New York, Loss, and Life

I arrive in New York City on a Wednesday morning. I’m traveling for a work conference, then staying through the weekend. Chicagoans tend to have mixed opinions about NYC; maybe it’s the chip on our shoulder from being labeled the “Second City” or “Third Coast.” For better or worse, much like the ubiquitous souvenir t-shirt, I heart NY. I’m staying in an Airbnb advertised as a ‘shoebox’ in Chelsea, and after work when I check in and look out the sole window in this apartment, I see the top of the Empire State Building lit up in rainbow colors to celebrate Pride Month, all red and orange and yellow and green and blue and purple against a night sky. My heart fills and I’m happy to be here. I heart NY.

Each morning, I take a 15-minute walk to the conference. I watch NY residents walk their dogs, which pee on the cement because there’s no grass for them to squat upon. I dodge rivulets of garbage juice leaking from overstuffed, leaking plastic bags left on the curb for pickup, and internally thank the universe for Chicago’s alleys. I wonder how anyone in New York makes the decision to wear any sort of open footwear. In my summery dress on an 84-degree sunny day, I get bombarded by catcalls (I had forgotten that NY is a whole other level of catcalling). And still, I heart NY. I heart the stream of different languages I hear around me at all times. I heart the Pride flag that hangs outside of the Episcopal church I walk past each morning. I heart the beardos on bicycles, the cop taking a smoke break outside his precinct shooting the shit with a passerby, the rumble of the subway rising up through the sidewalk grate, the late night tacos, the impeccably dressed woman on the corner who didn’t bat at an eye at the rat scurrying through the gutter. It’s all beautiful and gross and exhilarating and I’m glad to be here.

On Friday morning, I wake up and stretch out in bed while glancing at my phone and see the news that Anthony Bourdain is dead by suicide. My heart breaks into a million pieces. Scrolling through my social media feeds, I quickly see that I’m not the only one devastated by this loss. So many of my friends had similar reactions, have held similar appreciation and fandom for him. As a writer, I’ve always appreciated his wit, his intelligence, his curiosity about other peoples’ lives and cultures and customs. As a person desperate to live a life well traveled, I’ve been a longtime fan of his many TV programs, from No Reservations to Parts Unknown. I’ve seen every episode of every season, many of them binge-watched in day-long chunks when I’ve been stranded to the couch by illness or hangover, wanting escape and yearning for adventure. Whenever Kurt and I need background television as we knock around in the kitchen or are pounding out work emails after hours on a weeknight evening, we put on an episode of Parts Unknown. Anthony Bourdain helped fueled the wanderlust that drives me to live my own life the way I do.

I wrap up the final day of the conference, then head back to my Airbnb and hammer out some work emails. Once I’m done, I go back outside and walk to the High Line Trail. Alone, I merge into the steady stream of people. Up above the busy streets, on a path lined by greenery and beauty and life, I move among the skyscrapers. Up ahead, the path curves and I can see the summer sunshine glinting on the Hudson River and in the distance, the Statue of Liberty. I feel heavy with emotion because the world is so messy and dirty and convoluted and intriguing and explorable, and in this moment I am totally alone yet also surrounded by teeming, breathing, sweaty humanity. I get annoyed by the tourists who stop dead in their tracks right in front of me to take a photo and yet simultaneously feel like one of them because Holy Shit, this sunlight is beautiful and this place is amazing and this city is alive all around me.

High Line Trail, New York

I move through the crowds at Chelsea Market, and  duck into a bookstore for solace. The titles aren’t registering in my mind at the moment; instead, I walk through the aisles and run my fingers over the glossy covers, searching for comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore, a wave of emotion overtakes me and I want to cry for a man I never met. I want to cry because I know people in my life who have felt this pain and I have no idea how to help or to appease or to comfort. In the aisle of the bookstore amongst millions of words and miles of ink and countless stories that have awakened or inspired or incited, I stand and I breathe. The moment passes. I leave the store, walk outside, and merge back into the moving stream of people.

I still heart New York, and I heart you.

sidewalk graffiti that says "Protect Yo Heart"

New York


The line outside the bar was one-in-one-out. My friend and I huddled in the December wind on a street in New York’s West Village, waiting for enough patrons to exit so we could be let inside. The bar was a half level below the sidewalk, and piano music and raucous singing drifted through the window near our feet. It was around 10 p.m. We had spent the day doing other vacation-y things: brunch in Brooklyn, visiting the New Museum where locals took selfies to a whole new level, cocktails in a speakeasy hidden off of a hot dog joint in St. Marks Place. Now, we were here–waiting to get into a packed-to-capacity piano bar that solely played Broadway show tunes. As the line inched forward, we made our way to the front and then inside. The small, packed bar area exploded with sound; a full capacity bar was singing at the tops of their lungs “How we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… how we gonna pay… LAST YEAR’S RENT?!”

I grew up worshipping MGM musicals with the same fervor my classmates had for hair bands; Gene Kelly was my Brett Michaels. In high school, I found my Happy Place when I was cast in my first real musical (outside of a grade school production called In Quest of Columbus where I played the railing of the Santa Maria).  While my all-girls Catholic high school in a north Chicago suburb was hardly the setting of Fame, I had at least found a place among the teenagers whose CD collections were dominated by original cast recordings. When people learned my name was Kim, they typically responded by blurting back Miss Saigon lyrics: “I have a heart like the seeeeaaa…… A million dreams are in meeeeee!”

img_9656At Marie’s Crisis Cafe, I was once again among my people. It’s hard to explain the power of music, the way it creates a sense of community and gives a venue full of people a shared–at times transcendent–experience. Hedwig sang it best: “All the misfits and the losers, well you know you’re rock and rollers, spinning to your rock and roll…” In the packed bar, regulars mixed in with tourists; a decent amount of patrons appeared to still be wearing stage makeup from earlier in the night. Most of the crowd recognized a song from the first few chords, and the energetic vocals from the pianist helped the stragglers catch up. There were enough professionals and music buffs present to break out into harmonies, fill in the backup chorus, and interject lines of dialogue. We broke out into goofy grins and joyous laughter each time we recognized a song, then dove right into belting it out along with everyone else. It was impossible to be unhappy in a place like this, where even the most jaded New Yorker wasn’t too cool to sing “Little Surrey with the Fringe on Top” in public. We tore through numbers from Chicago, Little Shop of Horrors, Mary Poppins, Hedwig & the Angry Inch, Oklahoma, Les Miserables, Showboat, and A Chorus Line while throwing back cheap domestic beers in the cramped tavern. We sang until 3 a.m., when we reluctantly called it a night and caught the subway back to our rented apartment. With the piano playing on in my head, I thought back to all those nights on the stage, with pancake makeup on my face and my feet crammed into character shoes, finding my joy through music and performing. A million dreams are in me.