This post is an excerpt from a Novel-in-Progress about a struggling writer/musician trying to make it in New York. Any similarities are entirely coincidental.
I’m in hell.
There was another ring of hell that Dante forgot, and I’m in it.
Broke and hot in Brooklyn, New York City. Park Slope to be exact, in the middle of the hottest July on record; so hot the kids don’t even have the energy to bust open the fire hydrants. I’m sitting in front of the fridge, the icebox open, a fan on top blowing the cold smoke into my face.
I might as well be pissing in the wind.
Every other apartment has an air conditioner balancing precariously on the window ledge, the drip-drip of water like Chinese torture telling me just how cool it is inside. The Spanish woman I’ve sublet this place from has a fan.
But I shouldn’t complain. This is what I wanted, right? This is the life of the artist, one man’s heroic struggle to forge in the smithy of his soul the uncreated conscience of his race.
And I think: what would Henry Miller do?
But, I like Park Slope. Just down the block from me is the bakery where an obsessive-compulsive Jack Nicholson took Helen Hunt for breakfast in that movie. This isn’t the moneyed Park Slope; that’s a few blocks north of here, past the roundabout, beside Prospect Park, in the old brownstones that look like they’re waiting patiently for Edith Wharton to come back. This is southern Park Slope (or Windsor Terrace as it’s more properly known), a working-class neighbourhood with rappers on the corner and whole families of Hispanics on the stoop and Spanish landladies who are impervious-to-heat.
New York is funny like that. In some cities, if you lived in a rich neighbourhood, you’d have to walk a mile to find a poorer one; here you just have to walk a few blocks. People talk about how impersonal the city is with its rushing hordes and break-neck buildings, a majesty that dwarfs even the richest of its inhabitants. But that’s what’s so great about it. It’s a level playing-field. There’s rich and poor, but they’re all thrown together in this stew. There are opportunities for everyone in New York, which means, at any time, that piss-poor artist you just turned away from your club could be the next big thing. The people with money recognise this and – with the exception of the old money relics strapped to their oxygen masks on the Upper West Side – most welcome it. Oftentimes, you can eat at the best tables even if you don’t have a pot to piss in.
‘Farrell’s’, the bar up the block, sums up this neighbourhood perfectly. It’s been there since the Thirties, which is a lifetime in New York terms, and it’s exterior and interior appear to have changed little in that time. It’s a hangout for cops and firemen and there are no chairs, tables, or barstools (what are ya … a wuss?) They serve one type of beer – Budweiser – and God help you if you ask for a cocktail. Oh, and there are no glasses: the beer is served in 32oz Styrofoam cups.
Who wants to waste time washing glasses when there are more important things like watching baseball to be done?
My apartment is a one-bedroom walk-through. It’s on the ground floor at the front, and the little garden outside (basically a couple of window boxes) is tended by my landlady. She left New York for the summer (probably to go find somewhere that’s even hotter), which means, for the next few months, it’s tended by me. This might not be so bad if it wasn’t for a sun that reduces all living things to a withered mass in a matter of minutes.
But none of that matters. Even though I’m sitting here, melting like the witch in The Wizard of Oz, it doesn’t matter. What matters is what I’m doing, and where I’m doing it. Playing music for a living in New York City, the thing I’ve dreamt of doing since I was fifteen. What matters is that I’m here doing this and not where I was six months ago. As Henry Miller said, in Tropic of Cancer, “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”“Those were the reasons and that was New York, We were running for the money and the flesh. And that was called love for the workers in song Probably still is for those of them left.”
Leonard Cohen, Chelsea Hotel No. 2