claim to know the entire swath of Manhattan, between both rivers, from 23rd St. to Houston). In other parts of town, familiar routes would stand out like the Oregon trail, blazed through otherwise untocuhed territory. I walked and re-walked the path from the Lorimer St. stop in Brooklyn to Galapagos on N. 6th, but most of the rest of Williamsburg would be left monochrome.

But what about time? How to document the point of origin of "my New York"? Geography need not contain us in our attempt to show the city that my experience has shaped. The place where New York began, for me, my Tigris and Euphrates, for instance, is 1st Avenue and 9th St. in the East Village, the intersection where you will find P.S. 122 (site of my first New York job). That was the first location I could really call my own and it is from that fertile crescent that all of my subsequent experiences flowed. The temporal map would snake out from that crossroads in different directions, first to Washington Square and MacDougal St., then Union Square and Gramercy Park and now into Brooklyn where it would join with other mighty tributaries, like Fulton St. and Lafayette, Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush. Soon, with my new job, another branch of the experiential river will be flowing up close to Harlem (hello, again, James Baldwin).

I'm not the only one who's been thinking of New York this way. The other day I read the following in an email from one I love:
I've noticed that when you've lived in New York (or any city but for some reason it's more vivid here) for long enough something wonderful starts happening— streets and corners, bars and cafes, subways stops and parks all bring memories of times lived in them. I was thinking, as I kept walking, how in the course of a 2-hour walk there were so many places that reminded me of you either because we’ve walked by them together, been in them, or we'vetalked about them. It was quite moving to realize that this city that I love so much is becoming so tightly intertwined with the memories of the boy that I love the most in this whole world.

I don't know the answer, S. Proust mapped his experiences in the same way: he wasn't just about tastes and smells -- roads, like Swann's way and the Guermantes' way, had deep significance for him. But there's something about New York that makes this even "more vivid," as you say. Could it be that the grid system, which so democratically welcomes newcomers into the city, makes it that much easier for us to learn our way around, to become "experts" at Manhattan? (I spent my whole childhood and young adulthood in Boston and still couldn't tell you if Boylston St. runs one way.) In addition, since the grid lacks "personality" (what really dsitinguishes 16th St. from 17th?), we need to enscribe it with our own memories and associations, our own private signposts, to help keep from getting lost. All of this becomes that much more intense in summertime, I think, because we spend so much more time on the streets and sidewalks, we walk slower and we stop to look at everything around us.

I still haven't drawn my experiential map; if I was better at web programming I suppose I could try to show it to you. Unfortunately, you'll have to settle for someone else's attempt. A website called New York Songlines tries to do just waht we've described, to create a map of the city that digs deeper into the hidden histroy of the place; on the songlines map, what's below the streets is just as important as what's above...

On that site, there's a quote from Colson Whitehead that seems pretty a propos:
No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey's, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge.... You are a New Yorker when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.

Well, I wasn't around for Munsey's, but I am old enough to know that that Duane Reade on Bleecker used to be Kim's Video; I dearly miss the old 19th Hole bar on 2nd Ave. (me and probably only one other person!); I know, of course, where the old Cock used to be; I remember how you used to be able to see the Carl Fischer advertisement, with the musical note onthe side of the building in Astor Place before they built that ugly high-rise. This city may be built of steel and concrete, but it rests on far less tangible foundations.


so bite me

I've finally gotten rid of the little bloodsuckers.


Bed bugs.

Bed. Bugs.

Yes, you may have heard of heard of the recent upswing in bedbug infestations in New York City. First the transit strike and now this! It's like my own personal reenactment of New York in the 70s.

Let me begin by saying that I never expected to blog about this and that I don't want this to be one of those typical "why meee!?!?!?" horror stories about some urban misfortune that has befallen the author. (Last time I came close to that was regarding the delivery of my sofa...). I don't really feel any anger -- not to my landlord, or my neighbors who more than likely unleashed the bugs on me, and certainly not to the bugs (everybody's gotta eat, right?).

The quick summary is that a couple of months ago our landlorad warned us that the "schmucks" upstairs were having a problem with bedbugs and that we should be vigilant. Our landlord pasted the blame squarely on our upstairs neighbors because of their supposed uncleanliness. (The neighbors are two creative writing students who seem to have conceived their decorating scheme around their Sony PlayStation; my Ivy-League roommate and I seem a bit more cleancut by comparison.) Now, I've actually done some research on bedbugs for my job at the low-income housing residence, so I knew that cleanliness had little to do with the problem and that the little guys spread notoriously quickly.

Months pass. Didn't think about it. Did sort of wonder, though, when little black spots started to appear on my sheets. Had I inadvertantly spilled some ink? Was my tattoo washing off? No, it turns out -- that was bedbug excrement (grooooosssss!!!!). I didn't put two and two together fast enough, though; it was weeks after I noticed the spots when I woke up in the middle of the night itching and discovered my new houseguests.

I'm actually quite proud of most of my behavior from this point on. "Oh," I thought. "Now it all makes sense. Bedbugs. I'd better sleep on the couch." So I showered, changed my clothes and did exactly that. The next day I took off all the sheets, wrapped them in plastic bags, and called my landlord. The exterminator wasn't reachable over the weekend, which meant several more days of sleeping on the couch or uptown at S's dorm. "Ah, well," I figured, "I'll just have to deal with this."

I'm not saying this solely to pat myself on the back for my stoical acceptance of the vagaries of existence; in fact, I'm trying to figure out why my natural response was so level-headed. When I told people about the bugs many of them became incredibly alarmed, consoling me profusely or expressing how horrible and disgusting it must have felt. The uproar seemed misplaced to me: yeah, it would be horrible if I had to replace my mattress, but I would have to wait until the exterminator came in to examine the situation before I knew how bad it was. So why get upset now?

I guess I'd heard stories of people waking up to discover little bites on themselves; that hadn't ahppened to me. There art thou happy, as Friar Laurence once wisely said. My sofa (the one that took so long to get delivered!) is also reasonably spacious and comfortable. And I had enough personal time accrued to easily take off a Thursday morning from work to meet the exterminator. There and there also art thou happy.

The day of the extermination was rather incredible. My room is very, shall we say, compact. A bed, a desk, a dresser -- these things fit in the space just so, with very little room to spare. In order for the exterminator to get under the mattress and to spray along the baseboards, my entire room had to be dismantled. Furniture was brought out in the hall, things were pulled out and turned upside down, revealing an unseen universe of dust and grime. Cracks were discovered where the walls met the floor -- that's where the little buggers had broken in!! Poison was stuffed into the cracks and then they were sealed with preventative putty. Meanwhile, though, the entire environment was soaked in bug spray. He was hosing it inside the bed, soaking the mattress with it, dousing it on the floors, the walls, the surfaces of everything. By the time he was done, the room had been pulled apart and it was wet and stinking.

I felt like the characters in Maria Irene Fornes's Fefu and Her Friends, staring at the slime that was lurking under the stone. Here were the cracks, the mess, the uncleanliness that was normally papered over in the tidy order of my everyday life. Bedbugs weren't only something that plagued the formerly homeless tenants at my job. My room could use a good dusting.

And then it was time for the purification ritual. The laundering of every sheet and item of clothing. The dusting, the wiping, the drying. New sheets were bought. The room was reconstructed and it looked noticebly spruced up. I'd been meaning to do a spring cleaning, I told myself -- maybe this bedbug problem wasn't all that bad if it got me to get up off my ass and clean. Yes, my beautiful Turkish bedspread looked a little faded from the wash and had probably shrunk a bit, too, but every growth experience leaves its scars. Hadn't I emerged from this trial stronger than before?

It was not until that night that I finally snapped. Sleeping on my pristine new sheets I felt a bug and I woke up to find him crawling across my pillow. This was too much for me. I jumped out of bed, threw my new sheets into the wash, and paranoiacally began to bathe myself. It was then that I felt like a diseased human being, then that I finally felt like Job. The final tiny bug (just one!) arriving to destroy completely my sense of calm security. This is where all the irrational feeling of guilt and frustration broke loose. I spent one last fitful night in the other room, wondering when I would get a good night's rest.

Well, it turns out that that single bug was probably the last. The spray had been flushing them out of the walls, the exterminator said. It would be natural to see them for the next couple of days. Having now slept on the bed two nights without single itch or unwelcome visitor, I think I can safely say that the plague is gone. I lost some sheets but my landlord has promised to reimburse me (I like my new ones better anyway). Everything's back to normal.

I'm not sure what I'm trying to say about all this. The internalized guilt that finally burst out of me -- the worry that I would somehow infect S's bed or the rest of the apartment -- that feeling represented for me, in miniature, the guilt and shame that must be felt by all diseased persons. It's partly a feeling of self-pity and partly a feeling of isolation, stigmatization. The weariness that comes from feeling as if you alone have been saddled with a burden that no one else understands.

It was just some bugs and a week of lost sleep. When you think about it, it could have been a whole lot worse.