I asked twenty to thirty random people about their brushes with heartbreak while preparing The Heartbreak Map of Manhattan and a related feature that eventually appeared on Nerve.com. Eliciting painful memories from strangers is easier than one would expect. Given enough time, most New Yorkers can give a public account of emotional stranding without falling apart, which is good. It shows the wound has healed and the heart continues to beat.
I’m grateful to all those who shared their stories. Props to Noah in Washington Square Park for recapitulating the fatal blow delivered by his first love in an NYU dorm. Those left untouched by his story are a cold-hearted bunch. A much older man named Eric told me about breaking a young lady’s heart in the courtyard of the nearby law school. “This is not funny, this is serious,” he warned. “We were having a lovely affair and unfortunately the woman’s father died and it was just too intense. I had to break it off.” Some would call him a schmuck but the gravity with which he told his story bespoke a lingering sense of remorse. I’m reminded of the song Diamonds and Rust in which an unexpected call from an old lover takes Joan Baez (and later Rob Halford) back in time to a crummy hotel near Washington Square. Despite the recent facelift and the legions of tourists, undergrads and acoustic strummers who’ve crapped up every walk I’ve taken through it since the mid-1980’s, tired old Washington Square continues to resonate with the stories of spurned hearts.
The same cannot be said of Thompkins Square. Almost none of the pretty young things I approached there would admit to firsthand knowledge of heartbreak. Was it pride that prevented the little-Ivy blondes and hoodied slackers from sharing stories of having been screwed? More likely it was youth and good fortune. Thompkins Square has had an extreme makeover since the days when Daniel Rakowitz (aka “The Butcher of Thompkins Square”) paraded his pet chicken through the park’s rambling homeless encampment. Today it’s an urban greenspace where young parents and recent grads walk their kids and puppies. There’s not much heartbreak in the new capital of cute and I started to feel like a creep hanging around there seeking it out. When I finally found a young woman with a story to tell, it was about a canine custody visit in the park’s celebrated dog run.
Interestingly, Harlem seemed to be another heartbreak-free zone. Despite hours of internet searching, an open Facebook call and interviews at the Lenox Lounge and the Studio Museum, I couldn’t document a single brownstone death pact or speakeasy split-up. Evidently, Harlem hearts are broken in private and with little fanfare. Either that or all the stories lie buried in the blues.
Some may see Ground Zero as a notable omission on a map charting heartbreak in New York City. I decided it was outside the immediate scope of the project. But having gone down there on the third anniversary of 9/11 and seen the widows weeping along the cyclone fence, I will say this: there is a world of heartbreak in that hole.
Given the city’s recent history, I was surprised by the number of middle aged New Yorkers who were unable to recall a single heartbreaking experience. How did they get through life with their hearts intact? A woman I approached in Central Park put real effort into trying to remember a heartrending experience. “You can’t think of a single place that reminds you of a person that was once a part of your life but no longer is?” I asked. She couldn’t. Eventually we both gave up and she moseyed off wishing me luck. On one hand, I envied her sunny disposition. On the other, I wondered if she had ever grown up.
My own heartbreak places pepper the city: a gallery near Washington Square, The Port Authority Bus Terminal, the downtown 1 from Harlem. Heartbreak hits us where we live and these places, along with a half-dozen others, will always remind me of the people I passed through them with. And like Angela who I met walking along the Hudson River near the George Washington Bridge, I find comfort in them because heartbreak has marked them with an indelible tag: Staceface was here.