By Ashish Seth
A two part series (and a song) about a suburban kid’s experience of the Big Apple.
Figure # 1: The ethereal skyline of New York city seen from the highway to Long Island.
The female voice of the GPS crackles out in low quality tones, “Keep left on interstate-.”
I press a button.
We drive down a three lane highway somewhere in New Jersey, heading for New York, trees passing by in a whir, windshield viper fluid shooting out in lines on the front for the sliding vipers to wipe the bug muck away.
“Let’s stop at a coffee shop or something,” I say.
“You need to take a piss again?”
“I wanna see Jersey. This is where The Soprano’s took place.”
“I’m just saying. It’d be cool to go to a place and say, ‘hey, that’s where that guy got whacked!’”
My brother Abhi drives. I navigate the GPS on his phone. We’re heading to Long Island where Abhi has a rotation at a hospital. He needs to complete this rotation in order to get his medical degree and become a doctor. It’s late July and I’ve been on vacation from my teaching job in Brampton for weeks now. It’s been a long ride and we’ve stopped as seldom as possible.
Abhi’s phone shakes. A text message.
“Who’s that?” I ask.
He looks at it.
“The hospital. Says ‘545 Merrick Dr. Price don’t worry.’”
“Don’t worry? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. It seems shady doesn’t it?”
My brother puts his phone away.
“What if we get there and it’s all a big scam?” he says.
“I don’t follow,” I say.
“They haven’t told us what the rent is for the place. What if we get there and they put us in a place and then rob us of our shit.”
I consider it for a minute. New York. The city that never sleeps. The city of cities. All modern metropolises ape the style of the Big Apple. I’ve been bombarded with perceptions and depictions of New York. A lot of the depictions have been negative: The Godfather, Goodfellas, Grand Theft Auto, Taxi Driver, countless New York rappers telling street tales of drug dealing, drive bys and homicidal shootings.
“Don’t worry,” I say. “If they scam us, we’ll sue the hospital and Ross University.”
“They won’t scam us. I was joking.”
I rest my head against the window and stare out.
* * * * *
The George Washington Bridge to The Bronx.
Figure # 2: The George Washington Bridge coming from New Jersey.
Figure # 3: Hudson river and coasting skyline.
After paying a heavy sixteen dollar toll, the cost to escape New Jersey, our white Honda Civic turns on to The George Washington bridge.
Through the metal railings of the bridge in the far distance I see the New York skyline, a long stretch of translucent skyscraper outlines in the airy orange sky. Planes take off at La Guardia and glide silently in the clouds above the city. The eight o’clock setting sun paints the horizon a stained orange glow. Sunlight reflects a green color into the Hudson River.
“We’re finally in the city,” says Abhi. He looks excited.
I take out my iPhone and start snapping random pictures: the skyline, the road ahead, the low rise buildings along the river, anything.
“We got to make a list of places we’re going to go,” I say.
“Think of some places,” says my brother.
“All the places I think up come from movies, tv shows and songs I’ve heard about the city.”
“We need to check out food spots,” says my brother.
We get off the bridge onto a highway that cuts through a tunnel and straight into the Bronx. A few miles down, my eye catches movement at the far roof of a brown run down building. Three figures sit beside each other, sitting against a marred billboard, knees against their chest. One wears a red hat. Black faces.
They’re kids. Looking out onto the George Washington bridge. Watching the mass of cars flowing in and out of their city. In the summer heat, they’re huddled as if shivering. Do they know they’re being seen? Pondered about from a mile’s eye? What are they thinking?
My attention turns to the sights we pass by. Graffitied walls. Narrow alleys with cracked roads and dilapidated walls of shops. Dry cleaners, laundries, convenience stores that look like a rain made them droopy and decayed and leaky. Old posters of actors with eighties hairdos on windows of barbershops and cramped convenience stores. Old cars from the nineties parked with their heavy beaten bumpers scratching the sides of low curbs.
We leave the Bronx and get on a highway towards Long Island.
* * * * *
Rockville Centre, Long Island
The sun is dimmer.
“What do you think of the area?” says Abhi.
I stare out my window at cracked roads. I see a dreamcatcher hanging off a chainlink fence of a plot of residential townhomes. The civic pulls up to a curb just after the intersection of Malverne and Hempstead. A row of stores; a Subway restaurant, Dunkin Donuts and some Cleaners.
“I got to take a leak,” says Abhi.
“Dunkin Donuts is everywhere. It’s like our Tim Horton’s. I wonder if there are any Timmies in New York,” I say.
He turns off the car, exits and goes into the Dunkin Donuts.
An African American woman comes out of the Subway Restaurant ahead of me. Three kids follow her. She wears blue scrubs. A hospital must be nearby. My brother’s hospital. She gets into an old model Lexus and drives away after moments of idling.
A beat down old Ford blaring heavy metal music cruises slowly by me. In the driver’s seat, I see a white man with dreadlocks bobbing his head, smoking a cigarette. A younger clean shaven white man hunched over, a bit more innocent looking, smiles at dreadlock dude, turning his head and saying something.
My brother returns moments later. We drive down Malverne.
“You didn’t buy anything?” I say. “You just went in there and pissed.”
“There was a lineup. I slipped away unnoticed.”
At the intersection of Malverne and Merrick, we pass a grassy field of graves. No gravestones. Placks in the ground mark where the bodies lie, some with flowers, some with birds picking worms out from the grass. It stretches up a hill and I can’t see where it ends. A factory smokestack in the distance past it. Around us, chained fences. Private properties. Businesses in offices. Roads that intersected like confused worms in an orgy.
As we turn an intersection, I see five or six people crowding around a spot on the sidewalk. A white lady and a white man, both chubby and messy looking, seem upset and in a panic, talking loudly pointing fingers at each other as the others look on, arms crossed, heads shaking and on the ground near them, a complete and still body of white fur, unmoving, fur fluttering-.
The light turns green.
The engine kicks. My body turns. I look straight ahead. A feeling of dread settles in. I miss my dog.
Grow up, says a voice in my head. Sounds like my brother.
“Seems like a decent area,” he says.
* * * * *
545 Merrick Dr.
We pull into an apartment complex that is well lit. White stucco walls with square windows of a dark brown wood. Clean. It looks recently built.
We get out and stretch our legs. and walk around the front area of the complex.
“You’re expecting just a room? I think they’re giving you a whole apartment,” I say.
“Let me call the superintendent and let him know we’re here,” says Abhi.
Five minutes later, a large white Ford van pulls up in the parking spot in front of us. A fat middle-aged man, probably late forties, with sunken pink cheeks, wearing a grey superintendent’s uniform, emerges from the driver’s seat.
“Hey, how ya doin. Let me show guys the place.”
We shake hands. He talks in a New Yorkian accent. He walks past us. We follow him to apartment 201.
“Did they say anything about a monthly rate?” asks Abhi.
“I don’t know what the deal is you guys made, I just give you the key,” he says.
I look at my brother, a bit worried.
He unlocks the door. 201 opens to wooden stairs that we climb to a wide open living room and kitchen, fully furnished, couches, chairs, TV, Internet router, fridge, stove, microwave and cabinets. Deep brown wooden pantry doors. Clean white walls with no etch marks or imperfections. A hall with wooden flooring leads to two bedrooms and two bathrooms, wide and spacious and ready for people.
“Wow,” I whisper to myself.
“This is nice but I don’t think I’ll be able to afford this,” says Abhi.
The superintendent smiles and shrugs.
“Look guys, you’ve had a long drive and you probably want to just freshen up and not worry about all this. Take the apartment for the weekend. Enjoy yourself. Go see New York.”
My brother and I look at each other.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” the superintendent continues. “We’ll deal with everything Monday. Talk to Jill. There are some papers you need to fill out for the hospital and property. Take it to Anne. Just down the street in front of the hospital.”
A few moments pass as we look around.
“Internet and TV passwords are over on the table. As you can see, it’s fully furnished and ready. Where you guys coming from?”
“Toronto? Long drive.”
“Hospital owns this whole place?”
“Yup. Mostly hospital employees living in these units. About half and half. I had another unit open that was first floor and smaller but the air conditioning was fried so I put you in here.”
“This is place is amazing,” I say.
“How’d you like the city when you came through the freeway?”
“We couldn’t believe people had actually built it,” says Abhi.
“First time in New York? It’s called the Big Apple for a reason.”
“How do we get to the city?” asks Abhi.
“Yeah, you’re probably gonna wanna know that,” he chuckles. “Let’s see, you’re gonna wanna take the Long Island Express into Manhattan. Especially on Saturday, don’t drive down. You won’t find parking. Sunday you can drive down.
“Go to all the areas. Hey, don’t worry. New York is a safe place. I know you guys have seen all the stereotypes. Honestly, it’s a safe city. You can go anywhere.”
“What about the Bronx?” asks my brother, implying it’s a bad place.
“The Bronx? What’s in the Bronx?” for a second, I think he’s being sarcastic. He’s only just thinking about a place. “Check out the Bronx zoo, it’s amazing. You know, guys, I mean,” he waves his hands like he doesn’t know, “it depends on what you’re looking for, you want girls, I wouldn’t know about that stuff.”
We all chuckle.
“How long you here for?” he asks.
“Three months,” says my brother. “I’ll be doing a rotation at South Nassau Community Hospital.”
“See? Relax, you’re a doctor, you’ll be fine. You get the dough. Don’t worry about the rent. We’ll get that taken care of Monday. Just take it for the weekend. What kind of doctor?”
“Oh very cool. Nice. Man, good thing you guys came this year. Last year, Hurricane Sandy. Stirred up a shitstorm, excuse my language. Water came all the way up to here.”
“Where, here?” I ask.
“No, Rockaway beach. Oh yeah, you guys’ll probably wanna check out the water. It’s beautiful. Well, you’re probably tired and hungry. I’ma leave you to it. Freshen up, If you’re hungry, there’s a Bonbino’s Pizza round here. That’s where I’ll be going to get dinner.”
“Is this a bad area?” asks my brother as we walk the super out the front door.
He hesitates for a moment and then says quietly.
“Well, that’s up to you.”
We all chuckle.
“Haha yeah I’m gonna make it a bad area,” says my brother, sarcastically.
“Hey don’t talk tough, enjoy yourself. Welcome to New York. Follow the signs. ”
Ten minutes later, my brother and I sit in the living room. I speak.
“I bet this is a marketing ploy. They get you in here make you love it. And then you can’t say no. Business.”
“Dude relax. Stop thinking so negative.”
Continued in part two, coming soon. Also coming soon, an exclusive song I produced while in New York
* * * * *