Eric Leven

Quiet City

Filed By Eric Leven | January 13, 2009 6:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Entertainment, Living
Tags: AIDS activism, AIDS literature, Barnes and Nobles, gay literature, gay novel, HIV+, HIV/AIDS, New York City, NYC

The apartment is solely illuminated by the blue-black flicker of a television set airing football against the white walls. I am just waking up. It's morning, but it might as well be dusk, or even later- maybe somewhere around the edges of this deep winter's midnight. I check back at my clock twice, making sure I hadn't somehow slept through the entire day. I hadn't. It's only 11AM on Sunday and my roommate is plopped on the couch. Our "Emergency Only!" television set has been brought down from the closet shelf and is now propped on our kitchen chair airing ESPN. My roommate stares at the flicker, an entire day of watching football reflecting off his eyes. I need to get out. Our apartment is so dark. So cold. Everything is cold and dark and the walls of our tiny apartment are finite and looming.

There must be errands to run, I think to myself, trying to conjure up a day of aimless, just-to-make-you-feel-better productivity. I look up to the ceiling. In the television's dull bleeps I make out a dust web in the corner and think to myself that cleaning my room is at least something. But, that's not going to happen. It can't. I need to get out of here. I shrug off ideas in my head as I slip on my sneakers and pat my coat making sure I have my gloves with me. For a moment I consider my cell phone. Friends to call? Brunch? I buckle. The thought of scrolling through my contacts, picking or choosing, waiting for whomever, whenever, wherever- texting, it all becomes too much and I tease myself with the idea of leaving my cell phone at home for the day.

This, of course, is an impossibility. Leaving my cell phone at home is about as far fetched as confidently leaving my house naked. I'd constantly pat at the front of my jeans, my pockets won't feel exactly right and each square of the sidewalk would bring thoughts of "what if" or missed opportunity. Truth is- I wasn't expecting any calls and knew I wouldn't be making them. I drop the gadget into my pocket, feel the correct weight in my jeans and decide to head to The Strand bookstore. If I am feeling this dismal, this early on, then reading the next book on my list about The 80's and the AIDS crisis would only validate my utter nonchalance, if not snap me out of it all together.

The air is cold and the wind twacks my nose like a snap of steel. My shoulders hug my neck and I feel knots starting to spitefully muster up in my traps. There's no sense in taking the L Train, I might as well brave the cold and walk to Union Square. I stop for a coffee, hoping the heat and caffeine might cause me to straighten up or rewire my brain to form some semblance of glee. Something's got to work. This is a rare mental state for me, yet it continues to linger, overcast and heavy.

Maybe The Strand will hold an unexpected something? This is New York, right? Adventure waits around every corner. Who knows, maybe I'll even get laid? I drift away with this thought and allow it to consume the distance of blocks I have to walk. Maybe I'll turn the corner of the Gay and Lesbian Fiction section and catch the eyes of some unsuspecting handsome Joe. We'll make eye contact, look away, stare at the floor, and look back, quickly causing the numbers of the combination to lock and he'll start a conversation with me as I pull a book from the shelf.

"Oh! You like David Feinberg," he'll ask and continue on with, "If you like that one I can recommend a bunch of others that you might enjoy. In fact, I have a whole collection of books just like this at my brownstone apartment on the Upper West Side! Why don't you come over, I'll make a fire and get into my underwear and you can cuddle up against my chest and spend the whole day reading whatever you'd like?"

Suddenly I'm excited to get to The Strand. I walk in, unzip my coat and flick on my gay sonar senses hoping the unsuspecting handsome Joe will bleep onto my screen. Nothing yet. I make my way to the back of the bookstore and hold my breath before turning the corner of the Gay and Lesbian Fiction section. I exhale. There's nothing here except packed, unkempt 10 foot tall bookshelves and the smell of paperback ghosts. Just as well, I think, that's what fantasies are: fantasies.

There are only a few titles by David Feinberg. Two paperback editions of Spontaneous Combustion and one hardcover of 86'd. I pull all three books off the shelf and flip through them hoping the mysterious previous owner made notes in the margins or underlined sentences, causing the status of the book to go from novel to treasure, but nothing is found. I feel a sad sense of guilt, clearing these books off the shelf and purchasing them for myself. It makes sense that I would have these books but what if there's some 19 year old NYU student or burgeoning AIDS activist for whom I am robbing this experience? The titles are obsolete enough as they stand and I have several friends who have copies of these books who would gladly loan them to me if I asked, yet still I want them for myself. I want to send one copy of Spontaneous Combustion to a friend and the other I want for my personal stash. I'm going to have to buy all three. I tick-tock my tongue off the top of my mouth and rationalize the purchase by proposing that I'll read the books, keep 'em handy for a few years, make my own notes in the margins and return them sometime during my mid-thirties, if the world still exists then. Fine. I turn on my heel, clutch the books by my side and head for the checkout line.

Back outside I stamp my foot and huff at the cold. The weather is far from announcing any invitations for me to sit on a bench in Union Square and begin my reading. I think of which coffee shops are within my radius but who am I kidding? They're going to be packed to the hilt, coffee cups themselves, overflowing at the brim, all the seats taken, John Mayer on the stereo and some twenty-three year old girl complaining to her friend that her father is finally making her pay her own phone bill. I sigh and head north to Barnes and Noble. Maybe, if I play my cards right, keep my alert on high-gear and hover correctly I'll find a seat in the bustling coffee area.

I make my way through the huge doors and as they close happen to drown out the frail man screaming for people to leave "just one penny for the homeless." I self-consciously walk with my head down past the security guards. My backpack is full of books. Books I didn't purchase here and would hate to be mistaken for a thief. Everything in Barnes and Noble is clean and white and gleaming. Hundreds of sleek new books are neatly organized into little stacks and each table is clearly marked by their topic. So many books. Both old and new, fiction and non-fiction. Everything! I want to belly-flop fling myself upon each table like a brave soldier to a live grenade, letting the books detonate beneath me, sending shrapnel of words and stories and talent and technique and history to shoot throughout my body. I want to absorb everything.

The idea is titillating and inspiring for a moment but then turns sour because I can't possibly consume everything in this store and I begin rattling off thoughts like there's never enough time in the day or the year or even a life. The books turn dark and cruel like sadistic children on a playground pointing and laughing at me, causing me to recount all the things I haven't completed in life, all the projects I left unfinished and suddenly everything seems daunting and unfair.

I shake my head from side to side and head toward the escalators. I make my way to the huge coffee area and the place is buzzing like Times Square hopped up on brains and New York based conversation. A homeless man tries to dissolve into a corner, babies wail in their strollers, girls gab to one another, a man listening to his ipod flips through a book and scribbles notes onto loose-leaf paper, a man with white hair and a red Kashmir sweater reads a self-help book and I eye my desperately-looking-for-a-table competition standing alongside me.

There's about four of us and not one of us seems willing to give the next available seat away. This battle is going to be fierce. It's not about who was first or who has been waiting the longest. It's all about who spots what or if you're closest to the next table packing up to leave. Fortunately, I get the first ray of sunlight in my rather stagnant and stuck day and one of the mommies seated next to where I'm standing resigns to her crying baby by saying, "you know what? Fine. You've had enough for today," and gets up to leave. The moment the mommy reaches for her coat I take one giant step to the left and the table is mine. Victory! Ha! I try not to make eye contact with my competition and pretend as though they no longer exist. I sit, exhale deeply, put my coffee on the table, shed my coat and flip open the cover of 86'd. I take one last look around the room and look back down at my book. I drown out the rest of the chaotic world around me and begin reading the first few sentences.

100 some odd pages and god knows how many hours later I look up to discover an entirely new cast of characters seated around me. Startled and engulfed by 86'd I contemplate calling some of my friends just to check in on them, to make sure, unlike the plot of the book, that they're all still alive. I blink a few times allowing my eyes to adjust and notice the day is breaking into a dull yellow and pink dwindling twilight. It'll be dusk soon and full fledged night only moments there after. When the sun is out of the sky and the dark winter has consumed everything, I can finally say my day is done and head home, hoping for a clearer less dense head tomorrow. My ears begin filtering conversation around me. I overhear The Eagles won the game and I hesitate the decision to head home, wondering if I'm up for my roommates raging enthusiasm over the victory of his beloved football team. Maybe seeing him will be a good thing? I shrug and head out.

Union Square is almost entirely empty. I pull a cigarette out of my pocket and smoke it out of no other reason than dawdling in the cold, for just a bit longer, before committing to going back to my apartment. The day lessens overhead, a thin sliver of golden dry light is pushed beneath the darkening sky and I listen to the breath of the wind through my pinking ears. The city is nil. Muffled, dim and bleak. Nearly apocalyptic. I finish my cigarette and flick it hard against the ground causing the embers of the tip to explode into an orange dazzle. One last toast to my virtual palindrome of a day.

I stand at the south end of Union Square. I'm the only one here. Beneath me empty subway tunnels blow New York Post tumbleweed while in front of me cabbies seem desperate for fares. There is no honking, no sirens, no on-the-street chatter. There is no sound except for the monotone dull fuzz circling around my brain.

There is nothing but a quiet city today.


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Michael Elder | January 14, 2009 10:52 AM

Eric Leven certainly has an eerie way of turning the relatable madness in all of our lives into poetry that allows us to not be the only one living "this" life. Bravo, and Thank You!

This is one of the best posts ever written on Bilerico Project, Eric. Why I'm the first to comment is unfathomable.

some of us didn't comment because we were still caught up in the moment it created...


Maybe most are not commenting because this is not very good writing at all. I forced myself through it to give Mr. Leven a second chance after his last middling piece. In this case, two strikes and your out.

I've never been to New York City, but I have definitely been to the city of this article. Thank you, Eric, for such a rich, atmospheric read.