Zoe Heller In America: No place to get lost in, the village of New York

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The Independent Culture
I WAS GOING uptown on the subway the other day, when a man got on at 59th Street and sat down right next to me. The carriage was pretty empty, and there were plenty of other seats available, so straight away I gave him a terrifically filthy look.

Clearly not filthy enough however, because instead of beetling off, this man stayed put and leant in further. (On the New York radio station WBLS, there used to be a legendary DJ called Frank Crocker who would begin his show with a deep-voiced, sexy account of just how close he wanted to get to his listeners. 'Move closer to the radio, now,' he'd say. 'No, closer. I want to be reaaall close to you. I want to be closer than white is on rice. Closer than cold is on ice. Closer than a collar is on a dog. Closer, baby, than ham is on a country hog.' That was how close this man on the subway train was getting.)

I kept giving him the looks, but by Columbus Circle I could feel his breath on my neck.

I turned to him and said with great, practised snottiness (Margaret Rutherford plays a home girl), 'Yes?'

The man smiled at me. 'What?' he said. I couldn't very well repeat the 'Yes?' thing, so I said - even snottier now - 'Do you have a problem?' His smile grew broader. 'Nope,' he said.

OK, I thought. I've given you a chance - now it's Wild Woman of Wonga time.

'Well,' I said. 'I have. Would you mind getting your . . .'

'Zoe,' he said. 'It's me, Michael - from the T-shirt store on Bleecker.'

Oh, the total and absolute mortification.

Not only did I know this man, but I had actually spoken to him at some length, just three days before. He explained my knee-jerk hostility as a sign of the aggression and alienation bred by a cruel metropolis.

'What this town does to people,' he kept saying, shaking his head. But the incident seemed to me to indicate exactly the opposite. I persist in operating as if Manhattan were a big, mean, jungle of a city, while Manhattan keeps on proving itself to be a village - full of nosy neighbours and deli-owners who remember what cigarette brand you smoke and guys in T-shirt stores who creep up on you in trains.

This, it has to be said, is something of a disappointment. Part of Manhattan's initial lure for me was the opportunity it seemed to offer for vanishing - for being unknown - or, at the very least, unaccountable.

Once, when I was five years old, I got lost in a big Californian department store. My mother was running around frantically trying to find me, when this voice came over the store Tannoy: 'We have a little girl in our lost property office on the third floor, who is looking for her mother. She is wearing a red furry coat. She says her name is Mary and that she is 21 years old.'

Whenever I remember this anecdote, what strikes me - apart from nostalgia for the red furry coat (that was a great coat) - is how touchingly confident small children are in their capacity for self-reinvention.

When my eldest sister was three, she threw off all her clothes and ran away from home, on her tricycle. (She actually got all the way from Regent's Park Road to Baker Street before she was apprehended.) This is what we all want in life - the opportunity to ride off naked into the blue yonder occasionally, and escape the inhibiting expectations of our family and friends. It's what Nina Simone sings about in 'Lonesome Cities': Just as long as trains keep rolling, restless woman I'll be, 'cause there's a few more lonesome cities that I'd like to see . . .

New York looks like the ideal, lonesome city - but in fact, somebody is always putting a restraining hand on your tricycle wheels and busting your anonymity with a claim to prior acquaintance or kinship. They know a friend of a friend of yours in London. They saw you in the grocery store the other day. They used to go to school with your mother. It took me a while, when I first arrived, to catch on to this. As a result, I went around, laying all sorts of traps for myself. For example: I met Wayne some months ago at the basketball courts on West Fourth Street. Wayne is an intriguing character. He wears a headscarf in a 'do-rag' style like Hilda Ogden. He is always using words like 'connotate' and 'appellation' and holding impromptu spelling bees. ('C'mon, c'mon - how do you spell 'deliquescent'?')

His father was a polygamist and he has 18 brothers and sisters. I have not yet discovered how Wayne makes a living - he writes execrable poetry that he sometimes recites at the Fez Bar on Lafayette Street ('Morag, I recall your eyes, like swirling pools . . .' etc) - but otherwise, he appears to be occupationless.

Because I met Wayne in such a casual way and because I didn't imagine I would ever really become lasting friends with him, I told all sorts of untruths during our first couple of encounters - not great raging porky pies - just colourful fiblets for his and my greater entertainment. I told him that I was saving up for liposuction; that I used to live in Alaska. (That one was a bit hairy - he wanted to know all these details about my life there and my only point of reference was Northern Exposure.) I also told him that I once sang a duet with Tammy Wynette in a Nashville nightclub.

Now, as it has turned out, I see Wayne all the time. He is always popping up when I least expect him. We even share friends in common, I have discovered.

As time goes on, I feel increasingly shifty about my little embroideries. He'll think I'm such a freak if he finds me out. I should 'fess up I know, but there never seems to be an appropriate moment. The other day, Wayne asked me something about liposuction procedures and when I faltered in my reply, I could see his eyes narrowing with suspicion. The tricycle catchers are closing in.

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