Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Summertime Cityscrape

I did laundry today for the first time since returning from California about a month ago. From the looks of my pre-wash bedding and clothes, I am dirty.

New York City sticks to you. It moistens your skin with sweat and a sweet, sticky glaze that attracts every city particle hanging in the air. From dust and dirt to car exhaust, pollen, smoke and soot, a city sediment exoskeleton seals you so tightly inside, you barely notice it's there. Maybe that accounts for the daze we all walk around in, the invisible blinders that leave skyscrapers unnoticed and baby birds crushed beneath our feet.

I have a nervous habit of rubbing the center of the palm of my hand with my thumb from the other hand. In days of summer, showered and clean, without sunblock or insect repellant, as soon as I walk outside, my thumb scrapes a balled-up layer of dirt from my hand. Have I touched anything? No, just the air. But my swinging arms have waded through a muddy puddle and collected pollution along the way.

My nervousness sometimes spreads to my face, where my middle finger will start digging away at my forehead or chin, my temples or the bridge of my nose. I feel the city there, sealing me in, filling my emerging wrinkles and collecting at mouth corner, tear duct, inside nostrils and around hairline. Sometimes I think my face is not my own, in scowling downturn, frozen like that and literally cracking if I try to smile.

It's most noticeable after a pedicure, when lotion-slathered legs draw dirt up from the ground below, leaving dirty footprints on lightly-colored flip flops. The pink you thought you picked for your toes is now a speckled dusty rose, the newly-painted varnish and quick-dry a magnet for the city's till. If you didn't wipe it off, each toe would become its own moraine, building a new city off your body like spores off a fungus, desperate to reproduce. In a move of final desperation, the till collects in the nail bed, giving your pink a fine black outline, only to be removed by the next pedicure.

Showers do not clean the city off of you. Sometimes after a particularly dirty day, hiking only the streets and subways and not even the borough woodlands, I shower right before bed, hoping for squeaky clean sleep. As I descend onto my sheets, I run my hand along neck or shoulder, trying to relax before turning off the light. I flick city off my fingers and switch off into darkness, pulling the sheet over shoulder and into my collar. City clutches onto sheet's threads, never to be removed, even by bleach at laundromat.

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