Several years ago I moved from Portland to New York. It was an ambitious move. I went there with a girl. We were engaged, and we were in love, or at least I was. New York wasn’t what I had expected. It was hard to find the mythic New York I’d seen in movies and read about in books. Several weeks into the move, things started falling apart. My fiancée had all but abandoned me. I was struggling emotionally and felt trapped in a city where no one would give me a chance, and I had very few friends.
One of my friends was the poet Steve Dalachinsky. Although I’d never met him in person, I’d been writing to him on and off since I was a teenager. Dalachinsky invited me to a reading at A Gathering of the Tribes, a gallery and performance space in the East Village. I made the trek to the venue, just off Avenue C. After walking up a creaky flight of stairs, I found myself in a cramped room with a bunch of folding chairs. I remember Samuel Delany was reading. Off in one corner I saw Dalachinsky, whom I recognized from photographs, sitting on a folding chair. He seemed to be listening to Delany very intently. Although I was thrilled to be at the reading, I was having difficultly concentrating on the reader. All I could think about was that my partner was somewhere in Manhattan with another man. I was very depressed, and I wasn’t even sure if I should be introducing myself to Dalachinsky while I was in such bad emotional shape.
At the end of the reading, a jar went around to collect donations for the venue. One person, a man in a fedora, took money out of the jar instead of putting it in. Dalachinsky shot up from his chair, grabbed the man by the shirt with both of his fists, and told him to put the money back, which the man did. I was impressed by Dalachinsky’s passion. It showed me that he really cared about the community he was a part of. There was also something about his energy that put me at ease, and I felt more comfortable. When I introduced myself, Dalachinsky apologized profusely for the incident, saying he wished I hadn’t seen it. I assured him there was nothing to apologize for, and soon we found ourselves talking on the street. We walked by The Stone, the experimental music space run by John Zorn, and Dalachinsky suggested we go sometime in the future.
Emotionally, that night reinvigorated me. But the next two months were chaos. I had become the caretaker for an abusive, addicted, suicidal, cheating fiancée. I was unable to do anything but take care of her. My time – my life – was hers, and she only seemed to value it when it suited her. I had lost my identity. I felt like I was drowning. When I looked in the mirror I no longer recognized myself. A week after Valentine’s Day, I left New York. Months later, I found myself in the Bay Area, interning at AK Press in Oakland. When Dalachinsky’s book A Superintendent’s Eyes was published by Autonomedia, I was thrilled to see a stack of them arrive at the AK Press warehouse.
That summer Dalachinsky’s book came to live in my backpack as I took the BART back and forth from San Francisco to the East Bay. The book is a collection of poems covering a long period of time during which Dalachinsky was the superintendent of an apartment building in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. But the poems aren’t just poetry in the traditional sense. They are also letters, stories, dreams, and diary entries that sketch out the character of the building. Like an urban Matsuo Basho, Dalachinsky’s poems capture something I can relate to: the loneliness and vulnerability of living in New York City, its chaos, and its beauty.
Part of the chaos is in the people Dalachinsky meets. The tenants he writes about and the people he sees on the streets could very well have been people like me. In many ways, the poetry is about their failures and struggles. One longer prose piece, “Superintendent’s Eyes #77: (Shifting Portraits),” showcases many of these people by apartment number. They are broken people, lost and damaged. Many are artists, musicians, addicts, and old-timers adjusting to change. Even Man Ray’s nephew makes an appearance. We see them exclusively through Dalachinsky’s eyes as he shifts between sympathy and frustration. The poetry shows a labyrinth of characters coming and going, drifting in and out of rooms and hallways. It’s full of characters struggling under the stress and anxiety of living in New York, an anxiety that seeps into your brain and into your dreams.
In the poem “Superintendent’s Eyes #31: (War Dream),” Dalachinsky dreams of the trash cans all lined up and empty, just like he left them, reminding me that these are poems about working and the tension of doing a job. Dalachinsky writes about being under the thumb of landlords and their relatives, dealing with city regulations, and the stress of working a job where bosses give you little respect and tenants are difficult. The poetry doesn’t just document the microcosm of life inside the building but also Dalachinsky’s working relationship with the building. The building breaks. It falls apart. It needs repairs. Rooms morph and transform; two apartments become one. Dalachinsky enters the building’s bowels, the boiler room. He does the dirty work. He keeps the building alive. Arthur Kaye provides the book with supplemental photographs that illustrate the building in a matter-of-fact way, like something you’d see in André Breton’s Nadja or Louis Aragon’s Paris Peasant. Dalachinsky is the only person photographed in the book, and only once. We see him sitting with his back to the camera as he stares into a television screen, reminding me that some of the best poems in the book come from when he is just spending downtime with his wife, Yuko, watching television or flirting.
But the poem I keep coming back to is “A Superintendent’s Eyes #35: (Spring Street).” In this poem, Dalachinsky writes about someone turning away from him on the street as he is also turning away from them. Two people avoiding each other. He then hears a little girl on the street calling out to her mother that she’s drowning.
drowning on spring street
between the bowery
& the hudson
it is late winter or early spring
depending on how
you look at it
we dump our garbage
all over this island of dreams
& borrow what we can
It’s the drowning I really identify with, like something larger than me, something hostile, was smothering me. As a newcomer to New York, I felt lonely and disconnected. There was a looming emptiness. I have no doubt in my mind that New York is the center of the world, but there’s also something about it that made it feel like the most alienating place I’ve ever lived. There was a silence there between me and other people that I was unable to break. I try to remind myself, when I think back to my time there, that I was with an abusive partner, and that I shouldn’t confuse the way she made me feel with how the city made me feel, but it’s hard to untangle those associations. New York will always be a place where love failed.
I’m still unsure whether I will ever go back to New York. In a very short amount of time, it engulfed and rattled me. When I moved there I had three goals in life: to successfully live in New York, to find a job in publishing, and to marry the woman I was in love with. All three of these goals feel as if they have collapsed, and, while two of them are technically still possible, the latter is not a reality. I can no longer tell if these dreams are even relevant to me anymore, or if they have just been covered with garbage. I fear I’ve become content with simply surviving.