My first time visiting New York, I was 21 and overwhelmed. I didn’t have a smartphone (that was still possible in 2006), I had no grasp on Subway transit, took a Chinatown bus from Washington, D.C. because all I knew was there was no way I would be an adult on the East Coast and not understand what New York felt like.
I’d been interning in D.C. for a (VERY EXCLUSIVE) future-gogetters program run by the University of California. One staunchly Conservative, Ann Coulter and Ronald Reagan-poster decorating roommate, two high-stress non-profit supervisors who hated the system almost as much as they hated themselves, three false accusations of plagiarism of an author whose books I - ironically - had never read from my High School required reading and endless brilliant, intelligent, tantalizingly engaging peers-turned-sycophants later, I decided my 50+ hour work/class schedule and most of the D.C. lifestyle in general could go fuck itself and New York was where it was gonna be at.
I got there at about 11 in the evening, traveling alone. I’d never so much as had a layover in the neighboring airports before. It was dark, smelly, immense. I felt instantly vulnerable and gave a loving gaze to the city skyline for reminding me I and all the concerns I packed along with me were no big deal.
But I was completely broke.
In the dark.
In New York.
With no idea how to get anywhere.
The person I was slated to stay with lived in Harlem, I knew that. He was a worrywart Jewish P.h.D candidate from Stanford I’d met in a craigslist rideshare in California, going from Santa Cruz to L.A. So, a dude who I’d met once insisted on me staying when he heard I was coming to town and told me to take a cab to his place (I never said I made the best choices). But that one time he’d given me a ride, he wouldn’t let me pay cause I was poor, he was rich, and I made him not hate himself as I am wont to do with small company. I should have become a therapist to exact this into a monetary exchange and not an occasionally helpful barter in my young life, but alas.
At the time, though, my thoughts stopped at thinking this guy had his shit more together than I and decided to roll with it with a hearty, “What a great guy!”
Twenty minutes into the ride, I realized shit is far in New York and called to verify directions (again, no smartphones). Dude told me he had no intention of paying for the cab though it was his offer earlier, yelled at me for taking the “wrong” cab which was the exact kind he’d told me to take, and said he would not be meeting up with me anywhere because he was scared of “the people on his street” (his neighbors) who were “different” (Black and Brown) and he, a grown 28 year old man, was a “perfect victim” for their “plans.”
Not a great guy!
I told the driver I thought I had to get out cause I only had $23 in my pocket. The meter was already at $25. I apologized profusely as he cursed me with a flurry of hand gestures and foreign language like an off-brand Quick and Dirty Rosetta Stone bonus track.
Alone again in the dark in the middle of New York with no money and a dying cell phone.
I looked around and noted I was in front of a U.N. building and saw a walking caravan of smiling, well-dressed folks. They chatted vociferously in a couple languages (none were Esperanto) and hauled colorful centerpieces from what looked like a Holiday Party. “Oh! Drunk people who believe in helping others!” I thought, hoping their actions would have more effectuality in my life than in their policy implementation (<—FUNNY CAUSE IT’S TRUE).
And joy of joys, they had. After doing my best not to sound like a crazy person when explaining my situation (story of my life), the lovely and charming French delegate caved (typical) and told me she would ride the bus with me with her scowling skeptic American colleague.
I murdered both of them.
JK, just one.
Sorry, I just thought it would be great if this story ended abruptly there. Everyone lived. Back to business.
We rode a bus to Harlem, their house was passed my stop and by then the American had warmed up to me, realizing I really was just a huge idiot and not a divinely malicious murderer con-artist chef whose specialty was human flesh (I have very kind eyes).
They bid me farewell as I ventured off into the dangerous wasteland my host warned me about. And it was TERRIFYING. Everywhere I turned GANGS of TWELVE-YEAR OLD LATINO CHILDREN were PLAYING with makeshift bats, CLEARLY READY TO WEAPONIZE against ALL the passers-by who they never noticed because they were too busy LAUGHING JOYFULLY probably at all the VIOLENCE they knew they could do at any moment.
I smiled at the children and they giggled back and probably called some kid a “faggot,” the most violence I imagine they perpetrated all night. They smiled back, I think one said something about my coat being “stupid cute.” MENACES TO SOCIETY.
I found the dude’s house and rather than “Hello, how are you?”, I was greeted with a scolding for making him feel bad for not picking me up or paying for the cab and that I should be grateful for the stay. “You’re totally right. Thanks,” I said and immediately charged my phone so I could dial another friend to crash.
We all meet up at a bar. Real-Friend agrees this dude’s a douche and we escape to his friend’s house on another side of town. Her name is Fiona. She is a trustfund baby and lives in the West Village. She is older than me by a few years but her apartment has the decor and character of a Sweet Sixteen party that threw up on itself. She has a FAT CRUSH on my friend and invites us in. Her voice is sing-songy and sleepy, that air and dialect implying comfortable living that only wealthy girls seem to have. She appeared to have not a care in the world. I found her fascinating.
She took my reserved demeanor and polite smiling as friendliness and proceeded to tell me all her building gossip, “We have laundry in the basement. It’s so great. This place is so beautiful. GREAT people live here. I’ve done laundry in the basement with Philip Seymour Hoffman. He’s my neighbor, you know. And Amy Sedaris. She’s the floor below.”
I’d spent 3 months in D.C. in the proximity of powerful leaders, Wolf Blitzer, watched an entire Senate floor change traffic flow upon the entrance of Hillary Clinton and respectfully try to operate cool-style when then-Senator Barack Obama showcased his pearly whites and thought…. yeah, whatever. But this! Being in close proximity to two people whose theatrical prowess and capacity to move were leaps and bounds beyond anything, in my humble opinion, Washington was capable of inspiring in those days was electrifying. I. was. LIT.
I asked a million questions about what their home lives seemed like. Did building neighbors talk to each other? Did they seem nice? Did THE TWO OF THEM ever seem to hang out? Who smokes more weed? Would she invite them over ever?
I was equally entertaining for her. Poor people who aren’t openly cursing the day their assumed enemy was born is a favorite for rich people. I indulged her by telling her my story that evening. And she delighted, “Oh my god! You’re like my lost little sister! I just want to take care of you” knowing she would literally never understand what it was like to not be able to buy a solution in a big city.
"Do you want to see her door?"
"Umm… yes. Definitely yes."
Young and stupid with the notion that adults lived like college dormmates and barged in on each other’s daily lives constantly with pleasure and welcome, I went to Amy Sedaris’ door and thought of how cool her apartment must look. I thought of all the crafty shit she must have out and probably a small animal or two. I thought of my every favorite Jerri Blank moment and how I should DEFINITELY name them all to her when she opened the door and declared “Oh hey ladies, wanna come in for tea or a drink?” You know, like strangers do. And I’d be like “Oh actually we’re inviting all the neighbors back to our place for a party” (JUST LIKE I LEARNED IN COLLEGE). And she would get it. Being a fellow weirdo. She would totally get it, right? There would DEFINITELY not be a restraining order pending after any of this.
Fiona giggled as she watched me get real hopeful and excited, like the cringe you feel for a very predictable reality TV moment. Was this weird Latin girl REALLY going to do this? Or, in hindsight, most likely she thought it would be great if it worked out and she could finally bone down with my friend. We exchanged “I dare you,” eager glances and I took a breath and raised my fist to the door, pulled back, and then I heard it. I heard the mellifluous clank of dishes being put in the dryer rack. And running water being turned off. A gentle sigh and feet pattering down a hall. All the sounds of a normal human doing normal human life things, just wrapping up her day and tidying the place up. I immediately snapped out of my Hollywood Hypnosis, put down my balled up hand and realized “Oh my god, I am a giant creep.” Relieved I didn’t go through with it, I looked at the sticker on her door. It was a sticker for Flatpoint High School, the fictional location of Strangers with Candy. I decided she also lived her life with one foot in fantasy and the other foot in reality. I smiled and walked away.
We did not do the same at Philip Seymour Hoffman’s door. I don’t know that I would have had the balls to begin with. But I thought about what he looks like doing normal things: folding underwear, catching the elevator, running out late for work, maybe spilling coffee on himself in the rush. I thought New York is a magical place where you can see folks like those two and know you are worlds apart but practically the same on your days off, vulnerable to the City’s immensity and humbly keeping a little corner of it for your home. New York feels like possibility, however large or cramped your corner of it may be.
Today’s news of Philip Seymour Hoffman passing saddens me. I think I yelled out, “He was probably the last actor who actually cared about acting;” it’s so hard to lose masters of a craft as craft is increasingly commodified. I actually had forgotten the above story at first. But then I remembered Fiona. I remember her pride in sharing a building with someone magnificent. I remembered her talking about him doing laundry. And I remembered he is just a guy. He was just a guy living his life as best he could like any of the rest of us. And I feel the loss less for the craft (though it’s still there), but now for him and his loved ones.
I wonder if Fiona still lives there and how personal and traumatic today must have been if she does. I have lived not in a rich, but a seedy neighborhood and had a person OD from heroin in my building. It’s not a pretty clean-up process. I’m sad anyone has to see it. If she’s there, I hope she has support. Hers was a beautiful apartment, but there were no roommates and no family photos or photos with friends. I wonder if she’s looked out for beyond a funds transfer. I hope so. I asked our mutual friend and they hadn’t talked for years; he wondered the same.
I wonder if his passing bothers Fiona. I wonder if she’ll notice her neighbor’s presence is gone.
Mostly, I wonder if Fiona wishes we’d knocked.