At the edge of Jersey City is a field of black dirt. For one stretch of the field, two rows of thin, yellow shrubs run along an idle road, planted without any intention for longevity.
At night, the last trains pull into Journal Square (Jersey City’s train station) and the men and women who make the place a so-called business district Uber back to their neighborhoods on Grove Street. The only lights at this time come from a McDonald’s, a liquor store, and two delis that sell smokes and boner pills and bright-colored Mexican soda. A man walks around with a black plastic bag with the neck of a bottle sticking out, telling anyone who cares to listen that he once went to the University of Chicago. Outside my apartment is a 24/7 diner and bar, where I sit every night for an hour and write.
Tonight a lady with black gloves on her hands sits in a corner and stares at the wall behind me. From a booth away, I ask if I can sit with her.
“Why?” she says.
“Because I want to talk,” I tell her. “I like talking to people.” At the bar, a melody from the “Titanic” soundtrack fades away and returns as George Michael’s “Careless Whisperer.”
“Can’t you talk to me from over there?” she says.
I peer over the seats between us. “I guess so.”
“What’s your name?” I ask.
“Amanda,” she says. Her eyes, made bug-like by the lenses of her brittle-looking glasses, stay fixed on the wall.
“What do you do?” I ask.
“I meant for work.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Listen,” I say, “I’ll leave you alone, if that’s what you want.”
“No, it’s alright,” she says.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay, then. Do you have family, Amanda?”
“I had a dog,” she says, “but it died.”
“Oh,” she says. “I had another dog, and it also died.”
At one o’clock a man pulls out his phone and starts yelling in Vietnamese. Still yelling, he walks outside the door, head shaking, and leaves his drinks half-finished and unpaid. When he comes back, his face empty, he takes the seat between Amanda and me. “I would like some fucking pasta,” he says to no one. The waitresses, who are never in a hurry, come to take his order five minutes later, after Amanda has left and I’ve paid the bill for both of us.
Outside, by the gray concrete steps covered with dried-over spit stains, the beggar Jules asks me for a cigarette. I give him the rest of my pack.
“Oh, man,” he says. “You see here? You see, Kev? God ain’t never did let anything bad happen to me.”
I left Jersey City on a Friday night. It was only once my bus passed Princeton and Hamilton—only once I saw blue and white houses lined up ornately along green grass and under good weather—that I remembered things about Journal Square I’d never even cared to write down. I remembered the dirty-haired waitress at the VIP diner, who liked to say “okey dokey” and “alright-y” after my order, and I remembered that she brought me an extra drink when I mentioned leaving town. I remembered noticing a string of lights hanging on a tree outside a liquor store that made me stand still and stare for a minute, and one late afternoon, when the sky was a faint flesh color, I watched a homeless woman with glassy eyes (who begged on the same street corner as Jules) snatch a fistful of fries from the man, fries I’d bought him just a second before, while Jules looked on at her bulging, spitting mouth with a thing on his face I could’ve sworn was love.
Some things linger on, quiet and unremarkable. A mile from the Journal Square station platform, past the plants that have dried into the color of hay and brick houses that look like scraped sandpaper, an abandoned building waits to be demolished. Decades ago, before its stained glass windows were stolen or sold, the thing could’ve been a cathedral.