Thursday, March 29, 2018

Lost in the city

I was about to see a movie with my friend Luanne and two other people unknown to me. Right before going into the theater, I went out to buy a pack of cigarettes. I walked up to a counter: “A pack of cigarettes,” I said, like someone in a movie. No brand — I was out of practice. The clerk came back with Pall Malls in a white hull-and-slide package. The words “Made with Broham Strings” appeared below the brand name. “How much?” $6.53. I paid with a ten and got my change and two books of matches.

Then I was walking outside, on a campus, looking for a place to smoke and observing several unbranded fast-food joints with all-glass exteriors. A giant with a long white beard and a cape was walking the campus. Everyone stared at him and whispered. And then I was walking in a version of Manhattan, with empty narrow streets at once dark and brightly lit — something like the alley in On the Waterfront where Terry and Edie run from a truck. I knew I was on the Lower East Side, but the street layout was baffling — Avenue A was followed by Second Avenue A. Which way was uptown? Which way was west? I couldn’t tell.

Then I was in a carpeted hallway on the second or third floor of an empty building. A man was carrying furniture up the staircase. I asked if he knew which way was west, but he spoke only Italian. “¿Dónde oeste?” I tried. I got the man to walk with me to a streetcorner in the hope that he could orient me, but once there, he couldn’t.

And then I thought to text Luanne and tell her I’d be really late. “I went out to buy cigarettes and am now being baffled by the Lower East Side,” I wrote, or something like that. I began to walk and reached the intersection of Harvard Avenue, Harvard Street, and Mechanic Street. And there was Luanne, on the other side of one of these streets, about six lanes of traffic away. We needed to get the No. 83 bus, which was parked right there — but it took off and drove right past us. So we went into the theater, which was also a church, where the movie had already ended. It was a good one, Luanne said.

[Sources: Luanne and Jim’s recent trip to the opera. An article about 1950s and ’60s hangouts in my college town. The motto of one such place: “Drop in for Coke and smoke.” A 60 Minutes story about Giannis Antetokounmpo. A TCM showing of On the Waterfront. Thinking about the streets of my Allston, Massachusetts, grad student days. Above all, this passage from W.G. Sebald’s Austerlitz. And possibly the crackers and Mahón cheese I had before going to sleep.]

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