back to the Black Table

I made a financial mistake.

I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.

I realized it right before I left to visit family in Philadelphia last weekend. I did the math in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I just bounced a check to my roommate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The change cup by my bed had about $1.74 in it.

This seems fitting. For the last year, I have worked for a struggling publication that barely paid me above minimum wage. This is good because it has taught me how to live in New York City on what is essentially an ox’s salary. It’s bad because, well, cigarettes are expensive. There have been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner have consisted of the free apples at work.

But I just took a new job, and even though I’m hardly rich, it’s certainly a welcome step up in salary. I will be able to start living like a normal human being. It is something I have been looking forward to for three years: a job with a living wage. I am so close.

My first paycheck was to be Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being an unwashed mass.

I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week:

$1.74 in change.

14 cigarettes. (Marlboro Lights ... not even my brand!)

Half a box of cat food.

Endless cups of hot chocolate (courtesy of work).

One package of Ritz crackers.

That’s it. I had no money left on my subway card, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold New York night and walked from 17th Street to 207th Street, where I live. That is 190 blocks. I have always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.


One of my favorite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was a freshman in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the "not-so-distant" future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.

There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?

From my office in Chelsea to my apartment in Inwood, it is, according to Yahoo! Maps, 10.7 miles. It’s a walk I’ve been curious to take since I moved to Inwood, which, after all, is halfway to Canada. This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a hard day of work – we are finishing up an issue of our magazine, traditionally the most exhausting, aggravating time in the whole cycle – I packed up my briefcase and turned right onto Eighth Avenue at 6:02 p.m.

I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, past Madison Square Garden, past my old office with the methadone junkies, past Port Authority, past Columbus Circle and through the Upper West Side. I moved at a steady pace, passing all pokey tourists and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.

The Upper West Side is an area of town where I have spent much time, but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives up there, and, like her, everything on the Upper West Side is a little too precious. There are little Italian-only bookstores, and ceramics bars, and stores selling only novelty strollers. I had barely been back to the Upper West Side since we broke up, and I was reminded why; the Upper West Side makes you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The Upper West Side is a strip mall designed by The New Yorker, where people pat themselves on the back for "getting" the new Todd Haynes movie and hypothesize about the city’s homeless "problem." The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.

That said, when I reached 77th Street, next to the Evelyn Lounge, where we had our first date, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here eats hot dogs for lunch simply because they’re only a buck-fifty.

Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I noticed it about 86th Street, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only 70 blocks into my journey and had another 120 to go. It was 6:54. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.

When I lived on the Upper East Side, most of my favorite take-out/delivery places wouldn’t deliver to me because I lived on 97th Street. "We only go to 96th," they’d say. That might sound patently ridiculous, but the change when you cross 96th is obvious. The quaint little organic mom-and-pop shops start turning into liquor stores and check-cashing joints. Strangely, the streets become quieter, and there is far less evidence of the "homeless problem." It makes sense. It’s not a dangerous neighborhood, really, but not a particularly affluent one either. It makes no sense to ask for spare change on a street where no one has any to spare.

On 100th Street, I felt the blister. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my roommates that I would make it back to the apartment by 9 p.m., and time was a-wasting.

Through Harlem (much, much nicer than people realize), up to 137th Street (7:45 ... good pace still), up to Washington Heights. I never realized how many McDonald’s there are in this city. New York seems like the least conducive city for a McDonald’s; fast food seems archaic here. Everything is fast food. If you have a choice between a processed hamburger and a fresh-from-the-oven slice of pizza, at comparable prices, why would you get the same thing you get in Kansas? Yet a lifetime habit remains; I order from McDonald’s, usually to reward myself after a busy week. Not only do I go to McDonald’s, I consider it a reward. You can take the boy out of Southern Illinois, but ...

Speaking of which, at about 170th Street, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, isn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should be. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three bucks now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s subway rides. No food could be had.

It dawned on me that I was a moron. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help, here, Will, let me order you a pizza, hey, do you have a Paypal account? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.

As I trudged up Broadway toward the George Washington Bridge, 158 blocks into my journey, "life as art" was starting to look like an tremendous load of horseshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on a subway now and wasting a valuable token. I had to make it home. Wait ... is that a hill? Jesus. When did Manhattan get hills?

If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around 190th Street.

But past the Cloisters I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my apartment building. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. "Come on, buddy ... hang in ... almost there."

I crawled up the stairs and put my key in the lock. I heard a "Wow!" from one of my roommates. "We weren’t expecting you until 10, at least!" It was 8:51.

Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to lie on the couch, watch Monday Night Football, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My roommate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the check that had started this whole mess in the first place, smiled.

"Will, do you want some food? We made you a pizza."

They had. It was most wonderful.

This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my "I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last" was an oven pizza, John Madden, and two warm roommates on the couch, administering the Cosmo quiz ("What Kind of Lover Are You?"), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.

Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the long walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch besides you, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, "I’m here." Then, once you’re up, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger for larger, fiercer battles ahead.



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