I (Thunderstorm) New York.
New York has never been my favorite city. It’s crowded and busy and people coming at you in every direction and, yes, I’m the guy standing still blinking while four hundred New Yorkers stream around me trying to get to work, thinking to themselves that the city would be so much better if the tourists were assigned their own sidewalks.
I’d been to New York on any number of business trips. I stayed in Midtown, the Upper West Side, and Times Square. Ate some nice dinners, endured a few crazy cab rides, and took the subway. I went to New York City Gay Pride one year, so it’s not like I had never seen the city alive and full of joyful play. I get it. It’s an amazing playground. I’ve been to the New York Eagle on a crowded Saturday night. Enough said about that night.
But it’s not somewhere I’d go on vacation when I needed to unwind.
When I started plotting the six story arc of my books about kings, titled, The Lost and Founds, I realized three things about the setting for each of the books.
1. I would write lovingly about each location setting. In fact, I could only write about places I loved. It was my duty to capture the spirit of each location, the flavor of that setting’s unique flavor of love.
(Aside: The first book, King Perry attempted to illuminate the beauty of California love, the strange locations, the far-out-ness of it all. King Mai attempted to capture the beauty of people in the Midwest, those who love the earth and all if its seasons.)
2. The third book would take place in New York.
3. I’d have to find a way tolove New York.
4. I’d have to live in New York to fall in love New York.
Plus, that was four things, not three.
In May of 2013, I moved to New York City for the month of May. A person can hardly say, “I lived in New York,” after one month’s extended visit, but it was a big deal for me to leave my established home and rent an expensive, studio apartment in a city I vaguely feared.
I remember my plane’s taking off from Minneapolis. Everything I thought I might need for the next month was jammed into two large suitcases. As the plane ascended off the runway, I freaked out. What was I doing? I didn’t like New York! What the hell was I going to do for a month in this big city, alone and sleeping on a mattress on the floor?
Funny thing was, I had been eerily calm all the time I made my New York preparations. I met a guy through craigslist who had an apartment to rent for one month and we decided to trust each other. He trusted me to not destroy his apartment and ruin his expensive deposit. I trusted him with a boatload of money.
But what if it was a scam? What if I showed up to live in this unforgiving metropolis and the craigslist apartment wasn’t even real? Also, what if he were a serial killer planning to murder me in Midtown? I shrugged off the danger, the possibility he scammed me. I approached every aspect of moving to New York with the serenity of a Cheetos-lovin’ Buddha.
When the plane took off, I realized how irreversible this decision felt in my heart, that I was TAKING THIS RISK and not just on an apartment, but this life risk, to be away from people I love for a whole month. I’m not that adventurous. Not really. I like lying on the couch watching television. I’m one of those kind of people.
After I stopped panicking (which took four minutes at least), I looked down at the open book in my shaking hands and tried to focus on the words in front of me. I was reading a book called, “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brene Brown, and these sentences were the first words I read after my momentary panic attack.
“Courage is like—it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue. You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.”
I started laughing. Sometimes the universe has to speak right into your brain. New York was off to a good start.
Once the plane landed and I had dragged my ridiculous luggage to the craigslist apartment, I met my new landlord and the friend he brought with him. He showed me around the apartment (which basically consisted of him standing in one spot and pointing at things). He left me keys. Only after he and his friends waved goodbye did I realized he had brought that friend on the off-chance I was a serial killer from craigslist. He didn’t want to be alone with me in the apartment. Ha.
I wasn’t used to quite close living quarters with only a mattress and a card table. One chair. I couldn’t even have guests. While I lived in New York, I would work remotely for my company, which meant that tiny apartment and lone chair were about to become verrrrry well acquainted.
This first weekend, I shopped at K-mart for toilet paper and dish soap detergent. Then, I attended a Sunday afternoon bear bash in the Meatpacking district. I walked to the Meatpacking district from my headquarters in Chelsea because I was afraid to take the subway.
I worked every day.
I walked for hours every night.
I learned to take the subway. (There are some great apps with subway schedules.)
I ate out.
I ate street vendor food. (I marveled that a man can get a sloppy gyro at almost every street corner in New York. Truly, this was heaven.)
Over my weeks in New York, I learned to trust my ability to navigate, to take the subway everywhere. I lost my inhibition and traveled all over the city late at night. I went to some extreme locations, researching my book. I tried to find rats in alleys and constantly sought sewer access during my time in the city.
I began to love the city.
I loved New York on a rainy night, walking under ordinary silver scaffolding, recognizing the beauty of a city always under construction, always rebuilding itself into something new. I began to appreciate the flow of the city, and being part of it. I loved New York in Central Park and coffee houses and bakeries. Mostly I walked and walked, and walked. I ate breakfast at a White Castle in Harlem one Sunday morning and got to laugh with a few other people who loved White Castle breakfast. I walked almost three miles around Manhattan that day.
A turning point in terms of my love for New York City came on the day I pretended to be homeless. I begged for spare change on Wall Street with a coffee cup in front of me. I wrote about that day and the love that I felt. It changed me. I saw a flavor of New York I hadn’t noticed until that day.
I fell in love.
I got it—why people love New York with the fierceness they do. In fact, I tried to articulate it through my main character, Vin Vanbly.
When you’re sitting in the soft green Bryant Park grass, admiring Midtown skyscrapers, it’s easy to forget the functional systems developed to keep humanity working. Water, power, food, waste. It’s remarkable to me you can order coffee and a fruit croissant directly above us and get fresh versions of both every day. People grow so accustomed to New York irritations they forget the everyday remarkable. Here more than anywhere in the world, order reigns. Yes, chaos, injustice, and poverty remain powerful landmarks in the New York skyline, too. But a remarkable thing happens in this city every day, a thing called civilization. People thrive. The city thrives.
My love for New York is a lot like a good summer storm.
I love the thick, pounding rain, the smell of soaked, green grass, the blinding lightening, scaring the shit out of me, followed by a deep thundery grumbling, an echo of my own fear. I love the taste of electrical humidity during a storm. It tastes like warning.
The longer I’m in a thunder storm, the less I like it. I start worrying about people trapped out in the storm, and dogs who get scared. I start wondering if the electricity will go out and if it does, what if it never comes back on and pretty soon I’ll have to kill my neighbors for their stockpile of canned meat. I don’t want to kill my neighbors. I don’t even know if they have canned meats, but welcome to the future.
(Aside: I really did want to kill my New York neighbor who began barfing up chunks of lung every morning at 7:15 a.m. This would continue until about 8:00 a.m. I could only hear it from the bathroom but it sure made showering unpleasant, feeling like I had a single audience member as I soaped up, someone who happened to have pneumonia.)
After living there for a month, New York is still not my favorite city in the world. But man, I get why people love it there. I really, really do.I (thunderstorm) New York. I want to visit it occasionally and celebrate the amazing buildings, the massive crowds, the late-night gyros. I want to read a book in Central Park. I want to try to find the best carbonara and maybe walk over the Brooklyn Bridge. But I want to visit occasionally, like a summer storm, awed by the sensations, its rugged power, it’s ability to change the way you see the world.
On my last day in New York, the sun danced far overhead. Summer had arrived and was celebrated by the thousands of people cramming the sidewalks. Although hungry for home, I was surprised to be exceptionally sad leaving New York. I longed for one last day to walk among the people, Go-Go’s blaring in my earbuds, staring at the reflections off skyscrapers literally scraping the sky. Christian, my craigslist landlord,met me at the studio apartment so I could return the keys. When we confirmed I had moved out my belongings without damaging his space, we grinned at each other and hugged goodbye.
We hugged big, clapping each other on the back and squeezing.
We were not close. We never once hung out for a beer nor became New York besties.
But he trusted a craigslist stranger and his faith was rewarded. I also trusted a craigslist stranger and my faith was rewarded! A that moment of our saying goodbye, we represented something almost as good as friendship—the possibility that total strangers aren’t complete assholes and good-hearted strangers roam the earth.
On the way to the airport, my cab driver blasted reggae as we drove through sunny Midtown. I bounced happily in the back seat and excitedly showed him some of the best New York photos on my phone. He promised to text me a great photo he took from the Staten Island ferry if I gave him my phone number. We chatted and laughed all the way to the airport, sharing stories more private than strangers ought to tell each other.
I wrote my phone number on the credit card statement I signed.
As I checked in my luggage, ready to journey back to Minnesota and living space with multiple chairs, my phone buzzed. I had received a text message from a strange number, area code (213).
The cab driver had texted me my last, backward glance at a city I had come to (thunderstorm).
Edmond Manning is the author of romance series, The Lost and Founds. The first three books in this series include King Perry, King Mai (The Lost and Founds) (a Lambda Literary finalist 2014), and the Butterfly King. The Butterfly King takes place in New York City.