How Did I Get Here from There: Thursdays with Nobody
DISCLOSURE: On a scale of one to ten (one being complete fiction, and ten being absolute truth), this story is a solid eight and a half.
It started with two girls on an F train to Brooklyn. On the street or in a bar, they’d be unremarkable. But there, against the backdrop of people trying to read or sleep or listen to music, they had the presence of a marching band.
“And you know Samantha’s going to be there,” the taller girl said.
“Are people in AA supposed to go to parties?” her friend asked.
High heels with the pointy toes, black clothes, pink scarves, makeup that looked almost like metallic spray paint: their style was so similar; they were like different-model cars from the same manufacturer, one the SUV version and the other the sports-car version.
Instead of answering the question, the tall girl said, “Oh, wait, I never told you about what Roni said to Andrew…”
And then all of us, the woman reading The Kite Runner, the salesman with the laminated ID card still clipped to his shirt pocket, the momish woman who carried her things in an old pink-and-silver Victoria’s Secret bag, got to hear about what Roni said to Andrew.
The girls’ voices projected in a way that made it impossible to do anything but listen. It was like having a television that could only get old episodes of The Real World.
Perhaps it was what they were saying, or perhaps it was my alpha instinct to want the attention for myself, but I began to get pissed. I wanted to dive in and engage them, to be more important than both Roni and Andrew. So I sat there, waiting for an excuse: an absurd comment, eye contact, anything.
East Broadway, York Street, Jay Street-Borough Hall, the stops came and went.
At Bergen Street, the train slowed, and the doors opened. I got out, the girls got out, and then began one of those awkward times when strangers walk together in a proximity that’s reserved for people that know each other.
Should I speed up? Should I stop? Do they think I’m following them? No, I’m in front of them. Should I let them pass?
As the three of us ascended the stairs of the exit, the shorter girl asked me, “Do you know how to get to Court Street?”
“That’s where I ’m headed,“ I said. “But I’m not sure. I don’t live in Brooklyn.”
When we reached the top of the steps, I asked a man where Court Street was, and then the girls and I walked together.
“You’re headed to a birthday party on Court Street. So am I.”
“Yours is at a Mexican restaurant, so is ours.”
Even though we knew they were probably different parties, the coincidence built a rapport. Almost out of an intrinsic obligation, we started to be cordial. They were best friends who’d gone to Cornell together. They’d both lived in Manhattan for seven years, and had been sharing an apartment in the Upper West Side for the past three.
Now that I’d started to talk with them, they didn’t seem so bad. Had it turned out that we were going to the same party, I might have gone home with the shorter one.
As we crossed over Brooklyn Bridge Boulevard, the tall girl said, “What am I doing in Brooklyn right now? I know Courtney’s boyfriend lives here, but it’s such a pain in my ass.”
“How many times have you been to Brooklyn?” I asked.
“This is my first time,” the tall girl said.
“You’ve lived in Manhattan for seven years, and this is the first time you’ve come to Brooklyn?” I asked.
“Why would I?” she asked. “It ’s all hippies and artsy people.”
Now, I’m not an advocate for hippies. In fact, the smell of patchouli is, to me, one of the least attractive smells on the planet. But the tall girl’s comment sparked a knee-jerk reaction.
“Yeah,” I said. “I guess it’s better to stay in the Upper West Side, doing yoga, waiting to have a kid and hire a nanny to take care of it.”
The comment erased any rapport that we’d developed and returned things to the way they’d been back at the station: Should I speed up? Should I stop? Should I let them pass?
The birthday dinner was long — mostly Bard graduates who dropped names I’d never heard of. Under normal circumstances, I would have made more of an effort, but I couldn’t get those two girls out of my head. The way the tall girl was so dismissive bothered me—almost as much as the realization of how dismissive I’d been of her.
On my way back after dinner, my mind vacillated between coming up with new ways to eviscerate the two girls and trying to deflect the guilt I felt for not being a better person.
In a convenient way, I came up with the following conclusion: I was different from those girls because their biases sprang from an attachment to a set of values that had been established by a group they revered. Woven into their dismissiveness was an inherent cronyism. I, on the other hand, have no cronies. I don’t revere anything. I’m a loner who has either alienated, or moved away from, most of the people who’d even want to be cronies. To this degree, I thought it’d be easier for me to change.
But change what?
Writing people off is not something to be proud of, but, after nine months of living in New York, I fell prey to its vicious seduction and had elevated my ability to do it to an art form. I’d begun to think: if all the world’s a stage, then there are a hell of a lot of people here for the casting. And, sorry, but we’re not all gonna get a part.
On that F train, for example, I’d considered those two girls also-rans for life, modern-day versions of Cinderella’s sisters: equal parts cruel and hopeful, vulnerable and arrogant. All of that before I’d even spoken to them.
And while judging people is too fun to give up completely, I came to this conclusion: if you ’re going to write someone off, you should at least have specifics. For too long, I’ve relied on broad theories and opinions, without ever having anything of substance to back it up. To put it simply: I talk out of my ass.
And that’s what this is about: getting stories and experience, getting my words rooted in something tangible. Maybe finding out I’m right about certain people; maybe finding out I’m wrong. Maybe even getting to the bottom of why I write people off in the first place.
And so the idea for “Thursdays With Nobody” was born: Every Thursday night, I go out, by myself, and explore a different part of New York — try different establishments, talk to strangers, let whatever happens happen. The plan is to hit all the boroughs, but because I live in Manhattan, it seemed logical to start there.
Manhattan is thirteen miles long and 2.3 miles wide, with 508 miles of streets separated into 6,718 blocks. Back in 1954, a man named Thomas J. Keane completed a project to walk every street on Manhattan. Fifty years later, a man named Caleb Smith completed the same task. This is not my undertaking — I hear the question “Why did you do that?” enough. Instead, I’m dividing Manhattan into the same twelve areas that the government did when it created the community boards (quoted from nyc.gov):
- Tribeca and Lower Manhattan
- Greenwich Village, West Village, NoHo, SoHo, Lower East Side, Chinatown, and Little Italy
- Tompkins Square, East Village, Lower East Side, Chinatown, Two Bridges
- Stuyvesant Town, Tudor City, Turtle Bay, Peter Cooper Village, Murray Hill, Gramercy Park, Kips Bay, and Sutton Place
- Manhattan Valley, Upper West Side, and Lincoln Square
- Upper East Side, Lenox Hill, Yorkville, and Roosevelt Island
- Hamilton Heights, Manhattanville, and Morningside Heights
- Harlem and Polo Grounds
- East Harlem and Harlem
- Inwood and Washington Heights
Clinton and Chelsea
Two skateboarders had set up a jump in the middle of Church Street. It was 9 p.m., and I watched them for about five minutes. They took turns charging down the road and then either veering around the jump at the last minute or rising up off it and into the air.
The sound was what kept me there: the small urethane wheels over the asphalt gave off a steady rumble, like a stone polisher, then the whaaamp as the weight of the rider got absorbed and redirected by the plywood. Then there was the silence and anticipation when one of them was airborne, followed by the blunt clap of a landing, which echoed off the tall buildings that could care less.
On one run, the kid with the red bandanna stuck a landing and shouted, “Did you see that?” But all the other times, the riders aborted in midair, sometimes crashed, sometimes landed on their feet and ran their way through it. Many times, they had to chase down their abandoned boards as they rolled wildly toward Canal Street.
In that time, not one car interrupted them, and I felt like I could have been in Lansdale, Pennsylvania.
Tribeca is quiet like that — but not in a boring way; it has a subtle current, like there’s something going on you don’t know about. On the right night with just the right kind of old friend, I’d call the silence peaceful, even perfect — because then I wouldn’t care about what was going on underneath it all. But when you’re alone and looking for something to sweep you up in a wave of momentum, the undertow makes it tough to feel sure about yourself.
I walked the empty streets for an hour, stopping into establishments that all had sizable crowds. It was surreal. I wondered, How did these people get here? I know they couldn’t have walked, because I would have seen them. Walking through Tribeca was like living in a model town built by a young boy who put all of the people in buildings and none out on the sidewalk.
On my way back up Church Street, I saw two men outside the Tribeca Grand Hotel. They were trying to lift a woman, who could neither walk nor talk, into a cab.
From my experience, near-unconscious women are almost always a bad sign. Two weeks earlier, I’d walked a few blocks to a bar in the Lower East Side. When I arrived, a woman in her mid-thirties was outside on the sidewalk. She lay prone on the cement, moaning. A man stood near her and talked into a cell phone. “You’re gonna have to come get your friend. I’ve tried to put her in two cabs, but they won’t take her.”
The sight of it made me laugh, then marvel, then go home.
But there in Tribeca, the tableau (“Here, I’ll get her legs, you get her…”) was the only real sign of life around. Bad or good, I had to check it out.
Another reason I decided to explore the Tribeca Grand is because I like hotels. They’re a haven for transients, a beacon of comfort for people who feel alone and unfamiliar with their surroundings. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like a transient, so hotels are the perfect place for me.
Once through the lobby, there is a large atrium where the bar is situated. Like so many establishments in the city, the Grand follows the dark-wood-and-dim-lighting formula that tends to evoke feelings of hipness and sophistication. But here, the cast-iron beams and sharp angles seem overdone. It just feels like being in a really fancy (and dark) airport lounge.
Clusters of men in suits buying rounds of $13 drinks; overweight Indian men in untucked dress shirts, laughing and high-fiving one another; two middle-aged women discussing whether or not they should go on a singles cruise; none of it seemed inviting.
Momentum had taken me to the bar, but I planned on leaving. Before that happened, though, I made eye contact with one of two girls standing nearby.
“Hi,” I said.
They both looked over because there was nothing else to do.
“Hey,” one of them said, and then drifted over in a way that made it clear she was drunk
“How’s your night going?” I asked.
“Great,” she said. “I just got back from St. Barth’s. I eloped!”
It was 10:15 p.m., and she was standing too close to me for someone who’d just gotten married. She had on some kind of fragrance or lotion that was too sweet; standing next to her was like being inside of a candle shop.
I turned to her friend. “So where did you elope?”
“I didn’t elope,” the friend said. She seemed offended that I’d try to joke with her. “I got married on the rooftop of this hotel last summer. In fact, Martha Stewart was going to cover it, but in the end, we spent too much. Martha Stewart doesn’t cover weddings that cost more than $100K.”
She caught the bartender’s eye and pointed at her drink. “And,” she said, “I also think it had something to do with the fact that I’m Jewish.”
The girl who’d eloped took out a camera. “Let’s take some pictures,” she said. She put one arm around my shoulder, and with her other hand, held the camera out in front of us. Together we produced a series of distorted images: her eyes squinted almost closed, me looking off-balance and confused, the light from the flash bleaching us out.
But still, if you look hard enough, every girl has something that’s perfect. For her, it was her shoulders. She wore a white tank top to show them off, and even though she was peeling a little from the St. Barth’s sun, they were the kind of shoulders that could put you in a good mood.
While we reviewed our handiwork on her camera, she asked, “How old are you?”
“How old do you think I am?” I asked.
“Twenty-four,” said the girl who’d eloped.
“Sixteen,” said the Martha Stewart girl.
Before I’d had a chance to tell them my real age, the girl who’d eloped said, “You know, I can name every head coach in the LSU athletic department.”
“Really,” I said.
She began to list off names and their corresponding teams, but by the time she got to Fran Flory, head women’s volleyball coach, she excused herself and left me and the Martha Stewart girl by ourselves.
With more time to look at her, I saw she was thin and pale, almost porcelain. If she hadn’t already told me she was Jewish, I’d have thought she was Irish. I could picture her in another time — out in a moor, wearing cable-knit. But, here, that hearty vigor was absent — there was just the long neck that supported her head like a drooping flower and those thin limbs that were good for nothing other than holding a vodka tonic.
After a moment, the Martha girl asked me, “Have you ever had a serious girlfriend?” Her body tilted away from me, and she looked at me with a sideways glance, as if she were trying to guess my weight or avoid looking into the sun.
“It ’s kind of hard to make it to twenty-seven without having been in a serious relationship,” I said.
“So is that a yes or a no?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” I said. “I ’ve been in a couple.”
“Well,” she said. “The thing is, there’s an unspoken rivalry that starts when two people break up, and you’ll find out that whoever gets married first… wins.”
“What do you mean by that?” I asked, because when someone starts talking like that, I just want them to take it further.
“When I announced my marriage,” she said, “guys came out of the woodwork to profess their love for me.” She stopped for a second, looked at me, and stirred her drink, waiting until she knew how to say it right. “Getting married,” she said, “proves that your life is going better.”
Conversations are like songs, in the sense that the final note you land on decides if you’re flat or sharp or right on. When done right, it’s clear everything that needed to be said has been said. But when you’re off, the last thing you say hangs in the air and makes people feel like they need to go for a walk or take a shower or talk to somebody else.
The Martha Stewart girl must have felt it. “I mean, I don’t know if that’s where you’re at. If you’re not, I completely understand. Maybe you just want to be single.”
She raised her glass as if to toast to something, then said, “I did my share of that, too. I’m sure you know by now: New York is a hard place to date, but an easy place to fuck. Growing up,” she said, “I had this thing. All the guys in my high school used to talk about how they hated girls that were needy and about how those girls just ended up becoming tools. So whenever I thought I might be in a position to become needy, I dumped the guy and start fucking someone else.”
Then she was off: “I fucked a banker, and I fucked an actor and a few models. I even fucked a fireman.” She seemed to get something out of saying “fuck,” like it displayed her toughness and turned her on.
“Wow,” I said. “You’ve really…”
“Played the field?” she said.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s a good way to put it. Let me ask you: Out of all the men you’ve been with, who was the best?”
“The guy before the guy I got married to,” she said.
“On a scale of one to ten?” I asked.
“Thirteen,” she said.
“And what’s your husband?” I asked
“Seven,” she said.
“Well, seven is a respectable score,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said. “He’s fine, but he just doesn’t have that anger the other guy had. I mean, the other guy used to grab me and fuck me in public places. He used to do all kinds of things.”
At that point, a well-dressed man in his late twenties approached us. “Hey,” he said to the girl.
The two of them hugged and kissed, and then the man looked at me like I confused him.
“This is Ben,” she said. “We just met him tonight.”
“Do I know you from somewhere?” he asked.
We’d never seen each other before. He knew that; I knew that. He asked because he wanted to see if I’d continue with the charade — Ahh, well, maybe.
“I don’t think so,” I said. “I’m new to New York.”
After he’d listened to my response, the man didn’t look at me again. In the past, if a person was finished with me, they’d at least say, “Well, it was nice meeting you,” and then move off to a different part of the bar. These two talked like they had catching up to do and that those things were none of my business.
So I moved over to an Asian girl and made small talk about the upcoming three-day weekend. She was sweet and small and unafraid to smile, but when she spoke, she had the tone of someone trying to get off the telephone, so I bailed out of the conversation and finished my drink.
As I went to leave, the girl who had eloped grabbed my arm. “Where are you going?” she asked.
I told her I was headed back to the East Side, and she asked me to stay for one more drink.
It was hopeless. There was nothing good that could come from me staying for one more drink, but, in this city, feeling wanted or needed (or even just asked to stay) meant something. Aside from that, I was at a point where I wouldn’t have minded fucking up a marriage or at least being a factor in its demise.
So I ordered another drink, and we talked. Short of the weather, we worked our way through every if-you’re-talking-about-this-you-shouldn’t-be-talking topic.
She asked me to guess what her job was, which was difficult because I was convinced she didn’t do much of anything.
After I ’d guessed, she said, “I’m a personal trainer.”
“What’s your name?” she asked for the third time.
I told her again.
“I need to get your number,” she said.
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“We need to meet up again,” she said. “And how else am I going to remember you?”
The two of us talked a little more. By this point, it was 11:00 p.m. and the lounge was filling up around us. It’s a good feeling when a room begins to swell with conversation and you know you’re a part of it, even if you’re with a girl who’s explaining that her friends nicknamed her Military Barbie because she tends to wear white tank tops and camouflage pants all the time.
She put her arm around me and pointed to the Martha Stewart girl and her male companion. “Those two should have gotten married,” she said. “They went to college together, and if the timing was better, they’d be together right now.”
The girl had meant her comment to be romantic and a little sad, but it was hard to see it that way. All I could wonder was, Would that be the answer for them? Would that really make things right?
Then the girl added, “Her father is the founder of Bristol Myers, and his father is the founder of Fed-Ex.”
We hit a patch of silence, and she looked me in the eye. There was nothing I could say that would be both honest and in sync with the vibe, so I just returned the look.
“How are we going to meet up again?” she asked.
I put my arms around her waist and pulled her close to me. “If you weren’t married,” I said into her ear, “you’d have your hands full right now.”
She took a coaster off the table. “I’m going to go get a pen.”
On her way back from the bar with her pen, the girl who’d eloped got intercepted by the Martha Stewart girl. “What are you doing?” the Martha Stewart girl asked.
And then they were gone, or at least inaccessible to me. So I talked with a group of investment bankers who put my bourbon on their expense account, and then I headed back east.
On the way home, I needed to take a piss, so I stopped into a restaurant named Balthazar to use the bathroom. I’ve never eaten or had a drink there, but I’ve used the bathroom over twenty times. I like it there: it’s clean and classy and, at the bottom of the stairs outside where the bathrooms are, there is a small lounge with big leather chairs that make you feel like you’re sitting inside a catcher’s mitt. When it’s crowded, women sit there and discuss, amongst other things, the men they’re with. A lot of good things can be overheard.
Even though almost everything about New York is still so fresh to me, I can tell that Balthazar will be a place that evokes nostalgia after I leave.
At the stall next to me stood a middle-aged man with trendy footwear. He wore $300 jeans and a peach-colored sport coat. Under the sport coat, he wore a white button-down shirt. Under the white shirt was a baby-blue button-down shirt, and, under the baby-blue shirt was a T-shirt.
With one hand, he took care of his peeing, and with the other he held a cell phone to his ear. “Hey, baby,” he said. “I’m just calling to make sure you got home all right. He was silent while the person on the other end of the line spoke, then he said, “Good” in a soft way, like he was talking to a child that was supposed to be asleep. “I’ll call you in the morning.”
My first instinct was to think he was saying good night to one of his kids, but he seemed a little too old to have family that young.
The man turned to me and said, “Women.”
“Don’t look at me,” I said, mirroring his old-boy familiarity. “You’ve been around longer than I have. I’m sure you’ve got some answers.”
The man zipped up his jeans. “You want some wisdom,” he said with an intensity that made me realize he, too, had gone over his limit. “I’ll give you some wisdom.” The man walked toward the sink, and the attendant turned it on for him. Before he put his hands under the water, the man turned to look at me and said, “I fuck twenty-two-year-olds.”
That didn’t sound like wisdom.
“That’s what they like,” the man said. “That’s what they want — a little fun. Guys their age, like you,” the man said, and then pointed at me with the back of his hand as the attendant handed him a paper towel, “you guys are all like…” then he simulated a cowering position in which he covered his head with his hands, “Oh, no!” Then he stood up straight, and leaned forward with an aggressive stance, almost as if he were about to start a race. “I’m like,” he said, curling his hands to resemble tiger claws, “Rarrrrrrrr.”
“You got to be an animal,” he said. “Do you see?”
“Good,” he said. “Now, you try.”
I looked over at the attendant, who at that point was leaning against the wall, and he gave me a look as if to say, Yup, this happens all the time.
I curled my hands up, like the man had, and went, “Rarr.”
“No,” the man said. “Really try.”
I was almost sure the old man was fucking with me — ready to go upstairs and tell his friends what he got some punk kid to do downstairs, but I did it anyway.
“Better,” the old man said. “I have a feeling you could get it.”
The man left, and I went to the sink to wash my hands. “That’s when you know it’s time to go home,” I said to the attendant.
All he said was “Thank you” when I put a dollar in the small wicker basket on the table next to the sink.
When I headed back upstairs, the man from the bathroom was outside hailing a cab. Next to him was a girl that had probably been in middle school when I’d headed off to college. I walked east down Spring Street. Before I reached Lafayette, a cab passed me. Inside were the man and the girl, making out like he’d just gotten home from a war.
At Lafayette, I took a right and walked down Kenmare, then took a left and walked the fourteen short downtown blocks to Clinton Street.
Inside, my apartment was dark and still — both my roommates were asleep. I kept all the lights off and undressed and showered in the dark. I turned the light on to find my towel, and then stood in front of the mirror. The combination of the alcohol and the punishing fluorescent light made me seem unrecognizable, or at least someone I didn’t want to recognize: washed-out, with patches of raw red skin from the abrasive city water.
I stood there for a moment longer, feeling drunk. Then I made claws with my hands. “Raarrrrrrr.”
Ben Cake graduated from Kenyon College in May of 2001, four months before the collapse of the twin towers and the American job market. Since then, he has read a lot of books, filled a lot of journals, and slept on a lot of floors. After spending a very good year in Doylestown, PA, working for The Bucks County Writer and other local publications, he moved to New York City, where he works as a copy editor and lives in the Lower East Side. All signs of life are welcome.