Twelve a.m. on a Megabus out of Pittsburgh, it looks like Picasso’s “Guernica”. Midnight light and the glow of a single laptop reveal snoring bodies contorted every which way. People with their foreheads jammed into the seats in front of them, drooling on their shoes, while headphones echo faint rhythms. Too caffeinated to sleep, I put in my headphones, shuffling around acid house and William Basinski before settling on the new Burial record — tailor-made for staring out windows at passing lights in some form of public transit by night. I’m headed to New York. I’m visiting my sister in Brooklyn. It’s my last “spring break.” I press play.
The turnpike choreographs some accompaniment. Distant valleys of porch lights, zooming SUVs, blinking satellites. “Kindred,” the first track, thuds and pulses around a vocal sample chopped into anonymity. It sounds like Whitney — or at least her ghost. I run with that. I have seven hours to contemplate it.
During my first full day in Manhattan, I meet my cousin Larry in front of Trinity Church after a falafel breakfast, the sun shining. We walk past the World Trade Center, Wall Street, Zuccotti Park. We grab coffee and sit on a bench, and inevitably, he recounts old family stories. He tells me about my mother, things I’d never heard. Her brothers, in their makeshift basement clubhouse, playing Paul Anka (“who’s Lebanese,” he points out) loudly, making her one-year-old cheeks bubble over to “You Are My Destiny.” He recalls my family in the kitchen, in a circle before a meal, parading her around the floor, chanting Arabic. “It was so strange,” he said, laughing. “Your mother knew how to dance before she could walk.”
I meet some friends to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset. I notice my friend always seems to hum under her breath, tone-free, almost whispering. We talk and take pictures, helicopters and tugboats drifting past us, as I begin to realize this constant noise, this endless reverberation. Subways, airplanes, taxis, music … in New York, there’s a perpetual roar behind everything.
The next day, I’m in Greenpoint for doughnuts, records and maybe some kishka (which means “guts” in Slavic). Dropping into a Thai place for lunch, I can’t ignore the music as I’m chowing fried rice. It’s an online radio station, playing slow stuff, safe stuff. “Only love songs” it says, after a lush, orchestral swell. I listen for contradictions in the songs and find none. I begin to think that every song ever written is a love song, knowing I’m wrong.
I find my way to a junk shop with a whole basement of 12-inch dance records piled to the ceiling. I think it might be heaven, but I’m not patient enough to find out. One man wears a surgical mask as he fingers through pile after pile. I spend an hour finding a nice stack before crumbling out of neck pain and dust inhalation.
In Brooklyn Heights I find Halcyon, a shop somewhere in between a Zen garden and Waxpoetics’ wet dream. The guy at the counter notices I’ve picked up an Andy Stott record and, while cashing me out, waxes over seeing him play in Berlin. I can’t hear his story because the store’s speakers’ bass is turned up so high his voice is drowned out. But he smiles, losing his words and nodding after staring into some distance. I thank him for the story and receipt before getting lost again.
I’m lugging my bag down the Pittsburgh Strip as the sun comes up. After twilight, on a seven-hour layover, I’ve given myself 20 minutes to catch the Detroit-bound bus. A solitary car speeds past and I catch a snippet of a Shirelles tune but it might be nothing. My brain exploded two or three hours ago over hot sausage and slimy coleslaw at the 24-hour Primanti Bros. on Penn Avenue, after sipping coffee for five hours. What’s left of me pushes toward the last leg of my trip.
I meet an old high-school friend by chance, waiting for the bus, headed home. Her break’s kicking off as mine ends. I laugh as I tell her this is my last vacation for a long time. The bus kicks off toward Cleveland. People slip on their headphones. The sun turns everything into a shadow. I fall asleep like a baby.