"…once, while walking around The Irish town of Ballyvaughan I caught myself longing to be in Ballyvaughan. The sensation of being homesick For a place that is not my home While being right in the middle of it…." Billy Collins, “Bashō in Ireland”
As our car inched past Tompkins Square Park in the late afternoon traffic, I was acutely aware of life opening up before me. Everything good was happening to me and intersecting, like the streets on our way to the tiny establishment called Zucker Bakery on East 9th Street. I was released for the first time in years from being a live-in caretaker for my stepfather when I came to New York to visit him. As a result, I was going to be, albeit temporarily, a resident of Manhattan, living in a beautiful high rise overlooking the Hudson to the west and the City with all its landmark skyscrapers to the north. I was as high on life as the 29th floor apartment, vacated for a few weeks by friends of friends who lived in NYU’s Silver Towers, a housing complex for its academic staff located on Bleecker Street. Bleecker, the iconic street of our youth in the 60s, the days of our daring down in the Village.
At 61, I was free for the first time in my life to come and go as I pleased in New York, to roam the city, to stay out late, to not return home. In my regular life, my second book had recently joined the first in prestigious university libraries. I was about to become a Retired Person, freed from another kind of indenture. A new career teaching Yiddish was underway in various venues back home starting in the fall. My husband, 12 years my senior, was still spry and in good health, our relationship never better. I was all but crowing out the car window as we crawled through the traffic in the streets that felt to me like a speedway towards destiny.
I knew inside my almost out-of-body elation that it was excessive, and that it would be fleeting. Nothing gold can stay. And it was gold because it was the newly minted realization of a long-thwarted desire to be unrestricted in imbibing what the City had to offer, to come into my deferred New York adulthood and be able to exercise my prerogative to do as the spirit moved me in the city that, as far as I was concerned, had always been waiting for me.
So, when I rediscovered New York at 61, where I’d lived for much of my young life, it seemed to me a kind of closure.
New York is a city of concurrent revolving natures. It changes with the needs of the inhabitants as it changes for its own purposes. I’ve been four different types of inhabitant over six of the city’s decades and my own: a child immigrant, a teenager discovering myself that necessarily included my being a New Yorker, a rebellious daughter dropping in to visit with her aging parents and adult friends, and a prodigal child returning, sort of.
In March 1960, a few years after my father’s death, my mother and I moved from Montreal into an apartment with my new step-father and step-brother in the largely Jewish Amalgamated neighborhood in the Bronx. New York was instantly a place I didn’t want to be with people I didn’t know. At 9 years old, I knew it was where I’d be nonetheless till I was old enough to escape, and I ritually swore to myself that I’d return ‘home’ to Montreal as soon as I was able.
In the meantime, I didn’t have much choice but to suss out my new environment. I scouted the neighborhood in and around the First Building, as our building complex was called, before starting school in P.S. 95 on Hillman Avenue in the middle of 4th grade. On my first day, I was accompanied by the Vice Principal to a classroom full of staring eyes, and introduced as I stood self-conscious and embarrassed on the threshold. I saw how different I was in my braids and sagging tights from the fresh faces sporting bobs and crew cuts, bobby socks and saddle shoes. Even my accent was different, as my teacher enthusiastically kept point out throughout what remained of the school year, making me feel, and appear to my already suspicious classmates, even more foreign. I felt adrift and pretty seasick.
Eventually, I started to make friends, and as I got older, I made closer friends, as teenagers do. They filled the corners of my early world and together we pushed at the boundaries, physical and otherwise. I began to want to move outside the sphere of our comfortable but isolated and finally claustrophobic Jewish neighborhood in the borough known for the lack of attention to it. The Bronx was where everything was only if you looked no further.
But Manhattan was laid open like the future. Manhattan, only a 30-minute subway ride from the Amalgamated in its Bronx satellite, was Earth, where there was Life.
In Junior High, I got to ride the subway into Manhattan to mitl shul, and in High School to Jewish Teachers’ Seminary. The rides and the time spent between classes with my friends were fun, but I was saddled with deadlines and curfews since my parents considered Manhattan dangerous, especially the subways, and especially after dark. Growing into the culture of the times, I’d have fancied being in the places I was reading and hearing about. Bob Dylan played Town Hall in 1963; Randall Jarrell, Nabokov, James Merrill and Mary McCarthy gave readings at the 92nd Street Y’s Poetry Center; Warhol and Lichtenstein were doing Pop Art; Art House movie theaters were showing innovative independent films; crafts and artsy handmade items were abundant and accessible, even for a young teenager with a small allowance. There were bookstores and cafés and all kinds of people doing all kinds of things. I wanted to move among them. In my freshman year in high school, I started cutting classes with my friend Helen, a senior, to go down to the Village, where the folk scene was, and where I unfruitfully looked for Dylan in the streets; to the Metropolitan Museum, where I got schooled in high art for the first time; to City College, where we met with our older friends in the cafeteria and felt “with it.”
But Manhattan was a place I’d remain wary of even as it tempted me, offered me visions, promised ascension, dared me to feast on its cornucopia. My wariness was only part of it, though. My youth, my background, my status, my skinny wallet also guaranteed that the City I yearned for would shut me out of its inner sanctum, even of the antechamber that led to it and the grounds that surrounded it. The inner sanctum was a honeycomb of glimmering larvae and golden opportunities. I breathed the same smog but inhabited a different, drabber, less heady sphere from the artists at the Cedar Tavern on University Place and the Factory on East 47th Street, from the folk artists and poets at the Gaslight on MacDougal and the Bitter End on Bleecker, from the literati at Café Nicholson on East 57th Street and the White Horse Tavern on Hudson Street, from the high rollers at the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, and hidden places I never even knew about. Although with the years, New York had become my home, I was forever that kind of New Yorker – a vagrant with a Bronx address, an alien with resident status – literally and figuratively.
My years living in New York, that is, the Bronx, ended in 1968, when I kept my word and went back to Montreal and university. As full as New York was with friends, experiences good and bad, family dramas and personal enlightenment, I had always seen it as a temporary address.
The feeling I was barely still a New Yorker of any stripe came to me one late morning in the early 80s during a summer visit from Israel, where I’d moved a decade earlier. I was strolling down 34th Street near Herald Square and window shopping, when suddenly, a tsunami of people flooded the streets from every doorway of every building along the sidewalks. Before I knew it, a chattering, chirping, clicking wave of suited men and smartly dressed women in heels was rushing in my direction. I found myself pressing against the tide headed toward the eateries, or to the park with their food bags. I realized too late that it was lunchtime, and I should never have been there at that hour.
New Yorkers don’t like to touch each other in public spaces. It’s the embodiment of their anathema to the invasion of privacy and personal freedom. But like that fragile ideal, the wide berth normally respected is waived with impunity when necessary. Because New Yorkers are also competitive and dogged, and will eat other dogs. No one will stand in their way, no doors will keep them out of the rush hour subway home, no one will get their hands on the latest on-sale tech gadget before them, no homeless passed out junky lying in the middle of the sidewalk will keep them from their half hour lunch starting NOW, and neither would I. I felt like a wayward branch in the middle of a river, pummeled by a white water of people about to submerge me.
I could no more get used to the hordes of people after years of being away than to the glitter and shine of the new buildings, their interiors laden with mirrors and glass and golden lights and highly polished brass railings that made my heart race and my eyes hurt. The eighties were nothing like the 60s in architecture, décor, volume and mass. They were disturbing in their onslaught.
The language had changed as well. English was now a string of acronyms, abbreviations and unfamiliar terms. You had to be an insider and familiar with the references to know what they meant. I wasn’t, and didn’t. If anything can make you feel like an outsider, it’s not understanding the local lingo and needing explanations at every turn. BFF. DINK. DOE. AWW. Bootleg tapes. Couch potato. Dis. Pac-man, not the video game. Boss, not an employer. Burned, not scammed. CD, not a savings account. Pencil me in. Road kill. Wannabe. Explanations, directions, information from friends, who had to slow down their speech, their strides, their very breathing to allow me to keep up with them.
I was overwhelmed and out of my element, once again.
“Moloch! Solitude! Filth! Ugliness! Ashcans and unobtainable dollars! …
… Moloch the loveless! …
… Moloch in whom I dream Angels! …
Moloch who entered my soul early! … Moloch whom I abandon!…” (Allen Ginsberg, “Howl,” 17)
New York in the late 80s, almost two decades after I’d left it, looked dirty and dilapidated. It might always have been so, but now, with my kids in tow from Israel to visit their grandparents, I saw it clearly. I was horrified at how anyone could raise their children in that squalid urban pestilence. And the noise. And the sight of the homeless, the drug addicts, the alcoholics everywhere we went. New York! The ugly, dirty, stinky city, my kids and I called it as we navigated the now ugly Jerome Ave neighborhood, once the bustling and convenient restaurant and shopping area in walking distance from the Amalgamated; as we rode the dirty subway, when I wished I could put my children in bubble suits till we arrived at our destination; as we walked by the stinking dried puddles of piss and vomit dotting the sidewalks at every turn.
This was – I hate to say it – before Rudy Giuliani was mayor, before, that is, the city crime rate noticeably declined. I hate to say it because I appreciated New York City becoming safe and clean though I knew who was sacrificed for it. (To give credit where it is due, it was under the previous mayor, David Dinkins, that the crime rate began to decline. In the Bloomberg era following Giuliani, New York was spruced up for the rich and famous, and the 60 million or so tourists a year.)
When my mother got sick in the mid 90s, I started coming more often, and after she died, I continued making the trip every year, sometimes twice a year, to see my aging stepfather, my only remaining parent. New York was now a place I flew into, drugged on my air sickness med, maneuvering through the obstacle course flight travel was becoming, from the crush to get off the plane, the lines at passport control, the wait at the luggage carousel and customs, another line at the taxi stand, to the traffic from JFK to Exit 11 on the Major Deegan, Van Cortlandt Park So and the Amalgamated. But though the trips were a hassle and expensive, they were also welcome breaks from my routine back home and important for the time I had with my stepfather, more so the older he got. And he got to be very old. At 98, when it became obvious he’d fallen victim to dementia, a lodger was paid to live with him. I took over when I came. Since I was gradually less able to leave him for any sizeable length of time, I became less mobile than I’d been before. In fact, I was again feeling more and more like a prisoner in New York with each visit.
In the winter of 2010, a blizzard hit the city hard and left me totally stranded in the neighborhood with my stepfather and his dementia. The only respite I had was an occasional walk outside around the block in knee-high snow. I relived the claustrophobia and the immense need for escape, which was finally granted, mercifully for me but not for him, when at 100, he could no longer be left alone and had to have 24 hour-a-day live-in aides. It was then I was sprung free. I could have made arrangements, given the aides the time off, but opted instead for deliverance from captivity in the “holy Bronx,” (Ginsberg) despite my sense of duty and my guilt.
I sat with my friends George and Gloria, who’d driven me down to the East Village on the first day of my reacquaintance with Manhattan. We were waiting for Zohar, the proprietor and chef of Zucker Bakery. Originally a child of my kibbutz in Israel, Zohar had been a student of mine in high school. And now this kibbutznik, this pisher (snot-nose kid), was living in Manhattan and the owner of a thriving little business featured on Google Maps. Envy was enveloping me like a hot flash.
How did some people manage to attain what I couldn’t? Was it just chance that they’d “made it” and I didn’t? Friends of mine now living on the Upper East and West Side had started out, like me, in the Amalgamated. How had they managed to rise and cross the Harlem River? If it was a matter of serendipity, I dared to think, maybe now was my time to take back what I’d relinquished when I declared my abdication from New York. Maybe I could now be the New Yorker I was meant to be, and live that life.
After hugs, greetings and regards from home, Zohar prepared us a plate of her best confections, a farbesert (improved) version of her grandmother’s baked goods from the kibbutz communal kitchen, and we chatted for a while. Zohar was pregnant with the third child she would raise in New York, far from her family in the Jezreel Valley, where I, a New Yorker (sort of, in part), lived and had raised my kibbutz kids. I felt the irony, the providence, the pinch of having exchanged a part of my life with hers, and coming out, it seemed to me at that moment, the loser. I knew she missed home and country, like the quarter of a million or so Israelis living in New York probably did, more than I ever missed New York. Yet here I was, for all the discombobulation and newness of a place I had previously only scantily known, feeling that I was touching base, my birthright despite my immigrant parents, my own immigrant status, and my snub. Israel was where I’d hung my hat 40 years earlier, but now Israel could wait.
From the bakery, we drove down to the Silver Towers in the Village, the neighborhood where my worldly education had begun 45 years earlier, where just walking the streets had made me feel part of a culture I was expecting some day to inherit, where I sat with my friends at the Figaro on the corner of Bleecker and McDougal and had coffee, where we munchily bought pizza slices on McDougal, where we discovered bookstores and music stores, and then the head shops, where we heard live music at the Gaslight, the Vanguard, the Village Gate, and then at the Filmore. The apartment in the Silver Towers was worlds away from all that in time, in affluence, in its distance from the ground I’d trod. But it was heavenly being there and being back. People think of nostalgia as memories doused in tears of time lost. But the reappropriation of that loss is thrilling.
It was in this mood, in which everything seemed to be coming full circle at once, creating a 3-dimensional mandala in which, at 61, I was finally turning into a fully realized person, that I embarked on conquering the City. I would reclaim it as I was reclaiming my Yiddish language and my history, my old friends and my family, my independence and my age. I was going to make the “ugly dirty city” mine, and turn both it and myself into swans.
“…wild red and yellow light/over the tops of houses, and down the clefts of streets” (Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass, Book I, 4.)
Living in the Silver Towers, I felt blessed. The apartment was huge with breathtaking views. I looked out the wall-to-wall, ceiling-to-floor windows and flattened my smartphone against the glass. When I clicked, I knew no photo would do justice to what I was seeing from the 29th floor looking into the night. But it captured even more. The panoramic view was glorious: brightly lit and light-refracted jewels, glittering and pulsing crystal, climbing, rising, soaring, vaulting, while rooted fast in the motherboard of Manhattan. The double paned windows, mandatory at that height, created a blurred image, as if time-elapsed. In it, the colors and the conventional brights of the tallest of New York’s buildings – the Empire State, One World Trade Center, The Bank of America, 4 Times Square, Bloomberg – run into each other to form a coldly blazing nocturnal urban façade. Lights fly like flags, others like notes along a treble clef. Some are smears of lipstick across an inviting mouth. The fuzziness betrays the fact that tall buildings are not stiff and straight, but living entities, interacting with the elements, the energy, the noise as well as the silence of the city at night. The city that never stands still. When I’m there, neither can I.
I set out to take Manhattan street by street, partake of everything enticing it had to offer. I was embarking on a whirlwind love affair. Nothing could stop me but exhaustion. And exhaustion was pushed back with every next activity. I couldn’t get enough of the City.
Being in the Village, it was a long subway ride to my stepfather in the Bronx, and back. But it was worth it. Sussing out a new environment yet again, I attempted to get to know the area as best I could under the circumstances. Aside from the daily visits with my stepfather, those circumstances included my being directionally challenged in lower Manhattan where the famous New York City grid does not apply, my self-restricted expense account and curfew, and my timidity.
The oncoming darkness would usually signal me to stop. Darkness triggered a fear of being out alone inculcated in childhood and an accompanying sense of solitude, making my independent enterprise feel more unsafe than adventurous. Like a diurnal animal, I’d need to be in the subway on my way home at last light. If I gave in to that need, I’d stop in at the local market to buy my staples for the evening and didn’t leave my roost once I got back to the apartment.
I enjoyed my down time If I decided to call it a day when the sun did, but I also tried to overcome what I had internalized early on about Manhattan, and often made myself plan on staying out past the witching hour, when twilight turned to night. Then I loved becoming part of the energy of the night life, the lights illuminating everything and making everyone sizzle. The City felt young and vibrant, and I was just one of the revelers. I never thought of myself as an older interloper. I turned away from my reflection in the windows and glass doors of the buildings that would wind up setting my boundaries again.
I was timorous regarding the jazz clubs, the Comedy Cellar, and the bars. Again, I behaved in accordance with my younger brainwashing. These places intimidated me, felt other-worldly, excitingly inviting yet excluding and formidable. Being by myself, I didn’t dare, and never got over that. At the same time, I was snobbishly wary of the cheap pizza joints, which was my loss, I discovered later, when I found out that many of those joints were lauded on Scott’s Pizza Tours, the subject of a 2017 documentary. I was too shy to buy at the hip markets, where the customers purchasing coffee, cheeses, imported dainties, breads and pastries not only seemed to know each other, but knew exactly what and how to order in yet another lingo foreign to me. (In a Starbucks one day, when I ordered a regular brewed coffee, I was asked if I wanted it large or small, with cream or black, with or without sugar. Only after I was handed a big plastic cup of ice coffee and directed to the straws did I realize I’d used the wrong terminology from the get go.)
During the daylight hours, I explored my old haunts, and those I’d have liked to have called my old haunts. I walked up and down Bleecker, into every side street, up to Washington Square. I couldn’t orient myself no matter how hard I tried, especially if I also ventured east of the Square. In the West Village, the streets are off the grid, or rather on their own 18th century grid plan in relation to the Hudson. The East Village and streets north of the Square are laid out according to the 1811 Commissioner’s Plan. So that walking along West 4th Street, I was suddenly crossing West 10th, 11th and 12th Streets. Walking up Greenwich Street, I crossed two West 12th Streets, the second separated from the first by three blocks – Jane, Horatio and Gansevoort Streets. West 13th Street, interrupted by Jackson Square, sat right above 12th Street on its other side. Waverly Place, where I went looking in vain for Joe Coffee, eases direction from north-south towards west-east, and at Christopher Street crosses itself! I despaired of ever being able to find my way there. The City would continue to challenge me in this and other ways.
As I walked through the Village streets, I looked into the dark windows of the cafés and clubs whose names were still the same. The Bitter End on Bleecker, The Blue Note on West 3rd, the Village Vanguard on 7th Ave, Café Wha? on MacDougal. Everything stirred up old memories of discovery and the promise of liberation even though it was all different. The music scene, the cultural context, the clothes people wore, the people themselves and what they were doing there. The very air wafting out of these places as I passed was different – more alcohol and less weed, CK One instead of patchouli, balsam and cedar scented candles rather than sandalwood incense. And because nothing was the same, it made me feel old and odd. And yet this was a reclamation. The sensation accompanying me throughout my present New York experience was of the old and the new intermingling, blurring, tempting, and as of yore, both welcoming and denying entry.
The Upper West Side apartment my friend’s daughter offered me was in the Lincoln Towers between West 66th and West 70th on West End Ave. I’d never had much to do with the Upper West Side. It was as far away from the Amalgamated in the Bronx and from any place I’d ever frequented in Manhattan as I could dream of. It was where the rich folk lived. Residing there, however temporarily, made me feel anointed and special. It also intimidated me as though, in order not to be pegged for a trespasser, I needed to pretend to be someone else. In fact, I had to pretend to be the daughter’s aunt so the co-op’s Community Association wouldn’t punish her in some way or worse, ask me to leave.
I was flustered at the outset by my first encounter with a doorman, now my doorman. I assumed a behavior I believed befit my new status, attempting to find the appropriate level of friendliness and haughtiness I saw, by watching other tenants, was the required manner towards doormen, and it was the doormen who required it. If you were too friendly, they’d treat you with a certain disdain. Too haughty and they’d not be very helpful. What seemed like a healthy balance was the mien I assumed for the neighborhood in general, whether it was in the more plebian Trader Joe’s on 72nd Street or the aristocratic Lincoln Center. While I unpacked my hippie CV in the Village, which, for the record, was neither suitable to the contemporary younger residents nor authentic enough for the older original ones, I had trouble with the arrogant, aristocratic demeanor on the Upper West Side, never having had the occasion to develop it. I felt like a fraud, stiff, uncomfortable and silly. In the end, I gave it up and nothing changed much. Apparently, my efforts had gone unnoticed, and had never been necessary to begin with. That was quite a discovery, though it seems simple enough: the harder you try, the less likely you are to feel at ease.
I thoroughly exploited my time there. It was an easy walk down the block and a half from the apartment to Lincoln Center. I didn’t go to the indoor concerts, though, or to the opera or the theater. I couldn’t afford them. Instead, I went to the library for their photo exhibits and to The Lincoln Ristorante, where I sat out on the patio with a book and a glass of wine and olives. I attended several early evening free outdoor performances in Damrosch Park, the backside of Lincoln Center, where I mingled happily with the crowd, even though I hate crowds. I wandered from booth to booth checking out the wares and the food, and I bought a beer the evening my friend Marcel joined me. I went to the Film Society of Lincoln Center for daytime films, where I met a guy one morning who asked me in a discernible Israeli accent what movies were playing that day. We started up a conversation in Hebrew, and walked it to Starbucks on 63rd and Broadway, where we chatted about “the country” (Israel), and finding accommodations in the City (Airbnb) over 2 tall coffees with an extra shot, like native New Yorkers. Happily, he was gay and I could relax even as I chastised myself for having taken such a risk so I could feel spontaneous and authentic in New York for at least that hour.
The first time I ventured into Manhattan at night was when I went with friends to “Midsummer Night Swing” on the dance floor of Damrosch Park. I was still bedazzled by my being out in the City after dark without having to get permission or verification from a parent (in my 60s!). I stood and watched from outside the paid-for area, gawking and jumpy, like a girl waiting yet reluctant to be asked to dance. Next time, I promised myself.
One evening, returning late from visiting with my step-father in the Bronx, I walked out of the 66th Street subway station, and was met by the night lights and the looming, lit up arches of the Lincoln Center edifices that seemed to be chiming at me, “We are here. We’ve been waiting for you.” The streets were filled with young people milling, walking, jogging, hanging out. Their infectious electric energy, like the energy pouring out of Lincoln Center, from its wide, lighted steps to the yellow glow blazing through the windows and doors of its buildings, made me feel like one of them. More than “like.” I was one of them. Spirits were high everywhere, as if there was actually something happening, something particular to be gay about. “Gay,” that is, like a trill of laughter, a smile as you stroll, with maybe a parasol and a little dog. Even this sense of “gay” doesn’t come to mind anymore regarding leisure, which has become high-powered, an entertainment workout, something you go home after to kick off your shoes and fall into bed, exhausted. Yet here it was, in the heart of the incandescence of the City, in the very air around Lincoln Center, suffusing the evening.
And yet…. Naturally, there is a qualification. Not because I was over 60, but because I wasn’t a New Yorker, after all, and so I didn’t really belong. My reasons for being there seemed fundamentally different than the merrymakers around me. I didn’t have a date for anything. I was not a neighborhood resident. I wasn’t on my way to anything I had bought a ticket for. I didn’t have a project or an artistic interest that connected me intimately to the place. Though I couldn’t keep those nagging thoughts out of my enjoyment, they could only vaguely temper it on that night. I drank in the gaiety.
One year, I brought my husband there. He doesn’t like being in New York, and doesn’t usually accompany me. I made it my challenge to get him to see the City as I did, to share my New York experience. I extolled the virtues and glories of the place to set the mood as we made our way to the Lincoln Ristorante, where I ordered us both wine and olives. The restaurant, situated through a kind of crevice between the Metropolitan Opera and the David Gefen Hall, offers the wealthy clientele a degree of privacy. But we felt detached sitting in the dark, away from the goings on beyond the crevice.
Maybe now that there were two of us, I couldn’t ignore the familiar niggling feeling that the waiters knew we weren’t wealthy customers and treated us accordingly. Maybe once again my trying too hard, this time to make my husband enjoy what he seemed unable to, hampered the seamless experience I was hoping for. In the end, neither of us could just sit back and take it all in. We felt more out of place together than I might have felt on my own. Maybe some experiences are better left unshared, the first-time exhilaration of the romantic rarely duplicated second-hand or a second time.
“… boxcars boxcarsboxcars racketing through….” (Howl, 11)
STAY CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Chug chugblatterbalunk. RAT-a-tata RAT-a-tataRAT-a-tatatrr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP screeeeeeeeeech. Disgorge. Gorge
STAY CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Chug chugblatterbalunk. RAT-a-tata RAT-a-tataRAT-a-tatatrr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP EXCUSE ME LADIES AND GENTLEMEN. CAN I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION FOR JUST ONE MOMENT, PLEASE? MY MOTHER IS SICK MY CHILDREN NEED FOOD MY FAMILY IS TRYING TO ANY DONATIONS WOULD BE WELCOME. screeeeeeeeeech. Disgorge. Gorge
STAY CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Chug chugblatterbalunk. RAT-a-tata RAT-a-tataRAT-a-tatatrr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP ♪♪norteño music♬ screeeeeeeeeech. Disgorge. Gorge
STAY CLEAR OF THE CLOSING DOORS. Chug chugblatterbalunk. RAT-a-tata RAT-a-tataRAT-a-tatatrr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP trr-UMP bicyclist wheels in his bike everybody gets scrunched together juggler down the bench young mother yelling at her toddler garlic farts sweat waft through lights go off lights go on screeeeeeeeeech. Disgorge.
Heat. Not air. Which way do I go? Where’s the exit? Northwest corner? Southeast corner?
Before he moved to Vermont, my friend Avram took to riding the rails. He’d watch the closing doors on the #1 from Broadway and 238th in the Bronx and be disgorged at South Ferry in Manhattan, or on the D train from Bedford Park Blvd and the Grand Concourse to Coney Island, or he’d switch to the A train in Manhattan to head out to Far Rockaway. A true explorer like my friend would let the MTA take her where it may. But I was always daunted by the subway system, from hyper alertness to danger signals to the confusion I felt facing the tangled underground web of tracks and station names in an unrecognizable and unwelcoming cityscape. Now that I had to ride it, I felt I’d met the challenge simply by approaching a New Yorker’s level of control of my subway ventures within the City, and between the City and the Bronx. Except that the system, like the city it serves, and like life, if you will, can’t finally be mastered.
First conceived in 1811, the subway system began with the El (the elevated line), which became the IRT Ninth Avenue Line. The first underground line opened in 1904. It has not rested since. Tracks, lines, tunnels, switches, signals and stations are always under construction, undergoing conversions, renovations, extensions, demolitions, replacements, removals, closures, creations, improvements. Schedules are changed, tweaked, turned inside out every few months.
Since 1996, concurrent with my yearly subway rides, the biggest disruption was after 9/11, most notably on lines running through Lower Manhattan, such as the IRT Broadway-Seventh Avenue Line, which ran directly underneath the World Trade Center. Sections of the tunnel and 11 stations were closed. It took a year for them to reopen.
The system today is more crowded than it has ever been. It reached a daily ridership of 6 million for 29 days in 2014. Fares increased three times from 2008 to 2010. On-time performance kept eroding till by 2017, over a third of weekday trains never reached their destinations on time. In the summer of that year, the subway system was officially put in a state of emergency after a series of derailments, track fires, and overcrowding incidents.
Like the subways, so the City.
At times it seems that up on street level fixing is all there is. Everywhere red cones and police barriers cover streets and sidewalks, scaffolding and tarp hide buildings, jackhammers are the primary sound of neighborhoods. These have become the city.
To be fair, much of the construction work is maintenance, including preserving historic buildings and areas. And even though this means closing off entire streets to cars, and sidewalks to pedestrians, shutting down important sites to eager visitors, stirring up billows of dust, and creating crushing noise, it can almost be forgiven. Parts of the City are being scooped out and entirely rebuilt, with astounding architectural feats that add a joviality to the City’s brick, brownstone, and cast iron facades of the early 19th century; its stainless steel and aluminum, chrome and limestone of art deco; and its modern steel and glass. In contrast to these predominately square, vertical edifices, the new structures spiral, twist and turn, glide and undulate, giving expression to a more female sensibility. I stood and marveled at these from the High Line: the HL23 condo on West 23rd, the Zaha Hadid condo on West 28th, Heatherwick’s Vessel structure at Hudson Yards. I loved the milky glass of the InterActive Corporation on West 18th and the wrap-around glass walls of 100 Eleventh Avenue visible from the West Side Highway, as well as the new Cornell-Tech(nion) campus on Roosevelt Island.
This art-out-of-demolition almost had me forgiving the grinding, pounding roar of the construction sites. But it must be apparent by now that my default mode is not forgiving. I’m too fragile for that. And I’m also not one of the true New Yorkers, whose famously infinite tolerance will have them all but declare, “Pile it on! We can take it! The more uncomfortable it is, the prouder we are.” In the absence of this steel fiber rests both my fragility vis-à-vis New York and my inability to disregard the obvious: the disruption of the peace and tranquility necessary for contemplation and sanity, and the fact that the beast has swallowed its own tail, destroying itself and rebuilding simultaneously.
“… the endless sliding, mincing, shuffling feet!”(Walt Whitman, “Broadway”) “The blab of pave, tires of carts, sluff of boot-soles, talk of promenades,…/… I mind them or the show or resonance of them – I come and I depart” (SofM, 8.,30).
Disgorged through the closing doors. Still feeling the platform shake as the trains roar in and lumber out, I push through the turnstiles in the hellish heat of the subway in summer. I emerge out of the midtown subway on my first day in New York one summer, and walk into a storm of noise and steam rising from manholes, from tar machines, from the people’s hot bodies as they maneuver around and past each other. Hissing steam rises against palisades of glass, of people turned ghostlike within the vapors, part of the wall of noise.
The people! An impossible jigsaw of myriad colors, languages and intentions. Everybody stands out as different and so, nobody does. Everyone in the press on the streets is shopping and schlepping, working, or hastening to and from work, to and from buses and subways and taxis and cars, in and out of buildings, slaloming around the steel posts of scaffolding, out of the way of vehicles, stepping over splats of flattened food scraps and crushed soda containers, puddles of dried excretions and secretions, and some of the people who made them. People whizz or weave by on bicycles, on skateboards, on scooters. Whatever is going on, it seems like a matter of great consequence, perhaps of life and death.
Folded into their world, as if it’s the only world, as if everything outside NYC is a pale replica of the real thing, New Yorkers hustle. Each person has to go as fast or faster to get to their destination than the next guy or gal, who might get there first and so, outdo, outbuy or outmaneuver them. More insidiously, the unflagging pace of the city has rooted itself inside the bones so that there is no other reason for the pressure than the tempo of their own bodies.
I take stock of where I am, and begin winding through the press of people. Even when I slide out of the moving crowd to sit down for a bit on the step of a building, on a sidewalk bench, on a stool in an air-conditioned coffee shop, I am never alone, never quiet. And just when I feel the desire to be in the City slip away in the warm, greasy breeze carrying the urban smells past my face, just as I’m ready to throw off the sooty cloak in which the City enveloped me when I first drove in to my tryst with it, I come across a green, welcoming oasis. Battery Park at the end of lower Manhattan and Wall Street; the Pier parks along the Hudson, Washington Square Park, Tompkins Square Park, Union Square Park, Bryant Park near Grand Central, Madison Square Park in Chelsea, Central Park, of course, and all the little parks offering a bit of respite, relaxation and a place to eat your sandwich, more welcome for the mayhem they momentarily relieve.
One can be cynical and assign to the Green World in the midst of the hubbub and madness of the commercial world the role of panacea, a way to cool off the overheated populace, the fancier cousin of the water hydrants in the poorer neighborhoods, the other side of the water hoses used to keep these poorer neighbors in their place – all to let the urban machine that created them run with only sporadic hiccups. But the fact is, the parks are there, and offer their shade, their water, their fauna and flora, their sculptures and arches and paths and bridges, their calm and their beauty, if only for a while, to those yearning to be cooled off and free.
New York is a character in a tragidramedy that demands the spotlight. It is the backdrop that upstages all the rest. It is the scenery, it is the stage, it is the audience, all in one. It is everything.
I eventually discovered that there is no conquering New York. No making it mine. The impossibility of its vastness within the narrow island became more overwhelming, not less, the more familiar I got with its streets. The more I knew, the more I realized how little I knew.
The joy and eagerness of exploration was daunted pretty quickly. It wasn’t only because of how much there was ahead of me despite how much there was behind me, how much I’d never get to see because I only had 2 legs, 2 bad feet, and a limited amount of time during any visit; not only because exhaustion dictated how long, how far, how deep I could wander, not only because the sun really does sink every evening even if it also rises; but also because my solo ventures made me both more daring to go where I’d never been before and more reluctant to go there alone, pleased to watch myself in my encounters with the City’s mysteries and sad not to have anyone to share them with. I can go farther afield when on my own, able to be more spontaneous and unbounded by anyone else’s thoughts or feelings about it, as was true in Lincoln Center when I brought my husband along. But I find that the emotional side to the experience is made poorer, is stopped somewhere in its tracks by not sharing it in real time, even though the initial emotional charge may be stronger on my own.
The need for independence originates in my circumscribed life as a New Yorker under the watchful, fearful eyes of my parents in the 60’s. Their paranoia was not entirely unfounded then, when the City was at a low, high in crime, muggings, rapes, random and not so random shootings. Maybe not being allowed to enjoy what the City had to offer kept me alive and well enough to go for it now. Maybe it explains why I wasn’t raped like my schoolmate who lived a few blocks away in the Bronx on Giles Place. She was small and skinny, with frizzy hair and braces, and her rape taught us there was no such thing as an unlikely candidate. Or why I wasn’t mugged in Central Park like a member of our Jewish Socialist Youth group (JSY), who arrived battered and bruised one day to a meeting in the Atran House on 78th and Madison. Or why I never witnessed anyone gunned down on the sidewalk in front of me like someone else we knew when he stepped out of a movie theater in Midtown one evening into a shooting. I thank my parents for keeping me safe, and blame them for doing so. Initiation by fire turns a resident of New York into a hardened, proud New Yorker, one who doesn’t question where she belongs, who knows she can take it, and can’t imagine leaving and living somewhere else. The power of the city is such that even in its decay, its degeneracy and its danger, the residents seem to thrive not only in it, but on it. I envy, because I don’t possess, the self-assured, if somewhat self-absorbed, hard-earned assertiveness of New Yorkers in relation to their City.
I also thank my parents for my need for independence. I cherish being left alone and having free reign to do as I please. And yet, after just a few days of walking through the streets of New York, I find myself mumbling aloud, irritated with much of what and who I see. Too many people, too much construction, too dirty, too smelly, too many homeless, too many limos, too hot, too noisy, too much New York. All this is true, of course. New York is too much. And yet, I’ve hardly scratched its grimy surface.
Perhaps ironically, it is after a few days of milling with the crowds that I need the reciprocity of sitting across from someone over coffee or a nice meal and talking till we’re talked out. The need for reciprocity also stems from my past sense of solitude within my family and the perhaps consequent deep connections of my teenage years with my closest friends, Irene, Etta, Sandy, Rita, Corinne. We excavated our feelings and exchanged our fledgling revelations, cried together over our woes, and opened our hearts to one another. And all my other friends. We smoked together, tripped together, shot up together, discovered the world together, discovered New York together. I couldn’t have done any of it alone, neither the good nor the bad, from which, mercifully, we each emerged larger, fuller and ready for our lives ahead. But we parted ways long ago, each one catapulted into his or her own life. We try to meet when I come to New York, and we summarize our lives in a few hours. Not because there’s too little, but because there’s too much. Like the City.
And like writing about the City. Where do I start and what streets should I confine myself to, to be able to sustain the exploration? I have free reign, but now it is I who limit myself. And I have to limit myself. Otherwise, I won’t know when to stop, or where to take it. New York is too much. It is too much to take in, too much to deliver, too much to remember, or forget.
They say that you have to allow yourself to get lost in some cities, like Venice, in order to fully discover them. Despite its mostly meticulous urban grid that doesn’t invite getting lost, doesn’t for the most part even permit it, my magnetic field is naturally off in New York, my internal compass nearly always wrong. No matter where I find myself in the City, I don’t know where I am in relation to anything else. I never know where I am with respect to Central Park or either the Hudson or East river. I can’t orient myself within the Park, never know which way is north or south when I exit the subway, let alone figure out the lay of the land below 14th Street, where the west side starts turning into a maze that gradually bleeds east toward Battery Park at Manhattan’s tip. I once went with Marcel to the Jewish Heritage Museum and didn’t realize I was in Battery Park, or that the Park was only a few streets away from Wall Street, which I passed by unawares till my companion on another day pointed it out on our way to the Brooklyn Bridge. I’ve never figured out where Tribeca is, and have been there several times without knowing it.
The best example of my directional turmoil was when I took the subway from Chelsea early one morning to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I got out of the subway at 81st Street, saw the wide white museum steps down the block, and got on the long line already formed and waiting for the museum to open. As I snaked along with the line to the ticket counter, I noticed that they’d changed the entire entrance hall, and placed a large dinosaur skeleton right in the middle, probably for the children who would be attending during the summer vacation, I thought. I got my ticket and went over to the information counter, now situated in the corner of the hall instead of in its center, to get a leaflet about the exhibits. I asked the white-haired lady behind the counter where all the art had gone since I only saw signs for animal and environmental exhibits. She looked at me bewildered, and I at her.
“There’s no art here,” she said, as if I should have known better. “Where do you think you are?”
“Isn’t this the Met?” I asked, perplexed.
Then it dawned on me where I was and what had happened. I had turned the city map on its axis. I had taken the subway from Chelsea, which was on the West Side, to West 81st Street and wound up at the Museum of Natural History! From which experience I learned three things: The Romanesque architecture of both museums is quite similar, at least it seems so to me. The memorial to Theodore Roosevelt at the steps to the Museum was not, as I mused to myself on approaching it, a new addition to the Met but has stood where it is in front of the AMNH since 1936. And you can rationalize anything if you’re convinced of it a priori.
It was when I got lost on my way to the Met and walked through Central Park to get to the east side that I crossed Bow Bridge and came upon the rowers in the legendary Lake, the Bethesda Fountain and the Mall with its morning shift of street musicians, all of which I’d never managed to find when I was looking for them. So, while I had to accept that I was indeed not a true New Yorker if I was so directionally challenged on its streets, I also learned that instead of lamenting that, I could better discover the City if I embraced, or at least took advantage of, not being one.
Manhattan is magnificent. And it isn’t, since it is also horrible. I believe this is its allure, what makes it fascinating, human, repulsive, inhuman, in intervals, in succession, superimposed.
Like life, if I may.
Like Union Square, with its Greenmarket at East 17th Street, ringed by traffic-clogged streets, bordered by expensive high-rise towers, its public park offering iron chairs and small tables in the shade of its trees, yet some of the most expensive restaurants in New York just outside its perimeters.
Like St. Nicholas Park, west of which homes sell for over 10 million dollars and a 4-bedroom, 1 bath apartment rents for around $4000 a month; but even the police recommend staying away from the eastern side of the park with its social service housing, its slum lords and crime.
Like the Meatpacking District, the hip commercial area, home of the High Line, the Whitney Museum and a spray of trendy eateries and bars that got there by pushing up the rents and pushing out the artists, writers and performers who were the attraction to begin with.
Like the Theater District and Times Square, the Great White Way, the hub of culture, with its plays, performances, eateries, street shows, and its throngs moving like compacted cans of sardines along a conveyor belt, at all hours of the day and night.
Like Midtown East, where a 1-bedroom apartment costs a million dollars despite the population quintupling during the daytime. Even this “aging slice of Manhattan” (NYT: “The Future is Looking up for East Midtown,” Aug 8, 2017) is being revamped with a plan for 6.5 million more square feet of office space on 78 blocks.
Like the Uppers, East Side and West, dentures in a City of teeth that bite and chew and gnash its inhabitants.
Like Harlem, touted for its jazz, soul food, 19th century brownstones and modern high rises, hiding its awful, burned out and broken down history, the terror it could engender in a car full of passengers gone astray into its streets, the landlords who squeezed out the poor and turned it into a place Bill Clinton could move his offices to. Yet the junkies and homeless are still there, the poor and the desperate. One day, on 125th street, I walked past a Footlocker out of which flew a young man followed in hot pursuit by three salesmen in red staff T-shirts. They came back, huffing and puffing and cheerful without him, probably glad for the drama and the exercise. Maybe they let him get away. Maybe they were his accomplices. I’ve been brainwashed about Harlem. I don’t trust the hype about it.
Like the Silver Towers on Bleecker St, adjoining NYU, one of the biggest private landowners in New York City, with about 12.8 million square feet across 110 properties roughly framed by the Houstons and The Bowery, 6th Ave and Washington Square Park. NYU’s Core Plan initiative, despite heavy community opposition, is part of its plan for continuous expansion, eating into and eradicating the historically low-rise neighborhood of the Village.
Magnificence and ugliness are often simultaneous in Manhattan. In Chelsea, one street lined with brownstones and patches of garden is followed by a row of condemned houses. Other areas that were slums are attempting to upscale on a shoestring budget, so cracks in outside walls are thickly painted over the same grayish blue color as garbage enclosures, frames and gates, the poverty showing through. The sleek 3-story yacht glaze bobs frivolously in the water at Pier 62, where the destitute waddle in on MacDonald’s-fed obese legs to congregate in the sun. They barely look at the river, the skyline across it, the netting draped on huge poles jutting out of the adjacent pier like sails on masts to keep the golf balls from flying into the water at the driving range. They gather together and mumble to one another, glad to have company. Then sit silently.
New York has reverted for me to a place I can no longer see and experience without feeling accosted by its brutishness, its disrespect for itself and the people living in it, its blatant opportunism and greed, the madness inherent in its culture, which with impunity offers the best only to those who can easily both avoid and ignore the worst, while those who can’t, feel blessed by proximity, by simply being a part of what is considered the “Capital of the World” (E.B. White), heroically stoic and tolerant of too much. The City provides most people with an affordable life, a neighborhood where they can feel they belong, the company of like-minded fellow-travelers who make the place satisfying and significant. New Yorkers feel like a community, though this community is severely disparate and unequal. They are full of civic pride that rests on a history of economic resourcefulness but no less on unscrupulousness, which has targeted and victimized too many of them.
Being a semi-New Yorker revisited and a demi-tourist with limited means, I can’t partake of the City by either sliding comfortably into a New York lifestyle or eagerly consuming the attractions meant for visitors. Conversely, being reluctant to behave like a visitor and, however erratically, considering New York my turf, I’ve adopted a modus vivendi defined by my inability but also my unwillingness to splurge. I could enjoy the richness the City makes available if I were prepared to leave it a pauper. But I refuse to buy tickets to the theater or a concert that I feel are too expensive. At the same time, I find it demeaning to enter lotteries or to stand on long lines in the hopes of getting cheap or free ones. I will not pay for a hotel or even an AirB&B even though, since my stepfather’s demise, I can no longer rely on people’s generosity for places to stay. I do go to the movies, to free outdoor concerts and performances, where I can swoop in and leave whenever I want. I exit most stores as light as when I entered. I go to libraries, free museums, galleries. I walk, walk, walk everywhere so long as I am not time limited. My extravagances might be on the odd cup of coffee in a high-end café, on food when I go out with friends, and on museums that don’t charge the price of a day’s expenses. In line with my tardy sense of adulthood in the city of my youth, and my somewhat improved financial status, for example, I increased my “donation” to the Metropolitan Museum from the $2 my frugal stepfather assured me in the 60s was enough to $5, which I felt I owed one of the enduring staples of my life in New York. Now that non-New York residents have to pay the full $25 ticket price, I’ve regressed. Last summer, exploiting my blurred identity and the little white lie it could be counted on to license, I declared unblinkingly that I was a resident of New York but had no document to prove it. I am not proud of that, nor of abusing my delicate status.
If I sound parsimonious, okay stingy, it’s because I can’t afford to live any other way. To allow myself to be lured into living like the other half lives when I am of this half is unwise and distasteful. Not that New York gives a hoot about me or what I feel about it. Nor should it, given what it is and the meanness of my commitment to it. But if its sole purpose in dangling its gold in front of me is that I allow it to profit off me, I’d rather bite off my nose to spite my face. And I do.
I was raised, sadly, on the value of frugality and, happily, on a loathing of greed. I can live with little, and get a lot out of whatever I have. And yet, I admit to occasionally entertaining fantasies of a night on the town, dressed to the nines and rolling with the high life. To be enormously wealthy for just one day. To enjoy the tinsel and titillation of total access, of unfiltered demand and supply. To be privy to the best of everything one can acquire. I was allowed to come close to that under the auspices of a wealthy acquaintance who’d been a fellow camper in our Jewish Socialist camp, and had made very good. The occasion was dinner at Daniel’s on East 65th Street, where the three-course prix-fixe meal today costs $129 with wine pairings available for $65, the four-course prix-fixe is $151 with wine pairings available for $82 or $142, and the seven-course tasting menu weighs in at $234, with a choice of copious wine pairings at $135 or $225. Our dinner was a long train of small portions on large dishes, several items “on the house” or “compliments of the chef,” as if the bill didn’t cover the dollop of Sudachi-Avocado Sorbet, the dot of Meringue, or the little mound of Peruvian Dark Chocolate. We spent several hours at the table, and I got a paid-for cab ride home.
Appropriate to my station, the evening began with my riding in the hot subway, followed by a mad, sweating dash for the bus I was about to miss, where I changed my shoes into skimpy high heeled sandals in front of the passengers. I landed in the restaurant breathless and quickly aware, as could have been expected, that I was out of place among the suits and fashionable dresses in my sleeveless black knit blouse, black pin-striped slacks, and a gold and black shawl. This awareness was paired with a constant fluttery feeling as I “helped” choose the wines and the dishes as if I knew what I was talking about, and gave my critique of each, all at the behest of our solicitous and gracious host. It would not have been suitable to my sense of who I am and what I deserve had I felt comfortable with any of it. I was Princess-for-a-day, a dinner, but no glass slipper would ever grace my foot.
In a way, I feel that way about New York altogether. Partly it’s my own psychology – after being uprooted from my first home, I never wholeheartedly bound myself again to any one place or community. Partly it’s New York, the Big Tease. As too much of everything as it is, it fires up but doesn’t finally envelop. It demands allegiance without offering love. You can be sufficiently familiar with its insides, its undersides, its streets and subways, its smells and sounds, its glitz and slop, and never feel it knows you or cares to. The City has adopted for itself a certain persona – the staunch, intrepid, convivial, indivisible band of brothers, and if you can fit that persona, you feel part of a family. But it is necessarily a fabricated persona, developed out of its mercantile beginnings, and covers up its meanness, its racism, its animosity toward a long history of others, its overriding capitalist gluttony and class war on the poor, its ruthlessness.
People mingle and march to work, walk their dogs and ride their bikes, play their instruments, peddle their wares, beg. Their creative and created selves go up and down the subway stairs to and from the streets. They get on and off buses, in and out of cabs and cars and limos. They jaywalk. They sit at outdoor cafés, inside delis and restaurants and pizza joints, on stairs and benches eating food truck messes or neatly packed lunches. They shop till they drop, walk into one another looking at their phones or because there’s no room to pass, and plug up their ears with buds and bluetooths of music. They buy groceries, cigarettes, liquor, hot dogs, falafel. They mill mill mill. And in so doing, they feel, maybe fool themselves into thinking, they’re part of the City, and belong with one another. New Yorkers.
Can I ever do the same?
I am labile in New York, oscillating between joy and disgust, elation and anger. I love it, and more precisely love it when I slip into place like a final square in a solved rubik’s cube, with the same sense of accomplishment and completion. At these moments, the environment I’ve chosen seems to have room for me. But I am nonetheless never certain it will endure. Because New York, too, is fickle. When it upsets me by being unyielding, difficult, rejecting, I am furious with it. It is only when I acknowledge my responsibility for the fracture between us that I keep myself from hating it. Mostly, though, if I’m not able to move smoothly in the belly of the beast, well, where the blame falls is clear in the metaphor.
New York is the love object I should know better than to keep chasing. It will tease me, lead me on, and turn its back on me just when I think we are about to solidify our connection. And my self-esteem suffers. What is wrong with me? What am I missing? How should I act, dress, talk? Why does it embrace all these other people but not me? Should I be coy and hope it will reveal itself to me gradually, or declare my devotion and win it over with my ardor? I’m afraid neither will work. It is the One that got away, the One I didn’t appreciate till it was gone. Now that we’re here, together, I can’t let go. Not just yet.
One morning on Labor Day weekend (Red Flag: every New Yorker knows never to venture anywhere in the City on Labor Day), I awoke to rain. I was staying outside the City, at my friend Sandy’s in Eastchester/Scarsdale. I had a 15 minute walk to the train station from the apartment, and a 10 o’clock train on Metro North to Grand Central. I wanted to start out and make the most of the day. At 9:35, I looked out the window and saw that the rain had turned into a drizzle. I saw no umbrella in the closet on my way out, and trusted that the drizzle would soon stop. When I got out of the elevator in the lobby, I saw through the entrance doors to my dismay that instead of abating, the drizzle had turned into a downpour. I thought I was being resourceful when I picked up a glossy magazine from a pile of freebees by the mailboxes for protection, and headed out into the rain.
Within a few minutes of walk-running with the tented magazine over my head, it had become a large wad of wet papier maché. I tossed it into a trash can as I continued walk-running in the now torrential rain, cursing the New York weather and ineffectually holding my shoulder bag over my head. My arms were starting to hurt when I spotted a small pink umbrella hanging on the gate of a building I was about to pass. I had a split-second of moral uncertainly between seeing and grabbing what was clearly a child’s umbrella. It was an impulsive, self-seeking thing to do, but I was, in that moment, as dogged as any New Yorker in my plan to get to the City.
I reached the train in time, soaked through, from my drenched head to my soggy shoes. I sat cold and wet in the air-conditioned car, wondering what I was doing pushing forward in that condition. I started obsessing about getting out of my clothes into warm, dry everything. It was about a half hour to Grand Central. As soon as I disembarked, I walk-ran from the train out to 42nd Street. My original plan had been to get to the subway and catch the B train down to the Whitney Museum, but now, wet and miserable, the only thing on my mind was finding the closest affordable clothing store. At the first stall selling umbrellas, I bought a big black one. Under its cover, I searched on Google Maps and saw that thankfully there was an H&M store a few blocks away. I squished along the puddled sidewalk, watching for the store through the sheets of rain. There was no sign of H&M. Agitated and angry, I finally asked someone on the street, and was pointed in the opposite direction, back past Grand Central on the east side when I’d gone west. By this time, beaten by circumstance and the understanding that I wouldn’t get any wetter than I already was, I plodded along till I arrived at H&M on 5th Ave.
In the store, I made three rounds through the 2 flights of store, choosing shoes, socks, pants and a blouse. I tried them on in the dressing rooms, changed them when they didn’t fit right, and then waited on the long, slow line at checkout. By the time I got to the register, I was basically already dry. Only my socks and shoes were still soggy, and I dumped them into the garbage can by the exit doors like I’d dumped the papier maché magazine, which by now they resembled.
Outside, the rain had stopped. I’d lost almost 2 hours and was pissed off even though dry. I made my way to the B train and rode it down to West 4th Street, lugging the large H&M shopping bag with my new clothes, the little pink umbrella I had in a moment of moral rectitude decided not to chuck along with the shoes and socks but return to the gate from whence I’d snatched it, and the newly purchased black umbrella, which unfortunately didn’t fold up, and unwieldily stuck out of the top of the bag.
Having finally arrived in the West Village, I had to find my way through its maze of streets to the Whitney on Gansevoort. Google Maps was of no use. After uselessly trying to make the arrow representing me go in the direction of the museum, I again asked for directions as soon as I saw someone approaching. Her instructions were as baffling as the maze called for but I got the general direction. I headed off, the black umbrella bouncing annoyingly against my hip. By this time, I was a little less eager to get there and uncertain I ever would.
The streets leading up to the museum were pocked with water-filled pot holes and remnants of drowned trash. I navigated these, trying not to bump into the increasing number of people as I approached the museum. Galleries, shops, bar-cafés, outdoor tables laden with jewelry, art, clothing, people buying and selling and partaking, all became thicker the closer I got.
I’d been to the nearby High Line that runs between 10th and 12th Avenues from West 34th Street to Gansevoort Street twice before, once on a leisurely stroll with Irene on a hot day, when we also ate at the nearby restaurant, Untitled at the Whitney. Both times, there was plenty of activity, but today was Labor Day, and people were pouring down the stairs and out the elevator that brought the High Line to street level, filling up the restaurant and every inch of space around it for blocks. I saw this from a distance, and from the same distance, realized I was already on line to the museum. From where I was standing, I could make out a crush of people inside its glass walls. It was hard to distinguish who was doing what, but it looked like those who weren’t waiting to get tickets or information or audio guides were trying simply to move towards the elevators and the exhibits.
I was appalled at what I had wound up in. I was disgusted and infuriated and frustrated and tired and overladen with stuff I’d been schlepping around for hours. I was angry at New York, at the tourists, and at myself for forgetting what Labor Day would mean, for misremembering and underestimating what rain in New York could be like, for continuing to come to this God-forsaken, unforgiving, unfriendly city – and decided to forgo my virgin visit to the Whitney Museum that I had so been looking forward to.
I turned around and, now having to push through the crowd pressing towards the Mecca I was abandoning, retraced my steps in the long journey I’d begun some three hours earlier back up to the Scarsdale train station. There was no way I was going to punish myself anymore. I would punish the City instead and not see any more of it. I would never return to it. I despised it.
But the next morning, I was on the 10 o’clock train down to Grand Central Station.
“My tongue, [no] atom of my blood… [not] formed from this soil, this air/ [Not] Born here of parents [not] born here from parents the same,/ and their parents the same…” (SofM, 1, 24).
Who am I, what am I in this city? Questions that not only linger about New York, but pervade the geography of my life. I’m not a citizen, since I never gave up my Canadian citizenship (though my hometown of Montreal also presented challenges of identity, as it did to many first-generation Jewish Canadians, descendants of the Holocaust and the survivors it spewed out on the French Catholic and Anglo-Protestant shores of the St. Lawrence River). Not a resident, since even the green card I received when I was 9 expired when I turned 18, at which point I no longer resided in America. Not a tourist, since I did live in New York for 8 formative years. Not only a visitor, since during the 50 years of intermittent returns, it was to my parents’ home till my stepfather released me. Not anything.
On a good day, not being anything definitive, like happily getting lost in the city, has felt like freedom. I could choose the persona as I went along, from one time frame to the next, one place to the next. On not such a good day, I have felt like I, too, have been spewed out, this time on the shores of the Hudson, just a continuation from over the Atlantic. Maybe I inherited my parents’ displaced, immigrant reality, an acquired inherited trait, sitting naggingly on our Jewish RNA. Or maybe just their mentality.
The good and not-so-good days don’t seem to be a matter of choice. Not even a matter of familiarity.
When I complain to friends about the oppressive nature of New York now, they might say, “Don’t go to Midtown if you don’t want the crush.” “Don’t go to the Village if you don’t want the tourists and ridiculously priced restaurants.” “Don’t go to Soho if you don’t want to find yourself indiscriminately shopping.” “Don’t go to Central Park if you don’t want to be barreled into by bicycles.” “Don’t go to museums if you don’t want to have to thread your way through throngs of cell phones looking and clicking at the paintings.” “Don’t go to Harlem if you don’t want the crime (though it’s changed a lot, they say again and again).” That’s all well and good. People are trying to be helpful. But then, I might as well be back in the Bronx, when I was always being told not to go to Manhattan.
It is no easier, though, to feel native to my old Amalgamated neighborhood in the Bronx. On the one hand, the neighborhood has changed so much that it appears to be a different place. On the other, it is very much the same, at least topographically, yet unaware and uncaring of my absence, and therefore not like home. I can blend in more easily in the anonymity of Midtown as I rush and am rushed along with everybody else, frowning and hot like everybody else, holding my Starbucks coffee cup like everybody else. I can go to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, housed since 1999 in the labyrinthine Center for Jewish History building on West 16th Street for the old Yiddishist milieu that I grew up in. Or I can go to the old YIVO building on 86th Street and 5th Avenue for a booster shot of memories and nostalgia that will last till I have to accept it is now the Neue Galerie, a museum for German and Austrian art, an ironic twist if ever there was one. How things change and yet stay the same. And the reverse.
Now that my stepfather is gone, I probably will never go back to the Bronx, which is no more what it was than Manhattan is what we pretend it is, and for which the same probability looks imminent.
You’d think I could incorporate the dissonance if it is so pervasive and insurmountable. Accept the personality, split into fragments and spread far and wide, that I am, instead of being angry with the city, or feeling like its victim, or adoring. I’ve gone through all these like the steps of mourning or addiction, both of which define my relationship with New York. Maybe next time, if there is a next time, I’ll be cured, freed of the need to respond to the elusive freedom it extends, or the embrace of its unloving arms, or the pull of its energy, of its unfounded, unproven, ever elusive Siren promise.
It’s not irrelevant that I am a beggar when I go to New York. Prior to my arrival, I start my annual scramble for people to put me up for a few nights here and there, till I manage to arrange a patchwork of places to stay. I am relieved when I succeed because it is a somewhat humiliating and often difficult feat. I may be overstating my case for homelessness (Freudian slip as I wrote “overstaying”?) because in the end, I’ve always been able to find places to be. I’ve resided in many homes over the past 6 years despite my homeless status, from the magnificence of the Silver Towers 29th floor apartment to a ground floor hovel, dark, dank, overstuffed and filthy, on Riverside Drive; from a Soho loft to a modest flat in a Chelsea Co-op; from a bantam condo in a choice location on the Upper West Side, to lively quarters a half hour train ride away from the City. I am as much vagabond as beggar, but I’ve been lucky.
As moved to tearful gratitude as I am by people’s generosity inviting me in, I am abashed by other’s legitimate desire not to share their space. Mainly, I am tired of having to scrounge. The friends who are ever gracious would be offended to know I feel that way. Still, even their standing invitations don’t always work out as smoothly as planned, if only because plans change. Then the discomfort of canvassing and requesting begins anew, under more pressure, which has contributed to the decision I’ve made not to return to New York, not to put myself in the position again of the outsider asking to be let in. I become more critical the more of an outsider I feel, and that critical stance feeds my sense of alienation. This is the person I became with the passage of time, of friends, of homes, of security, of self-esteem, and has only partially been ameliorated by the advent of love, of family, of stability, of confidence and strength. Why court defeat?
I stand at the entrance of something new and maybe even inviting and look in, my tights loose around my ankles, feeling how other I am. I enter. I make friends, get to know my surroundings, change my hairstyle, my fashion, my accent or language, feel good enough. But always not quite the perfect fit, a newcomer who can never make up the shared experience I missed before I got there. Mine is the Jewish experience. The immigrant experience. The orphan experience. The blended family experience. The expat experience. The Zionist experience. New York.
Since I’m writing about the City, I will go there this summer for the finishing touches. I expect the final touch to be the acceptance that New York is not my home. That Manhattan never was. That it is a place that has intrigued me but can never be mine. That I always came to it a supplicant, entreating it to exhilarate me, or satiate me, or bring me a little closer to flush; hoping it would rub off on me, trying to emulate it, learn from it, take from it. And yet, I never gave Manhattan a thing. Never slogged through its streets on my way to work. Never went through its tragedies or its daily grind. Never became a familiar. Never paid its taxes. Never paid rent. Never paid my dues at all.
When I was a New Yorker, I was from the boroughs, from the Bronx, Helen-from-the-block. Then I turned my back on it. I guess I approximated being a New Yorker again when, after two decades of several weeks each summer and sometimes winter, I grumbled to myself like everybody else as I negotiated the masses of people on the sidewalks, when I lost patience and became a jaywalker, when store after store offered products I couldn’t afford, when stop after stop on the subway meant yet another person selling something or panhandling, orating about his need for money for his family, or – best case scenario – playing me a tune or pounding out a beat I didn’t ask for. I now feel accosted on all sides by what at first had been exciting and thrilling. I would do well, now that I was a New Yorker-of-sorts, to leave it.
There will be no coming full circle. No making my peace, no reclamation. Time to say goodbye to dreams of reaching for Manhattan. Even Zucker Bakery has closed down.
One last bite of the Apple, the Big Tease, that has been so tasty, so juicy, whose meat got between my teeth, whose skin often got stuck in my throat, whose core was sometimes blade sharp, and whose seeds, when I bit into them, were downright bitter.
City of cities, the unattainable, insurmountable, unimaginable, uncontainable, mysterious, multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-everything, omnipotent, omnipresent, omnifarious, awesome, fearsome. On any given day, in any given year, New York either howls or flutters like leaves of grass. It is the locus of so much memorable and formative experience and sensation, a living entity viewed from a distance but right there for my taking. Embraced and rejected by it, attracted and repulsed by it, longing to be part of it so I can feel realized, and to escape from it so I can be renewed. Always.
This past summer, on the eve of my final adieu, I vowed to take from New York everything I could, leaving nothing behind, daring it to outdo me as I pushed myself beyond my limits, beyond reason. I began as soon as I got off the train from Albany at Grand Central Station on East 42nd Street, and walked to my cousins’ apartment on West 23rd Street, dragging my trolley behind me. From then on it was out all day, every day, for 10 days. I walked everywhere, with the bare minimum of subway rides, uptown and back downtown, West Side to East Side, taking in museums, galleries, films, theater, music, coffee shops, the High Line, Wall Street, the Chelsea Piers, Roosevelt Island, the spots in Central Park I still had never gotten to, Midtown, the Village, and on. For what seemed like the first time, I took heed of how the light hit the buildings, of their ornaments, reliefs, spires and domes, gargoyles and figures. I made a point of registering what one block at a time was made up of to make the hugeness of the City concrete in its minuteness. I spoke to strangers in the parks, made remarks to people standing next to me, bantered with the stone-faced agents in the subway ticket booths. It was my swan song, and as resolute as I was to encompass as much as I could, I also felt I had nothing to lose being what I’d been waiting to become.
I moved to a friend’s apartment in Brooklyn for a few days just when the heat and humidity hit the ceiling. I walked the Brooklyn Bridge again in the middle of the hottest of those days, and, despite having a hat and drinking water the whole way, almost passed out at the end. I knew I had to pare back or I’d not make it. I stayed in the air conditioned apartment for the rest of the day, imbibing as much water as I could take. The next day, I went out early while the heat was still manageable and walked at a leisurely pace to the Botanical Gardens, and then to the air conditioned Brooklyn Museum. I went home, and stayed in the cool till evening. On another day, I checked out BAM (the Brooklyn Academy of Music), which was closed for the season, took a look around the Mark Morris Dance Studio, which was on hiatus, and found the Pratt Institute, which was locked to the public. By this time, I took everything in stride. Nothing fazed me. I had done the best I could, hungrily feasting on New York before it was gone forever. And that, plus the heat, had defused my obsession, it would seem.
I still walked everywhere I could, but slowly, stopping to cool off, to drink, to acknowledge that I and New York had never really been in competition. I was never going to break its back, and would never again attempt to conquer it. I was humbled. There was nothing left to prove or attain or surmount. Nothing to get indignant about or criticize. Nothing more to gawk at and feel small, or be cynical about and feel above it all. I had squeezed the City to the last drop, and I just let go. I felt it go. I knew I’d never see it again. I’d had a wonderful time, and I was going home.
I know I’ve done due diligence when I see a movie or a TV show on location in New York and can identify the streets, sometimes even a corner of a street, or a store, a restaurant, a building. If I can, I freeze the frame and examine it like an art collector, testing how well I know what I’m seeing, and paying homage to it. Every street sign conjures up facts and memories. New York can never be just a backdrop for me. From far, I feel a sense of recognition as of an old friend. Maybe all that stood in my way when I set out on my conquest was the realization that conquest was never the way to what I was yearning for. It was, in the end, time invested, sheer enthusiasm and doggedness that brought me to the gnarly love I have for the City that was never mine.