The Pioneer of New York
by Abigail Wessel
The absolute magic of Manhattan is its corporal temporality. It is the embodiment of human nature: of success, of failure, alive with a beating pulse of purpose and the rush of subways through its veins. This city is the juxtaposition of freedom and entrapment. To be a true New Yorker, is to relish in captivity. To think that you can leave, but know you never will.
New York is someone planting themselves ahead of you to steal your cab on a wet, busy Saturday night. It’s finding within yourself a deep-rooted determination to shove your way onto an overcrowded subway car, and then shutting out the world with headphones for seven minutes of cerebral seclusion because this city has taught you how to isolate yourself while simultaneously touching five complete strangers.
New York is the encroaching click of someone’s expensive shoes behind you on the street. You pick up your own pace as the footsteps get closer, but the fight is already over. You will be passed. Someone else has somewhere else important to be, and you are only a stranger on the street to get ahead of.
“Those boots are made fer walkin’,” a homeless man sings at me in an aggressive, scratchy voice as I walk past him. He looks like he’s been chewed up and spit out. He’s strung out, but happy. I don’t give a second thought to why he’s like this, what his circumstances are or how he got here. It’s one of those things you stop thinking about, stop seeing after a while because it’s easier not to, like the bags of garbage piled up five feet high on the street. The homeless man lives on Park Avenue, right by Union Square. I know this because I live right around there too, and I pass him almost every day. It struck me once that he pays nothing in rent to live a stone’s throw away from multi-million-dollar apartments, with doormen and everything. Zero dollars, to be closer to the city, to be more New York than anyone else. His zip code is exactly the same. I wonder if he’s ever thought of it like that.
“Those boots are made fer walkin’.”
Sometimes I hear the tone as threatening, leering. But when I look over to him, in his colorless, tattered clothes, he never fails to smile at me with a chipped grin. I’ve passed him enough times for him to remember me. But he never does. There is no recognition in those eyes, only distance and wonder. I never give him any money. He never asks, and I never would if he did. I don’t view myself as cold for this fact. We are New Yorkers. We have our own lives to live. I walk on in my boots.
I went on a date with this guy from one of those dating apps the other night. He picked a place as generic as himself. I was able to get by on small talk and happy hour gin and tonics that were lighter on the gin than I would have liked. After I slept with him, I saw his iPhone light up on his Ikea bedside table. There was a Hinge message from another girl asking where he wanted to meet up for dinner the next night. I was insulted. Not by the message – I too had Hinge messages waiting for me on my screen because dating has become a numbers game, devoid of the actual human connection that is supposed to come from what the concept of dating used to be. But he had only taken me for drinks.
I felt like I had when I heard my homeless man sing his “Those boots are made fer walkin’” to someone else. I was crossing the street when it happened. I had a sense that he was somewhat visually impaired so he couldn’t have seen me yet. Sure enough, there was another girl in boots walking past him in long, focused strides. She gave a distained look, not at him but looking forward. She clearly didn’t appreciate him like I did. Although I didn’t actually appreciate him very much at all.
“That was fun, we should do it again sometime,” my date said to me as I collected up my things to leave. Generic to the last.
“Yeah, we should,” I responded, too brightly, and hated myself a little for it. I hated myself a little for the entire night, but time would fade that. Everything is a story if you give it enough time, a mentor once told me. I doubt she ever intended it to be used in a situation like this, but it made me feel better just the same. I knew I’d have to add in some liberally creative flourishes to make the story even worth telling.
I hoped he would never text me again. He didn’t.
My friend and I went to a dive bar after an event at the Explorers Club that we chose solely for its proximity. We looked out of place, having dressed up in business formal for the occasion in dark blouses and flowing pants. I even put on some lipstick, which I rarely do. The Explorers Club is an association for pioneers of land, sea, air and space. The whole place felt antique, like there was dust in just about every crevice that had been collecting for decades. But walking around, I got the sense that the club was timeless, with an enduring existence preserved through discovery. There were Rolex timepieces displaying the time in the North Pole, the Mariana trench, and the Moon, and paintings hanging on faded, porous walls that our tour guide of the club explained were the basis for exhibit backdrops in the Museum of Natural History. There was a lion that Teddy Roosevelt had shot, laid out on a large mantle made for just that purpose. I was only a little sad that a life of wilderness and adventure had ended up on display as someone else’s conquest. There was also a narwhal tusk that we were told had been used in the Harry Potter exhibit a few months ago. My friend and I found that fact more interesting than the painting of the explorer who had a peg leg because he’d sacrificed his own foot for the sake of his expedition; it seemed more realistic.
The dive bar had old, stained Mets jerseys and retro baseball caps hanging on the wood-paneled walls. Three big-screen TVs played three different reruns of baseball games on mute. The color of the green fields and flashes of the white-jerseyed players lit up the dim bar in uneven intervals. I scanned the place and saw three or four other small groups of people. A few middle-aged businessmen in expensive suits were talking animatedly in a rowdy, Boys’ Club kind of way. One of them tried to catch my eye and I met it without flinching. I smiled only when he looked away. Two old men at the opposite end of the bar sitting a chair apart intently watched the reruns. They looked like they lived there; it was almost like they were a part of the dive bar decoration scheme, along with the baseball caps. I wondered if they knew each other, or had ever spoken. I hoped they hadn’t.
A handful of other patrons filled the bar with the noise of a night just getting started. The space felt contentedly crowded. My friend and I sat down on the high, uncomfortable wooden chairs at the bar. The counters were sticky with spilled beer and the whole place smelled musty. It felt familiar, comfortable. I wouldn’t have changed a single thing.
The bartender approached us.
“Where were you ladies tonight?” he asked, in lieu of what we’d like to drink.
We clearly stood out from the usual crowd. I wondered at the inconsistency of looking out of place while feeling right at home and decided that I enjoyed the incongruity.
We told him about our previous adventure while he filled our requested drinks with healthy pours. The bartender had a friendly smile and was attractive in a way that was clear that he knew it, but had never needed to use it, which meant that he was also smart.
“Wow, that’s awesome,” he said to our tales of taxidermied animals in New York City townhouses that some famous explorer or hunter had shot – in a humane way, of course.
“You know, if you’re interested in Teddy Roosevelt, you should read The Wilderness Warrior,” he said, confirming my initial assessment. “It’s really good. You get a lot of his earlier history in it, and how that informed his conservation efforts during his presidency.”
I wondered what he was really doing in the city that being a bartender helped pay for. I wanted to know. I wanted to be friends with this bartender.
Two drunk guys started to hit on us. They stood too close and one of them had bad breath.
“Ma’ boy looks like Eric Trump,” the one with bad breath said to us.
Not a good selling point. The Eric Trump, and the ma’ boy intro.
“You know you’re in New York, right?” my friend said.
Sadly for him, he did look a lot like Eric Trump, with the sleazy, slicked-back hair and beady, untrustworthy eyes. He was better than his friend though. His friend looked mean. The kind of mean that turned snakelike when things didn’t go his way.
I didn’t want to talk to either of them, but I also didn’t want to be rude. That’s the Catch-22 of being a woman in this modern city. It’s still socially unacceptable to refuse a potential mate that expresses interest. The fact that a guy even offers to buy you a drink is a social contract of at least a half hour. To refuse would make you a bitch. As I listened to them brag about themselves, without asking either one of us a single question, I’m reminded of another friend of mine who told me recently that she just turns around and walks away when she doesn’t want to talk to a guy that’s hitting on her, without any further explanation. A physical declaration of dissidence. Since I’m still sitting in my chair at the bar, I doubt that I could pull off her approach to achieve the desired effect.
“What’s the most interesting thing about you?” I asked Eric Trump, when it became clear that they weren’t going to take our not-so-subtle hints to leave us alone.
The guy took a moment to really consider my question.
“I have four of my baby teeth still,” he finally answered, like he was bragging about it for some reason.
It was a ridiculous response. He was very drunk, but still.
“Really? Are you sure?” I asked, giving him a chance to change his answer. “The most interesting thing about you is that you’ve still got your baby teeth?”
“Yes,” he doubled down, with a confidence that only men can seem to muster when they’ve decided that they’re right. “My mother agrees, and I’m her favorite,” he tacked on, as if that made it better.
After making his rounds with the other bar patrons, the bartender came back to us.
“That guy’s an asshole,” the bartender said about the mean one with bad breath.
“Poor guy,” I said back.
The bartender laughed and poured my friend and me another drink on the house in consolation for our abducted attention. He emptied the last of two bottles of wine into my glass and smiled apologetically as he pulled out the second bottle. I didn’t mind. The drink was free, and that night I was an end of the bottle of wine kind of girl.
A familiar song came on, and then another. The bartender poured us two shots that I didn’t really want to take, but then did because, at that point, why not.
The guys that were hitting on us left to smoke outside, giving my friend and me a welcome reprieve. When they came back, we had moved with the help of our bartender who’d started to drink with us. Even though the bar was small, our move threw them off and it took them a few minutes to find us again. Our bartender waved them away when they did and then they left us alone. I was only slightly offended that one gesture from a man could do what my friend and I had not managed to.
The three of us talked and drank and laughed about things that wouldn’t be remembered in the morning. All of us gratefully slipped away into the frenzy of a lost night.
When “American Pie,” came on, we sang Don McLean’s chorus like it was our favorite song in the world because, in that moment, it was. We were right in it with our bartender, the two old men who broke out of their television trance to pay homage to this other great American classic, the businessmen, two very drunk girls who had arrived an hour after we had in tight-fitting clothes and too much make-up on their faces that had long since melted from place, and even Ma’ Boy and Baby Teeth.
The businessman who had lost my stare-down put his arm around my shoulders tentatively, and oscillated with me back and forth in an almost fatherly way. Our bartender gave me a look to see if I minded. I smiled at him to show that I didn’t. I was in this now. I wanted to be in this; I had committed to the night. We sang the words that we all knew by heart like we were sitting around a bonfire, in one of the most communal moments you can have in New York.
“Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry!”
I felt more connected to those disconnected people in that bar than I had in my entire life. It was fleeting, but I wanted to be bled dry of human connection. I had been waiting, alone in a city of eight million people, to exorcise that connection from my body. I gave everything I had to that song and those strangers in our concrete jungle kumbaya, and asked for nothing in return.
“And them good ole boys were drinking whisky and rye, singing this’ll be the day that I die. This’ll be the day that I die!”
We all held up our drinks at the climax, in a shared inherent synchrony. These were my people, I was theirs, we were all pioneers of this night and our lives in this city, and we would have nothing to do with each other come morning.
But it already was the morning, even though none of us wanted the night to end. Two A.M. on a Tuesday.
While our Uber driver waited for us, my friend and I squeezed the last few minutes out of our night. We said goodbye to all of our new friends that we would never see again, and finished out the last, sad chorus of “American Pie” with a collective sway that only happens at the very end of an evening.
“You guys should come back, when the crowd isn’t so…” the bartender trailed off, but we knew what he meant. “I work Saturdays through Tuesdays.”
We both agreed that we would try, but I’m not sure I wanted to. Nights like that can never be repeated. Because nights like that are special. Nights like that are New York. Baby teeth and all.
When we finally pried ourselves outside, our Uber driver was not happy.
New York is the adult merry-go-round of patched-up dreams. It’s finding yourself in a dive bar, and giving yourself to the crowd. It’s the significant strides that you take, because you have to get ahead of the person in front of you. It’s when a competitive drive strikes and, in that moment, nothing is more important than getting ahead. And you will get ahead. Your boots are made for walking, and this is New York.
With this city, I feel anticipation. I feel rejection. I know that everything is going to change. But I feel like nothing has. I am drunk with possibility. I am hungover with impassivity. I feel everything at once. And then I feel nothing at all. I am the pioneer of ephemeral existence and rented relationships in the one place where that means freedom. I want to do it all again. I have no choice but to do it all again. And I will.
About the Author
Abigail is based in New York, with a B.A. in English and Psychology from Cornell University.