MANA-HATTA IN EXTREMIS

CHARLES THAXTON

 

TUESDAY NIGHT, NOT IN MANHATTAN

Nothing has changed. But bedrooms always seem to feel different after a few days’ absence. “Suspended in time,” I guess you would say. There’s an uncanny sense that my bed has shifted an inch to the right, or that I have several fewer pens on my desk than before. My room has an exposed brick wall, which sheds terribly, and which I have to tend to and prune, like a houseplant. There is slightly more brick dust on my books and my bedspread than when I left, but otherwise the room looks placid and ambered in 8 P.M. July light, and basically like I left it on Friday. I haven’t unpacked my bag.

I think my roommate is here but I can’t be sure. Like me, when he is home he takes to his laptop, his bed, his window A/C unit. We have reverse schedules. He works at night and I leave before he wakes up in the mornings.

Everything is orange and dusty. I am looking out the window toward Manhattan, tracking the sun to see the moment it bobs over One World Trade and is impaled like a cocktail onion. I keep it there with my eye for a minute or two until it sinks behind the skyline and makes the island backlit and glow.


WEDNESDAY AT LUNCH, FINANCIAL DISTRICT

I am trying to explore all of Manhattan’s extremities. Its highest point, its deepest subway station. I decide I’ll start with an easy one. The southernmost point in Manhattan is the Battery. Specifically it’s a point just east of the Staten Island Ferry, along the water where tall ships float on display. I walk from work down Broadway, past the Bull and its Balls and the people taking pictures cradling them. Charging Bull began as guerilla art, originally installed right in front of the stock exchange, on the corners of Wall and Broad streets. It was a gesture of encouragement, installed by night around Christmastime in the midst of a late 80s recession. The Parks department removed it not long after, carting it a few blocks away to a new home in Bowling Green.

Lower Manhattan is very old, as you know. A strange collision of the very oldest parts of the settled city and some of its newest. Certain streets have pre-American clues right in their names. Beaver Street is where the hottest export in New Amsterdam was proffered and traded. Did you know there are beavers on the New York City crest? Two beavers, and two cartoony-looking flour barrels, like in the elementary school flash card games that tested your memory.

All the streets in Lower Manhattan traffic in these concrete nouns: Pearl, Water, Stone. Wall Street, of course, was the site of the New York’s earliest city wall, the furthest reach of the settlement and its outer limits. Wall Street has always represented the end of New York City. I spend an unconscionable amount of time on Wall Street for someone who doesn’t work in finance. I happen to have fallen into an expensive iced coffee habit and only a certain boutique retailer can satisfy me. I also like to take selfies in front of the banks and send them to my friends with sarcastic captions. So psyched to be starting my new gig at Deutsche today! Or Wow. JP Morgan Chase. I made it, guys. #blessup. These go mostly unanswered and are only funny to me, in a bleak way.

It’s remarkably pedestrian-friendly down here. And the narrow, colonial streets favor the kind of aimless walking about I occupy my lunch hours with. At first, being in such close proximity to Wall Street was darkly thrilling. I imagined the area to be populated with Patrick Batemans. In reality it’s mostly tourists. You see the occasional floor trader in their special, pocket-dense jackets, harried, running out for a salad and talking into a Bluetooth. The stock exchange itself is weirdly cordoned off, creating a vacuum of bodies underneath what seems like an entire city block of scaffolding to get back up to Broadway. Past Federal Hall and its bronze George Washington, Trinity Church stands in stoic, Episcopal judgment.

Today, back in the Battery, my sunscreen is melting into my eyes, and I am squinting across New York Harbor, watching sailboats and rafts and ferries. I’m watching people disembark from the Liberty Island cruises. Italian couple. French teens. Couple in wheelchairs. Woman in hijab-trucker hat combo. Older Wall Streeter with vintage Star Trek lunchbox. Grown man on scooter. Grown woman on scooter.

I have settled on an avocado smoothie for lunch. I’m back in Zuccotti Park. All the weird, mandatory privately-owned public space makes you feel like you’re indoors even when you’re not.

Being this far downtown in general is an exercise in cognitive dissonance.

Attached to the sprawling, netherworldish WTC-PATH hub is Brookfield Place, a mall-cafeteria my coworkers call “Dubai.” It has the kind of varnished newness of the rich Gulf States, views of the water, designer outlets and upmarket fast casual dining. Brookfield Place is the kind of impossible space Zadie Smith talks about in White Teeth. A bloodless, postnational zone of neutrality. An “uncontaminated cavity.”

Eating lunch in Brookfield place is a good way to cosplay as a Condé Nast employee (though I’d need to dress smarter) or even a Goldman Sachs employee (grow three inches, better hair). I bring my laptop and work on emails while eating authentic Southern barbeque.

Friday, after work

I don’t do much these days after work. Everyone is out of town. Tonight I do have one invitation to go into easternmost Bushwick. I remember the accumulating brick dust. And I have to water my plants after so many summer days. I text the host to this effect, an excuse so impossibly lame I hope it will be laughed off without too much judgment.

I’m hungry again from walking around. It is a quiet, Hopperesque scene by the time I find an empty Mexican spot, shaded by scaffolding, and eat tacos al pastor alone.