The Old English “hel” belongs to a family of Germanic words meaning “to cover” or “to conceal.” Hel is also the name, in Old Norse, of the Scandinavian queen of the underworld. Way back in the 1980’s, I discovered how we humans consign ourselves to hell, while all around us, heaven.
It happened one cold night in Hell’s Kitchen. Bent almost double against an icy wind blasting up West 35th Street from the Hudson, cradling a bag of groceries–dried pasta, cigarettes, and beer, the three major food groups of young people in the city–I pushed my way past gutted buildings and empty lots, back to the renovated tenement where I was having dinner. Parts of Manhattan, especially the streets near the rivers, are subject to the wind-tunnel effect. It can be hard for the biggest, sturdiest person to stand upright against the force of the wind, and I was not sturdy.
I was walking the way experts say a young woman should never walk, head down, not confidently present, not owning her space or even upright, lost in thought. Wondering why I ever agreed to leave my cozy apartment on the Upper West Side to come down to this godforsaken neighborhood, worried I might be coming down with the flu, I tried mentally describing what I was doing as if it was cool, having a late dinner in a loft full of exposed brick and modern furniture in a bad neighborhood. And isn’t that what I moved to New York to do?
Manhattan in the 1980’s was a gritty place, but it had a dark glamour, and like many young people I was drawn to that, or the thought of myself against such a sophisticated urban backdrop. I moved to New York like someone drawing close to a fire. I longed to draw closer to life—to more fully experience being alive—but I mostly just added fancier thoughts and associations. I went to foreign films. I went to museums. I saw a kind of lonely urban romance and these streets: Edward Hopper might have painted here.
Years after it happened, I realized that there was a deeper, more basic kind of awareness at work under all that thought, and that this awareness was actually much closer to what I longed for than my ordinary thoughts. Although I didn’t notice—or didn’t note it as special– I was aware that there was “I,” a net of tensions and thoughts that resisted life that felt as if it was out of tempo with the rest of life. There was a lack of trust in life, a feeling that I had to fix things.
I decided that too much of my life involved going places or making all kinds of gestures to be nice or generous, only to realize I didn’t really want to make those gestures or go those places. Why had I agreed to go to the store when it turned out there wasn’t enough spaghetti to make dinner? I wondered when and how I had become a waif, drifting along on the surface of life, pushed this way and that even when there wasn’t an icy gale blowing me down the street.
I repeated the phrase “When hell freezes over.” I should have stood up for myself. It didn’t occur to me that this way of thinking was a symptom of the underlying unease—disease. I knew I was apart from the fundamental rhythm of life, that a fear of losing myself had kept me away from life—yet like most humans I placed myself smack in the center of the universe.
The little Spanish market on the corner of W. 35th St. and Ninth Avenue was the only pocket of light and warmth for blocks. All the big Greek markets and little Italian and Middle Eastern restaurants on Ninth Avenue closed down by ten, and for blocks to the West there was nothing but deserted streets that led to the crumbling docks that jetted into the river.
Nobody knows for sure why the Manhattan neighborhood between West 34th Street and West 59th Street between 8th Avenue and the Hudson River, a neighborhood real estate developers now call “Clinton” or “Midtown West” (or even the Mid-West) was once called “Hell’s Kitchen.” Most the name to the 19th Century and to notorious tenements (including a “House of Blazes,” where people were lured to drink only to be doused with flammable liquid and set ablaze) and to tough Irish gangs. A local historian traces the name to the observation of Dutch Fred The Cop, a 19th Century policeman, who was watching a small riot on West 39th Street near 10th Avenue. His rookie partner supposedly said, “This place is hell itself.” Fred replied, “Hell’s a mild climate. This is Hell’s Kitchen.” Whatever the origin, the night I walked there it was a very apt name, the very place for that Old English root meaning, to conceal.
I was passing an empty parking lot near 10th Ave. when three men rushed out at me from the shadows of a gutted tenement across the street. I heard them pounding toward me in the dark before I saw them. I felt the purpose in it. They ran past me, stopped, wheeled around, taking up stations around me, surrounding me like lions singling out a calf that had strayed from the herd.
We stood and stared at each other. Incredibly, I was briefly gripped by an impulse to smile and make friends, to diffuse the situation by making eye contact, to make nice. They were not interested in making friends.
TO BE CONTINUED…..