Jeremiah Moss is the author of the blog “Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York,” and the founder of #SaveNYC. His writing on New York City has appeared in the New York Times, New York Daily News, Paris Review Daily, and The New Yorker’s “Culture Desk.” He is at work on a book.
3:44 AM, East Village apartment: The smell of cigarette smoke wakes me. It’s stale and bitter. My neighbors don’t smoke, but they do Air B&B. Some jet-lagged European tourist is puffing away. I think. Gauloises. Remembering the first and only time I tried the awful French cigarettes because Frank O’Hara put them in the poem “The Day Lady Died.” And then: What if a burglar managed to break in and is sitting now on my couch, smoking a Marlboro? I take out my earplugs and turn off the white noise machine, shields against the weekend onslaught of East Village screamers, the woo girls and frat boys who come to booze and ruin the night. There is no one sitting on my couch. It’s nearly 4:00. There’s a poem by Wislawa Szymborska called “Four O’Clock in the Morning”:
“The hollow hour.
The very pit of all other hours.”
I go back to bed.
7:30 AM, Apartment: I wake and hear wet streets, the sound of car tires hissing on the asphalt. It’s raining, or else has just rained. I had planned to take the bike out early, ride along the river and look at the boats. In the white basin of my dripping bathroom sink, a newborn cockroach crawls. It’s the second one I’ve seen in two days. Time to replace the roach traps. I turn on the tap and flush this one down the drain.
7:40 AM, Apartment: I log on. Check Facebook. 11 notifications since I last checked at midnight: comments, tags, requests for membership in #SaveNYC (mostly spammers), an invitation to a protest against the negative stereotyping of Italian-Americans. I click “Mark As Read.” Check email. Only three messages (a relief): two spammers offering me a walk-in bathtub and 3% refinancing, and a person from out of state writing to request a #SaveNYC t-shirt. I delete the spammers and answer the out-of-stater. Check Twitter. Scroll down my feed. TIME magazine has tweeted: “The world’s tallest cow has died.” The Post tweets, “Hello Kitty, Minnie Mouse Brawl in Times Square.” The Paris Review has tweeted a quote from Ted Hughes: “The moment you publish your own name you lose freedom.”
7:48 AM, Apartment: Pour a cup of tea. I mean to read the book I’m reading – or one of them, anyway — but pick up the laptop again, look at my Facebook feed. I “like” some photos of cats. Check the weather. Clouds, but no rain. Decide I will take the bike out. I love to be on the rivers, both of them, to go down one and then up the other. They each have their own personality. The Hudson feels high-end: sailboats, pleasure craft, leisure wealth and tourism. Glossy yachts parked in the marina (by that glass atrium that’s long been rebuilt, but forever reminds me of 9/11, smashed to bits, palm trees incinerated. Palm trees? Or false memory?). Anyway, the Hudson side is clean-swept and a bit sterile, perfectly landscaped. Almost everyone is white and neatly dressed. On the East River it feels like home, like the real city. Working boats ply the oily water—muscular and industrious little tugs, scrap metal barges, NYPD speed boats. The bike path is ragged, pot-holed, splattered with pigeon droppings from the roaring FDR overpass. The people are Chinese, Puerto-Rican, black, white. Some mornings, the Chinese senior citizens are out in formation, snapping bright red fans in the air. I love to watch the fishermen, their poles bending, pulling up small bass and fluke, while the cormorants dive for sea robins. Across the way, Brooklyn is still brown bricks and derricks, church steeples and gas tanks. Not yet a depressing sheet of glass.
9:16 AM, Hudson River Greenway: A flat tire. After sailing smoothly downtown, past green grasses pearled with rainwater, past pink rose bushes, the “Freedom Tower” wreathed in mist, past a dark-skinned muscle man who pulled his car over on the West Side Highway, took out a pair of dumbbells and did a quick round of shoulder presses, this flat tire. I want to kick something.
9:29 AM, Nearly the tip of Manhattan: Demoralized, grounded, I walk the deflated bike past Louise Bourgeois’ “Eyes,” a sculpture that looks more like a cartoonish pair of breasts than eyes, gazing out to Ellis Island, where I began in the bodies of great-grandparents.
10:48 AM, Odessa diner, East Village: Eggs over easy, wheat toast, home fries, turkey bacon, coffee. At the table next to me, an old woman in thick glasses and hearing aid makes her way through a stack of weathered prayer cards, reading each one with a magnifying glass, mouthing the words. St. Anthony Pray for Us. Walk with Me. Sacred Heart of Jesus. The waiter calls out “Whiskey down!” Diner code for rye toast. I still miss the “old” Odessa, a.k.a. the “dark” Odessa. This Odessa, the “light” Odessa, is still “new” to me, though it must be more than 15 years old.
12:28 PM, L Train to Bushwick: “What time is it? It’s showtime!” Acrobatic legs twirling in the air. A young man reads a hardcover of Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned. Next to him, another man’s bare arm is tattooed with a Guy Fawkes mask, “Anonymous,” and the slogan, “People shouldn’t be afraid of their government. Governments should be afraid of their people.”
1:33 PM, Bushwick open studios: A young painter talks about “the honesty of spontaneity,” something that is not easy for him to achieve, though he’s working on it.
2:16 PM, Bushwick, Grattan Street: A young man walks by in a tank top that says “beauté convulsive.” In the middle of the street, two shirtless men (one black, one white) wrestle intimately inside a ring of organic gardening soil. A woman does a herky-jerky interpretive dance while a local family looks on from their barbecue – and I wonder if they’re irritated by the invasion or entertained.
2:20 PM, Bushwick studio building: Looking at sculptures made of garbage found on the streets: Coke cans, rubber gloves, plastic bottles, Funyuns bags. I haven’t been to Bushwick Open Studios in a few years. It’s become overcrowded. Like everything else. In a stunningly short amount of time, the crowd has not only swelled, but changed, become upscale. More glossy blondes, more Greenwich mom types, more tanned financiers in alligator shirts. Looking for an investment or something “different” to do. I feel conflicted about artists moving into low-rent neighborhoods. In the late 1990s, art historian Rosalyn Deutsche called artists “the proverbial ‘shock troops’ of gentrification.” She was right. But cities need artists. I don’t know how to solve this problem.
2:29 PM, Bushwick studio building: I enter a room called NOTHING SPACE. On the wall, a neon sign says: “I am not a sex object.” A tub of ice holds navel oranges and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the hipster beer of choice.
2:35 PM, Bushwick studio building: Paintings of naked men with rabbit heads.
2:37 PM, Bushwick studio building: A woman walks by wearing giant, rhinestone dollar-sign earrings. $ and $.
2:55 PM, Bushwick studio building: Outside, a crowd is roaring. Everyone goes to the windows to watch a half-naked man climb a telephone pole. Inside, a guy in an alligator shirt smirks and says, “Is that supposed to be art?”
3:00 PM, Bushwick studio building: Overheard: “It’s not like I’m nearsighted or farsighted. I’m just missing pixels from my retinas.”
3:23 PM, Bushwick, Swallow Café: My back aches. My blood sugar is low. I need to sit down and eat a cookie. So I do. At the table next to me, a young woman is giving a young man lessons in social media. She tells him, “The golden ratio is, like, two-thirds ratio. That’s, like, the rule of thumb for followers.” Nearby, a woman on laptop and iPhone has a book called 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. The social media lesson continues, “You want to follow most people so they follow you back. Bottom line? You need to, like, follow your followers so more followers follow you.” A woman walks in and says to her friend, “I’m really astounded and really curious and really, like, waaaaaah!”
3:58 PM, Bushwick: Walking back to the train, I pass a basement gallery and go in. On the wall is a painting of a filet mignon, cut open to show its blood. The title? “I’ll See You in Hell, Daddy.”
5:05 PM, Lower East Side: A small party. Late-afternoon bagels and lox. Gin and tonics. Decent conversation for once.
7:10 PM, Lower East Side: I walk in search of what I think of as The Elusive Crayfish. It may not, however, be a crayfish at all, but a lobster, or a shrimp, or some other crustacean. It’s a large, hand-painted sign, cut in the shape of The Elusive Crayfish, a strange sight I’ve only seen at night from the backseat of taxi cabs. Sometimes, The Elusive Crayfish seems like a dream, something that only exists in my imagination. I have wandered the streets of Chinatown before, searching, but never finding. Now, finally, it is here. Pale green and larger than life. It’s an exciting moment on the street outside Nissun Discount Wholesale Seafood Distributor. I take out my camera and shoot. Inside the shop, green tanks of murky water gurgle. A sign says: PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH OR SQUEEZE LOBSTER.
7:45 PM, Lower East Side, Pitt Street: High in a window of the Samuel Gompers housing projects, a stereo speaker—much louder than one thinks possible—sends out an old song, Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You.” I can’t help but sing along. A man standing on the corner sings with me. We have a moment together as I walk on. “Don’t try to fight it, there ain’t nothin’ that you can do.” Michael in 1979, young and beautiful and covered in a million sequins. Me in 1983, young and probably beautiful, too, though I didn’t think so at the time, riding my bicycle and listening to Off the Wall endlessly on my Walkman. Up ahead, the leaves of Hamilton Fish Park are lush and deep green. The sun is slanting down, turning the bricks to butter. I keep walking.
8:18 PM, East Village: Along Tompkins Square Park a pair of women walk towards me, holding hands. I recognize the short, dark one as the actress Ellen Page. She is wearing black, horn-rimmed glasses and smiling—no, she is beaming—at her amazing fortune to be holding the hand of a tall, blonde goddess whom she obviously, at this moment, thinks of as the cat’s pajamas.
8:24 PM, East Village: Hungry, and with few alternatives, I go into a taco place on St. Mark’s that I should avoid and usually do. It’s filled with frat types, a table full of them, beery and loud and leering at the sexy teenage-type girls who come in as a juggernaut, shoving people out of their way, in short-shorts and bitter faces. The ogling frat boys and the bitter-face girls do a mating dance of hair tossing and ignoring (the girls), mouth gaping and snide commenting (the boys). I didn’t move to the East Village two decades ago for this. I get my tacos and hurry home, where I close the windows and turn on the TV until it’s time, again, for earplugs and the white noise machine and sleep. I hope, tonight, I won’t be woken up by the smell of smoke.