James’ first piece of New York advice is not to talk to anyone.
Don’t strike up conversations with strangers in the street. Don’t prolong eye contact with anyone you don’t know. And for the love of God, Marth, don’t linger in the hallway.
He gets really annoyed when I laugh him off and that’s because we’re living in an asylum.
His friend has saved us from the bankruptcy that is renting a place to wash your ass in Midtown Manhattan and we’re staying in the centre of the universe for a song.
Times Square is down the street. Broadway is a skip and a jump and the subway is a short walk right linking us to a cinema bar and restaurant we geek about in Williamsburg before stuffing our faces with Southern fried chicken, honey butter and biscuits at The Commodore.
Not the fancy one Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald would pour gin down their throats in during the 1920s before Zelda, ironically, was remanded to a mental health facility, rather… Brooklyn.
James definitely doesn’t want me talking to people who remind me of Zelda but I do anyway.
I forget completely that the building we’re staying in is filled with the recently homeless and the mentally ill who won their digs in the NYC Affordable Housing Lottery and so I respond to a “good morning” from a woman who holds the elevator door for me.
I realize my mistake when she starts banging her head on the wall.
I’ve responded with an easy “hi, how’s it going?” and the head banging is her response.
Soft metered thuds that punctuate her words as her beautiful blue eyes glaze over and she absently twirls a multicolored dreadlock around her index finger.
“Oh, it’s bad.” (Thud)
“It’s very bad.” (Thud)
“LOOK AROUND!” (Thud)
It’s a long ride to the lobby, we get there with the woman’s skull still intact and I’m grateful.
The signal on my phone is a b*tch in that building and I wouldn’t want to waste any time running into the street to call 911 while a woman slowly succumbs to concussion.
The doorman raises his eyebrows at me as I hotfoot it out of the elevator before pressing a button to slide back the gold and glass security gate.
It’s a nice building, our asylum.
Centre of the world with a doorman, a sprawling lobby and filled with people like the woman in the elevator amidst people laying low, avoiding eye contact and offsetting any social awkwardness with the fact that they practically live in Times Square.
James is straight-faced when I tell him about it at a bar that evening.
I’m drinking gin, like Zelda, because every other cocktail on the menu sounds like a straight shot to hangover and he shakes his head the way one would at a wayward but lovable infant.
I think, among other things, his worry is what exactly he’s going to say to my mother.
When he has to call Namibia and tell her someone has me in a head lock in the lift or that the unkempt woman yelling “faggot!” in the lobby has decided to keep me as her pet pig.
It’s really for my own good.
Jim doesn’t want me to cultivate a cold shoulder because he doesn’t feel for the mentally ill, he’s just trying to keep me safe.
I Google it and 1 in 5 New Yorkers suffer from a mental health disorder and I can’t say I’m not a little unnerved at how many people I see talking to themselves in the street. Having deep and meaningful conversations with people I can’t see right in the middle of all that hustle, bustle and success.
You just never know.
Some people are harmless, some don’t know any better than their delusions, others are violent so I understand his concern and stop my interactions at a smile.
A woman edits me into her world on one of my last days there.
Jim and I are riding an elevator up to our floor while a black woman takes an imaginary phone call. She stares at me intently, blinks once and a beat later I’m part of an overlapping earth.
“The girl with the golden hair. I have her here. Put her in one of the condos.”
I’ve had my accommodation upgraded on a finger phone but I like my digs and my digs mates just fine.
I’m in Manhattan.
I’m with my best friend.
And our giggling neighbour who looks at James with a singsong “You’re gonna get some chocolate.” thinks I have a pretty great sex life.