Memoir

Chasing the Dawn

That one very long night when I finally caught up with my youth.

Chasing the Dawn

New York in the ‘90s was truly a time apart. The city had licked its crime problem, its crack problem and its graffiti problem just in time to embrace a wave of Clintonian prosperity fueled by a giddy tech boom. The tallest buildings in town were still standing. Newspapers made money. Magazines enjoyed supersized expense accounts. Most of us had jobs.

I arrived smack in the middle of the ‘90s. My parents were raised in Brooklyn and when I was seventeen they wanted to move back. So we schlepped our life in a U-Haul from Southern California, setting foot on New Utrecht Avenue on July 1, 1995. It was humid beyond comprehension. Dirty. There were roaches. I knew no one. My friends were at the beach without me. I was pissed.

I spent a year pissed off on Staten Island, in a seventh-floor apartment on the North Shore, overlooking lower Manhattan. It was breathtaking, but all I saw amidst the glitter was uncertainty. Had I altered my trajectory by leaving California? Was I supposed to be here? Would I ever find a place among those imposing buildings across the bay?

I moped from July to June. That was when my friend from Catholic elementary school came to visit. Maria was a real noodge, as my mother would say. You know the type: never wrong, must control every social interaction, an angry drunk. After eleven months of hours-long phone calls she invited herself to Staten Island.

One night toward the end of her visit she wanted to go out. I had only been to the city a few times at that point, so, at Maria’s urging, I asked my co-worker at Starbucks, Jeff from Bay Ridge, to show us around. He had a car. He invited his friend Carmine, from Staten Island, and off we went in Jeff’s rickety Tercel. First stop was the liquor store, where we got a bottle of Absolut. I was still young enough that I felt I couldn’t turn down a shot, so I ducked down in the backseat and chugged. Once in Manhattan we downed kamikazes at a restaurant at South Street Seaport.

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For the next six hours we walked: to the World Trade Center, where we stared up at the towers. “I can’t believe there’s only one security guard here,” Jeff said in his adenoidal Brooklynese. We hopped a train to 8th Street, where we wandered St. Marks. We passed DojoConey Island High—“Is it really a high school?” Maria asked as I scowled—and the big blue Narcotics Anonymous building. A meeting had let out and the addicts congregated on the front steps. It was a Friday night and the sidewalks were bursting. We went west.

“Smoke, smoke,” a guy said near Washington Square Park. It was before the security cameras, when you could still score. “Smoke, smoke.”

“Here you go!” Maria said helpfully, rifling through her purse for a Marlboro Light. She held one out to the man trying to sell us drugs.

“Maria! No!” Jeff said, laughing, grabbing her hand and whipping her away. A block or two later Jeff bought me a rose and kissed me, right there in the street. I perched on my tippy-toes—Jeff was 6’1” to my 5’3”—and I fell right off the sidewalk. I think I may have done it on purpose, to be cute, to get his attention. He laughed. Shit, did I mess it up? I desperately wanted another chance.

“What’s that?” I asked Jeff, pointing to the stretch of sidewalk before us. It was glittering.

“I think they mix glass in with the concrete,” he replied.

“Wow. What’s that?” I asked, just to keep him talking. I pointed to a phone booth, where, instead of “NYNEX” stamped across the front it said “Lotion.”

“Who knows—it’s the Village,” he said. I’d later discover it was the work of a street artist who manipulated recognizable symbols of the city. Even the mundane had fans here in New York, where everything was interesting.

We made our way north, to the Empire State Building. They hadn’t shut the lights off yet. Someone took a photo of us on the observation deck: Maria has her arm around Carmine; they’d made out a few minutes before that. I’m standing between her and Jeff, my face beaming with contentment. You can see my nails, which I’d painted that evening with Chanel’s Vamp—very on-trend for 1995—and my tight shirt and skirt, which I’d been too self-conscious to wear until Maria convinced me I had a “tiny tummy” and should show it off more. She was really convincing. It makes sense that she became a prosecutor.

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What goes up must come down when you live in Staten Island, so we headed downtown on foot. We were going to get Jeff’s car, which was parked by the Seaport, but we got sidetracked by the Brooklyn Bridge. It was begging us to cross it. At three a.m. We hit the walkway, singing to passersby and laughing wildly. I ran ahead to see if Jeff would follow me. He did, and when we kissed he tried to lift my shirt up and get under my bra. I let him. For a minute.

“Stop! We’re in public!” I said, still tipsy, wondering if I’d remember everything. Because I knew I’d relive this night over and over and I wanted to get it right. I faced Brooklyn and the Watchtower kept reminding me what time it was: 3:45. 4:01. I didn’t want it to be dawn, because dawn meant it was over.

We drove back across the Verrazano just as the sky faded to light blue, right before sunrise. As Jeff pulled into the circular driveway of my parents’ apartment building my stomach twisted into a knot. Anxious flutters traveled from my stomach to my arms and into my chest. What was this raw nerve? Was it Jeff, or the night? Or both?

I know what it is now, because I haven’t felt that feeling in years. That balled-up bundle of emotion was my soul awakening: to youth, to possibility, to excitement, to love. And Maria had made this happen. By encouraging me to wear that skirt and paint my nails and drop the scowl and ask out the guy from Starbucks, she was telling me to live.

Today the Narcotics Anonymous building houses a Quiznos. You haven’t been able to buy weed on St. Mark’s Place since 1999. Jeff is married to a man now, something I should have seen coming, but…youth. Carmine is a father. Maria and I don’t speak, and to be honest, I’m not really sure why. I am never afraid to turn down a shot of vodka. But I’ll always be up for chasing the dawn.