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A map of New York | Life of Alvin

A map of New York

I am ready to admit that New York might not be inherently special. It’s tempting to want to assign an ineffable quality to a place. It makes for good prose. It allows the ineffable to be unsaid, an effort to be spared.

I have seen more of this city than ever before. In my fraught return, I have tried to fill my days with meaningless activity, and often that has taken me to subway stops I only know because of maps. It’s easy to forget that maps almost always describe physical locations. But it’s also easy to forget that maps almost always lie; they are representations to help our feeble human minds understand how the earth transforms over the horizon. But, really, the ink on a map is just symbolic of what’s there; when you see Canarsie or East New York or Flushing, they are either much further or much closer than you might think. But that doesn’t matter if the colorful lines representing train tracks don’t connect you and them; if they do not connect, then it’s hard for them to be real to you.

But I digress to my story about all the places I’ve found myself in the past half year. Yes, it’s been half a year and the seasons have turned twice. In the spring I often biked to the Brooklyn Bridge. The perspiration seemed to matter much less when the activity at hand was merely to avoid any further thought. In the summer, I found myself at the Rockaways, where beach season was over and the locals were starting to reclaim their homes. Never before has a place so close felt so remote, so lonely, so separate from the routines I’d built up to survive the days. And in the fall, I found myself in Bay Ridge, a quaint neighborhood with town houses and gas stations and car dealerships. I removed the last remnants of my previous life in Bay Ridge; I told the car salesman that I’d take his price if he could get us out of there in 10 minutes. He did it in 12, but I took his price anyway and ran away with his cash.

You see how easily I romanticize this place? Much like a Swiss watch, these places have names and they have stories and they have histories. They are finely engineered to survive as a part of this grand city, even when the median income barely tips thirty-thousand. These are places where people churn through their days in order to have a home and some food, and maybe some money left over for booze and drugs. Some might find this lifestyle sad or uncivilized or even unstable, but if there’s one thing I have learned in the past percent of my life, it is that stability is never an option. Perhaps there’s a certain amount of stability that a faith in God or a peace with Buddha would bring, but I’ve found that the very definition of believing in such an almighty being comes with a great amount of stress and instability. It causes fractures in one’s intellect, not to mention the grief in one’s soul. So all I’m saying is that I’ve found survival is the natural order of things. We live to survive, and everything else that brings comfort might be an illusion.

Of course this conclusion brings me a great amount of anxiety and it’s probably intellectually dishonest to say that I actually live with this world view in mind. If one keeps thinking about maps and how they are always inaccurate — and, mathematically, every flat map is technically inaccurate — then it might bring a great amount of dismay because the vast world in your head only exists as symbol of reality. And even if you go to Bay Ridge or the Rockaways and see for yourself that it exists in the way the map describes, the problem is that these images fade and deteriorate until the map is still the best description we have of the place. But we, of course, refuse to believe this because we’ve imbued meaning upon these places and a flat map with lines and dots cannot possibly capture the truth of what it means for these places to exist. In fact, I want to argue that these neighborhoods are almost purely constructed of ineffable feelings and effable memories, and everything else is just concrete and asphalt that happens to have stood the test of time and hurricanes and developers.

So perhaps New York is not inherently special, but only meaningful because the maps are so wrong and the best maps are in our heads. The maps on paper will get you from one land mass to another and from that one river to that one canal. But the maps could not possibly describe what we see when we pass by a subway stop knowing exactly what exists 50 feet above. It is not just pipes and concrete and a thin later of human excrement, but it is also a thick ether that we individually construct as we cry and laugh and stumble past each city block.

I once feared that other people had claimed my city and that it no longer belonged to me. But what a silly fear that was. It belongs to me and it belongs to anyone else who has spent an hour limping down the street in ill-fitting boots, looking for the nearest bar that will serve four-dollar well whisky until eight p.m. while the bartender listens to your earnest story about loss and sadness but, ultimately, triumph.

It has been nearly half a year since my return. And honestly, despite the thickness of these paragraphs, I can’t help but think that the last 1,000 words are like the a baseball: hard enough to kill but hoping desperately not to be unwound to the core.

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