it used to be the 14th street was the battle line of our dual existence, the downtowners versus the uptowners. the exciting bits versus the bits that we needed to be dragged up to experience. t-shirts proudly proclaiming “I don’t go above 14th street”, only mildly joking.
there’s a new line around (give or take) 39th street.
I’ve crossed that line three times in the past few days. yesterday, I bundled up in a thick sweatshirt and a thicker leather jacket to get on the back of a moto so I could sit for a few hours in a warm UWS apartment with a laptop on my lap and the luxury of flagrantly using a cell phone plugged into an outlet that worked.
below the line the people and the cars are increasingly sparse. the pizza joints, thrift stores, and cell phone shops are now caverns with fenced gates pulled down. the first few feet you can see their goods and colors; after that their shape and depth disappear into the murk. really such small bits of darkness, each on their own, but pulled together they create a sense of finality, even though intellectually I know they’ll fire to life again soon.
below the line the lowly bodega is everything. god bless the owners that defy regulations and have opened their dirty doors so flashlight customers can buy a candy bar, some pasta, a diet coke, matches and shrine candles. I’ve heard rumors that 7-11, with their sliding glass doors, precise inventories and electronic scanning devices, want to run the New York City bodega out of town. I’ll never buy from 7-11 again - the bodegas and their scrappy immigrant owners saw us through 9/11, the blackout and now this. God bless ‘em.
uptown is a different world. even though the air is the same 50-something degrees, it feels warmer. lamps glow in windows and there are wild caught salmon in the Whole Foods. we came up dirty and cold, marveling at traffic lights and ATM’s that work and had money in them. hot Starbucks coffee, teenagers bitching because a text message didn’t go through fast enough. cell service! 3G and everything!
it almost made me forget that a few nights ago I stood in my street with the East River flowing up to my ankles, marveling at the rushing water that was Avenue C and then the two chest-shaking booms of ConEd exploding, white hot light, before the third boom made it all go dark.
it almost made me forget the deserted streets of the East Village. the firemen stringing plugs from the station so that people can get some juice to call home. neighbors emptying basement apartments of couches, TV’s, framed diplomas. encouraging words, eye contact, smiles, stopping to have a conversation. an apartment that, come 5:30, gets darker and darker - closing the curtains to preserve every bit of heat. cooking and (cold) showering by candlelight. streets that are too dark, too quiet.
one city: two cities.
we had to get back downtown before dark set in, so come 4:00 we started back. uptown was jammed, madness, chaos, life. but once we crossed that line, the temperature seemed to drop, people and cars disappeared and we moved faster and faster towards 11th street. the dark caverns of downtown life now felt like eyes looking at us as we sped towards the safety and relative protection of the apartment. as I climbed up the stairs by flashlight, I fought the part of me that wanted to run back uptown to that other city. instead I put an extra blanket on my bed.
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