There was, in 2007, a January in which i left – armed with the pretensions of a luminous almost-grown-up-ness – for New York, with an unsettling restlessness in my heart. I stayed until the end of summer and returned home with concrete in my chest, adding to the restlessness that leaped to it’s feet as soon as mine touched JFK. I knew then i would never be able to comfortably do normal again.
Ten years have gone by and i have fallen short of many 3am morning-resolutions, but made that concrete crumble by aiming never at status quo, sometimes landing there, but never being satisfied staying there.
It’s funny to say (i will say it though as an example of how my odd, odd brain works) that a smell, reminding me of Brooklyn garbage in summer, made me write this, made me think of how i never dared to write about New York after i left. So here are a couple of things that i am missing.
I associate New York most vividly with smells. Unseen clusters of molecules that, without being noticed, pressed miniature grape-like patterns into the surface of my brain. And so every now and then i might smell something like the odour of garbage simmering in the Brooklyn midday sun.
This in turn will bring my mind to me sitting in a little, yellow stage truck, window open (said smell streaming in), rushing past the streets of Brooklyn. Bodegas – blasting Puerto Rican music – , 24 hour Laundromats, Jamaican Soul Food Diners, African Hair Braiding Salons, wooing with their red, green and yellow plastic signs. Each stringed narrowly beside the next, colourful beads on a wristband, tearing when we cross the East River and scatteredly recovering as we touch the hot tar of the South Bronx.
Now the South Bronx might bring my mind to Mott Haven Housing, green plastic tarp in the sun or it might stay in the yellow truck which harbours a certain space in my heart (not exclusively because it’s stage knocked me down and granted me many visits in Lincoln Hospital).
I might remember my teammate sitting in the cargo area between placards and wigs, teaching me jamaican idioms or me trying desperately to close the trucks back door in full speed, hanging out on the highway one-handed.
I might remember the heavy scent of cooking gas at 11am on Grove Street and myself perched on a stool next to the wide stove. Telephone in hand i am testing out the thought of staying in New York, slowly rolling the words out with my tongue, paraphrasing each intention – i don’t want to scare anybody. And just like that every scent is heavy with memory.
Another memory imprinted on my brain: the looming presence of the projects. Red brick giants with miniature windows constructed by the New York Housing Authority. 30 floors of a scratched record on repeat.
Stepping inside the projects is like stepping into a caricaturists world in which all features are predictably exaggerated. I dismiss the thought of taking the elevator because there is pee in it and take the staircase (although there is pee in the corner or somebody peeing into one).
After climbing to the top floor i open the door and, just after escaping the pungent smell of urine, am hit by multifarious smells of unknown foods and body odour. I step onto a narrow T-shaped hallway with yellow tilework and worn down, light blue doors.
The occasional muffled dialogue from a television set is the only noise swaying in the unsettling quietude. A smothering silence is shrouding the projects’ hallways and inner yards. It’s the kind of silence that makes you feel like you are being observed, a silence made more silent simply by existing in close proximity to all the lively noise on the streets, in the basketball courts, on the front steps.
And then i might remember Bronx nights where, after sunset, the stillness of the projects seeps outside. The warm glow of a streetlamp mixes with the halogenous light streaming through the tiny windows and lends the tarmac a burgundy hue, infused with an eerie neon.
When i think of those nights it might bring the feel of goosebumps, although i am not able to tell the matter accurately. It’s not necessarily a gloomy one, since i kind of liked those nights, physically being there, in a way. Maybe those nights allowed me to feel a fraction of what some things may mean. Maybe.
And for those of you wondering: this is my notion of a love letter.5