When I handed my girlfriend her apartment keys at her office, I remembered the paper directions sitting back on her bed.
She was late for an Aikido class. I had 12 more miles to bike to Astoria.
“Well,” I said, staring at the potholes up Brooklyn’s Third Avenue, “I guess I’ll just wing it.”
I moved to New York two months ago, but I didn’t move in anywhere. An unpaid internship and an uncertain future inspired me to test my friends’ tolerance this summer by crashing on their couches throughout the city. Now, in addition to being a part-time reporter, I’m a collector of Wi-Fi passwords and tricks to unlocking apartment doors. Thick key opens the front, thin one unlocks the room. Network “ClaudyPants,” password “areyouacat.” Jiggle the doorknob as you turn it and don’t lock the inside bolt or you’ll wake up at 3 a.m. when the housemate you’ve never met is angrily hammering at the door.
It’s tough navigating between temporary homes. Each week I find a new neighborhood to get lost in. I’ve visited the city enough to think I know what I’m doing, so I go to Brooklyn Bridge Park when I want to get on the bridge itself and convince myself that somehow the City Council changed an avenue name when I’m stuck on Park looking for Fourth. I end up where I need to be eventually, just always three wrong turns later.
I felt alienated at first by New York’s surprising geographical complexity—downtown Manhattan’s unnumbered streets, the way the roads bend off Flatbush Avenue—but increasingly I’ve found comfort in a sense of orientation that can only be gained through experience here. Any Joe Tourist, after all, can navigate a numbered grid. Getting around places like the West Village tangle of blocks demand expertise; even with iPhones, the uninitiated have to stop to read maps. New Yorkers earn their directional ease one wrong turn at a time. I’m starting to feel like I belong.
With no actual home in the city, though, my allegiance is less to New York residents than to the city itself—to the streets, parks, buildings and monuments between work and this week’s apartment that give me space to escape my obligations as intern and houseguest and to let my thoughts roam.
Most New Yorkers have bedrooms for time to themselves; I have the Hudson River Greenway, Prospect Park, Union Square, the garden on 28th Street where I eat my lunch and the shade under the Manhattan Bridge where I rest from the summer heat. I belong nowhere specifically, so I claim anywhere as my own and invest myself in street corners around the city instead of in neighborhoods or blocks.
I’m thrilled, then, when I stumble upon one of these corners a week or two later and suddenly know exactly where I am. The Astor Place Cube! Bryant Park! These rushes of familiarity sweep together the pieces my scattered city life and stamp them into place—Central Park is that way, the subway line to get across town is there, a Starbucks with a public bathroom is around the corner and the closest ice cream shop is down one block. That food truck is where I stopped to eat my first slice of New York pizza and that park is where I sat down in the rain and wondered what the hell I’m doing here.
Connecting the dots of my experiences in the city feels like I’m mapping out some part of myself. I’m still not sure where I’m going in life after the internship’s done, where I’ll live or what I’ll do—no directions exist for that, and I’d probably forget them at home if they did. I made it to Astoria, though. It just took a few wrong turns.
Paul Bisceglio co-edits land that I live, a literary blog that publishes stories about place and identity in America from contributors across the country. See more of his work at landthatilive.com.
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