The Accidental City
“I navigate New York by means of accumulated memory.”
My dad still gets the names of the New York subway wrong, which means that when he comes to visit, he invariably rides the train up past the stop for my apartment and all the way to Harlem, then sends a text, cursing, explaining that he thought the IND always stops at 81st. I text back and explain that it’s the B train and no one knows what the IND is anymore. He says he doesn’t know anything about the B or the C or whatever and that it’s supposed to be the IND and the IRT. When I say “ok, the orange line” he says nobody calls the subway by the colors. It would be easy for him to know the names of the lines that go to my apartment—he’s never had any problems with his memory. But he refuses to make the edit in his brain permanent, refuses to redraw the map. The line was the IND, the Sixth Avenue line, and it was supposed to stop at 81st Street.
I am incapable of accurately imagining my dad’s life in those days when he first memorized the subway map, because he lived in a city unlike the one I inhabit. I know what it’s like to go up and down the subway steps at the Prince Street stop in SoHo; I’ve done it a million times. The sage-green paint on the railings is always clean and neat and the yellow circle sign is always in perfect repair—it’s a tourist stop, a postcard place, the entrance and exit to what is present-day New York’s largest mall, the neatly tiled walls in their primary colors ascending up to the street with the name brand stores and the street vendors with their sunglasses and necklaces and knock-off bags and soft scarves in the winter. So when I imagine him coming and going from the IRT stop to the apartment on Crosby street where he lived before he met my mom, I imagine the SoHo that’s familiar to me. The process of trying to understand my family means trying to rewrite the places I know into the language of another time, trying to access a different world, the coherent image of a city that fell apart before I ever got to it.
New York is an accidental city: A harbor with a muddy strip of streets offering a place to climb off a ship and stay for a night transforms nonsensically into a city whose function makes no sense with its geography, whose size and straining ambition make no sense with the amount of real estate—thirteen miles up and down and two miles across—that they inhabit. But people kept returning, kept coming back again and again. The places to which we accidentally return are the places in which our longings embed, in which we make a home. Love is an accident followed by an insistence on repeating the accident, talking oneself into staying against the odds and the logic. The subway was one more plan to make this geographically untenable place permanent, to carve more space out of a plot of land that its residents have always refused to admit is finite.
The subway system’s construction was a brutally ambitious, impossibly fast and utterly inhumane event. The proposal was first approved in 1888; on October 27, 1904, the IRT opened its doors and offered anyone who could pay a nickel the chance to ride the underground train. It ran twenty-four hours a day from the day it started. Nearly half of the extant network of trains in Manhattan was built in those sixteen breakneck years. When work on the subway began, there was a sort of gold rush; men arrived from across the country and around the world on the promise of a few years of solid, daily employment. Part of the reason the project could employ so many people was that its workers were constantly dying. Manhattan island is made in part of an extremely dense type of rock and the primary way the subway contractors found to put tunnels through it was by indiscriminate use of dynamite. Workers died in explosions and in avalanches and in handfuls of other horrors once might imagine from the rapid hollowing out of a solid fist of rock into a beehive of moveable intestines.
Almost all of those bodies were left in the tunnels. Construction went on over and around and above them, turning corpses into material, ground down into the rock and the tunnel walls. The subway system is a mass grave—a gigantic repository of lives lost in the process of constructing a place out of the imaginary, the idea of a city manifested into reality. New York builds over its dead again and again, a new city sprouting up in the place of the old one. I don’t know what corners mattered most to my parents when they lived here, what subway transfers constructed their day-to-day lives. I’ve paved my own story over theirs, building atop the skeletons of someone else’s New York, buried in the tunnel walls the train slams past on its way to the next station.
By the time I got to New York, the subway map was easier to memorize than it had been for either of my parents when they first arrived. The subway was how I learned the city, pitting myself against its strange geographies, its demands and reversals, its secrets sleeping between rock and screaming trains. I first moved here before smartphones, a fact that makes me impressed with my younger self who learned the place without the digital crutches I rely on today. My first train in the city was the 1/9 stop at 116th Street, the red circle on the end of the train like a red, lit Christmas nose arriving far below the steep operatic steps and light blue tile designs on the walls. The long walk between the 1/2/3 and the L at 14th street is the most vivid thing I remember about the relationship I had with an older boy in the East Village, how the tunnel somehow distilled the worst city weather and, by extension, my own emotions.
The first time I rode the B or the D was with a friend who lived farther downtown than I knew, the two of us scrambled from blue train to orange train as the summer heat—which made me feel like I had twice as much skin than in winter—curled our hair stuck to the backs of our necks. I learned that trains flung their long arms into the boroughs, emerging out of the earth into the sunlight, the wide map of Brooklyn or Queens spread below like a richly set table, the river cutting up the land into digestible stories. My experience maps over these paths through the city, burrowing into the stations where I sat and waited late at night, the trains where I fell asleep on the way home from work or school after a long day, the stations nearest each next apartment where I lived. I navigate New York by means of accumulated memory, a quick shuffle through past loves and selves to determine where to transfer to which train.
I understand why my Dad refuses to re-memorize the subway, why he refuses to learn the re-named trains: His New York has already happened; it maps onto a previous version of the subway, one less user-friendly and Crayola-colored, one still dangerous and graffiti-plastered. The IRT went from his home in what was barely SoHo to his job at a fancy school on the Upper West Side just as the neighborhood around the school began to align with its same upper middle-class comforts, just as gentrification turned the SROs into high-end real estate. I imagine him changing trains from the yellow line to the red line each morning on the way to work, the walk up the stairs and through the tunnel from one train to the other at 42nd Street representing the code-switching he did each day between neighborhoods, between home and work, between the kid hanging onto the edge of a downtown scene who desperately wanted to be as cool as the woman he’d married, and the teacher in a suit and tie talking about Hawthorne to a bunch of rich kids in uniforms.
In his seminal essay on 1970s New York, “My Lost City,” Luc Sante quotes the writer Rem Koolhaas as having said “New York is a city that will be replaced by another city.” I grew up with my parents’ stories of the New York they left behind to take a job in California, as far away as one could get from the city they both still thought of as home and still be in the same country. I was raised on myths of the subway and the parks and the grid and the lootings, the fountains at Lincoln Center, the cabs that wouldn’t take you past Avenue A at night, the cloud castles on the Upper East Side. I created a version of a place in which I would live one day out of these ideas of apartments and bridges, of tangled friendships and loyalties and parties that went until the next day and the parts of stories where my parents and their grown-up friends laughed and didn’t explain.
What I imagined as my own future took place in somebody else’s past. I realize now that those stories weren’t intended for me; any effect they had on me was accidental, tangential to the reason for their telling. My parents told stories about the city to reassure themselves it still existed, to travel backwards in both space and time, trying to hold a relentlessly changing thing still, imagining they could return to the place where the perfect map of the subway they folded in a drawer in their mind would still be relevant.
I’ve been here long enough now to reach back for a slightly older version of the city, to refer in my mind to a slightly out-of-date subway map, giving myself away by mentioning the W or the 9 train. The 1/2/3/9 was the first train for which I memorized express and local schedules, the first train I took the end of the line. In the 72nd Street station, the platform is thinner than it should be, and the trains on either side of it run in the same direction. If you walk between them exactly when the trains align and begin to rush into a silver blur, it has that sense that New York has, at its very best moments, that outside-of-logic quality, in which coincidence rises to the level of miracle, and the whole thing sings with the sort of shrugging poetry O’Hara found when he walked around on his lunch breaks. It’s the small miracle of getting out of the right exit in a labyrinthine station, at the first time you get home to a new apartment without having to consult a map.
Sometimes I feel guilty about inviting my parents to visit me here, like in a horror movie when a dead loved one is resurrected but something has gone very wrong. The night before Thanksgiving last year, we went to go see the balloons for the parade being blown up, something my parents had watched each year when they lived in the same neighborhood I live in now. Back then, it had been a secret that attracted a small, hushed crowd of people who weren’t really supposed to be there, grudgingly indulged by parade workers. Stepping outside of my apartment, we found ourselves in a teeming mass that resembled a state fair or an amusement park: flimsy barriers erected so a long line of waiting visitors snaked around in coils; food trucks and vendors setting up stalls; the sidewalks so crowded you couldn’t take two steps at once.
My dad started yelling to no one in particular, “It wasn’t like this when I lived here in the ’70s!” and managed to attract a small crowd of tourists eager to hear stories of New York in the bad old days. It was the happiest I’ve seen him, with a captive audience ready to believe all his myths about the gritty New York in which he’d been young and brave. The tourists reminded me of myself growing up from kid to adolescent. I had been raised with the heart of a tourist, reaching for stories that had in their afterlife become an amusement park, turned from experience into commodity. Sometimes I feel like I made it past those, made it into a city that has real banal architecture to it, a place bounded by my own unimportant yet honest experience. Sometimes I think the way to live here is to be a tourist, to live half in a story of a city that ceased to exist long before you arrived.
Helena Fitzgerald has published essays in The New Inquiry, Vice, Brooklyn Magazine, Midnight Breakfast, Refinery29, The Nervous Breakdown, The Rumpus, and Bookslut, among many others. She can be found on twitter @helfitzgerald, and writes a somewhat-weekly tinyletter at http://tinyletter.com/griefbacon. She is currently at work on a book about the 1977 blackout in New York City.
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