New York City has the best neon signs. They don’t demand your attention, like those motel lights slung along America’s highways. They’re just part of the grammar of the city, ordinary as a gesture. You can buy neon signs that say NAILS above a hand holding a rose in that funny squidge of streets by Koreatown, or SALE!
For such magical things, they’re easy to acquire. I used to work at a hotel on 29th and Broadway and I still go up there to go to the dentist. I love that neighborhood — how the stores sell signage, then wholesale hats, then trees the further you walk west.
Know what you can’t buy? A mental map of a new city. Absolutely you can buy a physical map, or a phone with GPS on it. But acquiring a reliable, rhythmic sense of where one is in space, and the connectedness of the spaces around you, is a surprisingly difficult and slow process. In retrospect, I can see that moving to New York as a young adult was my response to a desperate need for that type of disorientation. To find oneself, I figured, using the logic of a 22-year-old, one must first become literally lost.
The first thing I recognized in New York was a neon sign in a palmist’s window, shaped like a hand and made of flowing blue light. Little else about those early days comes back to me, really, just the first night in the cheapest available hotel, the one that turned out to have been used as the location for the discovery of a corpse in Woody Allen’s movie Manhattan Murder Mystery. A night spent smoking cigarettes and watching television advertisements for lethal-sounding medications.
But this I remember clearly. On my first morning in the city, as I was trying to find Metro PCS on a map drawn in pencil, a girl my age with a beautiful voice stopped me in the street to invite me to buy a palm reading. Since this was the first day of my new life, I had no set of social reflexes to rely on — and how would I know which would work here, anyway? I followed the girl into her storefront, where her deep voice grew richer in the enclosed space. My memory blurs, then snaps back into focus as the girl says, “Your aura is like an infectious disease. Imagine I had tuberculosis. Would you want to be sitting this close to me? That’s what your aura is like. Don’t worry, I can fix it.”
I could have hugged her, or burst into tears. Although she was trying to take my money, she was doing it in a manner that was completely familiar to me. This interaction could have happened in any London neighborhood, with a few details swapped out. I’ve always kind of enjoyed being swindled, or letting people try to do it. They’re asking you a question: yes or no? It just seems like a pretty fair way of doing things.
I gave her $60 and walked out happy.
The strange thing about hands is that they do contain certain kinds of information. Not necessarily in the full Eurasian tradition of chiromancy that sprang up in the ancient Near East, traveling through Judaic mysticism and Romani belief and Latin American culture, but in the sense that the relative length of one’s index and ring fingers is linked to one’s exposure to testosterone in the womb (apparently, meaning that relative finger length might predict your interest in sports).
How dreadful such information is; what a weight to carry. Deep under the surface of the conversation between the palm reader and me, we shared the belief that the medical view on hands was the wrong one, and that the mystical was right. My mysticism was different from hers, but somehow related. Walking down a new street to try to find out who you want to be — what superstition could be sillier?
The hormonal perspective on human psychology is a deterministic one. A person is born the way they will always be, such views suggest. She offered me something else.
It wasn’t until I’d left the palmistry shopfront that I realized I’d given the girl cash I needed for objects like a cheap cellphone and toilet paper.
About a week later, I got completely lost after walking through the East River Park and emerged at an unfamiliar spot. I was dehydrated and broke; the streets seemed to turn forever and then lose their numbering system. What time it was, I do not recall, but the light was too bright to see through, and the city was suddenly empty of people to ask the way. At such moments, a person becomes a bag of bones and blood that does not know which way to turn next, and nothing more.
New York’s vast mutability is such a huge truth about the place that I think we have the right to marvel at it anew every five years or so. It dawned on me then: How can the surface of a place just change and change and change, while we are still supposed to understand what’s going on underneath, to know who we even are? This city swallows and regurgitates itself completely every few years, mysterious and malign forces transforming its architecture, its populace, its neighborhood boundaries, its manufacturing districts into places you’ve never seen before, people you’ve never met, selves you’ve never known.
Then, in a window, a blue palm appeared, glowing coolly as electricity itself. I knew where I was, and where to go next. The fingers of the hand pointed up.
Josephine Livingstone is a nonfiction writer and culture critic.