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Illustration of Dante’s Inferno, Map of Lower Hell, 16th century. (Giovanni Stradano via Wikipedia). In public domain.

During most of my Pittsburgh years, whenever someone I knew asked me what it was like to live in the New York City area, I often said two things. One, that “New York was a great place to live if you have money.” But, “if you don’t have money, New York could be like the third armpit of hell.”

I didn’t even bother to discuss Mount Vernon until I was well into graduate school. Too unknown, too complicated to explain its proximity to the Bronx and to midtown Manhattan. And from the average Pittsburgher’s perspective, it was a distinction without a difference. As far as some were concerned, Mount Vernon could’ve just as easily been outside of Buffalo as it could’ve been in the heart of Harlem.

But I definitely knew better, that my relationship with Mount Vernon and “The City” was a love-hate one, born from my growing-up experiences during the Reagan years. The lens with which I viewed the New York City area, a trifocal one of race, poverty and “outsider” status, made me ambivalent about my times growing up in Mount Vernon and all of my times in New York.

2 NYC subway train with graffiti (cropped), 1980s, December 20, 2009. (Cope2 via http://www.doobybrain.com/). Qualifies as fair use – low resolution picture.

I have my father Jimme to thank, though. Without him, I would still be afraid of New York, not just ambivalent about it. Drunk or not, working or on his way to a hole-in-the-wall bar. Jimme would take me and my older brother Darren out and down to the city often enough, to ride the Subway, to hang out with him in Harlem, Spanish Harlem, and especially Midtown. Whether it was to help him with his janitorial work on weekends, or just to hang out, we frequented Manhattan and other parts of the five boroughs off and on between ’80 and ’85, ’82 — the year of abuse — excepted.

Because of that year, the longest time I spent outside of the city growing up was between April ’81 and July ’83. After not making it down to Manhattan in all of ’82, we went to Midtown in July, where we learned about two of my father’s watering holes between 43rd and 47th. They were both near Mickey Mantle’s restaurant on 47th. He also had an Irish pub he’d like to go to around East 59th and Third, a drinking bar near his job on 64th and Columbus, and a couple of places near Macy’s on 34th Street. Because of our height and the times, when it was still legal for eighteen-year-olds to drink in public watering holes, me and Darren were allowed into these fine establishments. I learned a lot about vermouth, vodka, Cosmos and Long Island Iced Tea that summer.

Grand Central Terminal Main Concourse in New York City, March 4, 2006. (Janke and Diliff via Wikipedia). Permission granted via cc-Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 license.

I also learned a lot about the not-so-nice side of New York in those years. I recognized this as I’d board the Uptown 2 Subway from West 42nd Street and 7th Avenue in Manhattan at the tail end of rush hour. As I’d board the train, I’d notice the crunch of humanity in all of its oblivion, self-absorption, and diversity. As the doors close, I’d watch as the express train passed 50th, 59th, and 66th Street before it would grind to a halt at 72nd Street. I’d notice that a fair number of the White passengers alighted here. Between 96th and 125th Street, the load of the train would gradually lighten as about half of the passengers who’d crushed me between a tall, stale-breathed smoker and a woman who wasn’t my girlfriend were now at street level.

About three-quarters of the passengers for the rest of my trip would be Latino and Afro-Caribbean. After another hour of endless stops in the Bronx, the 2 would pull me out of my slumber as it would slowly roll into the rickety East 241st stop.

By the time I was a rising senior at Pitt, I certainly didn’t need my father to accompany on my trips into Manhattan. I also avoided the long trek from 616 across Mount Vernon to 241st to take the 2 whenever I could afford to. Metro-North was a luxurious godsend compared to the puddles of piss and infinite amounts of graffiti on the Subway I’d seen throughout the ’80s.

Toph’s “Hairy Pits” from Avatar: The Last Airbender (screenshot), July 26, 2012. (Donald Earl Collins). Qualifies as fair use — low resolution picture.

But it introduced me to other odious issues. Like Grand Central Station, which by the summer of ’90 was in desperate need of renovation. Especially the restrooms, festooned with enough garbage, feces and bodily odors and fluids to make a coroner vomit.

Off a return trip from Pittsburgh that summer, I made the mistake of having no choice but to use the almost  unusable facilities there, which in the end I couldn’t use. Meanwhile, I observed homeless males hanging out in the restroom with carts, along with an individual who looked to have Kaposi’s sarcoma, an obvious sign of full-blown AIDS.

That’s when I coined New York to be “the third armpit of hell,” the place where poverty had meant your dreams were dead on arrival. For once, it made me content that I was from a place where many smug New Yorkers disdainly considered “upstate.” Though the New York City area has changed — and mostly for the better — since ’90, it’s still a place where economic inequality can easily grind the life out of people.