Manhattan is much cuter when you have a scheduled departure date. Now that I know I’m leaving for a while, the despair of seeing its grit stretch infinitely out in front of me fades into the endearment tourists must feel, the kind of endearment that makes you stare up at tall buildings and obey crosswalk signals.
Recently, in a fit of said endearment, I rode the 1 all the way down to the Village with my friend Austin. On a hot Saturday. Just because.
We walked through Washington Square Park. We happened upon a street fair. We popped into a bookstore. It was idyllic, almost cinematic, and absolutely out of the ordinary.
We scanned the stacks for authors we’d read together in college, pulled books we liked and recommended them to each other. At one point Austin handed me a book of poetry. Odes by Sharon Olds. I sat in that bookstore and read those poems like someone with finite time in Manhattan might, clear-headed and without the city’s signature alloy of dread, desperation, and ambition rotting in my gut.
The Ancient Greek ode was designed either to be sung or to be recited with music. Traditionally written as a direct address, an ode glorifies the subject through a list of attributes. The great English poets have quite a few odes racked up among them as well. Olds’ Odes are true to traditional form but break away in content, much of it adult, some poems reverent and some definitely irreverent. They’re sharp and gross and exquisite, and I still have not shaken them.
I’m not a poet, but if I were, if I did think of myself that way, I would write odes to the jigsaw pieces of this weird city and burn them ceremonially on my final night in my apartment. Or I’d put them in an envelope and pack them away to find whenever it is I return. Or I’d bring them with me and forget about them in the front pocket of my suitcase.
I would write an ode to the person riding the subway with a bottle of something twisted up in a brown bag, the paper damp and wrinkled from the grip of their hot palm. Sitting alone when there’s space. Knees falling open. Head swung heavy by the motion of the train.
I would write an ode to the secret sunset that happens each night just behind the westmost blocks of building tops.
I would write an ode to 159th Street. Dog shit in long heel-strokes down the sidewalk. Music pounding from the open windows of double-parked cars. Little plastic baggies littering the ground, the ones I used to think were just for spare buttons. The indefinite Iglesia Evangelica sidewalk sale. The tumbleweeds of men’s hair that blow out of the barber shop. The stretches of scaffolding that are safe haven in the rain but dark, caged gauntlet after sundown.
I would write an ode to air conditioner drips that fall 15 Midtown stories to hit you with a smack on the cheek or the neck or the upper lip.
I would write an ode to the opaque gutter water that pools at the curb, be it from rain or from fire hydrant or from melted snow. What Jonathan Byrd so perfectly calls “garbage tea.”
I would write an ode to the alleyway outside my window where I, daily, hear someone retching, where it’s never too late or too early to sift through the recyclables for bottles and cans.
I would write an ode to pee smell and to poop smell.
I would write an ode to the Don’t Fuck With Me Face. The shield every woman totes and uses on the warm days when it’s too hot to cloak the shape of her body. Or at night, passing through a group of men who have claimed the width of the sidewalk. I want a gallery full of each woman’s Don't Fuck With Me Face. I want it to hang in the Arms and Armor Hall at the Met Museum. With all the old helmets and plackarts and greaves.
If I were a poet, I would write these. Or if I were a New Yorker I would try, but I can’t hold that title. They don’t give it to life-long vagabonds like me whose only claims to the city are a new short-temperedness and an unreliable familiarity with the MTA.
Austin and I didn't buy any books at the bookstore. I think books feel like luxury items now more than ever in our current epoch of grind, confronted with the post-English-degree reality that reading is lonelier when you have no one to talk about it with.
But it didn't matter to me that we walked out empty-handed (though I do wish I had my own copy of Olds’ Odes). Being in that bookstore was lovely. I had a lovely time. It was a lovely day. And what a relief to re-wallpaper a bit of this place with a new, nice memory. Even at the last minute.
So, I suppose I’ll fill my last two weeks here trying to find all the endearing parts of Manhattan I haven't found yet but feel I’m owed.
An ode to that New York: I can't write that one, either. Most everyone’s beat me to it.