The city was roaring and sweating in late summer nights. It was too big, too fast and too loud as always. Even the water boiled faster than what I was used to.
I ate my breakfast and put on a dress. Through the window frame, I saw Domino Sugar Factory, in the incredible, dusty September light, the view quickly turning into the East River and then into the Manhattan skyline in faded colors. It was one late morning in the early September of 2012 and I was on the J train, on my way to a café in Soho, my friend showed to me the other day. And because it was the only place I knew at that point and I needed something familiar.
I entered the café, ordered an americano and sat down at one of the big tables that were meant to be shared with others. I chose to share the space with a person that was nowhere to see, but their presence was indicated by a few belongings laid on the wooden surface. I took some random books from the shelves and sat down. With my first coffee sip, I reached out for the first one. It was something about the artist Arthur Zmijewski - not that I really cared. I did not feel like reading at all anyways.
When I looked up, the other person was already there, sitting right in front of me. It was a big muscular guy wearing a bright pink T-shirt with a sign “FIGHT” on it. He was staring at me from above the rim of his glasses. It was a straight, wild and honest gaze. I read the title of the book which was lying in front of him: The Art of War. I quickly looked down pretending I was reading my own stuff with real commitment.
It is hard to pretend to do what you’re doing when you are not really keen on doing it. I kept faking my concentration and tried to act like I was completely and utterly submerged in my activity that was reading my book. It was exhausting. I felt his gaze upon me. I knew he was waiting for the right moment to start a conversation and if I looked up again that would be it. I was trapped.
I looked up.
I heard him saying: “What’s that book about?”
“It’s about Arthur Zmijewski,” I said.
“Is it any good?”
And then it all began. For an hour, or maybe less or a bit more - for it was easy to lose one’s sense of time in his company - I became part of Eddie’s whirling world. His life, real or fictional, was folding itself out on the table between us. At night he was a plumber. After his night shift he would come to this café and read. He would always have piles of books stocked in front of him, mostly on psychology but also philosophy and politics.
His biggest passion was photography. And he was a latino dancer. He also escaped his death about 7 or 9 times. There was a story involving drowning. And another one with shooting. One of those stories was, of course, connected to 9/11. He was on his way to the WTC when...something had happened and he didn’t make it all the way there, what probably saved his life. Or was it that he overslept a job interview? Maybe that was someone else’s story .
All of a sudden, I found myself taking his camera and following his instructions - we were making pictures of each other from awkward angles - from under the table for example. I was looking at the pictures he made on some gallery openings in Chelsea. I saw his friend posing with a girl. I thought they were a couple, but Eddie said “No. I just made them do it. Made them look that way.”
“You got nice tennis arms” he said, looking at my bare shoulders.
He invited me for sandwiches and beer. We kept on talking.
At the end, he asked for my number. I said I didn’t have one.
“Your email address?”
When I refused to divulge anything, he turned sad. “Ah. OK. I see.”
The only physical traces of this encounter are a few tiny scraps of paper that I still keep in a box with other memorabilia. Cut outs from “Chelsea knife sharpening” DYI ad that have Eddie’s questions written on their back. His questions for me were either too obvious or almost disturbing (“Do you want to be killed by a knife or a bullet?”). And yet, some of them stuck to me and I didn’t get rid of them ever since. There are moments when they just keep popping up.
What do I say to the world?
During the following months I had never met him again. But one year later, in November of 2013, I popped into the Housing Works Café as a part of my daily ritual and as usually, I was working on my laptop while observing people and the life around... And then I saw someone familiar. It was him. He was sitting at one of the big tables across the room, half asleep, head tilted to one side...Probably after another of his night shifts. In front of him there was a huge pile of books. I was too far to read their titles. Eddie.