The East Village was a different New York in those days. You’ve heard the stories, usually tinged with nostalgia, an irritant to anyone who spent time in a city that was dirty, dangerous, expensive, and yes, glorious. It was like a geologic phenomenon where two great pressure plates were converging into a single stress fracture known as Avenue A. I had a 200-square-foot apartment on the front lines of that stress point; it was more expensive than I could afford but it was in Manhattan and it was all my own.
The bulk of Alphabet City — Avenues A through D — belonged to its long time residents, mostly poor Puerto Rican and African American families who had called that area home for a generation. The neighborhood was overrun with graffiti and vacant lots, and most weekends saw its corners full of young men openly selling and using drugs. Not surprisingly, there was little reason for non-residents to go there except to score a dime bag or a little blow, for the check cashing and loan businesses, heavily gated bodegas where men worked behind two inches of smeared Plexiglas, and interchangeably filthy Chinese food storefronts offered little value to non-residents. Alphabet City averaged 5,000 major crimes a year, all by itself, from rape to murder to robbery.
Avenue A marked the porous line between two worlds, proudly punk and bohemian on my side and entrenched poverty and desperation on the other. Those trying to make art and live outside the constraints of the dominant culture were stacked next to those trying to survive inside it.
I hopped down the gum-stained, dog-piss-covered steps to the sidewalk, bag slung over my shoulder. It was early fall. I had been in the city only for a few weeks. Five months out of university and I was on my way to the first real interview of my life. I checked my watch, a cheap metal Seiko with a scratched face, and realized I had time to kill. I turned into a Catholic Church. I was born Catholic but had become contemptuous of that religion; still, the shadow of the church was a long one, for I considered myself an ex-Catholic, a term that implied divorce over indifference.
I walked through the vestibule and into the sanctuary. It resembled most older city churches in the city, with the stained glass spreading moody blues and reds across the pews. I took an uncomfortable seat halfway to the altar, letting my eyes wander through the space, taking in the familiar sights and smells. Stale frankincense was in the air from the morning’s service, its velvety and musky smell the olfactory archetype of my childhood. There was only a muffled hint of a flowing city 100 feet behind me. An emaciated Christ hung in front of me, cheekbones hollowed and eye sockets pronounced. This was the cliché of my school years, a torn and defeated man reproduced in every classroom with a fetishist’s level of detail.
My interview was for a full-time job in publishing as a low-level editor. I’d gone to college and gotten my degree, moved to a place where there was opportunity and was now working my way into the adult world.
So why did it feel so wrong?
My family history was one where neither grandfather had made it to high school. My own father had been raised in the Depression-era south, in a world where the biggest dreams were of food on the table and the freedom of owning a car. He’d managed to ride out of the rural South to a full college scholarship on the post-War boom, the first and only one in his family to do so. Growing up, jobs were seen as sacred things and money had been more precious than faith.
I considered. I knew I loved to write and always had. Bad stories and worse writing, sure, but writing nonetheless. That feeling of carving a character out of nothing but little ink marks on a page thrilled me with its power and promise. Writing was what I wanted to do, and I’d figured that a job in publishing was close to a writer’s life. But I realized in a moment of insight it wasn’t — it was more like being a roadie than a musician, close to the dream while being simultaneously a world away from it.
I thought of Franklin, my older brother. He was a professional illustrator and on-the-cusp-of-fame fine artist who also lived in the city and had been pushing his way into the art world for half a decade. He showed me that it was possible, if incredibly difficult, to follow the artist’s path, even though he seemed impossibly more extroverted, handsome, cocksure, and talented. For me, the darker and quieter brother, a full-time job seemed a more reasonable and safer prospect from which I might step forward into the world. But if I took this job, it might feel closer to coming out of the gates with my legs bound.
I looked at my watch: 11:15. I would need to get to the subway now if I was going to be on time for the interview. I shifted. I had a formidable work ethic instilled from my Roman Catholic upbringing. Some talent, according to a creative writing professor. A couple of finished short stories. The passion to write. A sense that I was, somehow, meant to be different from those around me, an idea instilled so perniciously and so discreetly it was like the seed of a great, undetectable cancer: if I followed my passion, life would have no choice but to open itself up to me. Hard work and talent, tempered with sacrifice, could only led to success.
One of the other three people in the church, a middle-aged Hispanic woman with a square, serious face, stood and crossed herself, shuffling down the aisle with a lowered head.
I stood. I saw two distinct paths, two mutually exclusive ways of being — awake or asleep, drunk or sober, alive or dead. One path was the security of a job with benefits and a pension plan. The other was the path of struggle where I might develop experiences outside the safety of full-time work, live in the fire of a life without a safety net, and actually have something to write about. I didn’t want to be the 40-year old still trying to write his first novel, still clinging to some idea that he might, one day, break free of the prison of his own life. This wasn’t going to be a hobby, a creative middling to make the suck of a full-time job more palpable. I saw an all-in wager: write while living fully and insecurely but wildly, freely, on my own terms and no one else’s, the Flying fucking Wallendas without the net.
A moment later I pushed through the doors, raising a hand to shield my eyes from the light. I looked left, toward the subway, and right, towards my apartment. Adjusting the bag on my shoulder, I turned right.