New York State of Mind

I’m a New Yorker. I haven’t lived within the state borders since 1987, and I’m married to a native Texan. But I’m a New Yorker.

New York has a distinct smell all its own: fuel, asphalt, pollution, roasted peanuts. Millions of people all living in a small space. Walk around the city for a while, you’ll lose count of all the languages you hear. Drivers honk first, look later. Stepping into the street is taking your life into your hands; taxis appear literally out of nowhere, and yes, they will run you down.

Jaywalking is an art form, as is getting on and off the subway with all your limbs intact. ‘Personal space’ takes on a whole new meaning on the subway too–there might not be any. Things cost a fortune. A fortune. Except for pizza. Not pizza.

Hidden gems of neighborhoods, oases in the middle of a cement desert. Green in unexpected places, around random corners. Unspeakable violence and unimaginable kindness.

I’m fairly well traveled; visited some amazing cities these past few years. All of them are beautiful in their own way, and each provided me with a new piece of discovery about myself and my world. Some (London, Edinburgh) connected me to my family history; others (Tokyo, Sydney) showed me just how little I know about the world.

But I crave New York; crave it like I crave bleu cheese dressing or new books. It sneaks up suddenly, having lain dormant for weeks, months even. Then-BAM!-there it is, the need to go, the need to just be there. The need to hear the accents (yes), eat a hot dog, catch a B’way show, be shoved aside on the sidewalk.

Admittedly, I have a fairly idealistic memory when it comes to New York, somewhat romantic notions about a city that is noisy, crowded, polluted and dang expensive. There’s a bit of an aura surrounding the skyline for me, a bit of a bubble that may or may not keep me from seeing ‘reality’ as it stands.

Is it possible to be an ex-patriate New Yorker? I never lived within the confines of ‘the City’ proper; I grew up in the suburbs. Regular visits whetted my appetite for the adrenaline rush that is NYC–visits to the tourist destinations like Broadway and the Empire State Building. Even now–and I’ve lived in Texas longer than I lived in NY–when I go back I discover something new every time, something I never knew existed within the cement and steel beehive.

But I’m drawn to the City like a moth to flame. Something calls to me, invites me back, and I’m compelled to go, even if only in memory.

Ten years ago, I was 24 hours from getting on a plane to do just that. A friend and I had tickets to go for a long weekend, with plans to see a show, hang with friends, and eat. A lot.

We didn’t go, then. Instead I sat on my own couch in Texas and listened to the eerie silence. Our house was in the flight path of DFW airport, and I hadn’t realized how accustomed I was to the regular sounds of planes flying overhead. It was a couple of worrisome days before I confirmed that my personal friends, at least, were safe; scared and scarred, but safe.

I ended up visiting in November, 2001. I remember walking out of Macy’s and catching my first real glimpse of the southern Manhattan skyline, minus the Twin Towers. Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it. Those towers were a bastion of my childhood, a sure sign that we were indeed ‘in the City’. I could always gauge my place within Manhattan simply by looking up.

The sense of disorientation didn’t go away as we made our way to Ground Zero. The sounds of the City receded the closer we got, the unspoken need for reverence overtaking normal conversation.

There. Oh, there. The sharp smell of burnt metal even two months later was almost overwhelming. We couldn’t get closer than about two blocks away, but the ghostly shells of the WTC towered above us nonetheless; it was as close as I wanted to be. My stomach still knots up at the memory. It was as if the skeletal remains towered above the City, providing a fiery call to arms.

I’m not sure how long we stood at the fence. It could have been minutes or an hour. I shed tears, for the city I knew and the one I’d missed out on, the lives snuffed out in a moment and the ones forever tainted. But as we walked away, I smelled something different–a pretzel vendor, hawking its wares about four blocks back. I bought one, with mustard of course, and walked slowly back uptown, savoring the distinctly New York experience. It occurred to me then, as now, that life would continue, both here and for me at home in Texas.

It has. I was in New York last spring for a long weekend, and while the ghost of the towers still hovers, it seems a benign entity reminding the City’s inhabitants of their resilience rather than the avenging angel stoking their anger. People have gone about their lives with the usual NY style, strength and character, whether you admire that kind of thing or not. The City has recovered. No, it won’t ever be the same, but it will still be New York.

I think I love it even more.

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3 comments so far

  1. Jan Griner Archer on

    Beautiful!

  2. Becky S on

    Love your post, Nancy. We lived in Plainsboro, NJ 20 years ago, and loved taking the train into the city. I remember going to the top of WTC and also looking up from the bottom. The sight of that steel zooming up into the sky was incredible. It is still hard to think about them crashing down. But I agree with you, NYC will always be NYC. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Jennifer Franklin on

    good post! I feel the same way about this city…I love the energy! We went December 2001 and it was absolutely awful, I still can’t believe it. We got engaged on the top of the Empire State building in 1998 and the twin towers are in the background of our engagement pics…so weird to have them gone.


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