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Too Long In Exile

Letter From Manhattan

Melissa, Shel, Nelson, Melody and Me

April 13, 2004

I missed Easter this year because of Shel Silverstein. At about four a.m. on Sunday morning, a bartender in red pleather hotpants offered a free shot to anyone who could tell her who wrote the words to the Johnny Cash classic “ A Boy Named Sue.” I didn’t need the beverage, but it was a matter of pride. Soon after, I found a back exit and managed to make it home on foot. There would be no resurrection for me.

Earlier in the week I purchased a cordless phone for $20 from an Asian guy named Nelson in the lobby of the Empire State Building. Before this, I picked up a $30 thirteen-inch color TV from a woman in Queens named Melody. I took the train all the way out to Flushing to make this buy, passing Shea Stadium for the first time. We met in front of an Old Navy store. I’m not sure how Nelson, Melody and Shel Silverstein relate in the cosmic scheme of things, but by week’s end I was convinced of two things I would never do: touch another drink or live in Queens. Nelson seemed like a decent chap too, and his phone works.

These random cost-efficient purchases and attempts to kind of furnish an unfurnished sublet have left me in a strange psychological state. The phrase “what the hell are you doing?” runs through my head with some regularity these days. As I lay on a borrowed air mattress nursing the Mother of All Hangovers, I pictured my brother’s kids hunting down eggs at my parents’ Northern California home. I thought about the spiral-sliced honey baked ham my mom had Air-Expressed from Anaheim, and the countless free sandwiches it would have provided. I wondered how I could be both so soft and so hard.

My own icebox contained mustard, mayonnaise, and a half-empty bottle of Poland Springs mineral water. A little after nine, I ventured into the night to replenish my water supply and buy a two-pack of aspirin. Broadway buzzed with life and I plugged in for a moment before stepping into a market and making the mistake of pausing long enough to catch my reflection on a refrigerator’s glass door. Whoever he was, I wasn’t going to fuck with him. I paid for the liquid and pills, then got home in a hurry.

***

Melissa Kennedy, a 21 year old Bay Ridge, Brooklyn native and Bard College senior, disappeared a few months back. A friend last saw her boarding a train near the school, but she never made it to her connection at Grand Central or back home. This would have been just another unfortunate dot on the big city landscape for me, had I not met someone earlier that week who knew Melissa Kennedy. Suddenly it was personal. In the coming weeks, I saw her face smiling from countless posters plastered in the subway, on cafes walls and to streetlight poles. I couldn’t help but consider her fate, the circumstances of her disappearance, and that she was likely dead. The city felt tarnished and harsh reality replaced my phony superlatives and bullshit prose.

Then, Melissa Kennedy showed up. It turned out she had taken a voluntary leave of absence and run away. There was some embarrassment for the family as they appeared on the nightly news with half-explanations and tired smiles, but underneath it all was the overwhelming reality of one fact – she was alive. The incident will likely leave her with some mental kinks to iron out, but her story also provides hope for those staring down the darkest tunnels and most overwhelming odds. Sometimes they do come home. Selfishly, I’ve turned her story into a metaphor for my time thus far in New York, and am holding out myself for a happy ending. In the end, it’s all about family. I’m no genius, but I’ve got this much figured out.

***

I now live near the water, on West 86th between Riverside and West End. The place is big, empty and smells like new paint. It also slants, even when I’m sober. The cable is still hooked up from the previous tenant, so I can pick up basic service but not Showtime or HBO. I’m missing the new Sopranos season, but can stare at New Jersey across the Hudson. I have no full-time job, and have set the marker at one year for serious re-evaluation. Thus far, my face hasn’t appeared on any subway posters or milk cartons. In some respects, I guess I’m doing fine.

2004 Rick Monaco All Rights

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