ghost towns

Lincoln Plaza Cinemas wasn’t a good movie theater, probably, depending on your definition of good. It lurked across the street from Lincoln Center and I had been going there since I was a pre-teen in the late nineties. When I moved back to this neighborhood in 2014 and took Thomas there it turned out to be essentially, almost spookily, unchanged. Little old women worked at the concessions counter, selling homemade baked goods and coffee in styrofoam cups and everyone, like me, thought it was the most natural thing in the world to want a cup of hot black coffee to go with an evening showing of a relatively mainstream art movie. The theaters were tiny and surprisingly comfortable and almost always full, and everyone heartily made the “look at me I know the reference” laugh-noise whenever a movie mentioned some esoteric thing. Most of the reason I liked it was that it was a form of time travel; its unlikely sameness made me believe I was still thirteen years old, and had convinced my parents to take me to see A Cool Movie, and all time was redeemable. Old places in New York, the places I went to as a kid, make me feel invisible, like a friend you’ve known so long that you can invite them over to your house instead of having to go out anywhere, opening the door wearing your house jeans, wearing all your secrets on the outside. 

Lincoln Plaza closed in January. Apparently it was full of bedbugs; apparently it was a terrible movie theater if you had no history with it, apparently it was making no money. The last movie I saw there was the third part of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s The Trip series. Thomas and I took a night off from wedding-planning panic and went on a real date, dressed up and held hands and laughed at all the jokes. After the movie was over it was still light out and we took the escalator up out of the theater and went and sat in the plaza from which the place got its name, a tiny brick-laid patch with benches and a fountain that was really just the front yard of the high-rise building that towered over the low space where the movies played. We craned our necks back and looked up at it until the view splintered and got dizzy. “Imagine living there,” Thomas said, and I thought about watching the years pass, about how maybe for those inhabitants the city is a little softer than I worry it is for its older residents. Maybe living here, looking down at this unimpressive fountain and un-majestic handful of trees, might be enough to stop time, a pocket where a few people get to live in 1990s New York forever. 

We didn’t go back before it closed, but I don’t think there’s really any point in going back to places, generally. A one-last-time pilgrimage touches nothing of what made a place matter when it was living and ongoing, when you could assume it would be there in the morning. All my memories had already occurred and the loss was already past bargaining. A place doesn’t care if you visit on its deathbed. This is maybe part of the oddly devastating nature of losing places; they don’t care that they’re gone, and they don’t care that you care. 

We didn’t go to Flatbush Farm before it closed, either, and now, if I’m in the neighborhood nearby, I cross to the other side of the street, look away, look at my phone, pretend I’m at a different intersection. I am so unable to accept that one closure particularly that I may have to live the rest of my time in this city just pretending it is still there. Flatbush Farm was not a good bar. The drinks were bad, the service was surly but not in a charming way, the bar food was only slightly better and the fries - the only item of bar food that actually matters - were terrible. Whenever they put something good on the bar menu they would take it off within days, but aggressively mediocre items stayed forever. It was impossible to hear anyone if you sat in the back and it was always too full of families with young children awkwardly sharing long tables with groups of twenty-somethings talking graphically about sex (this was usually me). New York City is full of very good bars. A much better bar, Sharlene’s, is just up the street from Flatbush Farm and still open. 

But Sharlene’s was where things happened; Flatbush Farm was where we went to talk about things that had happened. In the early days, a friend of mine lived in the building next door. From her roof you could dangle your legs right over the bar’s garden, patrons planted like flowers below the determined strings of christmas lights. When we would spill down into the bar it felt like an extension of her living room. It was near everyone I knew’s apartment, or near enough, for a while, and the backyard was beautiful and airy and full of corners, and despite how bad so many things inside it were, it felt like a place to tell secrets, full of shadows, loud enough to talk under the noise. For years it was the place where we left our memories; it was the save function on the game. It was where we went to escape parties so we could talk about what happened at the party. It was where we went to resolve misunderstandings, to share gossip, to confess what was wrong, to sit in the long mid-afternoon with the light getting in through the huge front window and paving down the bar, illuminating all the dust on the bottles like everything mattered. I took every person I dated between 2010 and 2014 there at least once but usually many times, and sat across the bar and watched my friends on dates at the same time. As a bar itself it was utterly undistinguished; lots of places in Brooklyn have great backyards and convenient locations and most of them have better drinks and maybe even less overpriced food. But it was the stage set for a whole part of my life, and then it closed right after I had moved out of the neighborhood, right after everyone I used to expect to see when I walked in there had begun to grow up past the kind of life where the most important events all happen in the same bar. It was never going to be anything other than a giant metaphor that it had closed, and visiting one last time would only highlight the fact that I had already moved on, would only make me feel more like the bar’s closing was somehow my own fault for getting older, for assuming that moving forward was the same as moving upward. It made me feel as though the parts of New York I loved were a flimsy paper sculpture and when I stopped propping them up with my hand they would collapse instantly. 

There are plenty of reasons to cite the ongoing decay of New York out of whatever once made it meaningful and into an un-liveable gated community, but the closure of places I - or anyone - loves isn’t really one of those. This is simply the natural metabolism of a city, a place which is cannibalistic and unloving, and can only survive by eating its own children. This attrition doesn’t only happen in cities, either. It’s the external process of time passing, the same thing that happens to one’s own face. Like it or not, the familiar will again and again be replaced with the strange; we will say over and over that we love something and then one year look up from the usual declaration of our ongoing love and realize what we love is not the thing we agreed to love at all. 

I’m terrified of getting older; I’ve been depressed since my birthday. Everything celebratory or joyful I’ve tried to write or do has felt like a joke and a scam. I’m terrified of Thomas getting older, too, although for entirely different reasons. For a little while, lasting love, the kind of love declared into forever by both poetic sentiment and undeniable logistics (I love you with my whole heart and also where would I even live if we didn’t live together here), feels like a comfort against the fact of age and ongoing time: I know this person will be here even as I get older, they will love me even as I transform. But then I look too hard at it for too long and it becomes sort of a horror movie. I realize I have agreed to love, and allowed someone else to agree to love in me, a series of upcoming strangers. The face Thomas fell in love with won’t be the face I will have in ten years, probably not even in five. Our relationship begins to be a negotiation between memory and newness. We act as each other’s archivist, offering a way to connect the past to now, to carry who we once were into who we are becoming. We have agreed in advance to love whomever is there in the morning, even if we do not recognize them, to excavate within the new stranger the person who first brought us here. 

This agreement to ongoing love seems on its face like it isn’t a great idea. I walk around New York and try to see it as though I had just arrived, try to come to an answer about whether I would love this place now. It is so much richer and easier, slicker and more accessible, than the place I fell in love with as a kid in the late ‘90s. Most of that place is gone; Lincoln Plaza is just one in a gigantic list of names, all the coffeeshops where I went on desultory, hopeful dates, all the restaurants and bars where I hid in back booths, all the dirty bathrooms where the sound from the speakers pressed in heavy through the door. There’s something else there now, a whole other city that a young person would meet face to face arriving here, but I cannot access it through even the most rigorous imaginative processes, because I am neither young nor new here anymore. 

Old love is like this too. We walk on a ledge between the new and the archaic, carrying memory into the face of a stranger. It is not really possible to make it make sense. I tell myself that we are a living history to one another, building something that can be preserved, that can matter beyond its place in a particular time. The thing between Thomas and me as we age becomes an inviolable location, hidden from market pressure and hidden from nostalgia, too, if we are vigilant. The buried fear of who we will meet next, of how we will change and grow less recognizable, is what keeps us out of complacency, keeps us able to be fascinated by each other. Our past selves gain meaning as a living document together, a bridge to whatever unknown city might arrive next. 

hi friends. I sent this letter to everybody because I miss everyone from tinyletter. I hope you’re all doing well in the new-ish year. I’ll keep sending free letters eventually, but after this it’s going to be just subscriber-only updates for a while, so please subscribe if you feel like reading more stuff like this on a roughly weekly basis (I’ve also made the majority of the archives subscriber-only). as always, if you want to subscribe but the fee isn’t doable for you right now, just email me and we’ll work something out. xo