The Day The Music Died

2124885502_559cafa7f0Another anniversary of late summer remembrance and sky blue conversations.  Another year of promises never to forget.  Another solemn reading of those three thousand names; names slowly fading in resonance next to the names of the Newtown children, the Boston marathon victims, the countless others whose names we have never heard, the ones who are only afforded ink in a police blotter, whose faces have never made it onto television channels or newspaper headlines.  The ones whose names we will never know of because they live across oceans, across continental divides, across worlds.

September 11.  New York City.  My city.  The city of a million separate stories, but one of those stories was always mine.  I used to avoid the films and the television specials.  I used to avoid the memorials and the telethons.  I used to avoid the E train.  I used to avoid downtown.  I used to avoid the footprint, the hole, the void.  I could not close my eyes against the famous photograph of someone falling into nothingness.  I used to think, enough.  We should not dwell on or cocoon ourselves in maudlin memories.  We should move forward, move on.  But as I move farther from that sky blue day, both geographically and chronologically, I have had a change of heart.

Because those tributes and light shows and status changes and pauses for remembrance are right.  We should not forget.IMG_4100

We should not forget the lives that were lost that day.  We should not forget the loss of a way of life, regardless of whether it was naive or hedonistic or lived in coils of bubble wrap.  We should not forget the way the sun shone off the steel of those towers.  We should not forget the smell of burning fuel or the feel of scorched paper and ash that rained down for nights and days and nights again.  We should not forget the plumes of smoke that rose into the air, searching for some God to make sense or the tiny echoed plumes of a hundred thousand candles lit in lieu of prayer or lament.   We should not forget the faces of the missing, strung upon walls and barriers, hastily glued and plastered.  We should not forget.

Yes.  This is an American thing.  But even more, September 11th is a New York thing.  And I am, above all else, a New York girl.  I have not forgotten.  I remember.  I remember that we New Yorkers, infamous for keeping to ourselves, spoke to one another deep in the bowels of the subway tunnels in those late September days, on city streets and in hallways and office corridors and waiting in line for coffee.  I remember how we gave of ourselves, our time and money and blood.  I remember walking in the shadow of the missing.  I remember the bells tolling, not needing to ask for whom they tolled because they tolled for an entire city, a nation, a past.  We should remember.

I do not remember to fuel an anger toward a stranger in a strange land.   I do not remember so that there will be a scapegoat to blame, a donkey to pin a tail on, an easy target.  I do not remember so that we can justify (or not) boots on the ground and drones in the sky.  I do not remember for any of those reasons.  I remember because as time goes by and memories fade it is important to take a moment to reflect and to look forward.  To make a notation in the history books.  Like anything  that has a profound affect on a soul, a city, a nation, you need a rubber band snap every now and again to remind you.

We have moved forward.  By September 12, 2001 we had already begun.  Through the stench of the tragedy, through the sifting of steel, through a cloud of disbelief and discordance, the city moved forward.  But the need is still there.  The need for questioning and reasoning and the need to look deep within, the need so summon the strength to keep going, not just along the same path as before, but to forge a new and better road forward.

And that in and of itself, is a reason to remember.

Easy Like Sunday Morning

Photo:  luxist.com
Photo: luxist.com

Dear Sunday,

I miss you.

I remember those times when you would roll up, all cool and slow, and we would greet you like a long-forgotten friend.  You would  show up with your hat full of rainy-day ideas, bags stuffed full of lazy afternoon notions and un-hurried schemes, splaying them on the carpet in jumbles and heaps.  We didn’t worry about the mess.  Mondays were for messes.

You always brought the crossword, sometimes smudged from the freshness of the ink.  We’d take turns, boyfriend/girlfriend, pencils scrambling to fill in those blank, little boxes. Boyfriend took sports.  Girlfriend always fared better with books.

When we were awake enough to hear rumblings, we’d head out for brunch.  Proper brunch; not bagel and cream cheese brunch.  New York brunch.  Bloody Marys and mimosas and corn beef hash and eggs anyway you like them.  Hash browns and pancakes and coffee strong enough to clear the cobwebs from a hung-over mind.  A blue haze of burned off alcohol and cigarette smoke clinging to the ends of our hair.

Photo:  liquor.com
Photo: liquor.com

When the sun was shining, we would sometimes stroll through SoHo and window shop, stopping for an icy coke and a pretzel on the corner.  All those things we couldn’t afford, didn’t need, didn’t want, but were too pretty not to stop and stare.  Sometimes we would stroll through the Met, indulging my weakness for ornate furniture and mid-century costumes.  Or maybe the Guggenheim or MoMa, one of a thousand and one splendid galleries in SoHo.  Sometimes we’d simply recall Central Park in fall.

Remember those wintery, rainy afternoons of television marathons?  There was that time we watched the whole first season of The Sopranos in one day, listening to the rain tattoo a beat on the window sill, safe and cozy inside.  Take-out for dinner.  Indian?  Thai?  Mexican?  Burgers or Chinese, maybe some gourmet sandwiches from the deli on the corner.  Or maybe just toast and tea.  Those brunches were big.

Sometimes we’d fall asleep on the sofa in the middle of the day, for no reason other than we were up while the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.*

IMG_4427You haven’t come around lately, my old Sunday friend.  You’ve changed.  I guess you don’t want to hang around when the day begins at 5 am, when an infant wakes and hunger cries pierce the dark.  Or when you have to set out sleepily in the still chill morning for sports practice.  It’s not so much fun when errands take over and television is restricted and food needs to be bought and dinner needs to be cooked and scuffles refereed.

Sometimes I catch a glimpse of you, my old Sunday lover, in a board game played after dinner on a winter night, or when the family cuddles up with a bowl of popcorn and The Goonies.  Sometimes when the long-ago girlfriend/boyfriend, now husband and wife, put their laptops away and settle in for a game of Scrabble I catch a whiff of my old Sunday friend.  Sometimes, during the dark, Danish winter, when the wind is howling and the rain is blowing sideways I will sneak a nap, and warm under a quilt, I may see a ghost of you, Sunday, in the shadow of my bedroom door.

I am not complaining.  I have sticky hugs to see me through.  I have the comfort of vows and the security of love to keep me warm.  I can go into those shops now, the ones with the too pretty things to not stop and stare, and sometimes even walk out with a bag over my arm.  I have Mondays and Tuesdays and all the other days marching forward, taking me with them.  I’m not complaining.  Not too much.

But if you’re ever around, my Sunday friend, stop by.

And bring the crossword with you.

The line referenced above was blatantly lifted from the below poem. One of my all time favorites.

Recuerdo

BY EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY

We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
It was bare and bright, and smelled like a stable—
But we looked into a fire, we leaned across a table,
We lay on a hill-top underneath the moon;
And the whistles kept blowing, and the dawn came soon.
We were very tired, we were very merry—
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry;
And you ate an apple, and I ate a pear,
From a dozen of each we had bought somewhere;
And the sky went wan, and the wind came cold,
And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold.
We were very tired, we were very merry,
We had gone back and forth all night on the ferry.
We hailed, “Good morrow, mother!” to a shawl-covered head,
And bought a morning paper, which neither of us read;
And she wept, “God bless you!” for the apples and pears,
And we gave her all our money but our subway fares.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s

IMG_3981
Photo: Richard Steggall

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.

Photo: Atstrakey; centralpark.com
Photo: Atstrakey; centralpark.com

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.

breakfastatiffanys11New 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.

IMG_3786

Just a Small Town Girl

Photo: wikipedia.com
Photo: wikipedia.com

For the last twenty-five years, I’ve been a big city gal; concrete jungle where dreams are made of and all the rest. Mass transit, museums, if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere.  Too much of the great outdoors unnerves me.  Mother Nature makes me break out in hives.  Where others see beauty and wildlife, I see Blair Witch and hay fever.  Given the choice, my olfactory system will choose the smell of wine and cheap perfume to fresh mown lawn every time.

But as happily married as I am to my urban landscape, I wasn’t raised in the city.  For the most part, I grew up in a quiet, New England town.  Not remote enough to be rural, not sub-divided enough to be suburban, one of thousands of one-stoplight towns across the United States.  Just a small town girl, living in a small town world.  There was an eponymous house of pizza, a few churches, a local Dairy Queen (my first job) and not much else.  Except for the freedom to grow up.

And grow up we did.  As kids, we plunged recklessly down huge sand hills blanketed in snow, cat-a-corner to a cemetery with headstones dating back to the Revolution.  We ice-skated on frozen ponds behind the church and rode our bikes to neighboring towns.  There were dark and winding roads to speed down, plenty of grassy lawns to stain the knees of your jeans after a make-out session, hide-outs and pull-offs where you could smoke a cigarette, or roll a joint, organize a kegger.

Though I’ve reached an age where my city dwelling years have outstripped my small town years, I come home regularly.  And far from the straight jacket constraints of my teen years, it is a welcome break.  My own children are city children, apartment dwellers, green space appreciators.  As parents of city kids, we have to seek out sport opportunities for them.  We have to make play dates, arrange free time and plan school vacations.  And don’t get me started on the nightmare of having children with winter month birthdays when you live in a flat.  We have annual passes to museums and lots of take out options.  And generally, we love it.  But when we visit the town I grew up in, I can open the screen door and let my children out.  They are free to roam the neighborhood.  To ride their bikes around the block, to hopscotch in the neighborhood pools.  The woods, the ones I watched burn down those many years ago, are no longer there, so there won’t be a canopy of pines under which to steal a French kiss or hide a pilfered Playboy.  There are no more mint leaves to crush between your fingers to mask the smell of a stolen cigarette.  But for a few weeks a year, my kids have the kind of summer I remember growing up with.  Freedom from school, from schedules, from bedtimes and rules.  Freedom to play kick the can from dawn to dusk.  In the summer months, the flicker of the porch light was enough to call us home.  My own children aren’t old enough to stay out that late yet, but they will be soon enough.  They will be old enough to have backyard campouts with games of spin the bottle and come home smelling of earth and sun and summer on their skin after a day of adventure.

Photo: portage.highschoolmedia.org
Photo: portage.highschoolmedia.org

Of course, small towns aren’t perfect.  They are romanticized and air brushed in their role as American ideal.  But just because they are small does not mean they are free from strife, from problems, from pain.  As a teen growing up, there was a lot of drinking.  A lot of drugs.  Not just pot, but cocaine, acid, mushrooms.  There was a lot of sex.  Anyone who thinks they can stop teenagers from having sex should spend a month in small town USA with hormone riddled teens with nothing to do on a Saturday night but hang down the sand pits with a bottle of stolen Schnapps.  There was a lot of drunk driving down those long and winding roads.  There were accidents.  There were deaths.  But there was also a sense of pride, of community, of togetherness that is hard to find in the city.  In a small town, Homecoming is a big deal.  Football and Little League are a big deal.  Big games and pep rallies and spirit weeks.  Town parades on Memorial Day with the local dance school, 4th of July fireworks displays.  All the stuff I feel like my kids miss out on.

Photo:  huffingtonpost.com
Photo: huffingtonpost.com

A lot has changed in twenty-five years.  As a teen, I felt boxed in, hemmed in by small town life.  I was restless.  As soon as I could, I took that midnight train going anywhere, though in my case it was a Greyhound bus headed to Port Authority.   But there are things for teens to do now; a 14 screen movie theatre, McDonald’s, a Barnes and Noble.  There are numerous chain restaurants, and to my utter astonishment, a sushi place.  For real.  Sushi has hit small town, U.S.A.   The sand hills that I used to sled down have been taken over by a shopping complex.  There are strings of traffic lights now, lighting up the town.

I love raising kids in the city.  I love the diversity they are exposed to, the opportunities they are offered, the culture at their fingertips.  But as a mother, I can better appreciate the safety and sense of home that small towns offer.  It’s nice to be able to play kick-ball in the middle of the street.  Yell “CAR!” during a game of street hockey, knock on someone’s door and ask if they can come out to play.   There are times I long for that small town security for my kids.   The sense of knowing there will be friends in the bleachers to cheer them on a frosty November afternoon.  The idea of one of them waking up one day and realizing the girl next door is suddenly and completely gorgeous.  And yes, even hanging out at the sand pits with a bottle of Schanpps.

Modern art museums are great.  Take out is a life-saver.  Mass transit is a fantastic thing.

But so is having a sense of belonging.  The kind you get when you’re just a small town girl.