For a while I lived in New York, and yes, it seemed the cool thing to do, but then I left, and now it seems cool to have done that. To have abandoned the highway and headed for the ditch. But that can’t be true. If it were, I don’t know why more people aren’t leaving New York now. But maybe they are. Maybe a handsome young someone has just ducked into a gallery on Rivington Street, rapped a silver spoon on a bottle of PBR and said, “Yo, guys! You know it’s even cooler if you leave,” and half of Brooklyn has returned to the bedroom communities and 7 Elevens and sod of their youth.
I left New York for the same reason I went there in the first place—I didn’t fit in. I’d moved up from my mid-Atlantic suburb to the big city, got a room in a warehouse loft in what I was told was Brooklyn, bought some incense and some Dostoevsky and some dark sheets with a high thread count, and settled in to wait for enlightenment. The first week I blew through about two hundred bucks on thrift store clothing and organic avocados, spinach, bread, vodka, and salsa. The second week I met a girl in a coffee shop who said she didn’t sleep on sheets anymore, that she preferred the bare uncomfortable truth of the mattress, and that just happened to be what I was searching for, too, the truth, so, to better prepare my bed for her, I tossed my sheets. The third week I found out my apartment wasn’t in Brooklyn after all, when my first paycheck was returned to my employer, a proofreading agency, the enveloped marked “undeliverable.” I checked the map on the wall of my subway station, which told me where I really lived; a block north, in Queens. By the fourth week the no-sheets girl hadn’t called me for two weeks, so I bought another set of sheets. Then my rent was due, and I still didn’t have a paycheck.
I got a roommate, Eben. For a while I thought his name was Evan, until I saw it printed on the title page of a script he wanted me to read: Ebenezer Rickard.
“Oh,” I said, when I read that. “Eben.”
“Yes?” he said.
Eben moved from northern California, where he’d been living in his van with some of his eco-terrorist friends, ensconcing themselves up in trees to protect them, firebombing Grad-alls and ‘dozers on the weekends, driving spikes into redwoods so they’d snap the loggers’ chainsaws. Eben said that when a logger got killed by a flailing chain he decided to get out and drive to New York City, where he lived in his van for a month before moving into my building. He was thirty-six and looked like a fat eighth-grader with a beard. He wore denim every day, top and bottom, and had a denim cap with earflaps, which were lined with fluffy, creamy fur. When he wore the cap, it looked like he’d been making popcorn in his skull.
Even though it was February and Queens felt like a meat locker, I’d been keeping up a steady running regimen around the neighborhood. I’ve always exercised, was a team sports guy in high school, but no one else who lived in the warehouse ran for any reason, unless maybe someone at the far end of the subway platform was handing out free Animal Collective tickets. Eben, however, liked the idea of running; it seemed like something he’d never thought of before, and so whenever I went out he’d stick out the first five minutes or so with me before he began coughing and bowed out. Sometimes he’d smoke while he ran. Often he’d do kung-fu, yelling HI-YA! and delivering flying punches and spin kicks to the cold, empty air, drawing long looks from the work-a-day Hispanics we passed on the sidewalk.
“They’re all bundled up like the Michelin Man,” Eben once said of the Hispanics. “They’re like ninjas in a movie, without a face. I sort of want to practice on them. HI-YA!” Flying punch. “I bet they wouldn’t even feel it through their puffy coats.”
Granted, I was young—twenty-three, twenty-four—but I could never tell when Eben was kidding. Looking back, I still can’t. We had a bit of a mouse problem in the warehouse, and on our runs he’d chase stray cats down the streets, into traffic, after a good mouser tom. When we passed the Mexican-owned poultry and rabbit processing center, he’d go after the feral hens. He wanted to build a chicken coop. He slept like Da Vinci. He didn’t work. He once drank seven bottles of El Presidente in the shower. All the while I was working downtown, editing and proofing Goldman Sachs sub-prime mortgage contracts, my shirt and tie drawing icy stares from the insufferably hip residents of our “Brooklyn” loft as I trudged down the hall to our apartment at six am after an overnight shift, the same time everyone else was returning from their after-after-parties. Then I’d throw open the front door and find Eben wide awake on the couch, feet up on the coffee table, drinking beer and watching YouTube, and he’d slide over and crack me a warm Presidente. And so for the one month that Eben lived there, I was his friend, and he was mine. And it’s a little strange to say this, maybe mean of me, but when I realized that Eben had become my friend, I saw for the first time in my life that I was actually on the outside, that I was one of the lonely people. And for a while, it didn’t feel so bad.
EB White, in his famous essay “Here Is New York,” wrote, “On any person who desires such queer prizes, New York will bestow the gift of loneliness and the gift of privacy.” I’d moved to the city seeking to quell my loneliness, but the more people I was around, the lonelier I got; eight million strangers can really drive that point home. But still, it took me a long time to realize this. I’d been out of the city for years, actually, before it really registered: I was sitting in front of my laptop in my friend’s kitchen in Bunker Hill, West Virginia, when an email popped up from Eben, under the subject heading “I finally made it!” No text in the body, but a video was attached. It was only about twenty seconds long, jumpy handheld shots of what looked like a region in Tibet or the Himalayas, some spare, frigid steppe somewhere, teams of oxen fording a muddy river, groups of women and children bundled colorfully against the cold, and a final shot of Eben, seated high up on a rock, silhouetted against a smoky blue twilight, or dawn, waving.
Roger is a composition teacher at Georgia College in Milledgeville, Georgia. He's working on his first novel, and would like to tell you all about it.