When I saw signs for Newark Airport, I started to get excited, which was dumb. I mean, I wasn’t going to the airport, and Newark—who gets excited about Newark? But the sky was bright blue, the weeds on the roadside throbbed a vivid green, and the few treetops I could glimpse over the concrete barrier walls lining the New Jersey Turnpike promised rebirth, including my own. And for that, my friend, I was pumped.
The industrial tedium of the turnpike, the beat-up asphalt on the highway, and the white, shoebox-like warehouse buildings soon gave way to the royal-blue behemoth of IKEA in Elizabeth. I was close. I passed signs for the Holland Tunnel. On my left, planes landed at the Newark airport. On my right, railroad cars dragged freight containers dumped from the red-and-white cranes that swung in the air, and everything around me, including my heart, said Go, go, go, go, go.
The eighteen-wheeler in front of me sighed to a halt. Another one pulled up on my left, blocking out my view of everything, even the exit signs. Trucks belched their diesel exhaust and I rolled up my windows and breathed through my mouth to keep out the smell. We crept forward a foot. That scene in Office Space bubbled up in my mind, the one where the guy looks out his car window during rush hour and finds he’s been passed by the old man on the sidewalk, the one who’s using a walker.
The truck to my right rolled forward another few feet, and it was then that I glimpsed it. Far off into the distance, at about two o’clock to where I sat, rose the skyline of lower Manhattan. The Promised Land.
No refugee hovering expectantly at the rail of a long-forgotten ocean liner could have felt more optimistic, more inspired than I did. Forget the year on the calendar. This was as much my New World as it was for any immigrant of centuries before, a land of hope and the promise of a better life waiting to unfold. I scanned the skies to my right for the landmarks I’d seen in movies: the Empire State Building, the Chrysler Building, something I could fix in my mind that I’d remember for the rest of my life, the opening scene of the biopic I was about to write. But all I saw were rectangular towers in an unfamiliar configuration, a generic cityscape built from a child’s toy blocks.
That’s because it was actually the skyline of Hackensack, New Jersey, and not Manhattan. I scowled as I pinched the map on my phone screen to shrink it back down, hit Re-Center on the navigation app, and watched it sail to another spot on the unending blue line of the highway as I waited for traffic to move. Honestly, New Jersey, you’re such a buzzkill.
We inched forward, the trucks and the delivery vans and the tired motorists and I. An electronic sign promised it was only 31 minutes to Manhattan, which seemed doubtful, given that I couldn’t see evidence of the Big Apple anywhere around me—just motor vehicles packed cheek by snarling jowl, creeping along at a pace that would have given a sloth a competitive advantage. The vans and billboards advertised services in cities I didn’t know yet—Elmwood Park and Little Ferry and Weehawken; billboards for strange car dealerships and NYU Langone Health and—sweet God, was this another toll gate?
Trapped behind massive coach buses and staring at the sweaty tiles on the walls of the Lincoln Tunnel, I tried not to think about how much water waited over my head. What if those tiles were sweating for a reason? What if they gave up, one by one, and dropped to the pavement and let the Hudson River come pouring in on top of me, right this second?
Stop. Go. Stopgostopgostop. The tunnel lights flickered like sickly, garish fireflies. Go. Stop. Then, briefly, flashes of natural light streaked across the grotty tiles like the tails of comets. The streaks grew wider and blended into one another, and I emerged into sunlight. A bright blue sign ahead of me said WELCOME TO NEW YORK. I felt it, and I was.
I followed the herd onto West 38th Street, which was not what Siri had in mind, and she promptly chided me to make a right on Ninth Avenue. That wasn’t going to happen because I was in the left-hand lane, such as it was, not that I could see any lane markers on the congested pavement. I squeezed through parked cars on my right and orange construction barriers on my left, the UPS guys in their brown uniforms navigating massive hand trucks through the stalled traffic like they’d left their regard for their personal safety in their lockers back at the office. The bright blue sky thinned to white, what bit of it I could see between the towers of brown brick and glass rising on either side of me. It was no big deal, I’d turn right on Eighth, except Eighth is one-way going north so I kept moving east, Siri protesting all the way.
I turned south on Seventh and holy cow, New York pedestrians have no fear whatsoever. In DC, the drivers are so perpetually angry that you don’t dare challenge them; they’d run you over for spite. Here pedestrians expect drivers to stop, and so they do, in terribly awkward places. We’d all get through this somehow.
I almost missed Madison Square Garden, I was so focused on not getting hit by the bright yellow cabs that wove with impunity from lane to lane. Not that I’m a major sports fan or anything, but this was my New World, and I wanted to fix every first glimpse in my mind for posterity. But I couldn’t. It was like sailing into New York Harbor a century ago and missing the Statue of Liberty because you were preoccupied with all the damned seagulls.
The street numbers dropped and the sky opened up as the buildings got shorter. I passed the predictable Chase Bank branches and Starbucks and Dunkin Donuts but also independent stores with awnings in yellow and green and red and block letters reading SHOE REPAIR and DELICATESSEN and BROWS NAILS WAXING. The sun flashed off a mirrored building ahead of me, blinding me for a second, long enough to hear Siri scold, “Turn right!” For once, I obeyed.
I passed row houses with wide windows and handsome doorways, window boxes full of trailing greenery and bright annuals, even a potted topiary on the immaculate steep steps on my left. Siri promised me that in three hundred feet, I would arrive at my destination. Just then, an Audi pulled away from the curb into the street ahead of me. I accepted this gracious gift from the parking gods on this glorious day in the New World, docking my Beetle gently at the curb.
“You have arrived,” Siri told me.
“You bet I have,” I replied.
You can’t expect a friendship to blossom with the first person you meet in New York City. That person is likely to be some sort of employee in a service industry: someone helping you with your luggage, directing you where to go, or preparing a sandwich to recharge you after your journey. Someone, in other words, who’s just doing their job and has a life to go back to at the end of the day. I didn’t know anyone here and while I didn’t mind being alone—I was used to it, in fact—a friendly face wouldn’t have gone unappreciated. Svetlana offered a variation on this theme. As my Airbnb host, she wasn’t exactly the burned-out transportation or hospitality industry worker who just wanted to get through the day, so my hopes, I admit, might have been higher than was rational.
“Jane?” I heard a heavy Eastern European accent. As my eyes adjusted to the dark of this coffee shop, I discerned a splinter of a woman waiting at a table near the door. She raised her pencil-thin eyebrows at me.
“Pleasure to meet you.” She radiated the same warmth as the air-conditioning someone in here had programmed to mimic winter in Irkutsk. Outside, the August heat reflecting off the sidewalk made the air above the pavement shimmer. We exchanged chitchat as I ordered an espresso. Svetlana’s haircut, a bob sharp as a knife’s blade, reminded me that my windblown ponytail must look extra sloppy, and I smoothed it with my sweaty hands as I waited for the barista to fill my order. By Svetlana’s highly tailored clothing and ultra-thin frame, I assumed she must work in the fashion industry.
“No, nothing like that,” she said. “International real estate. So, speaking of, the apartment is just a few blocks away. You are ready? Follow me.”
We left the coffee shop and I followed her down the block toward my vacation rental, my prospective home for the next month. Svetlana said nothing as we walked. Her three-and-a-half-inch stilettos clicked briskly on the pavement and I marched dutifully behind her in my beat-up Chuck Taylors, marveling at how Svetlana’s ankles never wobbled. Her thin shoulders, sheathed in her sleek black suit, switched back and forth like a shark darting through dark water.
At Tenth Avenue she turned north. Midway up the block, she abruptly turned right and produced a key to a heavy, reinforced stainless-steel lock. She turned the key and the bolt slid back with a satisfying thunk, and then she pushed open the heavy, broad front door and stepped back to let me inside.
“Wow. It’s really dark in here.”
I followed Svetlana down a long and narrow hallway covered with cheap industrial carpeting, lit by one flickering fluorescent fixture. We passed a row of mailboxes and she turned and gestured for me to climb the narrow staircase.
“Here,” she barked when I reached the fourth landing.
We were in the middle of downtown New York City. Shouldn’t it be noisier? I assumed everywhere I went the dull roar of people arguing, musicians practicing, and garbage and delivery trucks beeping in alleyways would follow. Nope, it was like a morgue in here.
“It’s so quiet,” I said.
“Yes. It’s an old building, thick walls. Good for sleeping. Nobody will disturb you.”
You know how in made-for-TV movies the character always senses that she’s walking into a trap, but she doesn’t want to be rude so she walks in anyway, only to be bludgeoned for her good manners? I always scream at the character in those situations: “Woman! You know what’s coming. What is wrong with you? Run, honey!”
She never listens.
I had a flash of that feeling now, a dreadful sense that I was on the wrong side of that scene. Somewhere, some security guard or maybe a hacker was watching me on hidden camera, chewing on popcorn and telling me, “Lady, you better get a move on.”
Like all good naive story heroines, I told myself I was being paranoid. The slasher movie I’d stayed up too late watching was messing with my head. I’d been in New York City less than two hours; my luck can’t be that bad. But the voice in my head wouldn’t leave me alone. It whispered: You’ve made a huge mistake coming here. Girl, you’re going to get eaten alive. You’re going to be murdered and no one will find you until the smell of your stiffened, stinking body wafts into the hall and bothers the other tenants. And then at your funeral, your mother will get up in front of the church and tell everyone through her sobs, “I told her this was a bad idea!”
At the end of the hall stood two doors, tightly side by side, both painted a high-gloss red. Sort of like in The Shining.
Svetlana pointed to the one on the left.
“I hope you’ll be happy with your stay,” she said, extending the key ring on a bony, milk-white finger. Her expertly manicured nails were the color of dried blood.
“I’m sure it’ll be great.” My hand quivered as I accepted the keys. I fumbled them, missing the slit for the lock. “Too much espresso, I guess.” Svetlana rolled her eyes, grabbed the keys from me, stabbed the key into the lock, and shoved open the door.
The apartment, though compact, was immaculate, sleek, and modern. Inside, two enormous windows faced out onto Tenth Avenue, flooding the apartment with light. Directly to my right was a tiny bathroom and next to it, a snug kitchenette. Before me unfurled the living and sleeping space.
The bathroom glowed with white glass tile, the grout as yet unmildewed. A narrow, polished granite countertop ran the length of the kitchenette facing the stainless-steel appliances. The wooden floors had been so buffed and polished that they reflected the furniture that sat on top of them. The whole space shone like a new coin.
“Wow, it’s really nice,” I said, surprised.
To be fair, it did look like the pictures I’d seen. Somehow, I’d expected it to look different—perhaps more worn, or disappointing in some unnameable way.
The aroma of fresh paint lingered in the air.
“We just repainted. The smell will dissipate in a day or two,” Svetlana said.
“It smells like something besides paint.” I sniffed. “What is that? Lime?”
Svetlana waved her hand. “We renovated the bathroom. You smell the grout. It will go away in a day or two, like I said.”
“Oh, right.” The room’s furniture had been placed to partition it by function—a neatly made bed with crisp white linens in one corner, a modern sectional sofa denoting the living area opposite. It all made the room seem bigger than it was.
A large flat-screen television hung with its back to the kitchenette wall. Behind me, Svetlana flicked on the light switch and the tall, thin floor lamps cast pale circles of light up onto the ceiling. A colorful rug, patterned with stylized zinnias, livened up the room.
It was exactly as the pictures displayed. What had I been so nervous about?
“It’s lovely,” I said, releasing my held breath in a gasp. I gripped a wire-framed side chair to steady myself. “Thank you, Svetlana.”
She nodded and raised a finger at me, engrossed in a conversation on her cell phone. “Yes. Yes. All right,” she said. She muttered a sentence or two in a language I couldn’t understand. “We’ll talk later. I need to finish with the client. Yes. Bye.” She tapped the phone with the pad of her fingertip and looked up at me.
“It’s all right?” She smirked at me. “Relax, then. You have my number, so call if you need me. Also, you have the number of the super.”
I nodded. “So, um, one thing? How close can I get my car to park so I can move in?”
Svetlana’s mouth curled. “Parking in New York? Good luck.” She turned and glided toward the door. “That’s all, then. Welcome to the Big Apple, as they say.” She pulled the door shut behind her, and I was alone.
I spun around in the room. It was bright, clean, and seemed safe enough. Svetlana hadn’t killed me. New York was off to a good start.
First things first: I needed to unpack my car and move into the apartment. Since I’d rented this place for only a month, I’d brought the bare minimum with me. Everything else was stashed in a storage unit in Bethesda until I got my permanent lodging settled.
I locked the door behind me and walked the four blocks back to my car. I’d pull around to the alley behind the building, put my hazard lights on, move out of the car as fast as I could, and find somewhere new to park.
The vivid green of the street trees, the shafts of light painting the shady sidewalk, even the tang of the warm garbage fermenting in the bulging black plastic bags on the curb: I etched these details onto my brain. Sure, DC had trees, shady streets, and uncollected garbage, but none of it charmed like this. Everything thrills in a city undiscovered.
I retraced the steps I’d taken behind Svetlana, noticing for the first time the construction sites (was all of New York perpetually under construction?), the dry cleaners and drugstores and storefronts selling cheap mobile phones. A hint of grit clung to their faces. I tried to look tough as I walked, not that I expected to get mugged in the middle of the sidewalk on a Wednesday afternoon, but I was new in town, and why take chances?
About two doors away from my Volkswagen, I noticed that something looked off.
“Are you kidding me?” I screamed. My rear passenger-side window had been smashed in. I ran up to see what had been stolen.
Not much, thank goodness. I’d taken my purse and laptop bag with me when I met Svetlana. A canvas bag I’d left on the back seat was missing. What had been in that? Books, mostly, as I recalled, and my old iPad.
Oh…my Strand Bookstore gift certificate, the one my colleagues had given me as a going-away gift, had been tucked into the front of one of those books. I’d planned to save it until I moved into a permanent place—someplace with beautiful built-in bookshelves that I’d fill with treasures from the Strand’s endless stacks. That dream would remain deferred for a while. I hoped those criminals liked to read.
Should I file a police report? I stood on the sidewalk, staring at my car like an idiot. Would the police even care? I wasn’t going to get my iPad back; I wasn’t naive enough to think they’d spend a New York minute investigating the theft. My car, on the other hand, needed to be repaired. I took some pictures with my phone and called the insurance company right there from the sidewalk.
“How long have you had the car in New York?” the insurance agent asked me. “We still have you listed in Washington, DC.”
“About three hours,” I said.
“Oh. Well, that’s bad luck. Do you want to try to have it fixed there or when you get back to DC?”
“I’m not going back to DC. I’m moving here. But I literally just moved here.”
“Do you want me to update your record with your new address now?”
“No, I don’t have a new address yet. I’ve got a short-term rental. I’m hoping to find a permanent address by the end of the month.”
“And you intend to keep the car in New York?”
“I—” I looked around. I’d had wheels for nineteen years. Surrendering my car felt like amputating my arm. I’d thought about it, of course—I mean, I knew most people in New York didn’t keep cars. But I’d pushed that thought off for later, thinking I’d deal with it in good time. Not right away.
“I don’t know,” I told the agent.
“You have thirty days from the time of your change of residence to change your license and registration. I’ll put a flag on your record to follow up with you in thirty days.”
“You want to file a damage report?”
“Will you cover the cost of fixing the window?”
“You’ve got a thousand-dollar deductible. It won’t cost that much to replace a backseat window, so it’s out of your pocket. But you can put it toward your deductible.”
I couldn’t make decisions here on the street.
“I’ll figure it out later,” I said, hanging up and giving my Volkswagen a sympathy pat. Then I got in the car and slipped the key in the ignition.
My good parking fortune earlier that morning seemed to have used up any traffic karma I had banked. I circled the block no fewer than five times before I found a smidge of space into which I could pull my car. I put my hazards on. Like a malevolent genie, a guy instantly appeared in a side door into the alley, his hands on his hips.
“No. No. You can’t park here. Deliveries only.”
“I’m only going to be a minute. I have to take something upstairs.”
“Move your car or I’m having it towed.”
“There’s no need to be like that,” I said. “Honestly, I won’t be ten minutes. I have, like, three suitcases to move. That’s it.”
“Do I look like I care about your schedule?” the guy asked.
I made a quick calculation, then got out and slammed the door. “I’m moving my stuff out right now. Time me. I’ll be done in fifteen minutes.”
“Your car will be gone in fifteen minutes,” he said, and went inside.
I popped the trunk and hauled out my largest roller suitcase, then grabbed as much as I could off the back seat. With the wheels scraping behind me, I barreled around the corner and down to the middle of the block. I flew down the hall and dragged my load up the stairs, thump, thump, thump, up four flights to the apartment. My hands shaking with excitement, I unlocked the door, dumped everything inside, locked it back up, and sprinted down the stairs and out the door.
Ha! My car was still there. I cleaned off the back seat and grabbed another suitcase from the trunk. My heart pounding from the exercise and the thrill of playing beat-the-clock, again I raced upstairs, threw everything into a pile just inside the door, and flew back downstairs for my final load.
I’m no athlete, but it’s remarkable what the human body can do when threatened with adversity. My thighs quivered as I slogged up the four flights of stairs and staggered down the dimly lit hall toward my glossy red door. I shoved everything in the apartment and yanked the door shut. Then I patted my pockets to make sure I had my wallet and phone and locked the door behind me one last time.
At the bottom of the stairs, I glanced at my watch. Twenty-one minutes. What rational person could complain? Back on the sidewalk, my side cramped and I kneaded it as I paused to catch my breath. But just for a second.
I rounded the corner to the alleyway, where I saw a shiny red tow truck hoisting my Beetle by the nose.
“Stop!” I screeched. I ran to the driver’s door and pounded on the glass.
“That’s my car,” I said as he rolled the window down.
“You parked in a no-parking zone,” he pointed out.
“I’m sorry,” I said, calling up my best simper and southwest Virginia accent. “I’m new here, I just moved today. I went as fast as I could, I promised the man in the store that I would, but he called you anyway. But now I’m here. Will you please put my car down so I can get it out of the way? Then I won’t take up any more of your time.”
“Five hundred dollars.”
“Beg your pardon?” Surely I’d misheard him.
“Five. Hundred. Dollars. You want me to spell it for you?” he asked, imitating my Southern accent with all the charm and nuance of someone whose understanding of Southern culture had probably come from Duck Dynasty.
“Look. What’s the big deal? I’m here, I can move the car.”
“It’s very simple. You left your car unattended in a no-parking zone. You can pay the fee now or you can pay it at the office.” He handed me a business card through the window.
I stared at him. He stared at me. He winched my car up, like an angler with a prizewinning catch.
“Five hundred? Are you serious?”
“What happens if I let you tow it? Where does it go?”
“Impound lot in Queens. Hundred bucks a day, plus the towing fee.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“Welcome to New York, sweetheart,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “Do you take credit cards?”
He reached for a tablet with a card reader, and I handed over my plastic.
“Sign,” he said, giving me the tablet and my credit card.
My finger hovered over the box on the screen. I sensed I was being taken advantage of; I was another character in that timeless story where the new arrival’s taken for a sucker. How would a real New Yorker deal with this situation? I couldn’t guess. I didn’t have the language to rewrite this scene. All I could do was sign my name.
“Pleasure doing business,” he said, grinning. He flipped a switch inside the cab, and the winch lowered my Beetle to freedom.
Giving him my best scowl, I yanked the door open and sat down. As I cranked the ignition, the engine burbled to life with all the ferocity of a happy toddler. Determined not to let my cherubic vehicle undercut my dramatic exit, I jerked the car into gear and zoomed back. A taxi blared its horn as it swerved to avoid me. The driver smirked and waved good-bye, and my car stalled out in traffic. Ignoring the driver, I restarted the engine. We puttered up the street, my Beetle and I, not having the vaguest clue where we might take shelter from these mean, mean streets.
I’m not joking when I tell you I drove around for two hours looking for a place I felt safe leaving my car. Whenever I found something promising, I’d spot a sign that imposed a three-hour limit or demanded a special permit. Having shelled out five hundred for the towing guy’s fee/bribe, my conscience urged me to keep things on the cheap, which meant no garages. For the first hour, I drove in concentric circles, expanding outward from Chelsea to the Village, then up into the Garment District, but my search yielded absolutely bupkis. With a scream and a rude hand gesture, I bid downtown good-bye and cruised up Tenth Avenue, which turned into Amsterdam somewhere along the way. Maybe a drastic change in neighborhood would proportionally change my luck.
Finally, I found what looked to me like a safe option: a street spot in the shadow of a church way up in the West Nineties. As I walked back toward Amsterdam to visit the hardware store I’d passed on my tour, I noticed a sign: a red P crossed through by the handle of a push broom, 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Mon. & Thurs. Fabulous. I’d have to be back in the morning to move my car, if only for a few hours.
From the hardware store I purchased a large cardboard box, a package of garbage bags, and a roll of duct tape. I went back to the car and put my DIY skills to use, crafting a cover for my broken window and sealing it with the duct tape. My poor Beetle looked like it had been punched in the temple and left with a bruise. I caressed its bulging fender and told it I’d come back to visit soon.
The blinking light on the subway map, tracing our progress downtown stop by stop, helped me find my way home. Back on the street, I stopped into a small grocery store and bought some essentials—cereal and milk, bread and peanut butter, a bag of salad greens and a small bottle of dressing—and schlepped them the two blocks back to the apartment.
I stashed the milk and the salad greens in the fridge and the other stuff in the tiny pantry cabinet, then hunted for a plate and glass. In the last cabinet, atop a stack of white pottery, a roach sat at the center of a plate like the pupil of a giant eyeball.
I shrieked and slammed the cupboard closed then tore open other cabinets, searching for paper towels. Finding none, I ran back downstairs and down the block to the grocery for a roll.
It’s nothing to put on the résumé, of course, but in college I was the one woman on my hall who would stand up to the dormitory cockroaches. Once or twice a week I’d hear a high-pitched scream and someone would yell, “Get Jane!” I’d rise from my studies, grab an old shoe and a box of tissues, and head into battle.
I got good at it, too. If you wanted, which you probably don’t, I could expound on the nuances of roach combat strategy: understanding how they move, how to anticipate their actions. But after all the knowledge and experience I gleaned from undergraduate study and all the sophisticated thinking I mastered in graduate school, it was disappointment itself to discover the most important text I could have studied for this life exam could be found on the back of a can of insecticide.
The roach was still there when I got back from the store. I swathed my hand in paper towels, a sad hybrid of a medieval mace and a hazmat glove. The roach waved his antennae at me: Bring it, girlie.
Slowly I raised my mitted hand, leaned forward, and steadied my breathing. Everything’s cool, Mister Roach. Just getting to know you. Inch by inch, I raised my hand until it was next to my ear, poised like a toweled spear.
I struck—thrusting my hand toward the pile of dishes and smacking at the top. Dishes slid around the cabinet. I lifted my hand and saw a brown spot scramble down the stack and toward the corner.
I struck again and again, determined to squash that guy into oblivion. I ground my hand into the corner where I’d seen him last.
Tentatively I pulled back, expecting to see a pulpy smudge in the corner of the cabinet. Instead, a brown blotch scurried up the wall and behind the cabinet frame.
So much for my skill set. In under twenty-four hours the New York roaches, like everything else in this city, had already gotten the better of me.