23 March, 2015.
Last week of the first month. March ends in clarity and with a dramatic change of scenery. Coming home after the cultural exchange, I pack my bags and move to my first place in Manhattan. It’s a one-bedroom apartment next to the East River, each window looking into the calm water. All alone here, I can finally start getting some work done. As in: how to convince the world of the need for a discipline called anthropological journalism?
If only I were truly alone here. My companion’s all white. In an all too regal way he drinks his water from goblets on the coffee table. He insists on sleeping in my bed and wakes me up at sunrise. He takes long walks in the corridor and commands me to play with him. When he gets too pushy I lock him up in the bathroom for about an hour. Harsh, but it does the trick. Gambit is a short-haired, ill-tempered cat from hell. He bites and scratches. His boss Esther – a thirtysomething girl from Texas, the one I’m cat sitting for – calls him “little shit.” Apparently, I’m not the only one who hates him.
The door to the corridor is open and Gambit’s roaming about. Knocks sound from the door across. “Is he inside?”, a creaking voice with a Carribean accent shouts, “can you please take him inside?” I do as asked and an old lady with a wire cart appears. “Thank you”, she says, “thank you so much. Ooh, when I see him looking at me with them big mean eyes, I close my own and wish I were somewhere else.”
“Gambit! Gambit!”, a white and muscular guy with square hair lures at the end of the corridor.
“You know him?”, I shout back.
“Everyone does, he’s the shit.”
“That means he’s great.”
Aside from the cat, there’s but perks to this apartment. I told you about the calmth of the water beneath. I get woken up in the morning by boats going by. I am luckily not yet informed that in fact, these boats transport human excrements from the city to a refinery where its contents will be chemically divided into pure fecal matter and drinking water.
I was listing the perks. In bed, head resting on the pillow, I fall asleep looking at the necklace of passing cars along Manhattan island. In the morning, light reverberating from the United Nations building shimmers on my face. I often walk around naked. Ban Ki-Moon might spot me from his top floor office – my best chance of ever getting a real job. Helicopters fly by the window of my living room. I can almost see my reflection in the pilot’s sunglasses. Television teaches me some extra lessons on American culture. “You wanna have some pizza?”, the girl, leaning into the open trunk of a car, asks the two guys next to her.
“Mucho caliente”, one of them tries to impress her.
“Wow. You speak Spanish?”
“That’s not Spanish.”
“Crispy on the outside, soft and cheesy on the inside, this awesome new peperoni pizza…” I cannot believe it.
This residential complex comes with its own gym, coffee shop and supermarket.
“I wanna kiss a girl, I wanna hold her tight.”
Radio can be torture while shopping for groceries.
“Maybe make a little magic in the moonlight.”
I can’t seem to find any afforable meat around here. Twelve dollars for an ounce of beef?
“I don’t wanna go too far, just take it slow.”
These lyrics are turning into a physical pain. I hate you, Keith Urban. Your pseudonym sucks, too. To end the agony, I buy a pack of two hamburgers – the only meat that doesn’t look rancid – for six dollars. Back home, I put Gambit in the bathroom and turn on the Belgian radio. I bake the hamburgers with rice, tomato sauce and greens. The following three days, my pooh is blood red. Yes. Blood red. Pooh.
Life is so easy living on Manhattan. Everything’s such a short walk away. “Ego is not your amigo”, the parish church message board reads. But ill fate strikes. This is what happens. When I come out of Strand Book Store, downtown five helicopters surround a black smoke plume in a milk white sky. I rush through 12th, take a right at 2nd Ave, following the sound of fire trucks and ambulances. Down 2nd, a mob is taking amateur shots of the action. There’s fire and smoke. Chaos. Cranes take firemen high up. One Neo-Grec building is fuming black smoke from its upper floor. The building next to it has collapsed.
“We really appreciate your concern and sympathy, folks, but can I ask all of you to keep on moving”, a young police officer asks with utmost kindness. On 1st, a crowd has gathered on the street in front of a bar with a television screen. I run home – less than two miles north – and turn on the television screen. MSNBC shows footage of the first explosion. A young tall man, blood running across his face, barely conscious, sways across a group of perplexed bystanders. He falls down on the sidewalk. The building behind him has had its facade blown off. “Passersby running to the rescue, as real New Yorkers do”, the blonde anchor says with a smile, even though the footage shows the exact opposite. Amateur footage then shows the second explosion – red tongues of fire piercing through the building from bottom to top, violently licking the sky. The old building is being eaten from within.
And there it is again. I thought I had outgrown it. Do you know that blissful feeling when you have touched upon something that later appears on the tv screen? Like having a cup of coffee with the moviestar, no matter how catastrophic the event? Disgusting, but nevertheless there. More so, in this case this was world news, straight from the heart of New York. And I was there.
I need to leave. I switch off the inferno, release Gambit from his confinement and run out of the apartment. I carry the fake sense of importance with me onto Midtown.
To be continued…