Taking advantage last night of an early bedtime for the savage toddlers who cohabitate with me, I decided to go down to Alphabet City to eat cheap Turkish food and act a fool with an old friend for a little while. He has just sublet a place on Avenue C, near Houston St., in a sloping, ramshackly artist’s apartment. Weekend nights there’s a huge club that the cops like to raid across the street. The neighborhood, despite years of halting gentrification, still attracts a rangy mix of bohos and bums and clubkids and hoodlums. There’s a fair amount of little parks, but not many playgrounds and lots of traffic on Houston. It is not, unlike the Upper West Side, an achingly baby-friendly neighborhood.
It started when I was getting on the subway at 86th Street: it must have been ’80s throwback night in the neighborhood, because there was a dude smoking crack out of a glass pipe waiting for the C with me (for those who don’t know the backstory, the Upper West Side was actually a bit of a rundown neighborhood, with plenty of drug houses and knife-fighting, during the Dinkins days. These days, well, you’re much more likely to score cupcakes than crack in the neighborhood).
So the Upper West Side is not without its scuzzy side, and Alphabet City is not without its charms. Walking down Houston, I passed a board-fence in front of very condemned-looking building that still had a light shining in the third floor: someone was living there, and from the outside, at least, it looked actually quite cozy. Something about it reminded me of youth. I’ve squatted in houses from Brixton to Berlin, sometime for long stretches, and I have warm memories of the experiences. Squatting is such an intentionally domestic act: you literally make a home where there wasn’t one. You do it without gas or electricity. In Europe, at least, you burn coal and light candles. It combines some of the best aspects of camping and lawbreaking
Thinking those thoughts, I walked into the unfinished hallway of my friend’s building and started up the dusty stairs, when I saw a baby stroller in the ground floor. The building wasn’t Section 8; everyone was living there voluntarily and could have lived elsewhere if they wanted to. They chose to raise a family there. It all made me feel like such a milksop, because I would never think that I could have a kid in that building or even in that neighborhood. My ruca and I, in our 16 years together, have changed mightily, almost always in tandem. But one of the changes is that we’ve become more conventional, more cautious. I don’t know where it comes from. I don’t think it’s a natural part of aging. I know plenty of people who grow old without ever becoming rooted and plodding, without building a 401k or trimming a lawn. Actually, come to think of it, they are all photojournalists.
But I can still hold us non-photographers to a certain standard of spontaneity. That we lack such a trait may have something to do with building careers: after all this work, there’s too much to lose if you walked away. So you get cautious with the big things: you wouldn’t want to change careers, and then you become cautious in the medium things (like whether you’d move cities) and then ultimately you end up clinging to the status quo in even smaller issues, like whether you could ever live in a neighborhood that didn’t *gasp* have a Gymboree.
These were my thoughts this morning. It’s not enough to just read the kids Michael DeFeo’s Alphabet City boardbook. I need to burn my lease, move the wife and kids into a dusty industrial loft and start living like New Yorkers.
There, as usual, to quash my dreams with his tyrannical numberlust is Nate Silver, the statistician wunderkind of the last election cycle, who is now training his graphing calculator at New York neighborhoods over at Christopher’s beloved NY Magazine. I took the quick online test to see what neighborhood would be perfect for us, and found that the Upper West Side was 24th on the list. But Alphabet City didn’t rate either. Number one: Murray Hill, where Christopher already lives. I smell a set-up, some kind of gambit to raise property values around him. But, as often happens when faced with conflicting sets of desires and advice, I will simply freeze and do nothing. So I will stay in the Upper West Side. Maybe I’ll just take to smoking crack on the train platform to feel the edge beneath my feet again.