He had grown old before his time, gray in his beard and at his temples.
And what was it that so compelled him to this neighborhood of warehouses
and broken wharves if not the atmosphere of decay, the palpable mist of
the past which hung in the air mornings and evenings, breathed forth
from the vast well of the sea. He avoided bars and restaurants and only
occasionally graced the tables of a café, sitting with a book for an
hour or two before anxiety compelled him to leave. It was a solitary
life but lived in public – an attempt at living a simple life in the
busiest city in the world. If you saw him in the street and took a
moment to notice him you could see his entire past written into his
person: in the way he dressed, in the way he walked, in his every
gesture and misstep, in the frame and drapery of his body. This was his
way of being understood.
It made you wonder what in his life had hurt him. Or perhaps it was only
the absence of trauma that had frozen him in time – as if he was still
waiting for it, the primal loss that would come to define him, and he
was afraid to take any further steps into life until he knew for sure
what it was going to be.
His parents were still alive and had never separated.
He had not taken out any student loans, and had found a job in his field
soon after graduation.
His field (video production, mostly after effects) promised a steady
future with room for advancement.
His salary was not astronomical, especially by New York City standards,
but he was able to afford his rent without any worries.
Homeownership was out of the question, but this was a problem common to
many New Yorkers, and he did not pity himself for it.
He had never been to the emergency room or stayed overnight at a
No one he knew had ever died of an overdose.
He had never been in a fight.
He was on good terms with many of his friends from high school and
He had dated in college, but the two of them had broken up when he went
to live in New York and she stayed in Ohio.
He had never been late to work.
He had never gotten less than six hours of sleep.
He had never been too drunk to walk.
He had never been in the back of a police car.
He did not habitually smoke marijuana.
He was rarely disappointed, since he rarely had high expectations.
All this you could tell simply from looking at him.
And the woman in his life – where would he have met her, and what would
they have done when they were together? Maybe he did everything right
but it still turned out wrong. Maybe he did everything right but it felt
like a lie when he did it. Maybe he was never able to figure out exactly
It was the summer of 2002. The city had emptied out after 9/11. He spent
whole evenings browsing apartment listings on craigslist.com. His window
was open and the breeze was coming in. He had some potted plants on the
windowsill and a cat named Switchblade who wove his sinuous body between
the plants and out to the fire escape and back again. The light was just
right. That blue New York twilight that seems to hang in the air for
hours and hours, encasing you in a condensed solution of everything the
city has to offer. And the light coming off his laptop screen and
bouncing off his glasses: it was the same color, it did nothing to
lessen the effect of the twilight hours, it only compounded the feeling
of being exactly where you needed to be, the feeling of a future that
was truly without limit and without end.
He went to concerts alone. He saw his favorite bands. He made a
respectable name for himself as a music blogger, but blogging fell out
of fashion a few years later. He developed his record collection until
he had everything he wanted, and then he spent whole days digging
through the crates of used record stores and trying out unknown titles
from promising labels at the listening station. He was a regular at
indie bookstores and became friendly with some of the clerks. He bought
more books than he read. He masturbated while thinking about the women
he had seen around Brooklyn. Pornography did not interest him. He
thought often of love but rarely talked to women.
He had a friend who worked at the same production company as him. They
went out for drinks after work, exploring the dark dive bars way out on
the west side of Manhattan, near the taxi dispatchers and metal shops
and the abandoned elevated rail track. They went out to Williamsburg on
the weekends and rented movies from the indie video store on Bedford
Avenue. They drank at Enid’s and The Abbey and Matchless and all the
neighborhood spots. They rarely talked to people they didn’t already
know. Sometimes it felt like they didn't know anyone. For all they had
in common, they didn’t always have a lot to talk about. They used to
laugh at the ads for the Kent Street condos they saw advertised in the
back of the Village Voice. Like anyone would ever want to live in a
building like that, they said.
The friend moved away. He was from Austin, and it was cheaper to live
down there. All the old bars closed eventually. Everything was normal
one day, and the next day everything had changed.
He moved to Red Hook. Almost like he was fleeing something, though he
didn't know what he was fleeing. He missed something, though he didn't
know what he was missing. Free VICE magazines piled up near the doors of
the American Apparel stores. The art school girls who worked there
talking about the coke their manager sold them, pretending like he
couldn’t hear them. He would never admit it to anyone. It wasn’t the
past he missed, it was what the past had once promised him. It was what
the past represented. Like it was only the fact that it had passed that
gave it any value. And the scary thought that there was a new past
piling up out there somewhere, a past that belonged to other people, one
that he had nothing to do with, one that he would never understand.
He hated when other people talked about it too, so he tried not to talk
about it. But that didn’t change the fact that he missed it. He missed
thrift stores and physical media. He missed the glimpses of the old city
he used to catch sometimes between the glossy veneers of gentrification.
All that was vanishing now. And what hurt the most was that he had only
experienced the end of it. He couldn’t be like the kids who had never
known any better. His whole life had been nothing but a witness to the
process of things passing.
He wore his old band T-shirts around the neighborhood. They were faded
and threadbare, with holes near the stomach and shoulders. He sat in
cafés with books. He streamed movies from the Criterion Collection. He
blended into the scenery. No one ever looked at him or talked to him.
The neighborhood changed, but not too quickly. No one was very
interested in changing Red Hook.
The years didn’t make any sense. The years were going too fast for him.
The way you keep thinking of yourself as in your twenties when you’re
thirty and in your thirties when you’re forty; the way you keep thinking
it’s the 2000s when it's the 2010s and the way you keep thinking it’s
the 2010s when it’s the 2020s. And then it is – it is the year it is,
though it feels like a rounding error, though it feels like it has come
too soon. There had never been any way to discuss the decades that had
come before. The aughts, the tens – these were phrases that had never
left anyone’s mouth. No one ever knew what to call them. No one had ever
named them. No one ever talked about them, and now they were gone.
Nicholas Clemente lives in New York City. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, Hobart, and elsewhere.