I can’t make heads or tails of it, the goat on the corner of Union and Metropolitan. Of course, I’ve seen stranger things, living in this city: the Chabad men dragging a straw effigy down Myrtle Avenue cursing each other in Yiddish, the woman selling infant-sized dolls made out of her own human hair, the apartment fire at the popular Chelsea orgy – flames licking up the side of the building like the cheap wig of some messy god. But this goat, mottled gray coat with a short white beard, is just standing on the corner chewing on some long grasses that appear to materialize in his mouth as he chews. It’s 7 a.m. and commuters walk past without noticing. A group of boys run by on their way to school, trailing their baseball gloves behind them like giant leather hands. The elder waitress in ancient caked-on makeup smokes outside the terrible twenty-four-hour diner, looking deep into the distance, not about to be bothered by goats.
I pause only a moment; the twin slits of its pupils reflect back traffic, pedestrian and automobile alike, all seemingly uninterrupted by the wildlife. And though I can’t be sure, it almost seems as if people are passing straight through its still body. All I’ve ever wanted is to belong somewhere, and all I can ever feel is how out of place I likely appear. So, in this spirit I too walk past the goat as if it were a normal part of the landscape; I too accept what’s in front of me and what is to come as I head down the subway steps. I leave behind the borough, and the animal, and that older man’s fancy apartment, wearing his stolen French shirt after abandoning my own, pit- and popper-stained on his bathroom floor, knowing full well I’ll never have to see any of this ever again.
Weekends we drink forties on the flatbed of Edwin’s stepdad’s blue pickup. Behind the 7/11 after dark, anything is possible. The we’s always me, Edwin, and whatever collection of shitheads decide to gather that particular evening. I say shitheads but mean only boys. I say boys and mean some kind of mollusk, hard-shelled with tender meat inside. We get the beer with Edwin’s fake – says he’s from Iowa, twenty-nine, and his newly grown mustache offers a little wink. I use the money from my allowance, even though he’s got more, and we sit and drink until the police are called or we get bored.
These nights are endless, years blended into a stretch of asphalt, into Olde English bottles smashed into showers of light, into shadowboxing as our shadows cast huge kissing shapes below the parking lot’s uniform sodium streetlamps. And Edwin smirks through all this like nothing could possibly touch him unless he invites it. Timid grin, fat lower lip, thick eyebrows below his midnight-blue Yankees cap. At night in bed, when there is only my dark ceiling looking down at me, his face floats there, taking up the whole faux stucco surface, unnaturally big, eyes like two dimming headlights, his mouth a car door opening as if to say: Get in, queer, doesn’t matter where we’re going, I’m driving.
My final year coincides with the Clarion dung beetle being wiped clean off the surface of the earth. The last beetle was a spinster living beneath a stone bench in Calvary Cemetery you can see for a second crossing the Kosciuszko Bridge out of Queens. The beetle has no offspring and prefers to be left alone, so when this one dies it takes its genetic line with it. We’re both the last of our families. This year is filled with bad news about the weather. News about new diseases in birds and mosquitoes. This year I illegally sublease a basement apartment in a giant pre-war building in Queens at least four degrees from the original leaseholder and thumbtack photos of all my friends, those I’ve lost and the ones I’ve haven’t yet met to the drywall. They’re either Polaroids or photos I print out using an app that makes the pictures look like old-school Polaroids. Outside my window is a Citgo sign I pretend is a rotating orange and blue moon. Late at night I kill the lights and look up at the men gathered below it bumming cigarettes, talking shit, listening to each other’s voices, responding with their own, I laugh along with their jokes. Do my best at performing the human ritual. Some nights I add my own humor to the darkness: Get this, guys. Knock knock: this is it.
At the last protest before my last protest I grow nauseated by the pageantry – the photo-op signage, the 300 dollar jackets with political slogans pre-sewn-in, the mind-numbingly repetitive chanting. Maybe the problem is that I understand too well. This is a salve for practitioners and the easily sated. Supermarket sheet cake for the choir. We’re gathered outside one of the president’s many towers, a handful of barricades have been prearranged for us to march in circles inside. We are yelling in this penned-in section of fencing while traffic moves freely around us, demanding justice as business goes on undisturbed. And even as we say these same words over and over, it’s clear we each have different definitions of what justice, and freedom, and power mean. What I know for sure is any word repeated enough ends up meaning nothing.
A group of friends ask me to take their picture. They’re laughing until the lens is trained on them and then, behind their signs, they make serious and severe faces for the internet. One of the girls compliments my anti-cop shirt (which I bought on Amazon) but not my makeup (which I stole from Sephora). There are official cameras surveilling us. The cameras stand in for police while the actual police sip free coffee in their cruisers.
To be here is to be alone surrounded by people – at once watched and invisible. Over these two hours we keep inquiring what democracy looks like, who owns these streets, and whether, if the people are united will they ever be defeated? The answers to me are clearly: not this, not us, we’re not, and, inevitably, we will be. The demonstration ends after about the length of a movie, and everyone goes home feeling better – as if we’ve done something, as if something’s been done.
I go home sick. Throw up my Burger King into the toilet. Check Twitter to see the protest trending for a moment, then gone.
It’s happened again. This time at the small grocery store on Grand. I’m minding my own business, trying to navigate the labyrinth of dry-goods’ bins and discounted plums, dodging new fathers failing to pilot their strollers and shopping carts at once. I have a red basket and am swinging its empty shell in my left hand like a small pendulum, a little metronome that keeps me grounded in the rush-hour chaos. I just wanted to pop in for something small to tide me over: bread and cheese, pre-bagged apples. But it’s so busy, it now seems I’ve somehow committed to living here and am scared I might start getting charged rent. I’m standing in the checkout line for what might be several lifetimes before I see him. Stupid, I think, stupid and shake my head until the produce blurs into oil paint. I go ahead and bury myself in my phone: open the grid of hungry torsos, twenty likes from some new stranger on Instagram, rearrange some candies. By the time it’s my turn in line, it’s clear the cashier boy both is and equally cannot be Edwin – I triple take, blink hard again, and yes, the nose is slightly different across the bridge, and he has those thick glasses that make his eyes seem bigger, almost like an insect’s. He’s still in his early twenties which of course he wouldn’t be now after all these years, smiling; not being dead.
Even our most direct family line is split like a tree with a vast underground root system. One living organism of quaking aspen in Utah, for instance, stretches out across 108 acres. Each trunk represents a whole life. You can trace your finger across the knotted roots and pass through different worlds. Most of my dad’s family lore ends half a century ago with a drunk, so he invents for me older odd folk tales, but if you do the simple math, just four generations back requires sixteen different people who suffered and laughed and made love out of nothing. They fled Russia, Poland, Yemen, Lithuania, and then there were thirty-two. On paper at least, when we left Egypt, there would have been tens of millions, though inbreeding and genocide throw a wrench in the lugwork of that math. According to biblical testimony, which is always to be trusted, it was 603,550 Israelites who fled to wander the desert, which outside a miracle could never support that much life. But what else is life? Besides blood, what ties us? Sometimes miracle is just another word for naming precisely what already exists. Thus, the villages and cities are many trees and many of them are gone, felled by time and fire, but the root system spread across Yiddishland and Palestine and Egypt and France and Brazil and Argentina and here in America.
When at last I die my xylem floods with all these stories at once and I’m so full I break into scripture, into sweat, into four unique seasons.
I’m wearing a sweatshirt that says usa. It’s red and the text across the chest is blue and white. I buy it off a street vendor, and even though it’s only 9.99 I offer him the whole contents of my wallet. Nod my head up and down at his look of surprise. I unbutton that man’s expensive shirt with its elegant French cuffs and stand there a moment, shirtless on the street. No one looks twice. I try folding the garment neatly but it keeps catching the wind so instead just lay it on top of a trash can in case anyone else might want it. I watch it fill and deflate as if a line of ghosts are passing through it. It’s February, and the weather is in terrible heat. Central Park’s spilling over with families like a net filled with some species of iridescent fish. The light is light but not enough. I lift the sweatshirt over my head and put my arms through it how you’d dress a child. For a moment, my whole head is under the cheap garment, and it’s almost as if I’m in a different world – a place where nothing is hurt, just a head moving slow through its red-cloth portal – and maybe on the other side we’ll find a country safe and orderly, perfectly formed as an egg. But my head emerges through the hole, my arms slide through the sleeves, and I’m still here. Midtown, with all these two-legged fishes moving around me, staring into their phones. Tourists ordering hot dogs and snapping selfies in front of Bergdorf Goodman. People in athleisurewear barking into the same blue-glowing angler headphones. The shops thrive as the world burns, selling expensive nothing: Swarovski crystal chandeliers, computer wristwatches, designer pig-leather hats. I can hear the drums in the near distance. I can feel the accelerant, heaving and sloshing, at the bottom of my bag.
Photograph © Adam Whyte, Untitled