Nonfiction NYC Observations


During my first year in New York, I packed my lunches in plastic grocery bags from Morton Williams. That is where I purchased cartons of frozen Shop Rite veggies, picked through Cortland apples, saw packages for matzoh ball soup, and overheard elderly women bicker with cashiers over the price of the deli pasta salad.

My lunches were simple: thin sandwiches, leftover pasta and vegetables, string cheese, fruit, nuts. If I wanted a treat, I’d slip in a few cookies.

Upon sitting down at the round table in the office next to the large windows overlooking the East River, I unwrapped my lunch. Several of the attending psychiatrists showed great interest in my food.[1. I have never before nor since experienced so much fascination from others about my lunches.]

“So… what did Dr. Yang bring for lunch today?

“What homemade goodness are you having?”

Sometimes they stood over me; sometimes they pulled a chair out and sat down, leaning forward to inspect the contents of my lunch.

“What’s in that? Eggplants? Tomatoes? I smell garlic.”

“What kind of apple is that?”

“Leftover pizza, right?”

As I confirmed or otherwise explained the ingredients in my lunch, sometimes they congratulated each other for their discernment. I nodded and resumed eating. They wandered away towards the door.

“So… diner?”

“It’ll be crowded. How about the cart out front?”

“The diner is always crowded, but they make good fries.”

“Okay, the diner it is.”

The team nurse often entered the office after the psychiatrists had left. She spoke with a Brooklyn accent, dressed with class, and carried herself with confidence. Though the wrinkles around her eyes and on her hands revealed her age, she argued with vigor when she disagreed with the director of the service. He would persist, though knew to relent: She was a strong woman.

Sometimes, upon finding me eating alone, she would sit down at the table. She shared history about the department, interesting developments in other parts of the hospital, and updates about patients I had seen.

She also shared her sadness about her son. He was killed while serving in the military a few years prior and the anniversary of his death had just passed. Though she was smiling, her eyes were already full of tears. Her voice cracked as she apologized for crying.

“I miss him so much,” she said, dabbing her eyes with a ball of tissue. As she pulled apart the ball, she murmured, “My mascara is starting to run, isn’t it.” More sad than annoyed, she motioned me to walk with her to her desk. Her computer wallpaper was a photo of her son in his military uniform.

She pulled out a compact and examined her eyes, wiping away the trails of diluted mascara on her cheeks. She was still crying.

The sky was dark. A storm was coming. The arcs of the grey clouds were descending upon the lines of the housing projects and warehouses across the river. Her screensaver began flashing photos of her dead son.

The office door opened; the psychiatrists were back from lunch. The nurse quickly wiped her nose and forced a smile.

“Time to get back to work,” she said, standing up.

Nonfiction NYC Observations

East 77th Street.

I was standing on the south side of East 77th Street near York Avenue. It was late June and my first night living in New York City. Everything I owned—two bags full of clothes and shoes, travel-sized toiletries, two towels, a disassembled table, a bed, one pot, a laptop computer, and important documents—was in a pile on the sidewalk.

I hadn’t wanted to live that far from the hospital. The broker—tan, fit, and preoccupied—glanced at my documents[1. Formal brokers in New York City commonly want two pay stubs, your most recent tax return, and proof that you have a bank account before renting you an apartment.] and said, “You can’t afford to live near the hospital. But you could live on the Upper East Side. You could take the 6 or the M15 to work.”

Rents increased the closer the apartments were to the subway. I couldn’t afford anything beyond 1st Avenue.

My apartment was a “cozy” studio on the first floor. It was in a red brick tenement, built around 1940, that was four stories tall. White, vertical metal bars adorned the inside of the single window. Jutting out underneath was a rumbling window air conditioner.

There was also a small window in the bathroom that opened to a small, dark enclosure that was littered with cigarette butts and dented soda cans. When that window was open, the aromas of cooking food, the shouts and cursing of people watching football games, and the moaning of men and women having sex often floated in.

The kitchen had a two-burner stove, a miniature oven, and a short fridge. The sink was metal and shallow. There was no room for a table.

The main living space was just large enough for a full-sized bed and a small desk. I got the desk from the man I was dating. It was an old table, constructed of particle board, that he was going to throw out. The tabletop was white and visibly sagging; it resembled a hammock on four rusting legs. I eventually got a small bookshelf. To get to the window, I had to squeeze myself between the bookshelf and the foot of the bed.

The apartment was probably around 250 square feet. Rent was $1550 a month.

Before I learned that the heating pipe in the corner would often clang as the radiator overheated my apartment all winter, that, in this neighborhood, black women often pushed baby carriages holding white infants, that people would fish from the East River before 6am, that lights in the Empire State Building could change color, that up to 1000 people would pour out of Penn Station every 90 seconds[2. “… Penn Station, which is the busiest station in North America, funnelling 600,000 passengers through just 21 tracks, sometimes at the rate of 1,000 people every 90 seconds.”], that my then boyfriend and I would eventually get married in Central Park, before all that–

–I stood on the sidewalk on East 77th Street and looked around. People ignored me and walked around my pile of stuff. Yellow taxis, black Lincoln town cars, and men on bicycles delivering food rolled along York Avenue. Only a few stars dotted the indigo-charcoal sky.

I had a place to live, a new job that would start in a few days, and at least a year to learn about and live in New York City.

I grinned.