The Season Three finale of High Maintenance was a tribute to New York City.
The episode ends with our protagonist biking through the crowded streets of Manhattan as famous tour guide Timothy ‘Speed’ Levitch muses about existence. Everything worthwhile is found in our interactions with one another, Speed explains. Our protagonist smiles absorbing the energy around him.
I started crying at my work desk. To be fair it was Pisces season and I was three weeks out of a break up. To be fair I’d moved from New York only a month before.
I’d left New York for a job, not because I’d grown tired of the city. I ached as I watched last year’s High Maintenance finale and I ached even more this weekend watching the last episodes of Season Four. I’m not one of those people who thinks New York is objectively better than every other city. It’s simply the most acute concentration of what makes me feel alive.
Every time I tell someone I moved to Los Angeles from New York, I’m asked to compare the cities as if there’s anything new to offer that conversation. Some people are waiting for me to insult LA; others want me to validate their life choices — of course, LA is better, insert joke about the weather. But all I can say is I love both cities. What I miss about New York is simply the simmering state of possibility. Every time you step out your door, human interaction is offered to you.
It’s why New York was the inevitable epicenter of our current crisis. The most magical thing about New York, about High Maintenance, about life, has suddenly become a danger.
Since shifting from web series to half hour HBO show, Katja Blichfeld and Ben Sinclair’s intersecting tapestry of New York has deepened. The web series was entertaining, but the show is profound. It’s still a collection of vignettes connected by pot dealer The Guy — a tender performance from Sinclair — but no show on TV is more invested in our collective humanity.
It’s easy to celebrate High Maintenance as some sort of liberal triumph of untold stories, but I think that’s a reduction. The show is sentimental, but it’s not interested in that kind of sentimentality. This is why it succeeds where copycats — most prominently the “New York, I Love You” episode of Master of None — fail. The show’s main concern is not identity – it’s idiosyncrasy.
One of the stories this season was about a doorman named Victor who starts to suspect that his partner, Ellen, who’s still recovering from an illness, might have an online shopping addiction. The point of this vignette is not to shout Hey! Your doorman is a person too! The point is to show how Victor struggles to get Ellen to accept his help and how Ellen longs for Victor to stop coddling her. And, yes, the point is also to show a certain class dynamic between Victor and a tenant who donated $500 to Ellen’s GoFundMe. But the real treat is in the reveal that Ellen hasn’t been online shopping at all — she’s been stealing. The absurdity of this revelation brings the couple unexpectedly closer.
High Maintenance understands, above all else, that people are really fucking weird. We’re cruel and selfish, we’re kind and selfless, we’re boring, we’re surprising, we’re all so goddamn messy. If we let it life can be so unpredictable — we can be so unpredictable.
I hadn’t lived in a city until I moved to New York for college. My childhood and adolescence were spent in suburbia where my daily interactions were limited to the same handful of people.
I wanted to move to New York because like so many suburban teens it felt to me like a place where things happened. But I didn’t actually understand what made New York special until I left six years later — and tried to recreate my ideal way of life in a new place.
I started liking LA when I stopped having a car. The decision was financial, but I realized that I also preferred it. New York wasn’t more desirable than my suburb just because of the culture — it was the forced human interaction. Every moment in New York provided an opportunity. It wasn’t just the cliché NYC what-the-fuck-just-happened moments — it was the smaller reminders that our world is filled with a wide variety of other people going about their lives. And while New York may be the purest version, this experience is available in any city — even LA.
I was waiting for the bus in West Hollywood one night when two seemingly drunk girls approached me. Their Lyft pulled up and they asked if I wanted to come party with them. I said, yes. A few minutes into the drive I realized I’d made a mistake. Not a devastating stranger-danger kind of a mistake — a these-girls-are-definitely-straight kind of mistake. I asked the Lyft driver to pull over and I walked to the nearest bus stop.
I didn’t want to spend an evening with these women, but I loved spending three minutes with them. I loved the randomness of the encounter. I loved taking a bus I didn’t usually take. As a trans woman, most of my interactions with strangers are either harassment or getting hit on by gross men, but it’s worth it for the rest. Leaving myself open to the dangers of public transit and rideshares is also leaving myself open to experiences — or mere observations — and that’s so much better than the solitude of a car.
The seventh episode of this season of High Maintenance begins with a woman not unlike the two I encountered at the bus stop. Her assistant orders her a rideshare and she is not pleased. Her displeasure deepens when a man she knows gets in the car. They share some tense words — an entire untold history present between them — before drifting into silence. After several moments, “Goodbye Horses” comes on the radio and the woman does a Buffalo Bill impression. The man doesn’t laugh — until the driver, not understanding the reference, responds sincerely. Then the man joins in. The former friends share the moment, but leave the rest unspoken. Then the man gets out of the car revealing he’s now a Hare Krishna, much to the woman’s surprise.
Later in the episode The Guy finds himself in a rideshare of his own. One of the other passengers is helping a blind man hang a picture through an app. Another woman in the car gets invested and then The Guy joins in as well. Even the driver wants to take his eyes off the road and help. The driver expresses confusion about braille keypads at drive through ATMs, and one of the passengers points out a blind person could have a driver of their own. The whole car shares a laugh. There’s a simple, fleeting camaraderie among these four humans.
The main story of the episode doesn’t take place entirely in a car. It’s about a dental hygienist named Nora just trying to make it through the day. When a patient asks her out, she gets flustered and tells him no, but as time passes she longs for something more than work, class, and caring for her daughter and another ill family member. The next time the patient comes in she asks if his offer still stands.
Their date is boring. The man just talks and talks. When her daughter calls with an emergency, Nora seems relieved to have an escape, but devastated that the night is over. As long as she stayed out possibility still existed, something to disrupt the mundanity of her life. Maybe this guy would miraculously get more interesting. But, no. The night is over. She rejects his kiss and lets him call her a car.
The driver asks if she wants music and, instead of turning on the radio, he takes out a recorder. Nora is baffled and asks him to put both hands on the wheel. But then he hands her a tambourine and takes out a melodica. Her concerns for safety give way to a fascination with this bizarre moment. They play music together.
She gets out of the car delighted. Then the driver calls out to her. He asks if he can buy her panties.
It’s not that Nora had a good night. It’s that she had a night. There was a change in her routine. There were occurrences she never could have imagined. She has something new to tell her daughter and to tell the other family member who is revealed to be her husband. With his weakened mental abilities, he doesn’t follow what she’s saying, but she confides in him anyway – asking his past self for some sort of permission.
“I kind of liked it,” she says. “Not him. But being out.”
Not every random interaction is so fleeting.
This winter I returned to New York to spend my birthday and Christmas with my chosen family in my chosen home. I’d spent most of my trip moping in ex nostalgia, but the day after Christmas I agreed to go to Cubbyhole with someone I knew in high school.
I was looking forward to reconnecting with this person, but my expectations for the evening were low. It seemed cute for two trans high school friends to go to a corny lesbian bar together and relish in being out. But I didn’t think I’d be meeting anyone else. Then their friend Mimi arrived.
Mimi and I started flirting right away. Within minutes we were doing shots of tequila while my high school friend stayed in the corner with our stuff. There are few things I value as much as banter, and with Mimi it was immediate.
By the time we got back with our drinks, my friend from high school had made a friend of their own. This woman was new to the city and sat on her laptop at the bar hoping someone would talk to her. And now someone had. Soon enough the four of us were leaving for lesbian bar number two, where dancing had been promised.
Henrietta Hudson was empty. We ordered more drinks and Mimi and I started talking about sex. We both said that we viewed the world sexually and liked to flirt and didn’t have the best boundaries, but then Mimi added that recently she was sort of being celibate. Well, then.
Mimi went outside to smoke a cigarette and I went with her. I asked if I could keep flirting with her even though she was celibate and she laughed. “I’m not actually celibate,” she said. “If you write about me you cannot say I’m celibate.” I smiled and told her she hadn’t given me a reason to write about her — yet. She laughed again. “Yes, you can keep flirting with me.”
We went inside and danced in the empty bar using the entire space like it belonged to us and us alone. Then we went to another bar. Then we got some food. Then all of a sudden it was 2am.
Our friend said they were getting a Lyft and we said goodbye to them and the stranger. Mimi and I headed towards the subway. We walked down a quiet street on the Lower East Side flirtatiously bumping into each other in between silences. Our eyes locked and soon I was up against a wall and she was kissing me.
When we got to Delancey Street we kept making out by the McDonald’s. I asked if she wanted to go somewhere else and she said she wasn’t sure. I told her how lovely the evening had been and that we absolutely didn’t have to go home together — it was nice just to have met her.
We walked down and I said goodbye at her side of the platform. She asked if she was going to see me again and I told her probably not. She kept kissing me and then finally I pulled away. I wanted to leave while we were still buzzing. I wanted her to want me as I left.
I walked to my side of the platform and noticed she was directly across from me. She smiled and motioned towards her phone. I lifted my hands up and made an eight, then a one, then an eight, until I’d given her my number. People on the platform started to watch.
“You’re missing a number!” she shouted. I yelled my number back. By this point everyone was watching. She texted me that her train wasn’t coming for fifteen minutes. I asked if she was saying I should come back. She said she couldn’t make up her mind. And then my train arrived.
“I can’t make you invite me home,” I typed. “You have five seconds to ask me to at least wait with you.”
“Wait with me”
I ran down the steps and back to her side of the platform. We started making out again and she asked if we could talk this out. “I love talking,” I said with a smile. She told me she wanted to keep hanging out, but was just feeling protective of her space.
And so we went to the apartment in Brooklyn where I was staying and had great sex in a loft bed that felt like it was going to come crashing down at any moment.
I love New York.
The eighth episode of this season features its own queer New York encounter.
Becca Blackwell plays A.J. — a person with a complicated romantic history that’s left many broken hearts and A.J. themself perpetually lonely. After a painful run-in with a past love, they decide to spend Halloween home alone.
But as they smoke on the balcony, and watch all the people walk by in costume, they get a burst of inspiration. They still have no place to go, but they throw together a Chucky costume. Then they get an emergency alert from someone named Fran, location included.
When they arrive at Fran’s place they run into her devastatingly hot assistant Cheyenne, played by Rad Pereira. They got the alert, too. Turns out Fran just got drunk on Ambien and accidentally clicked the emergency button on their iPhone. She promptly throws them out and they end up on the back of Cheyenne’s motorcycle, where they begin flirting. Pretty soon they’re at a bowling alley doing ketamine, the show slipping into one of its wildest formal experimentations as A.J. sinks into a k-hole.
When they get back to A.J.’s place, A.J. tells Cheyenne that they feel really safe with them. Cheyenne shoots back that A.J. doesn’t even know them. They hook up anyway.
The next morning A.J. is still alone. But for one night they weren’t. For one night they were able to distract themselves from their deeper emotional issues and feel safe with someone new. All because of an accidental text and a city of possibilities.
It’s easy to think of High Maintenance as a show about how we’re connected in our humanity. But it’s also about the individual experience of being in a city, open to those other lives. Each new interaction offers us a new version of who we can be. To quote Speed in Season Three: “I will appreciate the beauty of a flower and then likewise I will stand exhibitionistic and have the flower appreciate the beauty of me.”
As I approach a month in quarantine, I’ve realized that’s what I miss most.
Of course, I miss my friends. Of course, I miss freedom. Of course, I miss sex. But I ache for the randomness of experience. I ache for surprising interactions — good and bad — with strangers.
But life isn’t currently on pause. It’s just shifted. And High Maintenance offers us an assignment as well as an escape.
The Season Four finale takes place on Christmas Eve. A snow storm has canceled flights. The Guy invites his depressed, straight-laced niece back to his place to spend the night. They can try flying out again to see their family in the morning. She reluctantly agrees.
At the same time we watch sisters Pam-Anne and Destiny share a crash pad in Queens with a group of raucous flight attendants.
It’s not months and months, but for the night, they all must shelter in place.
Destiny just wants to keep her head down and rest, but Pam-Anne wants to make friends. She bonds with the flight attendants as her sister shoots her disapproving looks. As the evening continues we learn why Pam-Anne is so eager for connection — she’s recently divorced. And we learn why Destiny is so anxious — she’s pregnant and unsure how it’s going to affect her career. Trapped inside, the two sisters bond with one another, ready to go on their Christmas vacation with a deeper sense of clarity.
Meanwhile, The Guy realizes that he doesn’t want to visit the rest of his family. His niece is so anxious, so depressed, and while it’s certainly clinical, he also recognizes that their family has exasperated the problem.
“All of the people that our family said was weird or like fucked up are just kind of normal people,” The Guy tells her and himself. “And they just don’t match with our family’s version of normal, you know?”
The Guy decides not to go home for the holidays. He also decides to give his niece the dog he found outside his co-op at the beginning of the season. He traded a miserable week with his whole family for a night of true connection with one unlikely relative.
We may not have access to the randomness of experience, but we’ve all been given the randomness of this one experience. We’re trapped inside with roommates, family, partners, or alone, presented with a uniquely terrifying situation. We’re being forced to discover new facets within ourselves and others.
High Maintenance may provide a newfound fantasy — stories about people allowed to go outside in New York City. But it also reminds us that right now we can still feel our humanity buzzing off of those around us — the people we’re isolated with and the people we’re stumbling upon in our online metropolis. And when this is all over and TV is being made again, I’m certain that High Maintenance will tell inspiring, heartbreaking, delightfully weird stories about this moment in history — we’re going to need it.