Grates and Bridges
Before I knew people could die of cancer
not just overdoses, but that adult diseases
loomed like humid clouds over every city
waiting for any random person to walk beneath them—
I was twenty-three years old and just moved
to New York with two hundred dollars and a puppy.
The first day I took the subway on my own
from Brooklyn to a temp job in Manhattan
I was so proud, arriving, the doors opening
and me forging through a mist of people.
I wanted to throw my arms over my head victoriously
and smile at every exhausted commuter
but no one was in the mood—I was in New York, after all.
This was long before 9/11—New York was falling apart
in a different way, newscasters would get in small motorboats
and go with engineers to the underbelly of the Brooklyn Bridge
on exposés where their vessels rocked precariously in the waves
and they reached out and tore off giant chunks of concrete
from the base of the bridge like Sunday bread—
then held them up to the video camera in disgust.
I walked blocks to my temp job, quickly down the sidewalk,
with a coffee in my hand—the coffee was so sweet
going down my throat. It was January. Can you imagine?
Me in my too-big thrift store Navy band shoes I bought
to look professional and my dollar pants slipping down my thin waist.
When I think of New York, I think of being hungry,
with my whole hungry life in front of me.
I walked block after block across grates in the sidewalk
there were two kind of grates: one, a manhole with latticed bars,
a giant pie top, steaming in the street.
The other, a pair of giant metal doors that laid down
over staircases and basements, sometimes these doors
would be propped open like windows of an advent calendar
and a delivery person would run back and forth
to a double-parked van unloading large bags of flour
and giant drums of salad dressing to the bowels of a restaurant.
When I walked over these grates, if I stepped on the seam
where the two doors met, my foot dipped and stomach dropped
because I’d just read about someone in the New York Post
who’d fallen through a faulty grate and almost died.
They were rich now from a lawsuit and I worked at a temp job
where everyone was broke, the person who’d fallen through the grate
became the joke we made every day—we’d all rather fall than go to work.
We wanted to stomp so badly on the grates and land right into a mountain
of new hundred dollar bills in an accident lawyer’s office,
and when we walked around on our lunch break or Fridays
to the West Village Check Cashing place and traded our paychecks
for four hundred dollars in new twenty dollar bills
we felt rich—jumping on grates all the way to happy hour.
Sometimes when I jumped, I became a speck
falling through the pit in my own stomach.
Those grates are artifacts from a different era
when all my friends were junkies and I fell in love like shit heads do—
there were so many years before friends got sick
with adult things like cancer. We didn’t know then
when we were jumping, the amazing luxury
of what it meant to stomp on something that couldn’t break yet.
Ali Liebegott currently lives in San Francisco. Her first book, The Beautifully Worthless, won the Lambda Literary Award for Debut Fiction. She is a recipient of a Poetry Fellowship from the New York Foundation for Arts, and taught creative writing at UC San Diego. Her novel, The IHOP Papers, was awarded a Lambda Literary award for Women's Fiction, a Ferro-Grumley Award for LGBT Fiction, and was a finalist for a Stonewall Prize. She is currently finishing an illustrated novel called "The Crumb People" about a post-September 11 obsessive duck feeder.