By Shieva Salehnia
I had dreamed of New York as a gritty, glistening, dark paradise. Steaming and winding streets, some lined in cobblestone, and the smell of putrid river water splashing up against concrete barriers that keep the East River from making contact with its observers above.
I imagined the conglomerate feeling more than any particular place. If Peter Lindbergh’s black-and-white January 1990 cover of British Vogue came to life, if the Automat was still around, if Alphabet City was still dangerous.
But then, people broke into your apartment and stole your stuff and raped you at knife point. People shot teens on the subway and picked your pocket in Times Square.
Now, it is like Disneyland. There were signs that told you what parts of the subway platforms not to stand on and entire three-story store fronts dedicated to cheap, corn-syrup candies and cheap merchandise.
Selling yourself is half of getting a job in this city. You have to convince yourself and a whole team of people that you deserve to be there. You have to be willing to fight 350 people to sit at a desk in a hallway with no windows and pray that nobody notices when you fall asleep because of how boring the work is that you are doing. You have to walk over homeless people sleeping in old piss to get your gourmet salad for lunch.
When the city was good, it was good and it was almost exactly like I had imagined it would be. There was no better place on earth, and it felt like there was no other place either. The sharp, stinking waves of garbage — a sweet, rusting metal — didn’t hinder how much I loved the smell that emitted from a shallow sewer pipe.
I also see the trash blowing up in the street, the rats with missing pieces of fur and skin scurry along the subway floor; bathrooms with years of piss ingrained into the cement creases between the floor tiles; crumbs and old bubblegum trapped in the crack between the cement walls and rusting metal of the subway stairs.
I try to compartmentalize the gum, the old tissue, the plastic wrappers of pastries sold in open boxes on shelves at the bodega.
Instead, I find the darkest places of my mind — bored and feeling more alone than I ever imagined possible. I thought I could answer the eternal question of why one feels lonely in a crowded room, but I ended up wallowing in the solitude.
I wonder in these moments what it is like to not be embarrassed by your parents or the name that they gave you. The act of thinking that I have to change my name is something most white people in America don’t have to do, despite having names like Tate and Bud. When I was young, I wished my name was Chloe or Samantha, or some other name that seemed interesting but not too different like I felt, just different enough from American culture not to offend and to be understood.
My parents are immigrants from Iran and had to deal with their fair share of bigotry, even though we all pass for white. It still stings when people single me out because of how I look and who I am. It’s hard for me to accept the way things are.
I will always be seen as less successful and less intelligent than the throngs of white men who I see on the train on my way into midtown, all dressed in nearly identical gingham shirts only differing by the color and gauge of print, and grey chinos from the same fast fashion retailer whose storefronts plague Broadway from Canal St. north to Central Park, and all along 5th Avenue, that operate because of the sheer volume of product and the sheer numbers of tourists willing to buy something on vacation and concerned mothers and girlfriends buying their sons and boyfriends something “nice” to wear to work. These men all have the same short haircut and brown leather dock shoes or loafers. And I hate them all.
As much as I find myself criticizing white men, I find myself looking for their approval in the subway at rush hour. It seems to me worse than my hatred is the irrational fact that I crave the acceptance of these same men who seem so different from me in not only the self-possessed way that they walk through the world but also the values they seem to display in doing it.
I grew up with these same men in bumfuck nowhere, the same ones who played on the basketball team and married petite white women and gave them big diamond engagement rings, and gave them wedding photos to post and repost to the internet for every real and imagined holiday: Christmas, their anniversaries, birthdays, national husband day, Mother’s Day even though they don’t have children, best friend day, and on. And I have accepted that I am not going to get that. No one would offer that to me or ask me to participate in it in any case.
When I was growing up, I wanted to be in love more than anything. I wanted someone to stroke my cheek and cure my depression and take care of my needs. The boys I grew up with were mostly white, and I wanted to fit into the fantasy of being a pretty white girl. I wanted hair that was fine and straight, and the same petite bone structure that my mother had.
I have my mother’s skin—temperamental but fine if you just leave it alone, quit picking at it, don’t wash it too much but definitely wash it. I have my father’s wide nose and pension for over-eating.
My sister and I have the same ugly elbows, both boney like my mother’s and hairy like my father’s. I have often worried that I’m like her, my sister — in my speech, my pathos, my energy. But the place I most see her are my hands, though hers are more elongated than mine. Her waist is longer, too. Her hair is perfect soft ringlets, while mine is a wavy and rough mess.
I have been waiting to find myself beautiful for many years, and I have prayed for an escape from myself. I have looked for ways to squeeze my true, loving self being out through every pore of my skin, but I have only gotten broken blood vessels and an aching heart.
The idea of perfection is unattainable, and my logical mind knows that. But my emotions look at what is possible with science and a lot of money. For hundreds of years, we have had imperfections and have been sold cure-alls temporarily fix them.
I was once told in my teens that I might be hot if I straightened my hair, wore contacts, etc., etc. A decade later, I still have hiding in my mind an image, a cardboard cutout of this other, hot version of myself and it still bums me out that she is someone I will never become. Maybe that’s because I’m already too old for it to make sense, and maybe it’s because logically, because this other self is just a shadow of my insecurity — something I see out of the corner of my eye, nestled into my psyche, emotionally projected onto other, attractive women.
On the train, I gaze at strangers, hoping to make eye contact with the attractive ones in the car. I don’t look for sustaining love. I look for the butterflies in my sternum that flutter into the back of my throat, even if just for a second. I look for the kind of approval and attention that sustains you for a couple of hours. Sometimes that’s all you need to grow a little more patience to get through the next shitty situation — a little levity to a stressful situation.
And that levity is the addictive part of approval. It keeps me in relationships I don’t think will amount to anything. I waste my time with men who are crass and immature. We drink and use big words, read poetry. We make love, or at least, they have fucked me until they came.
I see now that a real relationship — the kind that I was really craving deep down back then when I wanted to be in love and expected that all of my needs could be met by another person — takes so much work and so much honesty. But before this revelation, I spent the last 30 years ignoring parts of myself, keeping myself quiet about things that should have mattered in relationships but were turned away to maintain some kind of false harmony. For reasons beyond me, I’m no longer in contact with these people, these friends and lovers, who I gave too much to and hid so much from. I wonder if they still think of me, and I secretly hope that they do if only to have some kind of power over them and more importantly, some kind of power over the situation.
What could I possibly get from these people anyway? My therapist says they represent the old me, an older chapter of my life.
I lie a little to my therapists. Not to be malicious or incite empathy; sometimes the feelings I want to convey just aren’t conveyed properly by the factual narrative of my life. My therapist could not have given less of shit about whether or not I really have in fact stayed away from booze and drugs as much as I say I do. Most of the time, I think my therapists just like hearing themselves talk. Then again, if my therapists have said more than 10 words strung together in a sentence, I feel like they are projecting on me. And then I think, Psychiatrists are the craziest ones. So much for destigmatizing mental illness.
My whole family is mentally ill. My paternal grandmother was suspected to have been bipolar, and her husband was sharp, short-tempered and miserable. My parents gave me these opinions; in particular, my mother who has nothing good to say about the couple. I never knew my paternal grandparents. They both died before I was old enough to have developed long-term memory.
I grew up a mentally-ill person in a community where no therapists operated, where the only thing adults did to cope with their problems was drink or make jokes about their trauma, and I had no idea how to help myself, though I knew I needed it.
The things I have done to make myself feel better or to fit in are laughable at this point. I have laughed when others have laugh at or mock my discomfort, and I have learned to take myself less seriously. I have let myself be the femme-fatale, give-no-fucks type of woman who goes along with everything a man has said because I had this idea that it would make me fit into his arms better.
Instead of letting go of my need to be liked and to fit in, I act like I am rebelling against the patriarchy, capitalism, white supremacy by having a bad attitude.
In the Times Square office building where I spend 40 hours a week, I most often think, What is the rule in front of me right now that I’m not supposed to break and how can I break it? How do I get out of this work? How do I stretch every inane task a little further to get out of the next assignment?
I used to be proud of my rebellious nature, my anti-establishment beliefs. Now I am nervous that my office mates will see the tattoos that stretch out from beneath my short sleeves. And now, I’m following the next guy’s butt up the stairs into Times Square every morning, into the armpit of America.
The building I work in was built in the early oughts—a testament to the true mediocrity of an age where building a skyscraper is no longer an impressive feat but is more common than seeing a building restored and preserved from the early 20th century. Every morning, the television screens inside of the elevators flash the news for the day, fun facts, and sometimes particulars about climate change that I doubt anyone heeds.
I have spent the last year avoiding the news. It had been an escalating tennis-match of insults and ego-bruising, lobbed back and forth between men of vast ego and little substance, men of power, but they were playing with our lives and the lives of our families.
One morning, the headline reads that the U.S. secretary of defense is sucking his teeth at the federal regime in Iran, and I feel too weak to make it up the elevator ride. I have not seen my family in Iran in 10 years.
I envy the wealthy because they are seemingly allowed to disconnect from the shit of the world. They have permission to be above misery. They get to pretend that life was sugar canes and gum-drops.
Meanwhile, I am fresh out of law school and trying desperately to find a job where they treat me with respect, like a full person. It has taken me three years and 500-some applications to do it, but I finally have. It was not before I spent hours on the phone with recruiters who seemingly thought of the meanest things to say to me in a short phone conversation.
Best of all was the recruiter from an Amazon subsidiary who asked if I was an Iranian citizen because I had put the Iranian American Bar Association on my resume. When I asked her why she needed to know my nationality, she explained that Amazon does not do business with countries under U.S. sanctions. I shrugged it off in the moment, but the bigotry and the resulting confusion for me stung enough later.
Despite all of it, I made it here, to this spot where I stand. After heartbreak and heartache, and making bad decisions with good intentions, I made it to this moment. I am still here after almost losing my father and excommunicating my sister from my life. I am here, living in a two-bedroom oasis in the gentrifying ghetto, despite the cheating I did and scenes I caused and the lies I told and the times I forced people to listen to my voice because I couldn’t stand being the only one, even just in my head, to hear it anymore.
I feel like I had to give up something to get here, to make it here. But maybe that was the lie I told myself to feel special, to feel like that I deserved to be here or that I would survive it all.
And now I make it every day: on the stuffed train, the scowls of old stout immigrant women who seem to constantly be spitting when speaking. The crushing weight of the oversized, gym-built shoulders of white men who think they can fit on the middle seat just because they eat lean, and the inevitable wet patch of sweat that forms at their arms touch mine.
I walk around Midtown and try to avoid walking behind the tourists with suitcases, doe-eyed and looking out of the corners of their eyes — first right, then left, then right again — to see every billboard, every store front, every neon light. And I wander like that, too, sometimes, overwhelmed by every window display and below at the murky puddles that form in the crux of the street and the curb.
There are homeless people being kicked off of the concrete boulevards and on-ramps for the Lincoln Tunnel.
It takes 15 minutes to get a Starbucks coffee because the group of Italian tourists in front of me cannot figure out how to order espresso from an American coffee shop, and I have to wait for each member of the whole group to figure out their orders.
On the hardest days, it feels like my mind is swinging on a merry-go-round but moving vertically like on an escalator, going up only to go back down and around again. I leave the office as soon as possible so as not to set off my bosses. I try to will with my thoughts the elevators near the office door to open quickly and quietly before one of the partners wheels out to take a piss and finds me anxiously tapping my foot to get the hell out of there.
The subway stations around Times Square only add to the mental claustrophobia. There is almost always a musician playing inside of the Times Square station in the same low-ceiling underpass at 41st and Broadway: the woman belting power ballads, the 5-piece drum line group, the white guy with the sikha loosely beating a hand drum and singing “Hare Krishna.”
As I was going home late one night, I saw a man playing a melodica — a keyboard played by blowing air into a mouthpiece attached to the side — in a red t-shirt and jeans, playing a staccato version of So Happy Together by the Turtles. My eyes were heavy with stress and were dry from staring at a computer screen for hours. I dragged myself hom for eight hours and woke up to the familiar feeling that I hadn’t slept at all. I returned to the same Times Square station platform only to find the same man in the same clothes with his melodica playing the same song. So happy together.
Even in Times Square, the middle of Disneyland, there are surprises around every corner, a cliche to snap your front teeth on, a romantic mountain crushed into the space of a molehill.
There is an old-fashioned pork butcher on the corner of 38th and 9th. There is a Harlem children’s gospel choir singing and handing out fliers in front of a 40-story billboard.
The word “Masjid” is written with a sharpie in the middle of a brick wall mid-block, in parentheses for emphasis, scribbled outside of a street-level parking garage for halal meat carts. And there are flattened cardboard boxes piled up haphazardly below the permanent marker scrawl, prayer mats declaring this a holy place on the sidewalk.
There are candy-colored sunsets, fog in the Manhattan skyline, the sweet smell of the roasted nut stands and the smokey meat gristle char of the halal meat carts. They are the rose-colored treats I feast on when I am able to slow down and appreciate the city.
I could still laugh with and not at the brash smile of the Latino man who was dressed up in a plastic, padded Batman costume with black platform boots and shiny, red Oakley wraparound sunglasses.
Walking home to my apartment from the train station, from the long day of waiting for the clock to turn 6 pm in my office, I see a young brown man who I can only assume is going to a dance class, dressed like his dad would have been when he was the boy’s age — white, polyester suit, fit tight with a flare at the ankle, and a black polyester shirt with wide lapels that flap up as he quickly walks past me. He is wearing tight black loafers that have a small heel and carries a small duffle bag only filled with a water bottle and maybe an extra pair of socks.
I am jealous of him, his discipline and the seeming humility it takes to dress that way and walk down the street. I wonder if he’s embarrassed of his parents, of the name they gave him, and I wonder if he can accept the way things are. And I wonder if he notices the gum and crumpled tissues stuck inside the gaps between the subway seats and the train car walls.