8 Million Stories: I Take The Fifth

Written by Leslie Stonebraker on . Posted in 8 Million Stories, Posts.

I exist in pieces.

My food occupies less than half of a shelf in the pantry. I shove underthings alongside sweaters and scarves in one of my three dresser drawers. I tiptoe through a living room whose furniture would feel at home in Victoria’s England, use only the one blue velvet chair at the claw-footed kitchen table, oh-so-gently tug at window blinds and swallow my profanities when a dangling light pull assaults my passing cheekbones. Like some sunscreen-smeared tourist in a national park, I take only memories and leave only footprints.

I am living in a borrowed apartment. The building’s shared roof deck has severe rules posted on a large sign: no noise, no parties, no litter. “No fun,” I add in a whisper. So I invite a friend over to watch the day end, but tell her that she can’t speak. She laughs; she thinks I’m joking. The doorman who presides over the building’s entrance never recognizes me, asking cautiously, “Excuse me, miss?” The unspoken question, “Who the hell are you?” rings between us on the marble tiles. I explain once more that I am living with a family on the 15th floor. “Oh, yes, have a nice day.” I’ll try.

As I approach the apartment door, I fear the neighbors will notice my excessive key jingling. Neighbors are a silent, powerful force in this building. I never see them, but they always know when I have misstepped in sorting my recycling (even though, to me, both bins are equally blue). They are the Big Brother that haunts my elevator rides, the flash along the wallpapered corridor in the corner of my eye, evidenced only by an outstretched umbrella and size eight shoes set out on the mat to dry. Though the heroworshiping moviegoer in me would relish confronting them, I try not to clash with my cohabitants. When I moved here in pursuit of my very own unrealistic dream, I made a solemn vow not to get my hosts in trouble.

The apartment’s master bedroom looks out on the shining point of the Empire State Building. The den boasts relics of a life well-lived: paperweight awards, photos of grandchildren and shelves upon shelves of books. Each night before I will myself to sleep soundly on my air mattress, I peruse the memorabilia of my absent hosts and try to harmonize this worldly footprint with the family I’d seen only at annual reunions. The kind of relatives that I call cousins because I couldn’t begin to explain exactly what branches on the family tree linked us. The kind of family that lives on Shelter Island and happily lends out their Manhattan apartment for indefinite lengths of time.

Every morning I traverse the retail paradise that is Fifth Avenue on my way to work. I wander past the carefully concocted window displays, chuckling at a quizzically posed, fur-clad mannequin demanding that I buy. This mildly disturbs the trenchcoat-wearing urbane professional clicking past me in knee-high soft leather boots with a cell phone glued to her ear. She glances, the sort of judgment filled eye-flicker intended to make you cringe for offending society’s delicate sensibilities. I stare back, a head-to-toe worthy of your average streetwise chauvinist, and she instinctively hunches back into the safety of her BlackBerry bubble. I don’t fit in with the coffee-clutching suits who are eternally late for something much more important than the activities of the rest of the world. I’m a jeans and T-shirt sort who prefers sewing to shopping, baking to buying. On one rainy walk, I get stuck behind three dudes in pastel shirts heavily debating the merits of skill versus attention for a successful fantasy football season. In an attempt to cut in front of them, I dive across an intersection, earning the blazing horns and poised fingers of only a few seasoned cabbies. I flash them a big smile and an oversized wave. Fifth Avenue is my wonderland, where everything is distorted through a fun house mirror.

Every evening I head two blocks over into a completely different wasteland. On West 8th Street, starved, wild-eyed NYU students queue up for Insomnia Cookies to fuel their smoke-clogged brains through the completion of a procrastinated essay. They wander the streets in tight jeans, oversized headphones and saggy shoulder bags, beasts on the hunt for the best 99cent slice. As I brush past, a manicurist thrusts a free-mani-pedi-for-students flier into my hands, willfully ignorant of my protest that I’m a bona-fide graduate. No institutions here seem to believe me; even my bank asks me if I’m totally sure I don’t want the student checking account.

So I exist in pieces, living in one small corner of an apartment at the crossroads of consumer society and a student’s screwyou mentality. I check my confrontational spirit at the door of my borrowed building, only to unleash it upon the pedestrians of Fifth Avenue. I gather the bits of myself onto my air mattress at the end of every day to prepare myself for the next. I’m just your average new New Yorker, trying to make all the pieces fit in the big city. And yes, Mr. Doorman, I did have a nice day. C