Welcome to New York; Now go home
The mothers are coming up the stairs. Holding the hands of their adult children. Daughters, mostly, and one hesitant son. Asking questions like, “Is the neighborhood safe?” The real estate agent, in his starched white shirt and slick hair, replies, “The East Village used to have quite a reputation fifteen, twenty years ago, but now it’s totally safe.” Or did he say totally tame? As in domesticated, subjugated, a wild horse broken. I am listening from inside my apartment, ear pressed to the gap where door doesn’t quite meet jamb, looking through the peephole, trying to see who my new neighbors might be, knowing they’ll be the same as all the rest. Young and funded, they belong to a certain type: utterly unblemished, physically fit, exceptionally well dressed, as bland as skim milk and unsalted saltine crackers. “I work on Wall Street,” I hear one of them call to the real-estate agent. “Awesome!” the agent replies.
They didn’t used to be here.
I came in the early 1990s because it made sense for me to be here. I was a young, queer, transsexual poet, and where else would a young, queer, transsexual poet go but to the East Village? Back then the neighborhood still throbbed with its hundred years of counterculture, a dissident history going back to the early anarchists and feminists, up through the bohemians and Beats, the hippies and punks, the poets, queers, and transsexuals too. I had a pair of combat boots and an elite liberal arts education, thanks to a full ride of grants and work-study programs, but not much money. I hail from generations of peasants, washerwomen, and bricklayers, orphans raised by nuns, 12-year-old factory workers, icemen who sang opera while they slung frozen bricks, soldiers, hucksters, and bookmakers, thick-legged Italians and paper-skinned Irish Catholics, most of whom didn’t get to high school and not one of whom saw the inside of a college classroom. I had ambition but didn’t yet understand entitlement. I was in the process of becoming something else, believed in the mythical bootstraps of meritocracy, but I also knew what I was. I took a job cleaning other people’s apartments, got fired when a woman made the outrageous claim that I’d used a sponge to stick hair to her bathroom ceiling, and then took another job that involved running errands and getting yelled at, two things I knew well how to do. The East Village was full of people who were bruised like I was bruised, people who weren’t quite pulled together but were trying to make something interesting with their lives. I belonged here. In this neighborhood. In this crumbling tenement.
Who among us doesn’t imagine the lonely New York death, our bodies discovered only because they begin to smell and trouble the neighbors?Tweet
Since my longtime landlord sold the eight-unit building to a mysterious corporate entity a few years ago, there’s been a revolving door in the apartment next to mine and the one below. The turnover happens every summer. So far, maybe because young men are known to be destructive, the new owners have only admitted young women, with one exception. By design, none of them stays for more than a year. The East Village is just a way station, empty of significance. My young friends who are queers and artists have never set foot in this neighborhood. It’s irrelevant to them. When I tell them I live here, they look confused. Why would you want to live there? The East Village is nowhere.
Before each batch arrives, after their parents have approved and cosigned, teams of hired hands sweep in to prepare the Insta-partments. First come the cleaners, sending up the chlorine tang of bleach, followed by the movers with their tidy plastic totes, followed (at least once) by professional furnishers who arrange and assemble flat-packed tables and shelves, big-screen TVs, kitchen knives gleaming in wooden blocks, sets of salt and pepper mills pre-filled with peppercorns and luminous chunks of pink salt mined from distant tendrils of the Himalayan foothills. The new people are completists. If they don’t have professional furnishers, they order entire apartments through the mail in their first week: sofa, dining set, closet-organizing systems. Nothing left undone.
Most of my old neighbors predate me, have been in the building for decades. We are the “stabies,” which sounds like scabies, and that’s how I imagine the new people see us, like parasites that will contaminate them if they get too close. There’s the man who plays classical piano and the one with the limp who calls me “baby.” There’s the architect and the couple who run a coffee shop. Two of my neighbors have died since the new owners took over, both while in the middle of eviction proceedings. The woman with the cats, the one who loved the Beatles, had cancer. I gave her referrals to support groups and witnessed her slow fade, dwindling as she climbed the stairs. After she went, I watched men take her whole apartment and load it into a truck. I stood struck by the particular sadness of a mattress, stained by the body, by years of sleep and dreams, love and worry, and I wondered, as all old New Yorkers must: Will that be my mattress one day? Who among us doesn’t imagine the lonely New York death, our bodies discovered only because they begin to smell and trouble the neighbors? (Added bonus if your corpse is nibbled by your own beloved cats.) I once smelled that odor, in a flophouse hotel off Times Square when I went to visit a resident. He took me to the door of the deceased, marked with yellow caution tape, and the smell was like sour cheese jelly smeared in the air, a physical, biting thing that lingered in my nostrils for weeks. Will that be my smell one day?
Somehow, I doubt the new people worry about dying that sort of death. They know they won’t be trapped here. They have other places they can go. But if they don’t worry like New Yorkers worry, can they dream like New Yorkers dream? While they sleep, do the walls of their apartments miraculously open into extra rooms for them the way they do for us, or do the new people have all the space they need and so they are free to dream of other wishful things? Hashtag abundance. Hashtag gratitude.
After she died and her furniture was removed, my neighbor’s apartment was quickly gutted and renovated, the rent jacked from hundreds to thousands, decontrolled. The man next to her died a year later. He was born on the block and never lived anywhere else. A hoarder who once infested us with bedbugs, he was also a kind person and a talented whistler. He would walk up the stairs, slowly, while whistling classic songs. Rodgers and Hart. Irving Berlin. The Gershwins. Tunes that would stay in my head all day. “We’ll have Manhattan, the Bronx, and Staten Island too.” When he went, I watched the paramedics pump his heart and lift him onto a stretcher, his eyes open but empty, not seeing the hallway he’d whistled through for decades. When the police officer asked me his name, I could only come up with his first. It bothered me that I could not remember the last name of this man who’d greeted me nearly every day for twenty-five years, talked to me about the weather, told me to “be careful” each time I went out. How could his last name be gone from my mind? Later, I understood it was because of the mailboxes. Our last names used to be printed on the slots for each mailbox, handwritten and enduring, never changing because no one ever left. I saw them every day, a reminder of the people I lived among. My people. But the new owners covered them over, replacing names with numbers, wiping us from each other’s memory.
The new people come with names that chime together like beads on a string. Taylor, Ashley, Kayla, Hayley, Madison (that one guy so far — he hailed from Wisconsin, hopefully not the state capital). I know their names because they get everything delivered. The packages pile up in the small entryway where there never used to be packages. The old people shop nearby, or else we don’t shop much at all. Now I am always tripping over boxes. Sometimes, I confess, in my hostility, I kick the boxes. Amazon, Amazon, Amazon. Sephora. Vineyard Vines with the smiling, pink, preppy whale. Kick, kick, kick.
This is our little scrap of somewhere, can’t you just let us have it, oh you who have everywhere?Tweet
I read the new people’s names on the package labels and then I google them, sifting through Instagram and YouTube, spying on trips to Bali and brunch. This sounds creepy, and it probably is, but instead of some Dostoevskian fiend (though my former psychoanalyst used to delight in telling me, “You’re like Raskolnikov, skulking through the streets”), I feel more like Gladys Kravitz, the nosy neighbor played by Alice Pearce on the 1960s sitcom Bewitched. As a kid, I watched Bewitched in reruns, on sick days and latchkey afternoons in my conservative, working-class hick town in Massachusetts, the state most steeped in the blood of witch trials. In the show, Samantha, a glossy blond witch, marries Darrin, a mortal man, and vows to live a normal, middle-class, suburban life. “All I want is the normal life of a normal housewife,” she insists to the husband who tries to control her. But she can’t stop using her supernatural powers, and this leads to all sorts of trouble. Gladys spends her days peeking through the curtains, horrified by the irregular behavior of her neighbors. I should be festooned in hair curlers, dressed in a terry bathrobe with a fistful of Kleenex stashed up the sleeve, just in case I begin to sneeze. Or weep.
Poor Gladys suffered from a Cassandra complex. She knew something strange and dark was going on next door, but no one believed her. “The Cassandra woman,” writes the Jungian analyst Laurie Layton Schapira, “may blurt out what she sees, perhaps with the unconscious hope that others might be able to make some sense of it. But to them her words sound meaningless, disconnected and blown out of all proportion.” I know how she feels. Powerless, hysterical, every blurt full of certainty undercut by doubt.
A New York apartment used to be a place that took time to coalesce. It formed around your body as you also evolved, mirrored by the changing geometries of your rooms as they gradually absorbed the world. I furnished the place, piece by piece, from the bounty of the streets. A modern chair from the trash on 23rd Street, carried home atop my head. A lamp in the shape of a leopard stalking its prey, bought for 50 cents from a homeless woman on Third Avenue. Jack and Jackie Kennedy salt and pepper shakers from the Broadway and Grand flea market in SoHo. I still have these scavenged objects. “An apartment in New York City tells many truths,” writes the East Villager Sarah Schulman in Rat Bohemia. “It shows where you really stand, relationally. It shows when you came, how much you had, and what kind of people you knew.”
During this most recent Open House, two of the women following in the cologne-clogged wake of the real estate agent look like they could be lesbians. Against my better judgment, I feel hopeful. They wear short hair and short-sleeved gingham shirts. Maybe they’re artists. Maybe this time the new people will be my people. They’ll stay. We’ll become friends, allies against the landlord, lenders of proverbial cups of sugar. I play this game on the street: Won’t You Be My Neighbor? That young woman in glasses and lumpy wool skirt, foraging for books at the Strand’s dollar carts, won’t she be my neighbor? Or the earnest-looking, boyish (maybe nonbinary) person on the steps of Union Square Park, with their black eyeliner and pink socks. Or the woman in the Angela Davis Afro, breathing in the herbs at Flower Power, waving their scents with her hands like a conductor before an orchestra. Or the young man sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, reading Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book 4, in a sweatshirt that reads, we are the things we have lost.
When I worked in offices, before I became a psychoanalyst, I was a petty thief. In my twenties, underpaid and unappreciated by my corporate bosses, I seized scraps of power by stealing pens and pencils, yellow bricks of Post-its, spiral notebooks, and, once, a good Swingline stapler. I did it because I felt angry and oppressed. Now I’m a middle-class, middle-aged, self-employed professional feeling angry and oppressed by the corporate system that has transformed my neighborhood and my building, but there is nothing to take. So I steal into the lives of my new neighbors, the ones invited and nurtured by this system. I look through the peephole and gaze into Instagram. I feel invaded by them, so I invade back the only way I can.
The Great Invasion began sometime in the late 1990s but didn’t really take shape until after September 11. That’s when the new people found the East Village. The new people, the emphatically normal, come from someplace else, the Midwest, the South, but that’s not what makes them invaders. Many of us come from someplace else. I come from someplace else. Move anywhere and you’re potentially interloping. So what is it? How can I talk about the new people and their superpower of invasion? I’m forever grappling with this question, reducing, stereotyping, and then struggling not to be reductive. What I keep coming back to is their apparent belief that their way of living belongs everywhere, that it should trickle down the ladder of power and fill every lower space, scouring and purifying as it goes. Spaces of queerness. Spaces of color. Spaces of marginalization. Spaces of This is our little scrap of somewhere, can’t you just let us have it, oh you who have everywhere? With good reason, colonization and Manifest Destiny are the enduring metaphors of gentrification.
The longtime East Village performance artist Penny Arcade said, “The ten most popular kids from every high school in the world are now living in New York! Those are the people that most of us who moved to New York came here to get away from.” But it’s now a coast-to-coast problem. The queer Seattle-based artist John Criscitello had a similar response to the invasion of the city’s Capitol Hill gayborhood by what he calls “bros and woo girls.” He bombed the neighborhood with wheat-paste posters that read, we came here to get away from you. This age of gentrification has been described as the reversal of white flight, the big return, the Great Inversion. The urbanist Neil Smith declared post-fiscal-crisis New York the revanchist city, a vengeful take-back that expressed “a race/class/gender terror felt by middle- and ruling-class whites.”
I confess, in adolescence, I wanted to be a smooth and golden, well-off WASP. I didn’t want to be Italian, Irish, Catholic, all the things I thought would hold me back. I got rid of my regional working-class accent, took up field hockey, made pilgrimages to L.L.Bean, and got a pair of Bass camp mocs, but couldn’t figure out how to tie the laces in a barrel or tassel knot. Any blue-blooded Anglo-Saxon could see I was faking it. But they didn’t see me; I saw them. Each morning, on my way to Catholic school, I would pass their leafy boarding school, gaze upon their abundance, and feel my lack. In a recent study about airplane travel and inequality, researchers discovered that when coach passengers have to pass through first class to get to their seats in the back, they are twice as likely to succumb to outbursts of “air rage.” Seeing what you don’t have makes people feel worse.
To attract new people, the owners installed a doorbell system linked to smartphones. Though not my smartphone, because I don’t have one, so I can’t always buzz people in. The doorbell has a camera and takes pictures of everyone who comes to visit and sends this data to the owners. They installed cameras in the hallways, too, trained on our apartment doors. My old neighbors and I stand on the street, outside the net of surveillance, and debate whether or not we’re really being watched or if the cameras are dummies, duping us into good behavior. The panopticon effect in action. One day, workers from the management company were talking in the hall. I pressed my ear to the door and heard one of them say, “Every night, I have a few beers, I jerk off, and then I watch the security tapes.” In that order. I want to give the finger to the wide-eyed camera standing guard outside my door, but I don’t because there’s a man somewhere, beery and satisfied, watching. The cameras have invaded my thoughts. I have never vandalized the hallways of my building and never would, but since the cameras came, I think about how much I would like to, but can’t because they’re watching, so I stop myself from thinking about vandalizing the hallways, and then I feel oppressed and controlled. The cameras created a thought in my mind and then censored that thought. Sometimes it’s hard to know, in the presence of the cameras, which thoughts belong to me and which ones belong to them.
They act like it’s just them living here. Them and their Amazon packages.Tweet
One of the reasons I google the new people is that they don’t speak to us and googling is the only way to learn what they’re about. When I say hello, they often don’t respond. They look at the floor or down at their phones and keep walking. Sometimes they startle and freeze, avoiding eye contact, like I’m a ghost materialized in empty space. They act like it’s just them living here. Them and their Amazon packages. They FaceTime in the halls, slow-walking and shouting into screens. “My mink coat costs way more than your Canada Goose!” I heard one of them say. Their friends come in like herds of pack animals. Thirsty boys keyed up for pregaming cocktails knock on my door by mistake and then, finding it funny when I answer, rattle my doorknob every time they go by. For weeks, the doorknob rattle followed by feral, frat-boy laughter. Expulsive, uncontained, the new people overspill. They slam their doors, making the flimsy building shake. They set off the fire alarms because they don’t know how to make toast without burning it. They send the smells of their perfumes and shampoos slithering through the gaps around my door, invading my apartment with fruity green apple and peppery vanilla caramel.
Why do they want to be here? I’m trying to write a novel at my kitchen table as the Open House, with all its traffic, floods the hallways. Disturbed by the noise of the real estate agent leading mothers and their adult children up and down the stairs, I keep jumping to the peephole. Surely, I think as I watch them go by, the mothers will see the neglect and disrepair of this building and refuse to sign the lease. For the same $4,500 a month, the new people could live in one of the new buildings in the neighborhood, the ones with doormen and wine tastings, rooftop barbecues and beer pong games, complimentary continental breakfasts, hallways scoured and sanitized. Surely, I think, these clean, suburban, antiseptic people won’t want to live here. On the unswept floors of the hallways, at this exact moment, there sits: one upside-down and almost dead water bug, its legs slowly paddling the air; a wad of intimate paper tissue smeared with something brown that might be chocolate but strongly resembles human feces; a bloody Band-Aid turned gauze-side up; and a greasy, festering sliver of bacon. Surely, I think, these items will serve as protective totems, frightening gargoyles and hunky punks, like the severed head of Medusa, to scare the new people away. But nothing scares the new people. Medusa herself could appear in my hallway to shake her snakes in their faces and they would walk right past, immune and untouched. Looking down at their phones. Obliviousness is a talent they have cultivated well.
I first saw it in the mid-2000s, in the old Meatpacking District, when the new people came to party. I watched them walk over sidewalks slippery-thick with animal fat, sliding in their Louboutins past buckets of offal haloed in clouds of buzzing flies. In the stink of death, strong enough to trigger the gag reflex, they made their merry way. It did not repel them because they did not see it. I watched them pose for photos in the reek of bovine rot, like none of it was there. Filtered out. This powerful ability to ignore signs of danger and sickness enables them to go anywhere, secure in the belief that nothing bad can touch them.
Take sidewalk sitting, for example: around the year 2008, I started to notice people sitting on sidewalks. Not homeless people, not punk kids, not hippies or crusties, but average, well-dressed, middle-class, affluent (almost always white) people, sitting in the New York soup of chewed gum, vomit, dog piss, and shit. The recurrence of this weird trend compelled me to photograph them, and I now possess a collection of young men and women sitting on the sidewalk, often on the curb, with their legs stretched in the gutter, in the traffic, eating their lunch or looking through shopping bags, drinking iced coffee, scrolling on their phones. What would Susan Sontag say about my odd habit? “There is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera,” she noted. “To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have.” She called it “soft murder.” I admit to feeling aggressive when I take these photos, maybe even softly murderous, putting myself in a position of power over people against whom I feel otherwise powerless. Shooting them gives me a false sense of control over the uncontrollable. But I am also gathering evidence, proof that this strange behavior came into existence, a mysterious by-product of 21st-century gentrification. Others have started photographing the sidewalk sitters, too. The East Village novelist Arthur Nersesian puts them on his Facebook page. In one photo, a young woman typing on a MacBook sits cross-legged in a short summer dress that does not fold under her, does not protect her underpants from the pestilence of Avenue A. I want to give her a blanket and a tetanus shot.
While the real estate agent is hosting the Open House, in between clients, he sits on the stairs in the hallway, looking at his phone, drifting back and forth past my door, where I watch through the peephole (I have become, unhappily, a Gladys Kravitzian peephole obsessive). He is dressed in pressed trousers and a blindingly white, starched shirt, and yet he sits. Where the water bugs go to die with slivers of bacon and bloody Band-Aids. Where I have never, in twenty-five years, seen a single human being sit. He sits for a long while. I can’t write while he’s out there. I can hear him breathing, clearing his throat, shifting his weight from cheek to cheek while he scrolls the phone, as if Siri herself has commanded him.
I consider buying a doormat that reads get off my lawn, an open admission of the caricature I am rapidly becoming, but it’s too much. Even for me.
I go for drinks with another writer friend and we argue about the new East Villagers. I tell her they’re boring and don’t belong here and she tells me I can’t know that, not really, not without talking to them. Maybe they’re fascinating people. This reminds me of an op-ed I once read in the Times. Ada Calhoun, author of St. Marks Is Dead (in which she concludes that it’s not), writes, “Who deserves to be here? Who is the interloper and who the interloped-upon? Who can say which drunk NYU student stumbling down St. Marks Place will wind up writing the next classic novel or making the next great album? It’s hubris to think you can tell by looking at them.” What if Calhoun and my friend are right? What if I’m being judgy about the next Patti Smith, the next Frank O’Hara? Or some kid who’s simply the next me?
When the new people walk up and down the stairs, they shout, so you can’t help but hear everything they say. One of them shouts, “My father was, like, how do you live without an elevator? Or a doorman?” The other sees the bright side, explaining that walk-up tenement life provides “a good workout for your legs and butt!” They shout about the salads they just had at Sweetgreen. I have never been to Sweetgreen, a chain that refuses to take cash — though they were recently forced to accept it when Philadelphia and New Jersey banned cashless stores, which discriminate against the poor, the elderly, the “underbanked.” A Sweetgreen outlet took the place of one of my favorite diners, the University Restaurant on University Place, where I once heard a cranky old couple argue about their cat and her mercurial affections:
Woman: (sorting vitamins on the table) There’s something wrong with Sunny. She doesn’t sleep with me anymore.
Man: No, she sleeps with me.
Woman: (in a panic) Does she? Seriously, tell me, where does she sleep? Tell me the truth so I know!
Man: Yeah, she sleeps with me. I’m cheating on you with the cat.
Woman: Oh, be quiet and help me with these vitamins.
It went on from there, so much more colorful than anything I’ve heard from the new East Villagers.
While I don’t buy the get off my lawn doormat, I do have one made to say, welcome to new york: now go home, the once popular slogan of the 1980s city. I don’t, however, have the heart to place it out in the hall, so I drop it in front of my kitchen sink, where the only person it urges to leave is me.
After the Open House, the newest girls move in. They are not the potentially lesbian artists in the short haircuts and gingham shirts. They look like all the new people who’ve come before them, glossy and glowing, dressed in white, hard to tell apart in different shades of blond, floating by with identical Maison Goyard tote bags on their shoulders and white AirPods in their ears. I google them. One is a teenage heiress. The other is a lifestyle vlogger with an Instagram page full of beige, taupe, and the palest dusty blush of millennial pink. There are no photos of my dreary hallway. It’s all the Hamptons and Nantucket, bottles of honey-infused hair oil and glasses of rosé held against a background of blue ocean and white sailboats. Here she is on the French Riviera. Here she is in Venice. Here she is in Starbucks. Here she is eating avocado toast. Here she is in a video about everything she bought at Whole Foods. (I dip a toe down the Whole Foods/Trader Joe’s “haul” video rabbit hole and watch another vlogger, who looks uncannily like my neighbor, unpack groceries. She says, “I feel like I’m blending into the walls.” An existential dread? She explains, “I wear white a lot and also my home is white.”) My newest neighbor, also wearing white on white, similarly unpacks: cacao nibs, pre-shredded sweet potato ribbons, gluten-free pasta, cauliflower gnocchi, which she mispronounces “know-key.”
Maybe the new people hope that living here, in this building and this neighborhood, will give them some texture, but not too much.Tweet
So far, these newest new neighbors are quieter than the last bunch, and for that I am grateful. I haven’t had to knock on their door once. They seem inoffensive enough and are probably nice people. Still, on their Instagrams and YouTubes and blogs, I find no evidence that they are writing the next classic novel or the next great album.
When I take out the trash, I find a perfectly good mirror left lying in a heap. It looks new, but my newest new neighbors bought an extra-new mirror and tossed this one out, even though it has nothing wrong with it. It even looks recently windexed. After considering it for myself, I take it from the trash area behind the building and drag it to the sidewalk, where I prop it against the bricks. This is what we do with old, good things we don’t want. We leave them to the street, to the scavengers and collectors. We give back because we have taken. Later, when I go out for groceries, the mirror is gone and I feel gratified. There’s a pleasure in finding one’s offerings have been accepted. It makes you feel like the city is functioning the way it should and you are a small part of keeping that ecosystem alive.
The new people are always forgetting things. They leave their apartments, slamming the doors. They pause in front of my peephole, adjusting their AirPods. I am Gladys Kravitz holding her breath, trying not to sneeze. They look so lost. They stare at their screens awhile and then drift down the stairs. They might reach the bottom before they turn abruptly and come trudging back for whatever they forgot. Umbrella. Wallet. Whatever objects people tend to forget. They slam the door again, go in and out, slam it again, and then stare and drift, down and down, again. Sometimes this routine happens two or three times in a row. More forgetting. The minds of the new people are elsewhere. They don’t know where they are or what they have.
From the beginning of urban life, the city has existed as a zone of freedom, beyond the enforced conformity of small towns and suburbs. It is both a physical and a psychic space, one in which there is always room for risk, danger, and creative chaos. But that psychic space is getting smaller as the suburbanization of the city continues to compress its unruly contours. In the past, American outsiders, all those non-normals, came to the city to become New Yorkers. Today, the new people want the city to become like them. As Sarah Schulman puts it in The Gentrification of the Mind, the new crowd comes to homogenize, bringing “the values of the gated community and a willingness to trade freedom for security.” They also bring a different psyche to the city, and it is one of absence, detachment, and unrecognition.
As a psychoanalyst, I help people to think, and I am hyperattuned to variations in the psychic field, but anyone paying attention can feel a person’s psyche in close proximity. You can feel if it runs sluggish or quick, shallow or deep, elegant or jumbled. On the sidewalks and subways, you know which people to avoid simply from their fizz in the air. What I feel from many of the new people, the ones working so hard to be normal, is the absence of mind. When I picture it, I see a tightly compressed knot, a forced blank, surrounded by a buzzy cloud of agitation and distraction. This is, of course, highly subjective and impossible to measure, so you’ll just have to trust me when I say: They aren’t really here. And that absence, that rapidly replicating zombie effect, makes the city a lonelier place than it used to be.
I miss the New York mind.
My Bewitched analogy does not hold up. Or does it? In the show, Samantha is the alien in the closet and Gladys is the regulatory gaze trying to root her out. Am I the hunter or the hunted? While I am watching the new people, my new landlords are watching me. They wait for me to slip up. They want me out. I am less valuable than the new people. I am disposable. As a queer, trans person, this is not an unfamiliar feeling.
In 1992, Elizabeth Montgomery revealed to the LGBTQ magazine the Advocate that Bewitched knowingly portrayed a queer closet allegory. The show, she said, “was about people not being allowed to be what they really are”; it was “about repression in general and all the frustration and trouble it can cause.” Trouble like witch hunts. Did you know that in 2005 Viacom donated a nine-foot bronze statue of a broomstick-riding Samantha to the town of Salem, Massachusetts? Residents protested the obvious advertisement, calling it an insult to the memory of those persecuted and murdered in 1692, but the statue still stands, midcentury American normal, reforged and reanimated by end-stage capitalism, covering for colonial violence. You can see the statue on Instagram, repeating and repeating.
I check in again with my newest neighbor’s latest vlog, curious to see what life is like on the other side of the wall. Here she is drinking a matcha latte. Here she is in a beige dress. Here she is giving a tour of her gleaming apartment behind my kitchen with its broken stove and leaky sink. I lean in, looking for books, paintings, some sign of a creative and uncontrolled urban life, of conflict and imperfection, but there are none. Everything in the apartment is new and white. The couch is white. The pillows are white. The curtains are white. The bed, sheets, and blankets are white. The desk is white. The dining table and chairs are white. The rug is white. The new mirror, the one that replaced the old white mirror I found in the trash, has a blond wood frame that looks almost white. My neighbor loves the blond wood because, she says, “Everything’s white, so I needed, like, some texture.”
My heart drops. She’s not a bad person, you can tell; she just doesn’t know what texture is. Maybe she’s afraid of texture. I once knew a woman who ate only white food. She did this because she’d experienced a horrible trauma and didn’t want anything going inside her body that didn’t signify purity and cleanliness. Maybe my neighbor had a horrible trauma. Maybe the enforced conformity of America is the trauma, complex and repressed, and all that whiteness is there to keep her clean and safe, to hold her together so she doesn’t fly apart. Maybe the new people hope that living here, in this building and this neighborhood, will give them some texture, but not too much.
When I complain to my friends about the changed neighborhood, they get exasperated and ask, “So why don’t you move?” “Move to Brooklyn,” they usually add, as if that borough could be a balm for all my troubles. When they say this, I feel dyspeptic and misunderstood. Don’t they get it? This is my home, and I won’t let it be taken from me. I will not move. There are financial realities, of course, my fear of an unstabilized rent, that endless insecurity, and my desire to be in Manhattan, where I am walking distance from pretty much everywhere I want to go. But there is also the matter of my disposition. I am rooted and intractable. Raised by pushy people, I developed a highly resistant personality. And the more I feel pushed, the more I dig in. That psychoanalyst who used to call me Raskolnikov? She also liked to say I resembled Bartleby. “I would prefer not to,” she’d say. “That’s your motto.” I was a difficult patient. You know the game adults play with groups of children, Let’s see who can sit still and be quiet the longest? I always won.
The new landlords offer me money to give up my apartment so they can replace me with new people. It’s not enough. Giving up this apartment would mean giving up my New York. I know I’m probably holding on to some idea that no longer exists, a romantic notion sprung from Rodgers and Hart lyrics, Frank O’Hara poems, and all that J. D. Salinger — I wanted to be some version of Zooey Glass, soaking in a clawfoot tub, smoking and reading in an urban bathroom full of books instead of my mother’s People magazines — but I can’t help it. The thing is embedded in me. The longing.
There are these lines in Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous where he says: “Maybe we look into mirrors not merely to seek beauty, regardless how illusive, but to make sure, despite the facts, that we are still here. That the hunted body we move in has not yet been annihilated, scraped out. To see yourself still yourself is a refuge men who have not been denied cannot know.” Those of us who occupy hunted bodies look into the mirrors of other hunted bodies to confirm that we exist. We look into those mirrors to find ourselves reflected in another mind. The East Village, and much of the city, used to be filled with such bodies and minds. Hunted back home, they fled to the city and provided a mutual antidote to the annihilation that comes with being out of step and undesired. To watch those people vanish and be replaced by people who shine like glass, who cut through the sidewalks like knives but reflect nothing back, has been another scraping out. Am I still here? I don’t know anyone here anymore.
This is not entirely true. Sometimes, sitting in the park, I run into Christine and Rosella out walking their dog. They complain about their new neighbors, identical to mine, and this complaint binds us together, so we laugh and it all feels less awful. (Christine confesses that she, too, googles the new people from the names on their Amazon packages, and I feel less like a creep.) They tell me about a movie they’re making and I tell them about my novel, and it’s OK again. Last night I heard someone call my name and it was Steve from my old poetry group, standing outside the movie theater in a popcorn-butter cloud, hugging me hello. Whenever I go past Gem Spa on St. Marks, Parul waves me over to insist I have a free egg cream. There’s Zarina from the laundromat, telling me about her annual trip home to India in muddy monsoon season. At my local supermarket, because I buy food for the homeless man who sits outside, the manager, who also feeds the man, opens a register just for me. She waves me over and I leave the line, feeling seen and loved, spreading my groceries on the conveyor belt, not a single pasta product bastardized from a head of cauliflower.
So why would I leave this place? I am good at sitting still and waiting. I will outwait the new people. Surely, I tell myself, the bubble will burst, the tide will shift, and they will move on, the way they always do, after they’ve suctioned up all of what they came to eat. But I know they won’t leave. They are forever replenishing themselves, like the teeth in a shark’s mouth; one vacates and another steps forward to take its place. If I survive the hunt, I will be a leftover in the glittering ruins of that future world, the old neighbor whistling on the stairs, taking his time, a ghost stuttering under the electronic eyes, barely seen, but still here. Holding the memory for as long as I can. We are, after all, the things we have lost.