It was 2002, and the city had been irreparably Giulianified. Everything was gorgeous, and I hated it. The parks were gorgeous, the streets were gorgeous, even Times Square was fast on its way to becoming gorgeous. And there was nothing anyone could do about it. Perhaps, I thought, I could go back in time. To a worser time. To a time before Rudy. So I moved to Alphabet City, hopeful that the burned-out, derelict neighborhood I remembered from years earlier had retained some of its non-splendor.
The crumbling brick on the face of the apartment building gave me hope; the surly, uninterested guard at the front something-like-a-desk lifted my spirits; the cigarette-burn marks on the yellow or yellowed Formica kitchen counter sealed the deal. It was a small one-bedroom with a tilting floor and a broken air-conditioner hanging onto the living-room window frame for dear life.
Parquet floors, said the Realtor.
I’ll take it, I said.
My joy was short-lived. Soon after I moved in, I began to notice something strange about the other residents. Something … off. I couldn’t put my finger on it. One evening, I decided to go downstairs and ask the guard. Three tall blonde women stood beside me in the elevator, each more gracile and stunning than the next.
Hmmm, I thought.
We exited at the lobby, and an even taller woman entered the waiting elevator, her long dark hair falling over the peculiarly flawless skin of her exposed shoulders.
Weird, I thought.
Two brown-skinned women floated by like air itself, every step a study in grace and beauty.
I scratched a zit on my chin. And that’s when it hit me.
Is everyone here, I asked the guard, gorgeous?
It turned out, he explained, that one of the city’s premier modeling agencies had rented out the top two floors of the building.
I was furious but unbowed. My anti-Gorgeousism was the whole reason I had moved to the East Village in the first place, and now here I was, surrounded by the gorgeous. They reminded me of the finished-loft, soaring-ceilinged, period-moldinged, cook’s-kitchened world I was trying to escape. And of my height. And weight.
To hell with them, I decided. They weren’t going to force me out. I would rain on their pretty parade. I would be the hair on their camera lens, the fly in their hypoallergenic, undereye-firming, anti-aging moisturizer ointment.
Good morning, I didn’t say.
Hello, I didn’t smile.
They didn’t seem to care.
I felt shorter. I felt fatter. Worse, I began to see things in the building I hadn’t seen before. The scaffolding out front, the power washers cleaning the brick. BEAR WITH US, read the sign in the lobby, WHILE WE MAKE IMPROVEMENTS TO THE BUILDING.
Everything was getting prettier, newer, faker.
At last, one morning, I went outside—I couldn’t have been more than four feet tall at the time, and well over 300 pounds—and there it was, a sign on the gate to Tompkins Square Park, the last bastion of ugly honesty: BEAUTIFICATION IN PROCESS. WE ARE SORRY FOR THE INCONVENIENCE. I returned to the building. The guard opened the front door for me, smiled, tipped his new hat, and said, “Good morning, good morning.”
That afternoon, a dead body was found floating in the pond in Prospect Park. They hadn’t found a floater in Central Park in years, and so, the following month, I chased my non-nirvana across the river and moved to Brooklyn.
I wasn’t sure what I would find, but perhaps, if I was lucky, it wouldn’t be perfect.
Shalom Auslander published the memoir Foreskin’s Lament in 2007.