Box of Fear

(Photo: All may look, but some may never see. Credit: Looper.)

Exactly when I decided to leave New York has always been one of the biggest mysteries of my life. To this day, I still can’t identify the moment when I made or was set upon by the decision to leave behind Gotham and all of its angst and adopt the relentlessly friendly American Midwest as my home. However, a recent encounter on the roofdeck at Marina City chiseled into sharp relief for me one of the biggest reasons why I did it.

Devyn is deathly allergic to my Luso-cat, Camões, so if there’s one constant when he comes over to my apartment, it’s that we’ll spend most of our time outside of it. We had just finished dinner on the balcony, and Devyn was jonesing to hit the roof with his tripod to do some twilight shots of the city. That’s where we ran into them, Joe and Nudnick. Not their real names, of course. We never did get around to asking for those. But as you’ll see, two well-fitting monickers nonetheless.

When we got to the 61st floor, the door to the roofdeck, normally self locking, was slightly ajar. As we made our way out onto the deck, we found an overused, overstuffed leather briefcase leaning against a planter by the door, seemingly abandoned. Used to finding nothing more than bottle caps, cigarette butts, and the occasional nude sunbather up there, we couldn’t figure out how someone could have left something like that behind. As the door closed behind us, however, things started to make more sense. A short, manic little man ran over to us, anxiously waving his arms and yelling in a voice shrill enough to be audible in italics.

“You didn’t shut that, did you? Did you? We’ll be trapped up here!”

That was Nudnick.

Hanging back by the railing was a taller, calmer man, taking in the expansive view and seemingly unconcerned about the silly prospect that a residential roofdeck might somehow actually be designed to lock its occupants forever outdoors. That was Joe. Not waiting for a response from us, Nudnick fell back into the conversation he’d been having with Joe that we’d interrupted with our door-slamming arrival.

“What neighborhood is that?” asked Joe.

I dunno,” said Nudnick.

“Isn’t that a helluva view?” asked Joe.

Don’t look in that direction! The sun’s low but it can still blind you,” said Nudnick.

“Ever been here before?” asked Joe.

Feh, why would I be?” said Nudnick.

That’s all it took for me to realize, without the merest shadow of a doubt, that I had just encountered two visiting fellow New Yorkers on my 61st-floor downtown Chicago roofdeck. And not just any two New Yorkers, mind you, but two classic types: a Joe and a Nudnick. Knowing I was up there with a Nudnick, my first impulse was to leave Devyn to his own defenses, ignore the wait for the elevator, run for all I was worth back down the 61 flights of stairs to the lower level lobby, and cower behind one of the ill-considered, oversized, plastic Home Depot flower pots next to the guard desk. But the presence of a Joe piqued my curiosity.

Joes are an unusual and limited breed of New Yorker, and I’ve often counted myself among their number. Trouble is, our number is tough to count because we only ever seem to encounter each other outside New York. Frank and ballsy as our hometown brethren, we Joes are nevertheless able to temper our moody natures with a balanced and open-minded approach to life in general, and the idea of life beyond the 300 square miles of Gotham in particular.

Because of this anathematic nature, unfortunately for New York, Joes — and their Jane counterparts along with them — tend to leave. Indisposed to consider New York City as the target of the “You Are Here” arrow that points at the center of the known universe, we often surrender to a gnawing wanderlust and flee to explore the world that within New York is only rumored in hushed tones to exist beyond the Hudson. Other Joes, like me, drift away without ever really knowing quite way. And some just can’t stand the Nudnicks.

“So, what are you guys doing up here,” we asked of Joe and Nudnick.

“Well, we happen to be in town for a trade show, communications,” said Joe. “My friend offered me the use of his condo, which I figured was a better deal than paying for a hotel.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Joe was curious about us, too.

“Do you live in the building?”  Sure do.

“Do you like it?”  Mostly, it’s in the middle of downtown Chicago, so you get to feel the bustle and importance of the city. It’s a pretty cool city to live in.

”What important? This place? You’re living in the Midwest, you know. Flyover territory. Ever heard that term?”

If Nudnicks are masters of anything, it’s the art of the non sequitir. I let it go and asked Joe the question for which I already knew the answer. They both worked for a communications firm back in New York, where they were from. What part, Joe? Brooklyn. What part of Brooklyn? Bay Ridge, but I live in Jersey now. (From his accent, I knew that already, as well). I’m from Brooklyn too. I lived in Park Slope for eight years before I moved to Chicago. I always said I’d live in the Slope or I’d leave New York. Huh, why did you leave? Oh, read my blog, maybe someday I’ll have an answer for you on there.

”You left New York, of all places? Come on. What, did you think you’d be any safer from terrorism here?”

By now Joe, Devyn, and I were hanging out at the railing, gazing over the city sixty stories below. “Tell me what I’m seeing,” said Joe. “What are the neighborhoods out there?” In tandem, Devyn and I pointed out the sweep of communities from River North up to Evanston and from the Loop out to Oak Park. We were frank. We told him about the nabes we love, the nabes we wouldn’t set foot in, and that though we love Chicago, maybe there are more of the latter kind of neighborhood in this town than back in New York City. Nudnick, was slowly but steadily inching his way towards the door.

”Don’t you ever worry about living in a twin tower?”

Joe didn’t miss a beat. “Man, those are some funky skyscrapers. This black one next to us is cool, can you tell me about it?” Devyn stepped in and explained Mies van der Rohe, the neighboring IBM building, and Chicago’s status as the birthplace and ongoing capital of modern high-rise architecture, while Joe strained, glassy eyed, seemingly trying to examine every square inch of the imposing tower that looms over Marina City. Joe couldn’t get enough. He quizzed Devyn on every tall building within view, with my architecture-buff boyfriend more than happy to oblige. I felt bad that we were leaving Nudnick out of the conversation. I walked over to the planter where he was nervously retrieving his bag.

”So what’s with all the miles of wasted space on the waterfront? Can you people have any more parks?”

I nodded. I feigned a smile. I turned and walked quickly back to the railing. Joe was asking about fun neighborhoods to hang out in for the evening. Somewhere with some action. We would never do it, but he seemed the type, so we suggested he check out the bars and clubs in the Gold Coast, around Rush and Division. A short walk or cab ride up from Marina City, and he’d get to see the city along the way. His smile told us he’d be taking our advice. But if he went, we had no doubt he’d be going alone. We heard a noise and glanced in unison back at Nudnick. Cradling a cell phone on his shoulder, he was hoisting up his briefcase with one hand while desperately trying to pry the roofdeck door open with the other.

”Hey you won’t believe this, I’m on top of some skyscraper in Chicago. Can you hear me? How about now? Yeah, Chicago has skyscrapers. Who knew, right?”

He hadn’t once looked at the view.

Though I was tempted, I knew I couldn’t blame Nudnick for his obnoxious interjections. He was simply living in his box of fear. We New York City natives know this box intimately. It’s the one into which we squeeze our adult lives in order to protect ourselves from the teeming Gotham masses and attempt to get by between birth and death befalling as much success and as little harm as possible. It’s a cozy if squarish home, with sturdy walls to shield us from the new and the unexpected, a lifetime supply of packing tape to seal ourselves off from the dangers of the world around us, and no reading materials allowed except for M.B.A. textbooks and dog-eared copies of Inc. and Money, lest we ever forget that a title is everything.

Conveniently affixed to the inside cover of every box of fear is a short but stern set of house rules to be followed by anyone wishing to reside within. Being originally from Richmond Hill, Queens, my rulebook was printed in Times New Roman on plain white newspaper left over from wrapping sandwiches at Jahn’s. However, legend tells of rulebooks printed in Linotype Corsiva on embossed card stock in some of the tonier neighborhoods, and at least one instance of Herculaneum scrawled longhand on papyrus in the immediate vicinity of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. But the instructions never waver:


1.) Fear everything.
2.) Argue anything.
3.) Refer frequently to rules #1 and #2.
4.) Trust no one.
5.) Define yourself by your job.
6.) Talk incessantly about your job.
7.) Refer frequently to rules #5 and #6.
8.) New York is the center of the universe.
9.) Refer frequently to rule #8.
10.) Refer frequently to rules #3, #7, and #9.
11.) Use only an approved Kryptonite New York 3000 to secure your box if you must be out of it for any length of time.
12.) Ignore rule #11. Don’t step outside the box for any reason.
13.) These rules do not apply outside the borders of the five boroughs. But if you leave the city, buddy, not for nothing, you’re as good as dead in our eyes. Who do you think you are, anyway, a Joe?

Nudnicks, as you’d imagine, tend to hew closely to the rules of the box of fear. Ask them their name and they’ll tell you their income. Ask them their opinion, and they’ll name every demon in their closets. Ask them the last time they left New York, and they’ll look at you with a combination of scorn and pity in their eyes. Nudnicks get along well inside the five boroughs. But when separated from them, the mindset of the average Nudnick can seem, charitably, annoying.

“Couldn’t you cut it in New York? Did you think you could do any better for yourself by leaving the city?”

True, when I first arrived in the City of Big Shoulders, a rather huge chip of Nudnick-ness was perched on my own shoulder like an epaulette. It’s with a certain pride that I remember the sizeable number of Chicago locals whom, by conjoint dint merely of the power of speech and an edgy joke, I managed to bring to tears, and not tears of laughter either. But I learned quickly that blunt is a four-letter word in the land of the rising snow drift. I also learned how to dance around that, er, frank limitation in order to still get my point across without alienating too much of the surrounding populace.

And I learned how to make peace with — and love — a city other than New York. That’s a Joe trait. Nudnicks have no such skillset.

“It doesn’t look like a real city. Why do all the tall buildings have to be so far apart?”

By now the sun was going down, and Devyn was eager to get to work with his camera. As we bid our goodbyes to Joe and Nudnick, we let them know that since it was a Wednesday night, if they came back up to the roofdeck at 9:30, they’d have a spectacular view of the semi-weekly Navy Pier fireworks show. And though I’ve seen the fireworks dozens of times by now, it being a nice night, after Devyn left, I returned to the roofdeck to watch them. I wasn’t surprised when Joe joined me at the railing. I wasn’t surprised that he had come back up alone.

Meeting Joe reminded me that I’ll always carry a piece of New York around with me. A frank, direct, open-minded, adventurous piece with no fear of engaging with the world, or with my neighbors, for that matter. Meeting Nudnick, however, reminded me that you can’t go home again, nor, necessarily, should you. I know if I ever did return to New York, no amount of therapy in the world would be able to prevent me from falling back into my own old box of fear. I’m too much a creature of habit. Just visiting the city I can still practically reach out and rub my fingers across the worn brown corrugated packaging in which I wrapped my life for so many years, and settle my mind into the unquestioned expectation that somehow a life based around paranoia and fear is the one true path to nirvana. Someone should append a rule #14: If you want to be happy, ignore rules #1 through #13.

No, New York City has enough Nudnicks in it, already. It never mourned the loss of me as one of them, it certainly doesn’t need me back to strengthen their numbers. I’ll stay living outside the box for now, here with the other expatriate Joes, engaged with the planet instead of merely existing on it. If anyone’s interested in moving to Gotham, though, there’s a not-so-gently used box of fear up for bid on eBay. It’s kind of small, but the rent’s stabilized. No windows, though.

“That fence looks pretty dangerous. Isn’t it too short? We’re 60 stories up, how the heck do you keep people from committing suicide by jumping over the railing?…Hey, am I gonna appear in your blog?”

And the neighbors may take some getting used to.

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