Elsewhere: Vertigo

Ethan Chua (H4I), Stallion Editor-in-Chief

This is the second entry of the “Elsewhere” series, documenting the TalkED team’s travels across the United States. Yes, it’s somewhat trippy-philosophical. But hey, graffiti is really cool. Enjoy!


On the way out from the airport, Mr. Gomez calls an Uber. We pile into the car, sneak our luggage into the trunk and make our way towards the apartment on 3rd street. Small divisions begin to make sense. An UberXL carries up to six, enough for our group right now: five students and their teacher, Monty having been left behind for a week to catch up on his school days.

When we leave the overpasses and sprawls of the airport gate – the pedestrian lanes painted wide for baggage, the tuxedoed men holding up signs for hotels and motels – New York begins to unfold itself. It starts with the washes of new colors; orange and brown leaves crown the trees that line the roadway to our hotel. It is autumn.

There are old billboards and signposts whose backs are littered with graffiti – exaggerated typefaces, vaguely religious slogans, swear words. The edges of flyovers are covered with spray painted letters, which reach their tendrils below bridges and onto concrete columns, impossible corners. The graffiti artist must be dextrous beyond measure, reaching into the nooks of alleyways and height-defying corners; seven stories up, someone finds enough worth in plastering fading propaganda over the backboards decaying advertisements. New York presents two faces of itself, and we approach from the one populated by nocturnal dashes of color, spray cans strewn on sidewalks, police sirens chasing away prey.

Or is it only two faces of a city as vast as the one we now make our winding way through? Only two faces of a metropolis of insomniacs and lost souls, three in the morning pharmacy prescriptions and old Broadway stars left waiting tables, receipts signed with aged autographs and cracked whispers? But the color and acrylic hue that bounces off the stones of these New York streets is more than an aspect hidden by the light, more than the tail-end of a coin we approach from an airport driveway. It makes me wonder at a city that seems so suffocated by the looming skyscrapers that populate its view, whose sharp angles and rigid geometries cannot constrain the soul of a living breathing raging dying people.

No other city in the States will have the same splashes of paint on bricks and walls, iron gates barring exhibits for the public display of graffiti enshrined as art – in Pennsylvania, later on, the colors will come from the falling leaves of trees on brick buildings; in Boston, the colors from the oncoming fog of sea, or the warm hues of lobster and seafood soup; but only in New York are all these colors acrylic-polystyrene-aerosol-chrome, born into shape by paint issued from metal cans, shakers, the sound of steel balls clattering against cylinder-walls and the bandanna-masks of artists who shrink back into jackets, hoodies, denim, disappearing into the shuffling crowds.

Far be it from me to document the life of a city from an outsider’s view – instead, perhaps, these strokes of art or artless paint revealing a turbulent part of the whole – New York, intersection-point of migrants, travelers, and elsewhere-wanderers like ourselves whose souls and hopes cannot be trapped within grey concrete construction. I imagine Arab immigrant fathers rushing out with their sons underneath neon Broadway signs late at night, paint cans in hand, breathing out with each exhalation of paint onto concrete the long frustration of a people; imagine Asian-American high schoolers sneaking out their bedroom windows and into the vastness of the dark, armed with stencils and paintbrushes, red caps and tinted sunglasses, but behind their denim-leather armors only armed with hormones and puberty and hesitant cries of rebellion; imagine the diasporic motion of their souls, their feet, their fingertips mirrored by the Brownian shift of flecks and particles of aerosol-paint.

More than any other city New York is home to wanderers.

At this point, the Camry drives by a wall covered in ivy vines and flowers which have been pressed onto the concrete by rough winds. The image from the car window’s tint is akin to an old Japanese wood print, cherry blossoms rendered onto canvas by the brush of autumn gales. The vines reach out like blood vessels, like crossroads. I imagine tracing my finger against the twigs and thorns, but only for a moment – then the car rushes by, and I am faced with drywall again.

There’s a small rush of panic as I unload my bags from the trunk of the Uber – cars piling up on the narrow stretch of road that leads up to the apartment, horns honking. As I edge my luggage to the sidewalk, a man who looks a bit older than twenty approaches our group with a warm smile. He introduces himself as Brajaraj, but offers Brennan as his nickname. Brennan owns the apartment space we’ll be renting out for our stay in New York, and he says his wife’s still fixing up the rooms.

In the meantime, we make small talk. Brennan, it turns out, is from Hawaii, though he’s moved to New York looking for work and has made a decent living out of renting his apartment through Airbnb. When William asks about his odd-sounding name, Brennan tells us he’s a Hindu – he converted after going on a spiritual pilgrimage in India for a year.

The apartment is framed by a glass door with a paper sign scotch-taped onto it, reading, “Please don’t sit on our neighbor’s bench.” The bench in question is small, wooden, and unremarkable; it turns out, however, that the bench is owned by the local Hell’s Angels gang, who have their headquarters right next to the apartment we’ve rented out. Apparently, I’d missed the black door with the flaming skull painted on it on the way inside.

Our unit is on the top floor, which means we have easy access to the roof deck – immediately, stargazing comes to mind. But then, the top floor also means five flights of stairs to navigate with our luggage in tow, and we’re all exhausted after lugging our bags all the way to our unit. I give up by the third floor, and Ramin has to step in and grab my bag for me. Mr. Gomez, who has a heart condition, hangs back.

The room itself is remarkably spacious – there’s a makeshift double bunk bed, with the top bunk almost touching the ceiling. Ramin and I take that one, while Kevin, Jian, and William occupy the lower bunk, which has a mattress they immediately sink into. Our small arrival routine is established – Mr. Gomez gets the WiFi, Kevin, William, and Jian remain on the mattress, Ramin unpacks his bags and checks on Mr. Gomez’s things, I check the pantry for food (I find a few plastic bags filled with Oreos, which somehow taste different in the States).

Then, after settling in, we head upstairs with Brennan to look at the roof deck. There’s a view of the New York skyline: the Empire State is most prominent, even this early in the morning. Jian walks over to the edge of the roof deck and hangs his legs over the fire escape; I stare over that edge and find the lower roofs of adjacent apartments, peer across the landscape until I get vertigo. It’s the old feeling – a fear of heights, which I later on realize is a fear of the ability to jump. Kierkegaard’s dizziness of freedom – apt for the city we’re in, where every corner seems to be filled with taxicabs, street lights, ragged choices.

The roof deck connects the apartment we’re renting out to the one beside it; Brennan uses a chair to prop up his ascent and makes a short jump over to the other side to head to his unit. I spend a little longer staring down from the angles the rooftop offers. To the left of our building, there’s a grey enclosure – a garbage heap surrounded on all four sides by walls, a small no-man’s land in the middle of the city. These suffocated spaces are on view throughout our trip to New York, closed off by steel-grated gates and windows, brick walls marking boundaries between homes and wilderness. And there is wilderness here, hiding on the fringes of a city with two faces; or perhaps not on the fringes, but twined within the vessels of the metropolis, close to its beating heart.

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