It was October, and I was alone. I lived in Greenpoint with a close friend from college, but we were rarely home, and never home together. We floated in and out of each other’s lives. We left ourselves reminders that we had both been there: wet towels tossed over the shower curtain, mugs face down in the sink.
I was reading or writing or worrying; I can’t remember, but it hardly matters. The curtains were open, and the head of the plastic owl strapped to the ledge outside of the living room window was swirling. In retrospect, I should say “swirling ominously,” but this was not unusual: it was loose and spun wildly in light breeze. What I mean to say is I didn’t think twice about anything, certainly not about the lights flashing blue-red-blue-red-blue-red-blue against the wall, until I did.
I went downstairs to take a look.
Around the corner, an intersection was cordoned off with orange police tape. Two cruisers blocked traffic. A small van had stopped in the middle, and as I approached I saw that it was empty and the hood was crushed against the windshield.
“Jesus,” I said to nobody. “What happened?” I was suddenly sweating. I approached the tape, where an older woman stood with a teenager. The teenager was tall and proportioned the way people that age tend to be: everything arms, everything legs. He was carrying a basketball. His hair was crisp with styling gel.
“A Chinese guy died,” he said.
“A Chinese guy was hit by that car. See his motorcycle over there?” It was a scooter, but I said yes.
“Decapitated on impact,” he said. I nodded along. “They took the driver to jail already.”
“Jesus,” I repeated. And then, though it was irrelevant but because I had been raised in a liberal family and had attended a liberal arts college and had no self-control when it came to these matters, I said, “How do you know he was Chinese?”
The teenager looked at me with something uglier than pity. Behind him the older woman was walking from one end of the sidewalk to the other, patting down her hair. A white sneaker lay near the curb, tightly laced.
“Because,” the teenager said unconvincingly, “he was delivering Chinese food.” He gestured to the middle of the intersection. “Over there,” he said, “that’s rice. Look how far it went when he was hit. And you can see the containers.” It was true—Styrofoam boxes gaped in the road. The teenager paused and dribbled the basketball from palm to palm. “Plus, you can sort of smell it,” he added. “The driver tried to get out and run,” he said. “He was definitely drunk.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “I’m so sorry you had to see that.” The kid shrugged. At which point, fueled by a combination of anger and fear and exhaustion and disgust, not to mention an inexplicable paranoia, I began to cry.
What do you do? I called my boyfriend and yelled at him to purchase a bike helmet. I processed down Manhattan Avenue, shaking, and on my way home I took a revised path back to the apartment.
So much has been written about New York City as a city of histories—rich and public, deep and private. Commerce and bodies ebb and flow. For every New Yorker, there is a ghost city under the tangible one; this second, invisible layer contains the tangled web of memory and geography. I certainly have my fair share of associative ghosts; we all do. But New York City is also a city of forgetting, for better and for worse, and often against our best wishes.
It took a few days for me to walk down Leonard Street again, and when I did I noticed that a memorial had been erected at the stop sign on the corner, flowers and ribbons and a laminated sign about the deceased: his life, his family. It was not for me, this memorial—who was I, to mourn? I recognized that, but nonetheless found myself checking it on my way to work, noting when the bouquets had been replenished, when they had not. I wanted to remember, though what exactly I was remembering remained unclear.
In the course of my travels to the coffee shop one recent morning, I passed the corner of Leonard Street where the accident happened, just over a year ago. Down the block, a film crew was setting up shop: trailers and food-service tents, lighting rigs to brighten the sun. A notice taped to the signpost informed me that they would be filming a movie all day. The movie stars Vince Vaughn; I’m sure I’ll never see it. Its title, subject, like anything, to change, is Delivery Man.
Anna Wiener lives in San Francisco but continues to write about New York.