A ruby-throated hummingbird weighs as much as a penny.
As I fastened the necklace to my body (it has not been unfastened since that moment), I decided that I would not go to work that day, or, perhaps, ever again. Instead, I would return to my decrepit palace.
Since childhood, I have been obsessed with secret and abandoned buildings. Early on, I made a habit of trespassing, particularly in structures that exuded darkness and tragedy. I’ve climbed into castles, crack dens, caves (both man-made and natural), abandoned police stations and libraries, condemned apartment buildings, old theaters, and, in other countries, ancient war fortifications. But each time, though I resurfaced with rushing blood and fabulous stories, I found myself generally as empty as before the adventure began – hungry for the next thing, rather than satisfied with the last. Until I made my own castle from the ruins of a dead one.
My apartment was magical. Plywood covered the entire lower level of the building, just off Avenue D. The bricks of the upper levels were shrouded in exquisite swooping gang symbols, full of passion, color, and grit. Never did their meanings make themselves known to me, and yet I could stare at those symbols for hours, lost in their magnificent lines.
One side of my building fronted an abandoned lot – the plywood planked up on that wall was loose, and behind it hid a side entrance to the building. I squatted on the second floor, up a grand dark wooden staircase embellished with curled century-old carvings, past the peeling yellowed wallpaper in the hallway, in a one-room apartment that had probably sheltered hundreds of Russian, and Prussian, and Ukranian, and Irish immigrants over the decades.
My floors, near collapse, revealed patches of tile and layers of wood that had been laid down over the decades. I covered my windows with thick, opaque, blue velvet curtains so that nobody would discover my presence. At night, sometimes, I opened my curtains and lay in the dark, permitting the night air to envelop me.
I painted each square inch of wall and ceiling in my apartment in great irregular swaths of every imaginable color, to help me deny the true nature of the world, which in my opinion was, at its heart, the color of bruises – black and purple and burned. But I never found a combination of colors powerful enough to eradicate the heart of the world. For that, I relied upon my avian friends.
Flying around my ceiling was a flock of hummingbirds, which I spun out of colored electrical wire and copper wire and every other kind of wire that I could pull from discarded televisions and stereos and old cars in the junkyard. On that day, I had 462 of them, but that number did vary (and it was documented in my weekly census). At its most populous, the flock numbered 487. Sadly, some of my birds flew away – I gave them too much soul and spirit, and they couldn’t stand to be confined to my room, so they just took to the sky. I don’t blame them.
A small generator powered my lights, my computer, and my stereo. My heater was battery-powered, but I rarely used it; the cold made me feel more agitated and productive. For some reason there was still running water in my building. This, I cannot explain, except to say that New York must be the most inefficiently administered metropolis in the world.
It’s true, I didn’t get hot water, but my gas-powered stove could heat a lake full of water. Like a pioneer, I poured giant boiling pots into my old claw-foot tub, on which rust had almost entirely devoured the once-shiny porcelain. The tub legs erupted into violent life-sized tiger paws, their massive claws sharp as death. I had re-finished the veneer on the inside, where my body would lie, and the rest I left to the mercy of the elements. I loved to seek refuge in that tub for hours and imagine all of the bodies that had slithered into its slick white sides.
After I met Den, I disappeared into my claw-foot tub with a notebook in hand, and wrote out every detail of my morning. I felt, for the first time in years, a sense of visceral excitement. Some part of me believed, or wanted to believe, I had found a soul-sister, or a prophet who would enlighten me. Even today, I cannot explain why a young woman as generally distressed as myself should have found such bliss in a chance meeting with a vagabond, except that perhaps I had already begun to fall in love with her, just a tiny bit, on that first day. And perhaps I somehow knew that the book of my life, which I had been writing for so long, had just taken its most audacious turn.
Since childhood, I have recorded copious notes about my daily life. I always had a notion that my life was in some way monumental, and my epic autobiography would be read by millions of minions across the globe. These days, I’m quite sure I’ll never have minions, and I’m not sure there’s ever been anything monumental about anybody’s life (with a few notable exceptions) but I am still fascinated by the notion of my life’s potential, or lack thereof, the notion that almost nobody out there will ever notice what I do with that potential, or lack thereof, and so the copious notes continue to abound. To date, I have filled 213 small notebooks with profane observations and witty conversations and endless explorations of my irascible mind. And in those notebooks, my reservoir of distress and wonder has spewed and swelled, year by year.
On that particular day in February, my writing was filled with wildly optimistic dribble that failed to portend the untamed tornado that my life would soon become.