It’s the gasping, buzzing end of August, the final weekend of true summer, and the sidewalks are piled high with cast-off furniture. Along the streets of the East Village stand mountains of bed frames, mattresses and box springs, bureaus and wardrobes, coffee tables, kitchen tables, side tables, easy chairs and dining chairs, toasters, microwave ovens, boxes of books, pillows and potted plants, all of it looking quite new, no older than a year or two. These are not the well-worn furnishings of long-time New Yorkers. These belonged to the temporary people. Now their temporary stays have ended and they are done with New York. All weekend, moving trucks and U-Haul vans fight for space on my block, jockeying back and forth, their rear doors flung open as young white men and women with toned, tanned bodies carry out the things they want to keep. A few white lamps, a pair of Starcke ghost chairs, objects that barely exist in space.
My neighbor, the Instagram influencer, goes with them. I watch her go from the window, carrying her things to an alpine white BMW where her father waits. Nothing is packed into boxes so she carries it all down in heaps, armloads of clothing, a shower caddy filled with shampoo bottles, a colander in one hand and, in the other, a jar of utensils, spatulas and whisks sticking out, everything loose, uncontained. Who moves like this? The mirror comes down last, the one she uses for her selfies. “Be careful,” she tells her father as he fits it into the BMW. “That’s the only valuable thing I own.” By valuable, she does not mean expensive. The mirror hails from Ikea and sells for much less than her Gucci shoes and Yves Saint Laurent handbags. She means valuable in another sense, close to her soul, the mirror a vessel for her image. Her most precious object.
The mountains of furniture are unusual and people in the East Village can’t stop talking about them. On Facebook, they take photos of the mountains and marvel, “That’s a lot of furniture.” We’ve never seen anything like this. Entire apartments are being dumped as buildings empty out. Where is everyone going that they don’t need furniture? They’re buying new stuff, of course. They can afford it. “Good riddance,” the Facebook people say. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.” Each time a new mountain appears, the gleaners come to gather. Old-time East Villagers pick over the piles, selecting choice items, so that everywhere you look, someone is walking along carrying a chair, a framed artwork, unwanted objects plucked from the heaps, wanted again. Homeless people construct homes from the mountains, rearranging the pieces into outdoor tableaux of indoor space, creating entire domestic environments on the sidewalks, complete with rugs, sofas, queen-size beds covered in luxurious duvets and feather pillows, side tables with lamps that plug into nothing, toasters with no toast.
Before she drives away forever, I take a photo of the influencer about to drive away and then another of the car actually driving away. This photo-taking feels shameful, but some part of me needs visual proof, something to look at later to remind myself that she is really gone, similar to the way I took a photo of my father in his coffin, so I could look later and know: He’s gone. (Child thought: He can’t hurt me anymore. Adult thought: The tension is over. Psychoanalyst thought: The conflict never ends.) My father did not look back at me, but when I take the photo of the influencer, she also takes a photo of me. Sometimes the observer is also the observed, but in this case, I am incidental. She snaps a souvenir shot of the building and I just happen to be at the window. Does she even notice me? Years from now, when she looks back at her first apartment building, will she see me for the first time, or will I only be a shadowy blur behind the screen, a ghost of someone she never thought much about to begin with? She has already forgotten me, I am sure of it, but I can’t let go of her. Like the rat that curled itself on my welcome mat, she lingers under my skin. Each time I go out, each time I return, I feel a jolt, an internal belly clench. What if she comes back? Twelve hours after she leaves, my IBS flares up. This is the worst it’s been since before the pandemic. I tell myself I am being ridiculous. What am I so afraid of? On the surface I feel relaxed and relieved, but my enteric nervous system has gone into a state of hyper-arousal. As a psychoanalyst, I am embarrassed that I can’t analyze my way out of this. Maybe it’s the not knowing where she is, the way a predator possibly hiding in the tall grass can be more unsettling than a predator standing right in front of you. How do you defend yourself against the possibility of a tiger? I need to wade into the grass with a stick and slash it around, yelling; similar to the way, when I first lived alone and entered my dark apartment at night, I would fling open the closet door and throw back the shower curtain, shouting “ha!” at whatever intruder might be waiting to kill me. Is the tiger really gone? Is it safe to relax? My stomach has not caught up with the reality of the situation. This is how the relic of early trauma lives inside the body, overreacting to every little thing that even looks like tiger, the color orange, the pattern of stripes, confusing Nothing for Something.
The New People’s cast-off belongings, when they’re not taken home by old-school New Yorkers or gathered into makeshift outdoor homes, end up in sidewalk sales. We used to call them thieves’ markets because many of the objects for sale were stolen. When you got burglarized in the East Village, the police would tell you to check the thieves’ markets where, if you were lucky, you could buy your own stuff back for a bargain. We shopped the markets regularly, furnishing our apartments with the stolen goods of our neighbors. A kind of recycling. Really, it wasn’t all thievery; most of the stuff was salvaged, gleaned from the garbage. The whole neighborhood, and much of the city, was one big flea market until, somewhere around the turn of the twenty-first century, the markets disappeared. Now they’re back, only nothing is stolen. On the corner across from my building, I stop to talk to Jay who is selling some excellent furniture and framed art. A gleaner with a good eye, he has a flair for visual merchandising and his market is attractive. We’re talking about the sidewalk sales, how they existed and then didn’t and now they exist again. Jay says, “No offense, but the, uh, people around here throw out a lot of perfectly good new stuff.” By “no offense” and “the, uh, people,” I figure Jay, who is Black, means white people with money. I do not take offense. But when I later put a lamp on the sidewalk because its switch broke and, while I Krazy-Glued it back together months ago, I’m worried it’ll eventually break again, so why bother, and besides, the lamp is fifteen years old at least, I feel a sliver of shame. The influencer has been gone for forty-eight hours, but my stomach keeps rumbling, waiting for her reappearance, for the tiger to spring from the grass, for the intruder to leap from the closet. At my kitchen table, over breakfast, I hear a sound in the hall and freeze, but it is not her sound. It’s too quiet and hesitant to be her sound. I open the door to find the super, Jorge, trying to work a key into her lock. “I think she moved out,” I say. He nods, says something about her leaving the wrong key, but then it clicks, the door opens, and I can see the apartment is vacant, white walls and wood floors, bright with sun and nothing more. Jorge turns to me and says, “It’s empty,” as if he knows I need to hear this reassurance.
It’s exciting to see the sidewalk markets back on the streets, blankets covered in the promise of good junk, and the sight triggers an ancestral pleasure. Growing up with my mother, we did some gleaning of our own, foraging the town dump and occasionally going trash picking on Saturdays, the day for the best sidewalk hauls. I can still feel the thrill of hearing her say, “Wanna go trash pickin’?” Mostly, though, she was a big fan of yard sales. Every weekend, early in the morning, she’d scour The Pennysaver and go yard-saling, a verb filled with the electricity of adventure. She’d return with her haul, holding gold jewelry and glass vases up to the light, squinting at their undersides. Can you see that mark? What does it say? With my young eyes, I’d proudly decipher the tiny stamp of letters and numbers. Oh, that’s worth something, she’d say, sure she’d finally found the right sort of treasure, the one that would reward the superior intelligence of her thrifty discernment. How many times have I heard my mother recount the tale of a bargain? Do you know what this is worth? In the store it goes for $20, but I got it for nothing. The price tag is still on it. They were practically giving it away. And her favorite: The woman didn’t know what she had. Could there be anything better than a seller too ignorant to know the value of the item she was selling? I got it for pennies. Always the climax of the story came when my mother approached the seller, asked the price, and received the magic words, “Oh, just give me a quarter.” A quarter. A quarter, the woman says. Can you believe it? I practically stole it! Practically stealing was the absolute best, better than real stealing because you couldn’t be punished for it. You could only be rewarded.
It’s Sunday night, the influencer has been gone for two days, and I take a short walk, past the mountains of furniture, through the neighborhood gone quiet again. I don’t know what to make of all the in-and-out flows of people this summer. A couple of weeks ago, they came back with a vengeance, only to leave again, in a mass. Maybe, like the influencer, they returned from their suburban retreats to live out the final days of their leases in the city, to party hard before leaving for good. There is no one here. I stop by a new mountain of furniture, piled on the corner, and consider a lamp, but this is not the lamp I need. As I approach my building, I look up to see the lights are on inside the influencer’s apartment. Is she back? No, I tell myself, the super must have left them on by mistake. She’s not there. She’s not there. She’s not there. When I get upstairs, my bowels quake. I go to sleep and have a dream in which I hear a sound in the hall and find my upstairs neighbor breaking into the influencer’s apartment. She looks guilty, but I say it’s okay and join her. We want to see inside. The apartment is much larger than it is in real life, with vaulted ceilings and broad, bright rooms. Strangely, the living room is filled with matte black stationary bicycles, all lined up, as if for a spin class. My upstairs neighbor and I feel envious of the space, speaking covetously about the shiny surfaces, the wood floors, the freshly tiled bathroom, not understanding why they can’t be ours. When I wake, I try to analyze the oddest part of the dream, the bicycles, my vehicle of freedom and pleasure during the pandemic, but in the dream they are stationary, all the same, clones lined up like soldiers, like the bike cops of the NYPD in their matte black armor. Stationary bikes do nothing but spin, going nowhere. In the dream, I felt disturbed by the bikes. I don’t want a spin class next door. Is this anxiety the source of my IBS? That I am doomed forever to be invaded and re-invaded by the same army of narcissistic clones, people I see as cops, bullies that control me? My father was an avid cyclist. He could also be a narcissistic bully. Maybe he’s in the dream, entangled with my own narcissism, my inner cop. There’s a slogan going around the protester circles: “Kill the cop inside your head.” Do they know they’re talking about the superego?
Out on the street, a garbage truck is rumbling while the driver tosses furniture into its hopper. In go the tables and chairs, the dressers, lamps, and beds that the New People left behind. The man pulls a lever and the packer blade grabs the junk, pulls it into the truck’s belly, and crushes it with a satisfying crunch, the compressed wood popping like fireworks. The man appears to be enjoying his work. The air is sweet and cool with almost-September and it’s a good day, the man’s body says, moving back and forth, arms and legs swinging, all muscle and groove. In the truck’s cab, the stereo is turned up loud, blasting the “Theme from Shaft,” Isaac Hayes, 1971, the year I was born. It’s the music of another New York, one that could be returning, for better or worse. Probably both. But this moment is good, gritty New York joy, the music filling the sky above my street with hi-hat sizzle and the wacka-wacka of electric guitar contorted into funk. Who’s the black private dick that’s a sex machine to all the chicks? Shaft! The garbage man tosses another table, another chair, flips the lever, crunch and crack. You’re damn right. It’s hard to resist the symbolism here, the new city thrown into the teeth of the old, chewed up and swallowed whole to the sound of the 1970s, Blaxploitation and gangster TV cops, pornography’s dirty bow-chicka-bow-wow, old Times Square, I’m walking here and up yours, all the stuff that’s gone and won’t come back, and yet. Sometimes, in the pandemic, the past feels like present. We can’t know what the future holds.