Sunday arrives as it always arrives with Paul, the mechanic, inside the swollen doors of his Ford Bronco, turning up his stereo system to level out doomsday prophecies. From my apartment, adjacent to Paul’s lot, I hear the weekly cacophony of fire and brimstone preachers, divvying lost souls that wander in the morning light.
Sunday is the day of repair work on one of three cars: the vintage Mercedes with the Trinidadian flag on the mirror, the late-’80s converter van, or the Bronco. Sometimes a woman will arrive and hand over her car. Her kids will play with the spokes of my bicycle when I come downstairs. She will be there most of the day while one mechanic rattles the tub of the engine as though he’s spinning roulette for them all.
I push my bike into the street past a pack of mechanics sitting on folding chairs.
“Where are we going today?” Paul asks, holding up one palm with his fingers stretched tall. He’s put on Coltrane in honor of the wilting summer. Coltrane is winter morning music. My spine cinches up as though the warmth of the season will slip away before the song is done.
“I need to get my blood moving,” I say.
“You should have told me! I would have brought my bike today!” He says this every morning and every morning it feels new to me. I cannot start my day without Paul forgetting his bike.
“You’d still have to keep up,” I tell him. “I’m faster than you think.”
He’s got a broken chain in one hand, and the gate to his lot is swung farther open than I’ve ever seen it before. Inside is a red Chevy as flat and wide as a boiled crab, two halves of separate motorcycles, bike tires, two high-top converter vans, and most of a boat.
The neighbors told me during one of our late night Saturday meetings that Paul goes around slashing tires at night when people use his driveway as a parking spot. But I didn’t worry about that.
Paul had a woman up the block that kept his kids, and an old man with a crooked face who held the deed to his empty lot. The old man also owned the building that had become the methadone clinic, and even the clinic was beginning to be gentrified. Half of it had officially been leased to a Chinese construction agency, which was gutting the interior and building a French restaurant.
“I heard that you’re leaving me,” I shout as I get on my bike.
“I’m building a house,” he says. He pulls his shoulders back, the way little boys do when they dig up something wriggling to bring indoors for their mothers.
That must be where he drives off to, sometimes for weeks at a time, in that wide-faced Bronco. Even for the people who have lived here before me, this block was not a permanent home. Everything changes face. Sometimes so gently you will not notice it in your lifetime, but it still collects and piles up for another person to find later. Other times it happens fast.
“I am not leaving!” he says. “I have to keep an eye on you!”
Paul smokes cigars. He waves them into traffic when someone comes too close to hitting him. He has been known to wave a half-smoked cigar in the faces of my dates if he thought they weren’t good enough, and he always thinks they aren’t good enough. It was harder than bringing a man home to meet my family. I’d come home after work and say goodnight to Paul, who would hang out the window of the Bronco before leaving. He would wave his cigar like a bundle of sage to clear all the troubles that crowded my heart.
“I will hold you to that,” I say. I push off on my bike. I go south to ride laps in the park.
There is a storm coming. This time it’s a hurricane or it will be until it makes landfall. There are soft spots in my roof, and I’m worried it won’t last the night.
Even with the darkening sky, Classon Avenue hardly acknowledges the approaching storm. Tire shops are blinking south of Atlantic, one for every corner and block, and an empty warehouse continues to sport new bright orange vinyl. Outside my favorite tire shop is a yard that has been haphazardly roofed with aluminum. Underneath is one of many steel-drum orchestras that litter the neighborhood and fill my summer-night rides with impromptu music. I hear them practice in the humidity. Thousands of shivering silver leaves. The shopping cart man is at his post. His shopping cart quadruples in size as he lashes handmade drums to piles of fabrics and materials. His body is taut like the skin of his instruments, and nobody goes near his cart even when he has not been seen for many days.
When the rain comes, you see it approach from across the water, across the bridge of its choosing, and over downtown Brooklyn until it catches up to you and your ride—a sheer curtain of gray and cold. I struggle to bike ahead of the curtain but the wind prolongs my escape.
I pick up a bottle of red wine, something to cook, and a gallon of water. The aisles are littered with people stocking their cabinets. How bad could it be? I think. I have movies. I have hours and hours of movies and maybe a little weed hidden somewhere. I head home and settle in alone for the storm.
The sheetrock is swollen in the morning. I have not slept. Around one a.m., the ceiling in my bedroom collapsed. I dragged my already-soaked mattress into the kitchen, stretched out on it, and stared up at the white belly of the refrigerator for the remainder of the storm. The pots and pans shivered like another steel orchestra, albeit untuned and soulless. The pieces of the building rubbed into one another: the composite wood from Home Depot, the linoleum floors, the bare piping that buffered my apartment from the next.
In the reluctant morning light, I see that the ceiling has pulled away from the walls. I dig my brown boots out of the piles of belongings, find a light jacket, and wash the red from my face. Neighbors are outside touching the walls of their buildings, afraid that something terrible has happened deep beneath the surface—something they won’t know about until it’s too late to fix. The tree in the front of my house once stretched entirely across the street, but in every storm it has lost a branch and crushed any vehicle below. Paul’s old Mercedes with the Trinidadian flag has been decimated, but Paul is nowhere to be seen.
Through the gaps in the walls and the shattered glass in the buildings, I can almost hear the lives of the strangers on the street like portals to their dreams and memories. You don’t know the fabric of your city until you see it torn. You don’t know the edges of your body until you feel them begin to reshape. I decide to lie back down on my kitchen floor. I stay there for the better part of three days until the subway system starts up again; until the severed trees and shells of cars are swept up like broken wings of beetles. I listen to the cracks grow wide in the neighborhood. I close my eyes but all I can see are the sparks of light made by my teeth every time I press them tight.
Ron is like a superintendent, but I’m not sure under what qualifications. Ron, you could say, has the gift of gab, though I just think the man cannot shut up. I am inclined to tell him this when he barges into the apartment three days after the hurricane and starts telling me how he spent the entire storm with his wife—you know she’s got a real good hair dressing job, never reports her tips—watching Avatar and damn if he doesn’t cry at the same time, every time.
“This is where the water came in.”
We are in my bedroom, where the walls have cascaded into ripples of paint. I point to the ceiling, which is pockmarked with holes where streams had formed in the night. I had polished off the entire bottle of wine during the storm and all I can think when I walk into the swamp of my room is Dagobah System. The carpet is rotten. It smells as though a pack animal had curled up to die in the closet.
“Well, goddamn,” Ron says. He pokes the walls.
“The roof is shot, Ron,” I tell him. “The roof is shot.”
“You know the roof ain’t getting replaced.”
“Then they’re replacing a tenant,” I say.
“I’d get out of here if I were you too.” He brings the ladder in and opens the skylight above my bed.
“What we need to do…” Ron says, “is get Paul.”
Paul comes up the stairs covered in car grease. He glimmers with the broken glass he’d been clearing from his lot.
“How come you never invite me in before?” he shouts. The sodden sheetrock seems to straighten out in his presence.
“Welcome!” I yell back, even though the both of us are indoors now.
Ron shakes his head. “It’s over here,” he says.
Paul climbs through the opened skylight with his still-lit cigar in one hand. He walks across the roof, surveying, and I prop myself up against the pitch of the shingles. The sun is very warm on my arms. From this side of the damage, the house appears to be fine.
Paul is leaning over the gutter. He waves his cigar into the street and starts to yell.
“You cannot park there! You know that you cannot park there! That is no parking space! Move your car!”
He holds still for a minute, the way barking dogs make sure you aren’t coming back for a second pass. I can only imagine the driver in the street being disciplined by a waving cigar on a roof halfway down the block.
“You gonna leave me,” he says. This time, I can hear in his voice that he wants me to go.
“The house is broken,” I tell him.
“I saw when they built this house,” he says. “I sold this lot. I sold this lot and overnight, there was a house. Overnight. There is nothing good underneath this roof.” He presses one foot down and the shingles sink as though he is standing on top of a waterbed. “One year from now, six months from now, I do not know. But all of this will be coming in.”
He takes a drag of his cigar in the Brooklyn sun. The air has become determinately cool and dry, the way it changes after an autumn storm. The season will not recover until the distant spring.
I pull my clothes from the tepid closet and remove the water-stained pictures from the wall. Everything has had its time and it is my time to go though I am not sure in what way. Maybe move out of the city. Maybe out of the state. Maybe to the West Coast or back to Sicily to see my cousins. Or very simply, I could move three quarters of a mile up the block to a neighborhood that I ride through every day. The action of leaving does not matter as much as the decision to go. Leave the roof I’ve struggled to trust and the comfort of a neighborhood that has finally revealed its name. Leave Paul, who is already leaving. Leave before he has left.
I leave the boxes half empty in my living room. I hold my bike, even with my right shoulder, and take the staircase to the street. I need another ride to clear my mind—one more ride to try and decide.
There is silence above the East River. There is silence in the only way New York can ever have silence—when disparate sounds coalesce into a single noise that becomes as indistinguishable as your own breath or the blood behind your ears. The cars are a tenor chorus. The trains, a fleet of violins. The voices of people on the shore are synonymous with the water in the rocks and for a moment you believe that you are the only being in motion. You absorb the silence until you reach the other side of the bridge before it unwinds again. The barges in the river fan apart as though a single one has passed through a prism. The traffic on the expressway becomes the individual idles and misfires of thousands of engines. There is the groaning of tunnels as they give and release to balance the ever-shifting weight of the city.
I can feel the city move, the same as I can feel the clothing on my back. I’ve never been blind or lost any senses for that matter, but I’ve learned that the body exists in a vacuum—when one part of your life goes missing, the rest will adapt to fill the space. Everything moves to survive in this city. The skyscrapers are built to bend with the weather. The bridges yield as though on a sling. You can sit still across the water and watch all of Manhattan sway like the high branches of trees—subtle and without sound.
My bicycle has been my diplomat across neighborhood lines. This bike, I tell everybody, has been with me since I was twelve, when I had to reach for the handlebars to ride it like a chopper. It cost fifty dollars. It came with an antique set of lever breaks and static gearshifts. I grew into it perfectly or it predetermined how much and in what direction I would grow. It doesn’t matter. I’ve trusted it. I’ve known freedom on it. No matter what has turned over in my life, I’ve had this machine to guide me through.
The longer I live here, the longer my rides become. I stay alone in the silence and the stillness of the ride—at times speaking stories out loud; at times openly singing on a deserted path. Without a car radio, without a book to read, I lean low on the handlebars. From here, I can bisect all of the city’s stories, even if only for a moment.