I’m so glad you asked.
In 1649, my ancestor, Harmen or Herman Schurmann or Scheuerman, moved out of his house and traveled across a choppy ocean. He probably had a job here, or the prospect of one, but New Amsterdam lacked newspapers, coffee, and art. So I don’t know what he was thinking.
I was at the Met. I was sipping coffee from a paper cup and taking small bites of an Oreo cupcake. Two ladies next to me talked art theory. One wore a pink watch, although she was clearly the kind of person who rarely wore pink. Instead of enjoying their conversation, I was thinking about how there weren’t any windows in the cafeteria, and that upstairs was just as bad because the ceiling was much too high, and outdoors wouldn’t be any better either, because the buildings are too tall. This is the brain talk of a panic attack.
The first rule of panic attacks is to keep doing whatever you’re doing, because otherwise your brain starts tearing itself apart like an epileptic eating his own tongue. Your brain says, “See, I was right! We are going to die! I am never doing that again!” Ultimately, the easy way out of anxiety is facing it. It is not bravery, but pragmatism. I took a pill, and called a friend. I lived to tell the tale.
I was pissed because I hadn’t had a real panic attack in years, but if you’re going to quit your job, leave home, and travel halfway across the country, I guess your body’s going to act out somehow. I would rather have gotten a Louis XIV-sized zit like the one I got when I was in Paris.
Still: it is easier to try to move to New York than to worry about being on my deathbed knowing I didn’t try. I am actually here out of cowardice, actually.
If Herman had panic attacks, I guess he would have had a few more beers, which is not the best treatment. Or maybe he was a praying man.
Sometimes I promise myself I can get off the subway at the next stop and run away if necessary. Other times, I sit and read peacefully, and I could ride the subway forever–the screeching, the odd coziness of having strangers’ shoulders against yours and the democracy of seating and smelly people and fancy people and the amazing way people dutifully ignore the entertainment they don’t want.
Maybe Herman brought a wife with him, maybe some kids. I don’t know. I know he had a son once he got here, Frederick, who eventually, by the great and random maneuverings of fate, led to me sitting in a New Amsterdam crammed with trains and faces and sidewalks.
Sometimes I have sat with a pill in my pocket for hours, giving myself another half hour, another two minutes, before I take it, if I do. One day I thought I was done, fine, and then suddenly sitting with a basket of good bread and a bowl of olive oil and the family of the hostess playing with Tinker Toys in the other corner of the restaurant, I was terrified. Mysterious.
I had to force myself to get on the train to the New Museum, force myself to focus on my book, to walk down Prince Street, which I had done many times, but then seemed much too busy and loud and jittery.
I made it across the Bowery, and there were paintings of bloodied faces, sad and horrible but good, and two wonderful pieces that looked, respectively, like a dragon, a ghost, and a stick, and some bow ties next to some gunk of sadness. There were sea creatures, a lobster, a manta ray, made from white paper cutout on white paper background, impossibly delicate. There was a piece that had parts that stuck out, like buggy eyes sticking out of a man’s face, and was lit carefully, and had a bench in front of it, and the painter singing an eerily cheerful song in a Louis Armstrong voice. We were supposed to sit and look at it. I waited for something to move. Nothing did.
Note: As usual, I have focused on myself because that’s what I report on here, but be assured that I have met and remet friends here, who have been generous and kind and encouraging, and I have appreciated the many strangers who have given me a smile or chat or direction.