26th Street, 1996

Thanksgiving looms, but the weather refuses to get cold. The temperatures dipped little by little from August heat to a mild October chill, then stayed there. I find this unsettling.

This school year has found many ways to be strange to me. NYU is in the midst of a housing crunch. Dorms near “campus” are needed for incoming freshmen and upperclassmen. That means sophomores like myself get the shaft. Most of my friends were placed at a brand new dorm on Broome Street, far away from classes but at the interesting nexus of Chinatown, Little Italy, and Soho. (At this time, Soho is still vaguely interesting. Hard to believe now, I know.)

I did not land in Broome Street. I landed in 26th Street. This dorm was originally intended for the exclusive use of NYU’s dental students. Out of necessity, it has been drafted into the plan for dealing with the overflow of non-dental students. This arrangement that pleases no one.

The dental dorm is a charmless Brutalist slab near First Avenue, a few short steps from Bellevue, New York’s biggest and oldest public hospital. This proximity makes for some lively nearby foot traffic, particularly in the wee hours on the weekends. And Bellevue is not my only interesting neighbor. One day I come home from classes, turn on the news, and see Ti-Hua Chang (the victim of all of NBC-4 News’ thankless tasks) reporting on an incident at a methadone clinic down the block on Second Avenue. I had no idea there was a methadone clinic nearby, because methadone clinics rarely put up shingles outside their front doors. Go one block north and you find the Straus Houses, the last projects on the east side between here and Harlem.

Straus HousesAll my friends get cannolis and dim sum, and I get Manhattan’s last crummy neighborhood. It isn’t a dangerous neighborhood, just crummy. Unscrubbed, down in the mouth, just this side of hopeless. The architecture is so ugly that anyone who lives in it can’t help but feel they’d been dumped here. Everyone I see on the street looks unhappy to be where they are, be they medical student or methadone enthusiast. Even in this disturbingly warm November, it always seems gray here. At least I will only be here for one school year. Others don’t have the luxury of coming and going with the semesters.

So again: I am living in this place, and it is almost Thanksgiving. One Saturday, I volunteer for God’s Love We Deliver, which brings meals to house-bound AIDS patients. The work involves grabbing styrofoam clamshells of prepackaged food, ringing doorbells, and dropping them off. I’m given few instructions for this work apart from a reminder that clients’ privacy is important. If you’re in a building and some stranger gets nosy about what you’re doing there, you don’t tell them where you’re from.

The delivery trucks are nondescript box vans with no discernible insignia. If you look very closely at the driver’s side door, you can see letters glued to it indicating GLWD and an address, but the letters are the exact same color as the van. This fulfills a legal obligation while keeping the van’s purpose as secret as possible.

My van is driven by Jose, a very nice man from the Bronx who appears to be in his mid-to-late-30s. He is so nice that when he begins to tell me about his theories on biblical numerology, I feel obligated to nod politely rather than argue or roll my eyes. I try to bring the conversation back to his native Bronx, since I like to wander around the city and am always looking for new places to explore. Jose has a hard time describing his neighborhood. It’s the place where he lives so to him, there is nothing about it to describe.

Jose drives and I deliver. We putter around the Lower East Side, making most of our stops at old tenement buildings that have been receiving the lowest of the low for over 100 years, places that will soon be leveled for glass and steel. I was instructed to simply say “delivery” when buzzing an intercom. Many of these buildings don’t have that amenity, though, requiring me to charge through the front door and find my way to my destination.

Each time I reach an apartment, the person I’m delivering to is invisible, off in some unseen room. They had to have been nearby to unlock the door for me, but they are never around when I open it. The tenement walls are invariably painted in faded yellows, with soot soiling the corners and showing the outlines of the beams above the ceiling. Sometimes the window frames are a chipped green, sometimes a jagged red. I call out “delivery” again, and a distant voice will croak, “just leave it there,” and I do, and I go.

This scenario plays out similarly in the projects, as we make a few stops at the huge houses on Pitt and Delancey. A childhood spent watching local news should have made me terrified to set foot into THE PROJECTS, but the same principle applies here as applies on my trips to random neighborhoods: Walk around like you belong and you will look like you belong. The elevators take forever to arrive, but otherwise the procedure is the same. I enter, drop off food to no one, and leave. It feels like leaving flowers on a grave.

It continues in this vein until the last drop off of the day. Jose tells me the address is on the east side in the 20s, and I say great, I can just walk home from there. The stop proves to be at the Straus Houses, literally around the corner from my dorm. I am stabbed my something that feels like discomfort. Doing good for invisible strangers in other neighborhoods is fulfilling. People in need in your own neighborhood is something else entirely. You feel bad for not noticing earlier, for not doing more before this moment.

The delivery is on the 16th floor. The elevator takes its sweet time to work its way to the lobby, climbs asthmatically to the third floor, and stops. Three kids board here, a boy and two girls, all of them 15-ish. The boy is in a tank top and shorts. The weather plus the ineffectual air conditioning in the building conspire to make the elevator feel like a sauna. The girls hang on each other. Girls tend to do this anyway at 15-ish, but these girls seem inordinately attached to each other, hugging and grabbing each other’s shoulders.

“You gay, yo,” the boy of the group says. The girls object and slap him, but playfully. The boy adds, “I don’t got no problem with it. I’m just sayin is all.”

One of the girls slaps him again. “But we’re not!” she whines.

“I don’t care. He don’t got a problem with it, right?” The kid jams a thumb in my direction.

“Whatever floats your boat,” I say. The phrase makes me cringe the second it leaves my mouth, but it makes the kids laugh. I don’t think they’ve heard these words before.

“What’s that?” the boy says, thrusting his chin toward the plastic bag in my hand.

“Food,” I say.

“Anything good in there?”

“I have no idea. I just deliver it.”

“Where you goin? You don’t live here.” I’d hoped it wasn’t that obvious I didn’t belong here, but apparently it is. What gave it away? Maybe the cabbie hat I wear everywhere ever since I started going bald, not so much because I’m embarrassed I’m bald (although I’m still getting used to this new version of myself), but because without hair my head feels cold all the time, even in unseasonable warmth. Maybe the orange workshirt from a warehouse I never worked at. Maybe my fishbelly paleness.

“16th floor,” I tell him.

“We’re going to 16, too,” he says. I notice he hasn’t pressed a button yet. The elevator staggers upward. “Which apartment?” I tell him, because it’s clear he’s going to follow me to the door anyway.

“Don’t bother,” he says. “They never home.”

The elevator gasps open on the 16th floor and I proceed to the apartment, with the kids trailing closely behind me like a band of yapping puppies. I knock on the apartment door, but before I can say “delivery,” the boy bellows out, “Yo, Richie!” His words ricochet off the low ceiling and the gauzy yellow hallway lights. No answer from inside. I don’t place my hand on the doorknob, for fear it might be open and these kids might go rushing in. Whoever’s inside is spooked by the teenage voices and giggling. I know they will not answer.

“I told you, man, these guys are never home,” the boy advises.

I knock again, and this time I can blurt out a “delivery” without being interrupted, but there is still no answer. I give one more furtive knock, then turn to head back to the elevators.

“Leave it with me, I’ll get it to him,” the boy says, holding out a hand, waiting for me to hand over the goods.

“That’s alright,” I tell him, but he insists.

“C’mon man, I’ll do it for you.”

“I can’t do that,” I tell him. “It’s the rules. I have to do it myself.”

The boy holds out his hand for a second more, then drops it. The girls are drifting further down the hallway, and they are far more interesting than me.

“Later, man,” he belts out as he jogs to catch up with the girls, as if there is some world where we might see each other again. I am just a tourist. He must live here in this land of ghosts.