Part 1: The Grid
“Nature is man’s inorganic body, that is to say nature in so far as it is not the human body. Man lives from nature, i.e. nature is his body, and he must maintain a continuing dialogue with it if he is not to die. To say that man’s physical and mental life is linked to nature simply means that nature is linked to itself, for man is part of nature.” (Marx)
When I first arrived in NYC, I didn’t even know what a “block” was. I’d heard it used in dialogue in movies and such, but I didn’t quite understand how much physical space constituted a block. Was it like a Lebanese “7ay”? Or was it more like “not the first street, not the second street, the next street over, first building on your right”? I didn’t know; I’d never lived in a grid before, nor did I have the natural instinct to consider sides of platforms, directions of travel, distance between stops, etc. This led to many amusing encounters, where tired New Yorkers would look me up and down like I was the scum of the earth for, say, trying to get to a certain address on the subway when I could have just walked there more easily. Or, say, literally asking a cop how far “two blocks” is, exactly.
I didn’t go to NYC because I wanted to go to NYC; I went because I wanted to leave—to leave Beirut, to leave heartbreak, to get as far away as possible “from the memories of the people who care if I live or die,” as one song released that summer put it. I wanted to be completely alone & anonymous, and New York could do that for me.
“Nature, destroyed as such, has already had to be reconstructed at another level, the level of “second nature” i.e. the town and the urban. The town, anti-nature or non-nature and yet second nature, heralds the future world, the world of the generalised urban…The urban, defined as assemblies and encounters, is therefore the simultaneity (or centrality) of all that exists socially.” (Lefebvre)
As luck would have it, however, I wouldn’t be completely alone. Other travelers’ unexpected plans converged with mine & interrupted my self-imposed exile. It was good. It was light. We had conversations in New York we’d never had in Beirut.
Looking back, I’m amazed at all the things I didn’t do in NYC. The city was more a holding pattern than a destination, and this too was a good thing. Soon all flight paths would be thrown into disarray; a whole airport would be shut down, and getting back home would be the only thing on my mind.
“The reworking of modern nature is a collective project that applies the human imagination to the transformation of urban space and affirms the interdependencies that sustain a flourishing civic realm.” (Gandy)
Part 2: The Feed
The whole thing was admittedly over-the-top, but what do you expect? Architects paint with architect grey; math nerds watch anime; students of film make meaning through montage. Shot A + Shot B = Idea C.
I was a boy who thought like a Man with a Movie Camera, and this dramatic exit, this urban bricolage, this life imitating art made aesthetic sense. Very soon, we would all be caught up in our own cinéma vérité, curating “life as it is,” one day at a time: yes, that summer, I joined Facebook.
This was six months before Time Magazine chose us—me and “YOU”—as Person of the Year. I’d never had a MySpace and found the thought of being in the spotlight repulsive, so I resisted at first, but early-adopters reassured me that “the book” was different and cooler and a lot lot better.
I was a loudmouth at heart, so I turned to agitprop, using the platform to document the “July War” that had flared up while I wasn’t looking. “Hot town, summer in the city.” I’m pretty sure I’d made an album with that name, but so much has been lost in the privacy changes, friend purges & account deactivations since then. I used to worry about all our data lasting forever; I now know just how ephemeral our stories have been.
But here we are, still cutting up reels and pasting them together. These words on your screen are a recurring impulse; a love/hate relationship with writing in the open to no one in particular or to some all-seeing eye—whichever. Blogs for keeping long-distance relationships alive, now deleted, as dead & as buried as the people we were back then. Tumblrs for gonzo memetics & other bright ideas, now inaccessible in a wholly literal way, thanks to old email accounts & institutional affiliations long abandoned. Twitter personae for taking valiant stands, now scrubbed of all traces of performative identity & locked up, yet still kept around to haunt the cloud as usernames whispered at parties or logins to third-party apps. It’s all one long script with NYC as its establishing shot.
The very first message on my Facebook wall read: “I hope you think of a wonderful ending tonight while you dream!!!!”
Part 3: The Reel
The only souvenirs I remember getting from NYC were a t-shirt for my dad, a backpack of flyers, socialist rags, & other Pride ephemera, and an upcycled camo shirt plus two “Castro”-style hats I’d used in a film project. I lost one in Leicester; the other’s in Lebanon; the shirt’s still my go-to mosh pit attire.
The film was simple, but the trick was pulling it off with a 16mm Arriflex. It featured two “militants” (both me) playing “war games” (Xbox controllers) with increasingly tighter shots & trashier “talk” (mimed). The reel was screened to the sound of bouncy chiptune; at the end, there was a Shyamalan-style twist featuring echoey DemocracyNow! clips.
The stunt was effective given what my classmates knew was going on back home. Perhaps the figure in the black shirt/tan cap was a partisan of asymmetric warfare? Maybe the other in general issue fatigues represented an axis beyond good & evil? What was that underexposed presence at the end, anyhow?
I got a good grade.
But here’s the interpretive key: it was a war within myself. That’s why I couldn’t bring myself to show up to our class photo. That’s why I was practically bullied into showing up to the goodbye party. I against I, the whole summer abroad was one big tactical withdrawal. The plan was to retreat, regroup, & return with reinforcements, but actual, non-metaphorical war added one or two complications.
I’d come up with the script on the train back from Coney Island, wracked with guilt at the peace & quiet I was trying to have while my friends were watching bombs rain down on the airport near their home. I’d taken flight to get away from one friend in particular, & there she was texting me in fear while people passed a joint around me as Scissor Sisters strutted their stuff on stage.
She’d featured in one of my stories before; I called her Reya & referred to my character as Writer. I was so very into “meta.” At the end, she rescued me from interrogation in a helicopter as Beirut burst into flames in a Tyler Durden act of love & terror. I asked her how she pulled that off, & of course, she reminded that she wasn’t actually doing anything.
NYC would not heal my heartbreak, but it did fortify my self-esteem. That would come in handy later that summer, when I eventually made my return and found myself in a couple of non-metaphorical war game scenarios.