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Some Notes From the Boulevard of Death
“What shall I do, with this space of mine that’s grown so vast”
[1914, Queens Boulevard]
I lived on the street that I used to fear most in NYC, one that has historically been called the “Boulevard of Death.” Quite simply the street is way too wide for pedestrians to safely cross it. Since 1990 185 New Yorkers have died crossing this street. At its widest it is 300 feet. In the last few years, there have been renovations to make it safer (since those there have been no new deaths), but I don’t know a single person who feels comfortable crossing it. I always run, even when it looks like I have space to make it just walking. It always feels like I survived something when I turn up on the other side.
When the pandemic started, I had reoccurring dreams of plane crashes. In every single one, they crashed right on Queens Boulevard. The wingspan of an ordinary commercial plane is about 150 feet so you can imagine how much that takes up on the Boulevard of Death. Each time, I would see airplane parts in pieces, though the wing and body mostly intact, with luggage and seats and body parts even strewn across my street. I live less than 10 miles from JFK Airport—I am under its main flight paths, in a highrise, so all day I see and hear planes fly by. That made these nightmares all the more realistic. Of course, made worse by the fact that in 2000, from a flight that took off in JFK, I was in a pretty rough emergency landing. I had been scared of plane crashes all my life—often having very intense panic attacks on planes—and suddenly I had a job that required I fly several times a week. I thought the job would normalize flying for me and in a way it did—until the emergency landing. 9/11 happened some months later and for a few years I did not fly and even took cross-country trains a few times. Eventually, I got a Xanax prescription and could fly again. Eventually I just got older, and I could fly again somehow without even a pill to help. You accept things, or maybe you just grow tired of fighting them.
A week and a half ago my friend Alanna died. If you google "Alanna Gabin” you now find some weird death notices that appear manufactured by bots, plus lots of her old photos—often at film premiers on the arm of people like Chloe Sevigny. Alanna was one of those cool downtown girls. I had only really met her in 2014 at my second book launch party but I had heard of her for years. We both liked the same bar, Max Fish, and we roughly ran with the same crew of downtown party kids. She also had Lyme, it turned out. And it became a big part of our friendship in the last several years. A few years ago, there was a call for “Lyme VIPs” to be in the audience for the Dr Oz show when Yolanda Hadid was on. The episode was all about Yolanda’s Lyme Disease. I was chosen and invited Alanna to go with me. Our biggest obstacle was the dress code—they wanted us in solid brights, as they would be spotlighting us in one segment. Alanna, like me, wore mostly black and grey. Somehow I pulled something solid and bright together, but Alanna came in black and grey anyway, which worried me but it was fine. She was like that—she did her own thing always. We were in the elevator with Yolanda at one point, both trying not to laugh for whatever reason. I never do well in big crowds and at one point in the show I felt like I was going to have a panic attacks. I whispered that to Alanna and she held my hand the rest of the show and I was fine. She was also like that—an amazing friend who always had your back. Back then she and I were both pretty sick, though she smoked cigarettes which amazed me. We stayed in pretty tight touch, her always texting me about various troubles, always around her Lyme flares and money problems and mental health challenges.
Apparently a week and a half ago she had gone out to have a cigarette and when it was taking too long, her boyfriend went to check on her. She was slumped over and dead. To this day, I have no idea how and why she died. I last heard from her a few months ago when I posted an old photo of us on the Dr Oz show, on Instagram. We reminisced and as usual made plans to meet. We never got to it.
The thing that makes this all the more sad is if you look up Alanna’s Instagram it might as well serve as a monument to her dead friends. Year after year, Alanna posted images of Dash Snow and Hilary Small and Ben Cho and so many other friends we had who met untimely deaths, usually due to drugs or suicide. Those were the two things on my mind when Alanna died, but who knows—it was actually probably neither.
It snowed so heavily for days after Alanna’s death. NYC is still covered in snow. It is so beautiful, even though I usually hate late winter. It’s also been the season most my friends have died.
I have lost a lot of friends in my life, all untimely.
I am sleeping better than ever these days—who knows why—but sometimes at very late hours, I read about the deaths of very talented young people. I have no idea why I do this. One person I read about a lot lately is Jonghyun of the k-pop group SHINee who died in 2017 of suicide. This young man was so talented, so beautiful and so bright, and yet his struggles with depression just ate him up. There is so much written about him. This long interview with Esquire Korea is very telling especially. You can feel that he knows his ending.
Something about my friend’s Instagram being full of dead photos of friends just tells me that maybe Alanna too knew her end would be untimely. She ran a gallery of dead downtown kids almost. Maybe she felt she belonged there too.
And here’s the craziest thought: maybe they pulled her over to the other side.
A weird thing always happens to me each time a friend dies: for the week or so after the news, I feel like I am dying. More so than usual health freak-outs, I actually have very marked weird health issues. I threw out my back this week in a way that made me feel paralyzed—I had to crawl to the bathroom at one point. Then I had two very intense tachycardia spells this week, which I have not in years. I also felt very faint several times in spite of eating well. It reminded me after Maggie Estep died, I almost went to hospital several times in the week after. This also happened after the death of two other friends. It often feels like I am being pulled by them to the other side, because they don’t want to be alone or something. It’s a crude way to put it and pretty absurd, but this is how it feels. They have often happened in pretty rough grey patches of late winter when everything feels so incredibly dead, so that also adds to it.
I don’t know why I am here and so many friends of mine are not. I don’t know what it is that finally pulls people over to that side, whether it is their troubles or some health issue they missed. It all just feels so mysterious, if mystery can be seen as bleak and ugly, like never-ending static.
A few months ago, right on the Boulevard of Death, my roommate and I watched the aftermath of a bad accident across the street from us. A car had driven right into a store in the middle of a strip mall. It had broken into a whole wall and window, glass and debris just everywhere. There was no way to explain what happened. We watched ambulances attend to it and we could not tell who was hurt. We took photos and watched pedestrians marvel at it and then we went about our day, forgetting it happened. I didn’t even think of Boulevard of Death when I saw it—I only thought of that today where everything feels so heavy, where it falls together on this page somehow.
I struggle very hard with death—I alway have. The answer to would you want to live forever for me is alway YES. I have also been very suicidal at many points but that was actually because I wanted so badly to be alive and felt I was being pushed out of the world of the living. It was out of no other choice, not out of hating life. That’s something people seem to not get about suicide. Untimely death for me though is something else—the shock of it, the unpredictability, the defying of life’s gentle logic, it’s just too much. Somewhere there is a closet where Alanna’s clothes still hang and if you hold those garments close you can probably smell her. Her scent will linger on, for a while. Traces of her will be everywhere, even as she is not. The comments keep coming on the Instagram page, she is tagged over and over. All we can hope is that she opened a door to another place, where maybe now she is partying with all those other friends she memorialized so beautifully for ages.
Probably not though. When we know, it will be too late.
This week, in spite of all this, my main anxiety was centered on my parents, who live 3000 miles away and are old. They got their first dose of the Modern vaccine and they both reacted very poorly to it. For a week they have had fevers and chills and all that. Still they are grateful they got it, but it is still unnerving, especially for me as I pushed them to get it.
People live long lives in my family, but everyone worries all the time about absolutely everything. We are all so consistently depressed no one thinks to even call it depression. If you have to name it, it means you know the other side of it.
The lunar new year is upon us and soon it will be the vernal equinox and Persian New Year. New Years are always so nice, especially when the American one is over. Another chance. Renewal. Life again. It’s hard to feel those things, especially in a pandemic. It’s hard to remember by writing this and you reading this, actually we are the lucky ones. Anyone alive today has survived something to be here. If you think of society as a collection of survivors, how does that change how you walk among your various communities? Or does it at all?
I wish we could communicate with the dead, I wish we could know their secrets. A cliche but still.
I don’t know how to end scribbles like this entry but I will leave some words from James Merrill, a poet I loved who seemed very in on the dead’s secrets. In “Dead Center” he ends things with some lines that I will one day no doubt epigraph:
“Leap, Memory, supreme equestrienne,
Through hoops of fire, circuits you overload!
Beyond reflections, as I dip my pen
In Now’s black waters, burn the stars of Then.”
Actually, one more. I have never read a better description of depression than this sentence from Jonghyun which could also just be the best description of life there is too:
“What shall I do, with this space of mine that’s grown so vast.”