Posted on: March 11, 2013

I suppose I was lucky. I managed to scrape together enough money for rent just as the temperature dropped below zero. The apartment I found was just a room with a used mattress. There wasn’t a kitchen, but the last tenant left a portable gas burner and an unwashed pot, which I rinsed out in the communal bathroom. It was enough. The building itself was surrounded by the abandoned factory buildings emblematic of Red Hook. A clouded window faced two such factories, and I could make out a sliver of Upper New York Bay in between them. It was a room with a view.

The factories were changing though, just like the rest of Red Hook. What was founded as an active harbor became a neighborhood few chose to live, but for circumstance. Now, the factories were transformed into luxury apartments and businesses were opened by kids born during Clinton’s first presidency. They were called trailblazers, as if the shops that had survived the preceding decades were unworthy of being anointed forbearers of the neighborhood’s newfound popularity. But I’m not nostalgic. Things change, they always do. There wasn’t room for nostalgia. And anyways, I envied it—the idealism of youth. I envied the urgency of old age too, but I was blessed with neither.

It was my first morning back in Red Hook, and it was nice to wake up under a roof again. I went downstairs to Mr. Kim’s, a bodega that had been there since the late-70s. The eponymous proprietor was an amiable enough man if he accepted your company. A small bell rang as I entered, and Mr. Kim glanced up at me from behind the counter. It had been too many years, he didn’t recognize me. I ordered a coffee, my usual breakfast, and took a seat at a small table by the deli counter with my worn copy of The Idiot. It was the last book I owned from a former lifetime. Once I had accepted the fact that I could no longer afford a stationary existence, I packed what I could into a single canvas bag. I chose to bring a copy of The Idiot with me for no particular reason. It was a poor choice though—Russian authors were impossibly hard to read, let alone re-read.

After my coffee, I grab my canvas bag and make the journey to SoHo where I sell craft jewelry to tourists and the occasional local. I managed in this manner, selling my wares off of Spring Street. It was hard for people like me to find stable employment—people without a paper trail aren’t generally trusted, especially these days. Maybe if you’re charming or beautiful or both, you could get away with it, but if you’re reserved and plain, you’d be suspect. For a while, I put on airs and was successful, except I grew tired of the farce. But money was necessary, whether you were trying to sustain a single lifetime or infinite lifetimes, it just becomes much harder with the latter.

There are a lot of things they don’t tell you about immortality, but I’ve learned. I’ve learned that time won’t regrow the fingers I lost in 1898 blasting tunnels for the Ninth Avenue train. I’ve learned that I will never die from all the sicknesses, existing and extinct, I carry, but that I can never be intimate with someone I love. I’ve learned that everything that people come to accept as truths rarely ever are. Most importantly, I’ve learned that happiness is not inhibited by the possibility of death, that it’s in fact the supreme impetus of happiness. But I get by.

I still have friends, though I know one morning they’ll be gone too. Hopefully, I’ll have moved on before then, as I usually did. In this particular chapter of my life there’s Ed, a fellow Spring Street hawker.

He was already there with his faux leather goods. “Mornin’ Adam,” he said with his thick Bronx accent. He smiled widely, exposing white teeth that contrasted sharply with his dark, onyx skin. It was barely ten in the morning, but the sidewalks of the famous shopping district were slowly filling with people.

“Good morning Ed, how’s business so far?” I asked as I set up my own table.

“What business?” We laughed at the joke, acknowledging our misfortunes the best we could.

Ed became serious and asked, “Ya find a place to stay last night?”

I nodded.

“Good, I keep tellin’ ya dis, but mi casa es your casa if ya eva’ needit. This colda kill ya.”

I nodded again, and smiled, thanking him silently.

The day carried on as a blur of people. Aside from the occasional patron, Ed and I were just spectators, literally watching life pass us by. I manned Ed’s table around noon as he broke for lunch. He came back with two coffees, one which I gratefully accepted. We sat on our plastic crates, drinking, watching.

“Where d’ya think these people are goin’, always hurryin’ all the damn time?” Ed asked.

I shrugged and replied, “I don’t know, but it’s good.”

“How’s that?”

“It means they know they don’t have enough time, and that’s a beautiful thing.”

I’m home by eleven. Mr. Kim’s is still open. I buy a day-old baguette on sale for fifty cents and treat myself to some salami. The groceries should last a few days. Upstairs, I toast a piece of the baguette over the gas burner and have my first and last true meal of the day. The building’s heat is on, but the winter draft is too much for the small radiator and I keep my heavy coat on as I lay down to sleep. I’m on my side and as my eyes adjust to the dark, I see a dead cicada on top of my canvas bag, the moonlight creating a soft halo around it. I turn onto my back, mimicking the bug, wondering if the dead dream as the living do.

Photograph by: Jaemin Riley
Written by: James Mo

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