City of ghosts
Updated: Sep 10
Around every corner is an apparition from my past.
Photo by Barrie Kreinik: Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC
It used to happen only now and then.
I’d round a corner, or approach a doorway, or crawl past a building on a crosstown bus, and think: Have I been there before?
It wasn’t your garden-variety déjà vu. It was the peculiar kind of haunting that begins to occur when you’ve lived in one city long enough to fill it with ghosts.
We don’t have to call them that, if the word seems too loaded. We can call them shadows. Glimmers. Fragments. Memories. But ‘memory’ seems too wispy a word for these tangible flashes of the past, which arise unbidden and vanish almost before they’ve arrived. I’ve been seeing them for some time, but in the past few years they’ve become more frequent visitors.
Some of these episodes are benign, even amusing. I’ll pass a building, note its familiarity, catch a fleeting image as it sails through my mind, and suddenly remember that I took a class there when I first moved to the city, or I auditioned there ten years ago for a now-defunct theatre company, or I had breakfast with a new friend, who has since become an ex-friend, at a diner that vanished as abruptly as the friendship did.
Others are more vivid. More specific. More bittersweet.
I wander through the Village alone on a May evening and recall the January night when I wandered through the Village entwined. Linked arms, whispered words, bright promise of new love; the electric warmth of a body since severed from mine. Every sidewalk crack, every neon sign, every leaning lamppost is a shard of another time. I shed memories like snakeskins as I stride.
On another such wander, I pass the funeral home where a close friend was cremated and remember, for the first time since it happened, the agonizing phone call I made to arrange for that. I see the tea shop where we sipped, the café where we dined, the theatre where we sighed at an exquisite ballerina’s debut. I walk past my friend’s apartment building, stolid and secure, and long to ride the elevator up, up, up, to the end of a hallway that no longer leads to her.
My father rides the Staten Island Ferry, the 1/2/3 train, the elevator in my building. His silhouette lingers in Gray’s Papaya, Famiglia Pizza, Katz’s Deli. He walks with me through Central Park, bikes with me up- and downriver, sleeps on my couch and joins me in midnight ice cream. He’s been dead for more than two years, but the things we did together—and the things we never did, but might have done—are shapes and shadows still flickering through my life.
And it’s not just the people who have lived and loved with me; it’s the city itself, which contains every version of me. It’s like past-life regression, these lightning-bolt glimpses of other selves. The awestruck child propelled through the lights of midtown by her parents’ hands. The wide-eyed teenager strolling 66th Street alone for the first time. The fresh college grad waiting in endless Times Square audition lines. The Master of Fine Arts restarting her career at twenty-eight. The daughter, the friend, the caretaker, the artist, the lover…every archetype, every incarnation, every newly hatched edition of myself has dwelt at some point in this sparkling concrete maze. I’ve outlived delis and diners, bookshops and vintage stores, synagogues and libraries. I’ve been around long enough to recall, with shaking head and clucking tongue, how it used to be.
I’m feeling nostalgic, I once wrote when I was a teenager. I’m too young to feel nostalgic.
You might be inclined to say the same about me now. But it might interest you to know what the word really means.
Its first definition is the state of being homesick. (We can agree, I hope, that you’re never too young—or too old—to feel that.) The second definition is: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to some past period or irrecoverable condition.
Life is an irrecoverable condition once you’re dead. Love is irrecoverable once lost. And the past evades recovery the moment it becomes the present—which it is doing every second of every minute of every day.
In short: we are never too young to feel nostalgic. It’s just gotten a bad rap over the years because of that demonized little word, sentimental.
But it’s not a yearning for the past that governs my response to these apparitions. It’s the feeling that arises when I realize, viscerally and abruptly, that they are the past.
Some days I can’t turn a corner without running into one. That’s the theatre where I met her. That’s the park where he and I walked. That’s where I joined the union. That’s the shop where we sheltered from the rain. That’s where I found out I got into grad school. That was this, this used to be that, that’s no longer there, she’s gone, he’s gone, it's gone…
And I’m still here.
I’ve been away from the city for four months now. Three times I’ve returned for a few hours, to bring things back, pick things up, and do a rapid reorganization of my possessions so I can continue functioning in liminal exile. Each time, in the walk from the car to my apartment building, I’ve seen changes—closures—absences. Empty storefronts were already becoming a common sight in my neighborhood. Now they’re ubiquitous. Every single block contains something that used to be. The city is so full of ghosts right now, it’s amazing there’s still room for living beings to tread the concrete.
But it will return to life. It always does; it always has. That’s the New York spirit, I think—the spirit of those of us who are coming back, or who never left. You don’t survive in this city unless you’re a person who perseveres. A person who lives vividly enough to leave a mark.
As Glynnis MacNicol wrote in her memoir No One Tells You This: “Live in the same place long enough and it eventually becomes a map of your past lives: a different you waiting around every corner.”
I look forward to returning to all my ghosts.