Summer in the city. You’re supposed to just looove it. “Oh, we live in Brooklyn and have a backyard—let’s have a barbecue!” “Oh, cool—count us in!” “Yummy, $5 iced coffee!” Slurp. “Lookee, the girls are naked!” Great, right?
Actually, not so much. For some residents, summer in New York is, pardon us, an absolute hotbed of neuroses, and it doesn’t help that our shrinks have fled to Wellfleet or the like, leaving only the chilly promise of phone sessions in their wakes.
Suddenly all baseline fears seem exaggerated, like in some surrealist film noir: not just cockroaches, but giant ones emerging suddenly from the cracks in the pavement on Park Avenue. Not just scaffolding, but weird liquids dripping from it. An endless parade of houseguests, with their little alien habits. Also: just plain parades! And swinging cranes. Then there is always some well-meaning rah-rah type trying to get you to go on a picnic (salmonella), or perhaps on “vacation” (bridges, tunnels, planes), where you might, God forbid, be urged to swim in a body of water with living things lurking at the bottom.
What else ruins this season of supposed ease? Read on …
It’s not just the homeless who are responsible for the dank, musty, nasty smell that wafts from scaffolded corners around Manhattan in the stuffier months; I’ve seen decently dressed men urinate in public plenty of times, at night but also in the day, against buildings, in my neighborhood park.
One day during my first summer in the city, I arrived home to my $500-a-month crummy apartment on Fifth Avenue and 20th Street in Brooklyn to find a man in khakis and a button-down pissing right on my stoop. (I stared, and then ran into the Laundromat.) Later, when I ran the marathon, I was confronted with similar brazenness: the male runners never waited for a porta-potty and instead marked random apartment buildings and underpasses with their pee. Frequently on my morning walk to the subway, I see schoolboys and men standing strangely close to trees; it took me a while to figure out that they weren’t examining the bark.
This is all unsanitary, sure. And sometimes it’s smelly. But what makes it scary is its aggressiveness as an action. That first summer, I felt like that man was telling me to go home, that I’m not a New Yorker, that I couldn’t handle it. And despite my 11 years here, those feelings can come rushing back so easily. And what is scarier than feeling like you don’t belong?
LIVING WITH LIGHTNING
In New York, I’d always felt a certain immunity to being struck by lightning. Most of my daily life for the past 20 years was lived not just safely indoors, but deeply ensconced in second- or third-floor apartments in big bulky prewars, in old, established Upper West Side neighborhoods chockablock with other behemoths. There was no way some deadly bolt could get through to my apartment in those fortresses!
Then I moved to the Upper East Side: to a high floor in an airy postwar with unobstructed views and light streaming in. Beneath my oversize windows, five-story tenements stretched for blocks toward the river.
Then came the bolt from the blue. In summertime, it turned out, my aerie gave me heart-stopping panoramic vistas of lightning, so close, so unpredictable, and so frightening. I could be sitting in bed, reading or watching TV, and no amount of rationale or historic precedent could get through to my body’s central nervous system. Couldn’t it just end up as one of those disaster photos in the New York Post, where you see the bed, teetering over the gaping hole in the building, the occupant thrown, headfirst, down into the street?
So now, when the storm gets bad, I retreat into the my cavelike windowless galley kitchen to wait it out.
As we climbed into the carriage, the new wife and I, for the warm ride down Fifth Avenue from the wedding reception to the midtown hotel, I couldn’t help flashing on a dispatch from the Daily News from a couple of years ago: “A young carriage horse on a training run got spooked and ran wild in Central Park yesterday, seriously injuring a 71-year-old bicyclist, police said. … Yesterday’s mishap came three months after a spooked horse bolted on a midtown street, galloped into a station wagon and sent his driver flying from the passenger-less carriage.”
Carriage horses can weigh up to 1,000 pounds. Simple high-school physics: Force equals mass times acceleration, half a ton heaving at several inches a second equals … trouble. (And an often dismal fate for the horse: The last one described above was put down.) As many as a dozen carriages line Central Park South at any given summer hour. More clop through the park and the streets around it. The possibilities for literal collisions between urban and country remain seemingly infinite.
Though the reality remains entirely different: A hunt through the major dailies found death by city horse to be nearly nonexistent, and injury similarly struck-by-lightning rare.
Still, of all the noncriminal ways to check out suddenly in this town … Tumble down the subway steps? Hit by the crosstown bus? Collapse in the bathroom at Marquee? All reasonable and to be expected. Destroyed by a spooked horse? You’re That Guy forever.
The ride went fine, though. I’d do it again.
BEDBUGS AND BEYOND
Speaking of Duane Reade, my girlfriend and I were there on a recent Saturday afternoon, buying a can of Pronto bedbug-killing spray. We’d just scored a couple of end tables at a sidewalk sale, and despite the fact the sellers lived in an immaculate brownstone, we couldn’t help shake the thought that any secondhand goods purchased in or around New York might be a vessel for those tiny, blood-sucking vermin that have induced psychological terror across the five boroughs.
How did it get to the point where some of us can’t even go to a flea market without worrying that it might have, well, actual fleas?
It started in May of 2004, when the Daily News reported that bedbugs were back, attacking everything from luxury condos to low-income tenements. A barrage of news articles was followed by sightings of discarded furniture marked with warnings of infestation.
The reasons to dread the critters are varied. They don’t transmit disease, but they still bite you while you’re sleeping, and they’re extremely difficult to eradicate. Worst of all, there’s the stigma—consider the red, itchy welt of the bedbug a sort of scarlet B that will ensure none of your friends ever visit your apartment again.
According to Neill Coleman, a spokesman for the Department of Housing Preservation and Development, it’s hard to assess the true threat. He said there’s been an increase in the number of bedbug complaints and violations over the past several years (in fiscal year 2004, HPD had 537 complaints, versus 8,840 complaints and 4,243 violations so far in fiscal year 2008, records show), but he also noted that bedbugs make up only a fraction of the more than 500,000 violations the department issues each year.
Still, people like Emilia Rich, 28, of Greenpoint aren’t taking any chances. Her phobia started last year when two small red bumps appeared on her arm, and a co-worker suggested they could be from bedbugs (false alarm). Now she gets freaked out whenever she sees mattresses on the curb on garbage night, so much so that she walks to the other side of the street. As for furniture, she’s sticking with IKEA.
“Buying furniture at a stoop sale?” Ms. Rich said. “That’s not even an option!”