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My Mental Illness, and Seven Other People I Met in New York
Throughout my teenage years, I’d had spells of heavy quiet that seemed more than hormonal. There were many days I could not emerge from bed to open the window blinds, and afternoons I’d spend napping in my car, feeling too tired to attend the drama classes I actually liked. Then, like a surprise spring peeling back its chilly blanket to reveal green warmth and morning dew, the sadness would inexplicably lift, and I’d be full of vigour and hope for many weeks at a time. My self-esteem would skyrocket. I’d attend improv classes, sneak into bars with friends, and dance wildly to music on the street outside my house.
And then, some weeks later, without my full awareness, the weight would slowly descend again, and I’d become moored to my loneliness and despair. I couldn’t bear the thought of facing my peers most of the time, so I often ate my lunch alone in the bathroom stall instead. I’m not sure if anyone noticed. I think those who did must have thought I was aloof, but in actuality, I was terrified. I moved to Los Angeles to start over but found myself sleeping for sixteen hours a day instead, before emerging a month later new and refreshed, ad infinitum. After a year, instead of confronting the mental illness I knew longed to be named, I decided to move instead. New York seemed like an answer to my problems. In many ways it was, but not in the ways in which I had imagined.
I knew nothing when I arrived. I had gotten into a prestigious acting school that Sanford Meisner had founded, and spent my early days repeating nonsense back and forth, practicing Alexander technique, and pretending to be a wilting flower in my modern dance class. I was drowning in visions of artistic enlightenment. I carried around empty notebooks I soon filled with poetry and art and dialogue from unwritten plays. I longed to meet other artists as I walked through Central Park listening to the ‘The Only Living Boy in New York’ on repeat. My best friend Kendra came with me for the first week. When we arrived, we were so naive, in fact, that Kendra and I didn’t know how to navigate the world’s easiest public transport system. We knew there were streets but didn’t understand there were avenues. My first sublet was on 10th St. and 2nd Ave. So we’d hop off the subway at 8th street (the closest we could find to 10th) and hope for the best. Sometimes we’d get off on 2nd Avenue, and sometimes we’d get off on 8th Avenue, and we were genuinely confused each time. “Oh, tonight’s a long walk night!” We’d say, gleefully ignorant.
(Speaking of 2nd, when we had first arrived, I called the owner of the sublet and asked for cross streets, but the honking horns and bustling surroundings obscured the call. We walked for hours looking for ‘Fecond Street.’ “Okay, here’s 10th street, now where is Fecond? How come we can’t find Fecond? Eventually, we accidentally stumbled upon an exterior that resembled the picture and looked up to see a street sign that read ‘Second.’ I’m amazed I wasn’t robbed immediately.)
The Man at the Shop
My first New York City encounter was in a minuscule voodoo shop somewhere on the Upper West Side. I happened upon it accidentally, and it was so tiny that I might have mistaken it for a utility closet of the store next to it if the door hadn’t been left wide open. Incense poured out of the opening with such ferocity that the fire department could have accidentally been called. I had just arrived, and I was desperately confused and excited by everything I saw. The shop was full of African treasures, small bowls, necklaces, herbs and tiny gold trinkets. I wanted most everything in there and could afford none of it. A man in a small cap emerged from the back. “No money?” He said, without any prompting from me. I shook my head. He walked around the store and found a small leather pouch hanging from a worn necklace string. “This is yours, and there’s real magic inside, just for you.” He placed it around my neck. When I got home, I opened the pouch, but there was nothing in it. I was disappointed. The next morning, I set out for the shop to ask about the empty vessel, but I couldn’t find it. I searched quite seriously for this store for the rest of my time in the city, and I must admit that being unable to stumble upon it ever again gave it a sense of enjoyable romance that far surpassed the hope of spotting it. One year later, I’d throw away the pouch after a mental breakdown, convinced that it was the harbinger of my doom and unhappiness in New York. Many years later, I’d consider the emptiness to be a good omen—a symbol of starting over, of unlimited potentiality, and I’d regret throwing away the necklace from the shopkeeper I could never find again.
After securing a room, or rather an oversized closet in the lower east side, I walked throughout Alphabet City looking for a job. A small performance venue on 5th and Avenue C had its door open, and Ian was alone inside, slowly swaying to music while grilling a panini on the stove. He was fifteen years my senior, tall and imposing and kind. It was a small, modestly decorated one-room jazz bar, but upbeat reggae pulsed throughout the cafe. I took a post-it note and scribbled my phone number on it along with the note, “Hi, I’m Victoria. I would like to work here, would you like to hire me?” He called me that evening and said he’d convinced the owners of the bar to bring me in as a waitress. I started that evening. Ian was a devout Rastafarian who wanted to open up his own restaurant. He had a son who was about my age, also named Ian. I asked him once why men were able to have sex with so many different women, while often the inverse wasn’t as true. He said, ‘Men can wash themselves off in the shower afterwards, and women can’t.’ I thought about this for many years whenever I slept with someone. Ian Sr. was not afraid of social impropriety and was the first person to tell me that I had an hourglass figure. I was floored by this information, and he could tell I wasn’t being modest when I responded with confusion. “You’re Marilyn Monroe, V. Go home and look in the mirror when you get off work.” I did, and he was right. I noticed my bras were too small and used my first paycheck to get a larger one. I walked into work the next day wearing a belt to accentuate my waist, and he nodded solemnly. “Told ya.”
I worked at 5C for the entirety of my year in New York, and Ian noticed the progressive decline of my mental health. Sometimes he’d give me the night off work, and later he started bringing in gifts. The sadder I got, the more he brought. He told me he was giving away old things, or that a shop owner had given him extra items for free, but I knew he was just being kind. He gave me vintage boots, a heart-shaped stone, a statue of a goddess. He told me to look at it whenever I felt afraid of my body. Later, I would fault the origins of my mental breakdown on my excessive work schedule. I was going to school from 8 am-5 pm and working from 6 pm-1 am most every night. The truth is, I believe I learned more from Ian than I did from school, and he was likely the only real reason I got out of bed each morning. We had fun, and no subject was off-limits. He doesn’t know this, but he was my first friend in New York, and perhaps my closest.
Mike visited 5C every single day. He was there when I applied for the job, silently sipping a cider in the corner of the bar. He was thrice-divorced, on welfare, and looked much older than he actually was. He was short and grumpy and supremely charming. He told Ian and me that he used to take pictures for Rolling Stone Magazine (though this was never verified) and asked for advice on how to seduce younger women. (He made it very clear he preferred brunettes, so I was always in the clear.) He didn’t have internet in his apartment. One day, he asked me to sign him up for a dating website & handed me a list of things to type out along with an 8x10 black and white headshot from the 90s. He looked at me sheepishly. “Be discreet,” he said. “Don’t tell me if no one responds, okay?” His list read:
“Michael Renchiwich. 917-974-2452. No mention of any sports. I am 53. Looking to meet a fearless 21-43-year-old. Suggested first date: Metropolitan Museum. Retired art director. My interests: Classical music, Rock & Roll, Art, Photography, Reading, Foreign films. My heroes: John Lennon, Gandhi, Michelangelo.”
The day after the hand-over, he didn’t come in. I figured he was feeling a bit embarrassed. After the third day, Ian and I were concerned. One of his ex-wives reached out to tell us he had overdosed and died three days prior.
I’m not sure why, but I made his dating profile that night. Looking back, this might have been a bit morbid, but no one responded to his profile anyway, which would have hurt his feelings, so it’s good I never had to tell him.
My roommate and I met Jeremy at a Mexican restaurant on 1st & 3rd. He reminded me of an overgrown clown, minus the makeup. He was big and loud and dramatically waddled from side to side when he walked. He was a small child trapped in a grown man’s body. His tongue used to flick out of his mouth anytime he laughed, which was a shrill, too-loud guffaw full of genuine, unbridled glee.
He invited us up to his rent-controlled apartment after dinner. It was directly above the restaurant, on the top floor of a high-rise. ‘I need to flip my record,’ he said. ‘China likes music while I’m away.’ He was very clearly insane, but we must have found the whole experience quirky enough to deem safe, and agreed. His apartment had belonged to his socialite mother before her passing. ‘I’m very rich now, but I don’t want to be,’ he said. Madama Butterfly was playing on vinyl when we walked in, and a white Persian cat leapt off the couch to greet us at the door. This was China, and China did seem to like the music. He flipped the record and asked us if we’d go to the opera with him for Valentine’s day.
He took us to see Tosca in the East Village, and it was a wonderful performance. Afterwards, we went to a Polish restaurant and he gave me a gorgeous, vintage copy of ‘Gulliver’s Travel’s’ which for some reason now forgotten proved to be a bit too personal, so we stopped communicating with him. He was distraught, and I was disturbed by his affection. He called me several times a day, so after trialling many excuses (anything to avoid admitting that we had suddenly become flustered by his attention), we finally settled on telling him that we had moved back to California, and that’s why we couldn’t see him anymore. We even gave flight dates and descriptions of palm trees. “None of what you’re saying is true,” he said, and for some reason, we were very offended when he didn’t believe our lie.
He wore the same black turtleneck every single day and had eyes so bright and vibrant that they could not be outshined even by his handlebar moustache. The last acting class I had taken was in Beverly Hills the year before. When I told my teacher, who was Some Aging Television Star, that I acted because it was fun, he threatened to kick me out of his class and told me that acting was work, and if I liked fun I should go to a playground.
When I walked into the tiny acting studio to meet Mr. Pinter for the first time, he said, “Good lord, if acting isn’t fun, then why the fuck are you doing this shit? Go torture yourself some other way.” He was bold and blunt and beloved by every single person who passed through his doors. He was the first to tell me to work backwards as an artist to get forward. “You’ve spent the first half of your life learning a bunch of bullshit, and now you must spend the second half of your life un-learning all of it.” He also once pointed to a student’s head and said, “Your brain is a lying bitch of a motherfucker. Your body is the only thing that tells the truth.” I thought of this anytime I slouched when meeting someone new, or flirtatiously curled my hair around my finger around an attractive man, or when I first folded up on my bed to clutch my churning stomach in the middle of my first blizzard, after finally noticing that my familiar sadness had followed me to New York, despite the fact that I hadn’t willingly packed it.
Oscar was from Mexico, and his name was a wonderful encapsulation of his personality. He was immediately my favorite person at school and would remain so for the rest of the year. He was extraverted, good-hearted, extremely funny, and had a frock of curly black hair that bounced about wildly wherever he walked anywhere. We wrote absurd poems to each other when we were bored in class, and he taught me Spanish curse words. Because I was gradually losing my mind, I only wore dresses despite sub-zero east coast temperatures, and one day he lovingly demanded that I start wearing pants. I said no, and he looked at me with a coy smile and said, “But you look so skinny when you do!” He knew what he was doing, and I was easily convinced, and subsequently warmer. At the end of the year, he gave me a dismembered barbie arm and said, “Never forget me, my love.”
I did not.
Bruce and Trudy
Bruce and Trudy were a retired couple who owned the jazz bar and lived one floor above it. Bruce was supremely quiet, and Trudy was small and boisterous and whimsically peculiar. I’m not sure I ever spoke more than ten words with Bruce. He’d come in to hear the music, stoically look at the musician’s fingers and lightly tap his left foot on the cafe floor. He’d stay for the whole set, quietly stand, and go upstairs to bed without a word. Trudy listened to the music as part of a larger ruse—she’d order Prosecco for the cafe, and casually come down to sneakily obscure it in her coat when things were busy. Sometimes, she’d pick up the bottle and begin a passionate story, meant to distract us as she carried it up to her apartment. We’d run out of Prosecco, and we’d call Trudy downstairs to tell her we needed to order more.
“Strange!” She said, with a too-earnest curiosity. “I know we just ordered some… where do you think it’s going…?” “I don’t know Trudy,” I’d say in a dead-panned monotone. She’d pause briefly and whisper conspiratorially over the counter. “You don’t think someone is… stealing it, do you…?” “I don’t think so, Trudy.” She’d nod soberly and furrow her brow. “Well, hopefully, we get to the bottom of this, soon.”
I can still picture Ian burying his face in his hands as she walked out the door.
The glimmer of New York had faded and been replaced by murky grey buildings and frost. I wasn’t sleeping, I was missing school, and I had lost nearly thirty pounds. I threw out my notebooks and discarded my pursuit of a career in the theatre. One evening, a handsome older man came into the bar, and we spoke about the ballet. I told him I was dancing in the same studio Martha Graham used to teach in. He asked if I felt that I was born too young, and without entirely understanding the question, I said yes. He ordered a glass of wine and watched me for a while, and on the way out slid this note across the counter:
“Paul Harding. If you are available to correspond about rhythm, space, lyricism, or those smallest miracles, attend theatre, a Bartok concert before Christmas, or a Spanish movie: 206-769-6006. Victoria- If not, take good warm care.”
Take good warm care. I liked that. I wanted to correspond, and I wanted to go to the Bartok concert before Christmas, and I didn’t contact him. It was a precious note, and a wonderful thought, and I didn’t want to disappoint him with the actuality of my existence, so I cowered instead. He called in once and asked for me, apologized for being forward and said to write him, please. I wrote him a long letter in response, but I never sent it.
Admittedly, I did not meet Paul Simon, but I did occupy a large room with him once. New York had gradually brought to the surface a darkness inside me that had long needed to be named and was threatening to be named whether I was ready for its christening or not. I had run away to Los Angeles, I had run away to New York, and I had plans to run away to London, but I was being followed by my own shadow.
I had become utterly consumed by ruminations of negative things I had done in my past, and negative they were, but I was quite literally killing myself over them. I became engulfed by the thought that those around me would be better off if I had never existed. I desperately wanted to die but felt that taking my own life would be an unthinkable cruelty to my family, so instead, I prayed for a natural disaster or a terrible accident to absolve me guilt-free. I’d sit in the back of a cab and silently hope that a bus would make the experience quick and spare the driver. I googled ways to make it look like an accident, and I lingered in the pills section of corner markets. To put it bluntly, I was severely mentally ill and didn’t know it.
However, in New York, I had accidentally immersed myself in an ecosystem that noticed my absence and I found myself unable to slip away unobscured. A friend encouraged me to visit a therapist. I did, and this therapist told me I was having a depressive episode. I was a “high functioning” manic-depressive. I began seeing her three times a week.
I had long dreaded a diagnosis but found instead that labelling the nebulous murkiness inside gave me a sense of clarifying agency. Near the end of my time in the city, my life slowly regained functionality. My therapist asked me why I’d moved to New York, and I told her that I liked the theatre and Simon and Garfunkel, and it seemed like a good idea. She told me Paul Simon was in town, and at her urging, I bought myself a ticket to his concert.
One night, I took my seat, alone, in the back of the theatre, and he walked onstage, more human-seeming than I had expected. Music filled the auditorium, and I thought of a life long-lived, and a man who had endured more things than I, and who had continued to make things just because. The show opened with a phrase on repeat:
“You know life is what you make of it—so beautiful, or so what.”
I had become quite immersed in the So What, and I had become exhausted by a city that had once promised a fresh start. If you find beauty in things that are simple or answers that are gloriously straightforward, then New York will give you nothing it promises. If you want to get just a bit closer to who you are, however painful, then New York will deliver every time.
I regretted throwing away the notebooks, and the copy of Gulliver’s Travels, and the necklace. On the way home from the show, I sat in the taxi humming his melodies, and like a fortuitous bird appearing on a tree branch right outside your window at exactly the right moment, a poem flitted through my mind, and instead of praying for a bus to hit my taxi, I prayed for the ability to remember the poem I was writing without a pen and paper. I etched out the words on my thigh, hoping that muscle memory would assist in this. I don’t recall what I etched, and it doesn’t exactly matter. I was thrown into the city haphazardly. I had met many people, come into direct contact with an illness I had previously avoided and was spit back out not shinier as I had hoped, but different nonetheless. Changed.
The city streaked past me, and I had finally gotten what I came there for.