Leave New York for a few years and things change. The M train becomes a legitimate, viable option. Bridges are renamed, bike lanes birthed, favorite restaurants shut down. Young muscled men on the subway sell fruit snacks and granola bars instead of candy and batteries.
But some things never change. The silhouette of a saxophonist in Central Park. The off-tune vocalist singing for change on the N train. The grandeur of Grand Central Station, the way the Chrysler Building catches the afternoon sun, the sky scraping spire of the Empire State Building reaching out toward its new sibling in the almost finished One World Trade. The robin’s egg blue of a swinging Tiffany’s bag on a young woman’s arm. Energy, visible like heat, shimmering in waves above the pavement.
Most of my early New York years, I was too hung over to even contemplate grabbing a cup of coffee and a bagel and breakfasting at Tiffany’s. But the idea of it, of anything being possible, of re-creating yourself to be whoever you want, to fit in, to be a part of it–-that is part of the consciousness of the city. Whether you land at JFK with a dollar and a dream or fight your way through the swampy current of Penn Station to jump on that downtown train, it is why so many people are enchanted with New York.
Admittedly, I have a rather bizarre relationship with the Big Apple. Over the years, and especially since leaving, the city has become larger than life to me. Like fuzzy, little Disney animals singing and dancing through the forest, I have imbued the city with personality, with opinions, with a presence and a soul. In my head and my memory, it’s not just a place, but a living, breathing entity.
Each summer since we moved, we come back to the Mother Ship for a few days. When we approached the bridge that would take us into the city that first summer back, I welled up with emotion. My skyline, my city, my home, my heart. But last year I had almost an allergic reaction to Brooklyn. After a year in Denmark, I had forgotten just how hard a hot summer in the city can smack you in the face. Fighting through a wall of humidity and humanity, through crowded unrecognizable streets, I panicked. I wanted to get out. And that reaction surprised me, bewildered me, and saddened me. This year, I came prepared. I sat on the 7 train, as meditative as one can be on a 7 train from Queens with two kids and a husband anxious to make sure I didn’t have some sort of PTSD breakdown. We went to the Highline, a park that didn’t exist before we left. We took them to Central Park for ice cream and playgrounds and rock climbing. We rode the 7 train, the L, the E, the N, the Q. The children whined and pouted and dragged their feet, complaining of being too hot, too thirsty, too tired. They wanted to go back and play with their friends, go swimming, do other non NYC things that you can do ANYWHERE.
What?? These, my NYC babies. Surely the city is in their blood, part of their genetics. Their gestation was a lullaby of sirens and traffic. A taxi-cab and M14 soundtrack. My eldest spent his toddler years in city parks and museums, cafes geared toward kids growing up in tiny apartments. My youngest was almost born at the corner of 1st Avenue and 23rd Street. I have always considered them city kids. NYC kids. Cooler than cool, heirs to the best city in the world. They didn’t need to make it there because they were born there–it should be part of their DNA. But it’s not.
What I realized this trip is that NYC is part of my identity, my self of sense. And that sense is entwined and tangled with my feelings about the city. Knotted and re-knotted to the point where trying to figure out where one ends and the other begins is almost impossible. I hitched my wagon to that star that shines bright in the Manhattan sky and over the years, the reins got so tight when it came time to leave, I had to cut myself free, excising a fair amount of myself in the process.
New York is a magical place to live–a twinkling skyline where anything is possible. Where Breakfast at Tiffany’s is not only do-able, but encouraged. But it’s not always an easy place to live. There is something very true in the lyrics. I did make it there, and there is a part of me that feels like I can make it anywhere. And at the risk of sounding snotty and cooler than thou, I like that. I like the 20 years of hardcore city living I have under my belt. It is part of who I am, part of how I see myself and other people see me. My reflection, the one I see in the mirror and the one I project to the world, is that of a New York City gal–it is apparent in the way I speak, the way I walk, the clothes I wear. It is written on my body, evident in my carriage, audible in my words. My speech is peppered with city slang, there is a quickness in my gait that comes from years of avenue ambling and street strolling. It is a part of me, and I am a part of it.
This year I had, as I mentioned to a friend, those vagabond blues. The day after my kids forced my hand, I met a friend on my own. We walked through Central Park. We had twin tower sized ice-coffees across from Sheep Meadow. And, much to my surprise, I was followed around by little chirping birds, like I was starring in my very own version of a Disney movie. One that involved cigarettes and alcohol as opposed to tulips and tiaras. And bandying ideas about with a similar soul, on a park bench in the dripping humidity, surrounded by a little bit of nature in that concrete jungle, I had a moment of peace with my feelings about New York.
As we said good-bye and I walked back to the train, I briefly thought about going a few blocks out of my way to stop by Tiffany’s. It was too hot, starting to rain, I had been gone for too long. But I wasn’t sad. Tiffany’s, like New York itself, will be there next year.
As will I.
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Your post made me homesick. I am a New Yorker expat, now living in CA. I worked for 20 years at the corner of 23rd and First: the VA Hospital; lived in Stuy Town, SoHa, Brooklyn; loved the subways… Not many people get nostalgic at the smell of urine, but to me, it will always mean the subway. I was pissed, though, when the authorities banned walking through from one car to another. I really enjoyed it there. I haven’t been back much, but it seems like my home town. So familiar with memories. The tragedy of 9/11 got me to feeling a little claustrophobic, though. That plus the fact that it is now Disneyland for the mega rich and mostly an expensive, noisy, impractical place for everyone else makes me glad I’m not there any more. I do miss it very much. I miss the way it was, too.
Ah, the smell of spoiled milk on a hot August day….I know it well. And miss it from time to time as well. I moved there in the late 80s, so it was in the process of being cleaned up, but still enough of an edge to make it cutting. I remember living out in Brooklyn and having to carry mace on the F train–back before Brooklyn became the hipster capital of the world. Not that I mind hipsters…I miss it a lot too. And then at times, schlepping around in the heat with a couple of kids and six bags of groceries, then I miss it no so much.
What a lovely, lovely post. Like revisiting an old love –
Thank you! I feel like NYC is like an old love–in fact my husband has often commented that it’s a bit like a love triangle at times…but that makes it hard to sort out my feelings. Not really. But kind of really ;-).
You were on the Highline, aw Dina I live at, literally, the downtown end of the Highline. Next time you all come home, we had better see you all…. XX.
I’m not sure you would have wanted to encounter my lovely children that day, Steve….Next time? CPH? It’s a quick flight from Aberdeen!
I have never been but I don’t know if I could stop clutching my handbag for long enough to enjoy it.
Kelly, you’d be fine! It’s not like it used to be (which is good—but also bad). Times Square is like Disney World now. There are still pockets of raw, edgy New York-ness, but far from staying away from them, people now seek them out, to recapture a bit of that grittiness that is part of what makes NYC so appealing.
yes yes! i have only been to ny once for a mere week in the heat of august and i miss it too. my grown daughter and nephew live & thrive there and i fell hard for the highline gallery, saxophone players, central park benches, running in prospect park with my girl, murray’s cheeses, and coffee shops . . . can’t wait to go back.
I am not sure how I missed this comment or missed replying to it. I’m very sorry it’s taken me this long! I am so glad you enjoyed NYC. (I often feel like an unofficial ambassador for the city and am hurt and offended when people chose the ‘hate it’ box in the ‘love it’ or ‘hate it’ questionnaire…). There is a mystery and an energy in NY that is like nowhere else I’ve been. I hope you do go back. And I hope you enjoy it just as much. Sorry again!
Sometimes that relationship with city is a specific time as well—for you and the city; you forging your new adult life, the city in the throes of the late eighties Dinkins. A time that will never be the same for the both of you. You may have settled down with Mr. Copenhagen, a more appropriate partner for you to raise a family with,
but you radiate New York, you’ll always have it with you in your stride and in your attitude (and probably on your shoe).
Those birds really did follow you around—I think New York was letting you know it still has a bit of a crush on you!
But I still feel like I’m cheating on NYC, you know? As much as I know Mr. CPH is a good fit, and good for the here and now, it still hurts to think back on that NYC love affair. Those birds were weird though. I felt a bit like I was channeling Beatrix Potter…
Love this Dina. I read in the NYT once that everyone who has ever lived in NYC has their own personal map of the city, imprinted on their hearts. It’s constantly changing and yet it’s always the same.
ps: where in central park did your boys climb rocks, it’s a favorite activity of the 9 yo’s.
I love that idea!