I pored over the maps, with their codes and symbols as prominent as the streets and buildings. Every inch was measured, it seemed, and everything rippled with information referenced and cross-referenced elsewhere. It was August of 2005, and I lived in New York City. For three months from having arrived out of school, this was my life: study the maps, learn the code, stay inside.
I had begun working with my brother at a small architecture company near City Hall. My job was to read construction drawings and diagrams and maps and strip out the information, so it could be put on file with the City of New York and the builders could scurry off and manufacture some magnificent edifice. It was all very new to me—I had studied history—and overwhelmed and intimidated, young as I was, I worked and went home.
Every day I would take on my projects, which were folders full of documents labeled with an address I had never visited. Avenues A, Audubon, and “of the Americas”; Bell Boulevard, Broadway, and Cross Bronx Expressway; Streets Essex and Sussex and South Sixth. House numbers rattled around in my mind when I showered at night, and there was 1 shower in my apartment and there were 6 apartments in my building, so there were 7 showers when you counted the illegal one in the cellar where the superintendent lived with his fearsome mustache. I lived in a new place, and everything that I learned began to abstract and alienate me from it. My job was in the construction of a city that was quickly becoming deconstructed.
In the evening one weekend, I went to visit a friend and on the way I was distracted by a magician, who, to no applause, had wrapped up his performance and begun throwing playing cards into the sky. There was a flickering of a red king, a blue back, a red king, a blue back against a pink cumulus cloud. He tossed the cards in the air along the street wall, as if he was aiming to place them on window sills or on the narrow Juliet balconies, until he neatly landed a Joker on the balustrade. I picked up a card—Seven of Diamonds!—and went after him as he turned the corner. I followed him, “your card!”, but he did not hear me. I could feel his footsteps landing in front of me, over and over, and I could follow them, and into a crowd, and in an alley—and there he was!—his coattails flittering over the top of the townhouse fire escape.
I climbed the little ladder hanging down, with its narrow chipped-paint rusty rungs, and felt it swing as I pulled myself up. I quietly took the steps by the open curtained windows with their cat and their flowerpots and half-empty teacups, with their broken-corked bottles of wine and a cigarette smoldering next to a never-to-be-read novel with a cover warped by dirty rain. And then I was on the roof, once again alone.
I looked out off the rooftop and there I saw the city. I saw the avenues, and I knew them by name. I watched the house numbers increase, by two, by ten, by sixty, flashing in my mind like a power grid lighting up. I saw the buildings, and I knew what was inside of them, and I could crawl through the ductwork and peer out of the grates at the endless brutal red walls of a department store, or down at a crowded school cafeteria with two hundred children eating egg-product sandwiches, or into a hospital with a nurse washing all of the newborns in procession. I could count the windows and the homes with lonely men dozing on the couch during baseball games; I could see the shops in the corners, with an old fellow selling children plastic machine guns, masks of the deformed faces of knockoff superheroes, and wax bottle candy filled with red sugar-water. I could see the floor plans and the little boxes in which we make our existence and fill with heat and energy and pain and sweat and memories, forgotten after a thirtieth on top of the twenty-nine layers of white paint rounding off the moldings into shapeless lumps in the corners of rooms.
I leaned over the parapet, and it was there that I looked down and I saw him: the Joker on the balustrade. I had been led in a circle, and looking back up I discovered that I knew by heart a city which I had only just met.