This story was funded by our members. Join Longreads and help us to support more writers.
Leslie Kendall Dye | Longreads | December, 2019 | 16 minutes (4,411 words)
“No man is an island.”
— John Donne
There is a theory that the mind is a collection of symbiotic identities, some conscious, some unconscious, that form an uneasy alliance for the sake of survival. Truthfully, that’s my theory, although I think I read something similar once. I am now working on a new theory, that New York City is similarly a collective, that what looks like a group of entirely separate individuals who happen to walk past one another all day long is actually one great organism.
I find this idea reassuring, because life here can make you feel not just unimpressive, not just peripheral, but entirely negligible. I have lived in New York for more than 22 years, which I am sorry to say is more than half my life. In that time, I have never stopped asking the question: Do I belong here? Am I woven into the tapestry, or am I a dangling thread? How does everyone seem to know one another, and where is everybody going? Why is the line at Sarabeth’s so long? Why are the libraries closed on Sundays? Was there a memo about wearing Hunter rain boots? Why are dogs not allowed in my building? Every day, I am confronted by mysteries. But if New York City is actually dependent on every last person within its boundaries, deriving not just energy but also narrative structure from all who move through it, then maybe I’m not negligible after all.
I have tried to explain to others the feeling I get on a typical day in the city — that we are all characters in some sort of Yiddish short story, but it’s unclear who are the heroes and who are the villains, whether it is a comedy or a tragedy, who are the stars, and who are merely the background. You see and hear so many things in a day. So I’ll start from the beginning — the beginning of yesterday, that is, and go through one whole day, and hope that you’ll come along for the ride.
Yesterday began like many others. I was in the check-out line at Zabar’s, and I overheard an exchange that intrigued me. A middle-aged woman in nondescript, baggy clothes, her hair a combination of layered bohemian chic and I-don’t-care gray — a West Side classic — was talking to another woman, who was younger.
“We’ll go downtown to my place, we’ll have a cup of coffee, and we’ll talk. Later, I’ll put you in a cab. Sound good?”
I composed a silent plea. Take me too. I can’t think of any place I’d rather go than downtown to your place, for a cup of coffee. I felt strongly that this woman had curtains — big silk curtains — and her apartment had a sitting room and a poodle or two sprawled on the rug. Her place had a view of a public garden, and there was primrose in bloom, and maybe a fountain, and people smoking, and other people kissing, and a few in the midst of lovers’ spats, and rain kissed the earth, just there, in that garden. A cab! Is there anything to excite the imagination more than the hailing of a cab after someone unexpectedly asks you over for a cup of coffee? I wanted the younger woman’s problems, whatever had invited the older woman’s concern. The word “downtown” had become a cashmere shawl, one I wanted to be wrapped in immediately.
Get the Longreads Top 5 Email
Kickstart your weekend by getting the week’s best reads, hand-picked and introduced by Longreads editors, delivered to your inbox every Friday morning.
The checker put my groceries in the bag. I trudged home, feeling blue. Once again — not at the center of it, not where the action was, the discourse, the problems, the connection. At home, I made myself some coffee, but there were no silk curtains, no poodles, no conspiring or commiseration.
A short time later, I traveled south to my dance studio, Steps, which sits in a hub of Upper West Side activity. You’ve got the Beacon Theatre just across Broadway, the Ansonia just south, and next door, Fairway Market, which is a holy pilgrimage in itself. I’ll say just this: Fairway has an entire room devoted to cheese. Also: things you didn’t know you wanted, because you didn’t know they existed. Artichoke paste. Lambrusco vinegar. Garam masala. Chocolate latte balls — $1.25 a bag.
On the elevator at Steps, I witnessed an altercation. A young, paunchy man wearing earphones got on before this other woman and almost held the door for her. I say almost because he held it for a second, then let it go too soon, before she was safely inside, so the door banged into her. She didn’t need a hospital or anything, but there was no question he was in error. The elevator takes approximately three hours to get from the lobby to the third floor — where the classes are — and back. Catching the elevator is therefore a big deal, as is holding the door for that one last person who is desperate not to wait three more hours for the next ride. The woman quietly harrumphed. Message received. Wild-eyed, the paunchy man said, “I HELD THE DOOR FOR YOU.” She did not accept the falsehood. “You did NOT hold the door for me,” she replied. “You let the door SLAM on me.” Enraged, he replied, “I am not talking to you.” “It sure sounds like you are!” she shot back, and he became so angry that I prayed the elevator was almost at the third floor. I didn’t fear for her safety, but maybe a little I did. When she walked off the elevator, he cursed her. I don’t mean he used foul language, I mean he cast a hex. Sarcastically. “Hope your tendus aren’t all sickled!” he said.
Performing arts shade! (A tendus becomes sickled when you point your foot in the wrong direction, which is a gross dance error, the equivalent of a social gaffe while interacting with, say, the queen of England. You don’t want to get caught sickling your tendus.) All at once, I felt kinship with both the aggressor and the victim in this elevator standoff. I don’t know exactly what defines New Yorkers, but it has something to do with our ability to keep the rhythm of these altercations without missing a beat, like children playing double Dutch.
In the sunshine of Studio II, a motley collection of dancers was warming up for the 10 a.m. ballet class. The teacher is tall and blond and haughty — so imperious her instruction borders on camp. She speaks with a British-implied accent and adorns her daily performance with an array of hairstyles and lipsticks. Her smile is lopsided and sudden, just enough to alert us that her condescension is mostly for show. She has a fabulous accompanist and sometimes there are 100 people taking class. It’s ballet with a cabaret atmosphere, and I suspect people love this teacher because she makes them feel like party guests. The spectrum of humanity attends. At the barre, one sees principal dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, so immaculately sculpted and graceful that they strike one as circus performers or possibly even figments of the imagination. Also at the barre: an elderly woman in a wig who carries her ballet shoes in a plastic bag from the liquor store.
We are all freaks in this room — spiritual cousins of sorts, worshipping at the same church. Here we find rapport and community, gossip and disdain. The mighty sylphs chat with the old loons, and the rest of us try to figure out where on this spectrum we fall. Everyone here is drawn to ballet as a monk is drawn to prayer, and this commonality surpasses — if only in this hour and a half — our jagged differences in achievement.
A tiny woman stood behind me at the barre. She smiled and said hello. She knew me from the playground I frequent with my child. How was life? How was school? What grade was my daughter in now? Good. OK. Second. Her girls were fine, she said, except for one thing. What was that? I asked. They were both enrolled at the School of American Ballet (S.A.B., as it’s known around here), and they weren’t happy. The School of American Ballet is a “feeder school” for New York City Ballet, which, for many people, is the pinnacle of the art, the highest goal, the shiniest of prestigious places. It’s also known for being a hotbed of sexism, not to mention a place keen on anorexia as a way of life. Still — New York City Ballet! My daughter takes class at another, saner place, but even at 7, she’s heard of S.A.B. It’s where the perfectly turned-out, smooth-bunned, pearl-earring-bedecked baby giraffes are going when they make a sharp turn and head into Lincoln Center. I researched when the annual audition day was — sometime in early spring. I don’t know what made me do it, except of course I do: At the center of New York City’s ineffable glory are cosmic sources of radiation — Times Square, the Chrysler Building, the grandiose arrangements of limelight hydrangeas in the main hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the School of American Ballet.
“Maybe we should go, just to see what the school looks like, Mommy,” Lydia said. “But what if you get in?” I asked. “I won’t go,” she said. “But how could you say no to S.A.B?” I asked. Then we both laughed and immediately remembered that neither of us wanted her at S.A.B. Mostly we remembered that. The other part of us remembered the tiny angels in the second act of the New York City Ballet Balanchine Nutcracker. They hold candles and wear floor-skimming wire hoop skirts, and they shuffle so rapidly across the stage that they create the illusion of floating. Lydia and I were given tickets to the dress rehearsal last year, and at the time, Lydia leaned over the balcony and said, “I want to skim the floor in a hoopskirt.” But only kids who go to S.A.B. can be angels in the New York City Ballet Nutcracker.
Lydia’s own dance school is not far from Lincoln Center. One day I saw a dancer departing the school and rounding the corner. As she passed under the Leonard Bernstein Way street sign, I caught sight of her T-shirt, which read Sing out, Louise, and I promptly fell over and died. This is a line from the Broadway show Gypsy, which has lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, who for theater folk sits at the tippy top of Mount Olympus, with Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter flanking him. What was great about the shirt was the shorthand — if you love the shirt, you and the wearer can be best friends. You can hug on the spot without formal introduction. (An exception to the no-eye-contact rule generally in play on the NYC streets.) I decided to get one of the shirts for Lydia for Christmas. (Gypsy is about the mother of all stage mothers. Whenever Lydia thinks I am getting too involved in her life, she pointedly whispers, “Sing out, Louise.” I immediately clam up. Smart kid.)
Help us fund our next story
We’ve published hundreds of original stories, all funded by you — including personal essays, reported features, and reading lists.
Greta is the biggest personality of the dance moms at Lydia’s school. She is tall and skinny — a gazelle in human form. She is a dancer herself, and her daughter, who takes jazz at Lydia’s school, studies ballet at — wait for it — S.A.B. From Greta, we get all the dirt: who’s dating whom and who’s fighting whom and which former artistic directors are showing up just before curtain to torment the dancers backstage (Peter Martins). She tells us inside things. For example, New York City Ballet dancers aren’t allowed to wear their stage makeup outside the theater, they have to wash it off before they go home. The makeup is copyrighted or licensed or something. It’s in their contracts. Greta makes me feel both closer to and farther from the action. She gives me the same feeling that the weekly arrival of our New Yorker magazine gives me — knowledge without inclusion; glamour, but not mine. I sometimes think The New Yorker exists exclusively to evoke this feeling.
In the late afternoon, I had an unpleasant errand — my yearly mammogram. I was headed downtown on the Second Avenue bus, when suddenly, it was nearly black outside; raindrops scattered on the windows like bullets. An omen. Weill Cornell Imaging is in a dreary medical tower on York Avenue. This neighborhood depresses me. If the earth were flat, and you walked to the edge of it, you’d be on York Avenue. It is just so far from anything that feels life-affirming. New York City’s heartbeat can best be felt on the West Side, pulsing through an artery that runs south through Times Square and north past Carnegie Hall, all the way up to the Metropolitan Opera House at 65th. Meanwhile, York Avenue is as far east as you can get without falling into the East River; it’s like a freezing cold finger — no blood flow.
For a mammogram, you go to the ninth floor. This is Breast Land, where every staff member has been schooled in keeping people calm. When you can, please sign here, and How are you doing today? and Would you care for a chocolate or a bottle of water? You stumble along, get your locker, wipe off your deodorant, put a pink robe on, and breathe deeply along the hallway to the next waiting room, where you sit with the other naked-but-for-their-pink-robe ladies and stare out the window at the 59th Street Bridge, which from this close-up looks like a metal brontosaurus. This is the same bridge that Woody Allen lifted to iconic grandeur in the movie Manhattan, but when you look at it from Weill Cornell, amid the steam rising from the manholes on York and the sparse sidewalks around it, it just looks like an angry brontosaurus. Then the breast people call your name and your heart beats faster. A technician in pink scrubs leads you into the next little room, the one with the machines, and asks how your day is going, and rubs you down with freezing gel for an ultrasound, or covers your nipples for a mammogram.
Remember how I said New York is best described as a Yiddish short story? (Are there short stories in Yiddish? I feel that my people tend to run long.) What happened next could really happen anywhere, but somehow, it managed to be nutty in a way I ascribe to this city. You need to know a detail about me first. Two years ago I had a rib removed. It was the third rib, it was under my left breast, and it grew this tumor called a hemangioma — the same as those little strawberries you see on some newborns’ heads. The only way to make it stop growing was to take it out.
“The tumor has fractured your rib,” the thoracic surgeon told me. He prodded me in the chest with his forefinger. “Doesn’t that hurt?” He prodded again. “That has to hurt.” I hadn’t noticed. I had a 4-year-old. I was tired. The jabs, however, got my attention. “Now it hurts,” I said, ever the people pleaser. “’Course it does,” replied the surgeon.
So he took the whole rib, and in order to make my breast sit up properly, he put in a fake rib. The fancy term is “chest wall repair,” but no one outside medicine has ever heard of the “chest wall” so I call it a “fake rib.” A few months after that, I had my first mammogram. If you have not experienced a mammogram, picture a knife spreading a pat of butter across a piece of toast. But really, really hard. Or, as the tech put it, “Your breast is round and the machine is flat.” Or, just imagine a pain so intense that you find yourself clutching the sides of a cold metal machine as tears roll down your cheeks and your soul hovers above your body and everyone prays for the end. After that, I went home. A day later, my fancy “chest wall repair” broke. My fake rib detached from its fake bone anchor and descended into the void of my chest, causing an alarming bubble of air to rise up through my breast like a balloon every time I inhaled. So I had to do the thoracic surgery again. The second time, the surgeon put in Gortex, which he said he hoped would be more durable. Hoped? Back to yesterday.
I reminded the technician in pink scrubs that I didn’t want my left breast scanned, on account of how the last mammogram broke my fake rib. It had been discussed already, I told her. Pre-arranged, all in my file, I told her. I was just reminding her. She was silent. So I said, “We’ll skip the left, OK? We’ll just do the right.” I stopped talking then, because she was reading my file with concern.
“We can’t screen one breast on a two-breast prescription,” she said.
“Why not?” I asked. “The right breast is one of the two breasts, right?”
“Doctors don’t like it when we change their orders,” she said. “If you want to scan the one, you have to scan the other.”
“But it was pre-arranged,” I croaked.
“She sent a two-breast prescription.”
“She didn’t mean to,” I argued.
“She must have forgotten.”
I began to sweat and wheeze. (If you have never had a rib crushed by a mammogram, you’ll have to trust me, once is enough.) She went to get her supervisor. The supervisor came in to tell me that they could not screen one breast on a two-breast prescription. We were getting nowhere. But then she said that a crushed rib was better than missing a malignant cell and so both breasts had to be scanned anyway. This made sense, and I began to imagine a cycle in which every year I put in a new rib after crushing the last one in the mammogram machine. The room started to tilt as I pondered my choice. The supervisor then said they did not wish to traumatize me, they wished only to make sure I was healthy. I think by then they realized that “healthy” was not, at this particular moment, the right word for me. I was floundering, somewhere near total incapacitation. It was now 6:30 in the evening. The office had begun to clear out. I could hear people saying “good night” and closing desk drawers. I was all that stood between the supervisor and the end of her day. I was alone with her — her and the machine — at the edge of the world, a brontosaurus roaring just beyond the window, black rain engulfing the medical tower.
“I can’t do the left breast,” I muttered, mostly to the wall. I cried. Tears ran. I wheezed again, then hiccuped, then I laughed. I told them not to worry, it was just the pink scrubs, the pasties, the fake rib, the large dinosaur, the end of the world. It was too much, you know? They nodded. They knew.
“We won’t press hard,” the supervisor said. She kept up her patter as she smoothed my pasties and squeezed my breasts into the flattening device, as though coaxing me into a straitjacket. They scanned both breasts. After, they gave me a Hershey’s kiss and a bottle of water.
Gusts of wind swept me up First Avenue. I joined the wet commuters on line for the 67th Street crosstown. I was full mammogram chic by now: sweaty, smelly, hair stringy and askew, rivulets of mascara pooling in the tiny lines near my eyes. I felt about as far from the ineffable radiance of the city as possible. I took out my phone to text Courtney, the mother of a little girl in Lydia’s class. She was watching Lydia, and I wanted to tell her that I was on my way back to the West Side.
“How was it?” she asked. (Courtney has had mammograms.)
“A brontosaurus tried to kill me,” I replied.
“Meet us at Santa Fe,” she wrote. “71st and Columbus.”
“‘I’ll get you a margarita,” she added. (Santa Fe has the largest, iciest frozen margaritas in existence.)
Twenty minutes later, I stood around the corner from the restaurant, waiting for Courtney and the girls. A spotlight illuminated a white satin pantsuit hanging in the window of a Columbus Avenue boutique. It was a one-piece, long-sleeved with a plunging lapel. It looked like a Star Trek uniform, but one that you’d wear to the Grammys. I stared at it for a long time, even as the storm threatened to drown me. The hem of my ancient linen pants was torn; I’d long since chewed off my lipstick. Hunger tore at me. I felt faded and chalky, as if my human color had been washed off by the rain. I wondered who was going to buy that suit. Where would she wear it? Probably, she owned Hunter rain boots and had a poodle. Maybe a greyhound. Her building definitely allowed dogs — she would never have moved there otherwise.
Courtney and the girls arrived and we walked into Santa Fe. The host led us to a booth. The girls told me about feeding the turtles in Central Park. Then there was the eating of french fries, and telling the kids to speak more quietly, and restaurant crayons — four to a set, in a tiny cardboard box. Then the married couple at the next table interrupted our conversation.
“Sorry,” the wife said. We don’t mean to keep staring, but there is a dog right outside the restaurant staring in.”
Sure enough, there was — a puppy with big black eyes and a soaking coat. He was tied to a post outside, the very definition of forlorn.
“He belongs to that woman at the bar,” the wife continued. “Poor dog!”
Courtney, who is about seven feet tall with a waterfall of honey blonde hair and a model’s face to match, stood up abruptly, and with a sort of movie star whoosh, gathered her jacket and rushed outside, the girls on her heels. They clumped around the little waif, patting and stroking and soothing. A few minutes later they returned to the table, where I’d remained, transfixed.
“I think the dog’s owner has been adequately shamed now!” Courtney said, as the restaurant gaped at the ill-fated dog. Pregnant women can’t get seats on the bus, pedestrians will knock over a person on crutches, but New Yorkers draw the line at wet dogs peering into restaurants. Sure enough, the embarrassed owner stood up from her spot at the bar, paid the bill, and went out to tend to her shriveled canine, even as she rolled her eyes at the collective presumptuousness that had forced her hand. It was like when someone scurries up or down the subway stairs on the left-hand side. This, with good reason, is not allowed in New York City. One travels up or down on the right-hand side in order to avoid head-on collisions and bodily harm. If a person — often a tourist — wanders to the left, a large crowd will force him to the right in a collective act of censure. For the greater good, of course.
In the restaurant, surrounded by dog lovers and people-shamers and candlelight, the stars moved suddenly into position. Swaddled by the rhythms of an untameable city and its undomesticated regulars, the patrons of Santa Fe seemed a Hirschfeld tableau come to life. I was — for a flicker of a second — inside the city’s ineffable glow. I absorbed the warmth totally, like a cat stretching in a pool of sunlight. It was not just the food for a hungry stomach, it was not just the soundtrack of voices mixing with the flickering candlelight, it was not just the hasty alliance of animal lovers doling out opprobrium, nor the pleasurable flush of communal agreement spiked with the recognition of our tyranny and hubris. It was all of those things, yes, but it was also something more, something capturable only by some vestigial sensory organ as yet undiscovered by anatomists. Around me, the city’s plot lines merged into one great circular lane, and inside me, the five senses (and the vestigial organ) arranged themselves in symbiotic formation to produce one thing: joy. I felt mysteriously part of the city’s narrative in some way I hadn’t been a moment before. It was perfect. Then I blinked, and it was gone.
I read once that there is something called “archaic understanding” — something that children have more of than adults. We lose it gradually, but it returns in streaks of primitive insight. An understanding of things in their deepest, mythic sense. Intuition — as brief and bright as a flash of lightning.
We walked home under lamplight glowing in the mist. Some piano music tinkled out of an apartment on 71st. Perhaps it was a party somewhere nearby. The streetlights mixed with the rain like watercolors, and we pushed on, blood cells pulsing through the mighty organism. The sound of the piano retreated — into some corner, behind a curtain, up the stairs in an alley one street over.
There is a line in Peter Pan about Mrs. Darling, and it goes like this: “Her romantic mind was like the tiny boxes, one within the other, that come from the puzzling East, however many you discover, there is always one more; and her sweet, mocking mouth had one kiss on it that Wendy could never get, though there it was, perfectly conspicuous in the right hand corner.”
Like Mrs. Darling, this city is defined by something it will not relinquish. This something seems to be in plain sight just often enough to keep us charged in its pursuit. We race along the city’s streets, we chat and disperse and we hurry on again. Sometimes we stall in the midst of an eddy, looking up, just to spot it — the city’s kiss. Then it is time to retreat, to go home and heat the pan for dinner, linger over drinks, wonder what comes next — all the while secure in the knowledge that tomorrow, we’ll make another play for it — that one lovely kiss that shapes our days — because it will never be ours.
* * *
Leslie Kendall Dye is a writer and actress in New York City. Her work has appeared at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon, Vela, Electric Literature, SELF, The LA Review of Books, and others. She is at work on a memoir about mothers, daughters, drugs, and show business.
* * *
Editor: Krista Stevens
Copy editor: Jacob Gross