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A public conversation about our worlds.

  • Monday: Morgan J. Locke
  • Tuesday: Madeleine E. Robins
  • Wednesday: Maureen F. McHugh
  • Thursday: Bradley Denton
  • Friday: Steven Gould
  • Saturday: Caroline Spector
  • Sunday: Rory Harper

Brain Activity



Home Earth

September 11th, 2007 by Madeleine Robins

bw1517manhattan-skyline-new-york-city-1940-posters.jpg

At one point during the epic and storied Eat Our Brains Board Meeting, Maureen McHugh asked me how I was doing with our move from New York City to San Francisco, and touched me by noting that she thought of me as a total New Yorker. Because that’s exactly what I am: born there, raised there, fully alive to its flaws and dangers, I am never so alive as when I step onto my home earth.

I love cities–I can do the forest or the desert or the mountains for a short time, then I want to go urban again–and of all the cities I’ve seen, I love New York the best. (I will note that my brother, born and raised in New York right behind me, detests New York. It’s a highly personal thing.) I love the quality of light, and the feeling of the air on my skin, the compression and volatility and the pockets of magic and strangeness you can find all over town. I love the feeling of enclosure that comes from walking down streets built up to the sky. I love the people (serious pockets of magic and strangeness!) and the way New Yorkers are startled by their own kindness. I love the energy, I love the subway, for God’s sake. Face it: I’m hard core.

When I was a kid, we played out on the street. Insert glyph of horror of your choice here. What was my mother thinking? In fact, it was one of the safest places I could be. I lived in Greenwich Village, on a tree-lined street; until I was eight, the rule was that I could go all around the block, but not across the street (my block was between Sixth and Fifth Avenues). But there were huge riches on that block: a massive brownstone Episcopal church on the Fifth Avenue end of the block, with lots of nooks and crannies and doorways to hide in; the tobacco store where my brother and I picked up our comic books at the corner of Sixth Avenue. The doorways and stairways and courtyards of the houses on the block, which became the sets for make believe adventures. The market where my mother would send me to pick up stuff, and the drugstore, and the cleaners. We were known in all three places, and known well enough that when one of the managers at Gristedes Market saw me crossing Sixth Avenue one day he called my mother to make sure this was okay. Talk about your small towns.

In times of trouble the small town aspect becomes very evident: when John Kennedy was shot, people gathered on street corners, listening to transistor radios, strangers comforting strangers. When the first big blackout happened it was like an enormous, good natured block party. People sat out on their stoops, chattering, swapping candles, sharing ice cream which would otherwise have melted. My father, who worked on 53rd and Madison, directed traffic on his corner for an hour before walking home. Yes, New Yorkers can be testy and miserable during traffic jams and sanitation strikes (isn’t everyone?), but they can also drop down on their knees on a street corner to find a contact lens.

When I got old enough to travel around the city I could go to my art class on 53rd Street by myself, and to school down on Bleecker Street. Gradually I began to take possession of the my city, learning routes, riding the subway (illicitly–my mother was scared of the subway), dealing with bums and crazies (what we call the homeless these days). I identify coming in to my own as an adult with walking around the city, anonymous among the millions of others and yet, like each of them, unique.

I had my kids in New York. I worked and wrote and fought with swords and danced in Central Park and kissed on streetcorners and laughed and reveled in the backlit early-evening light of Manhattan in the summer. I get a little giddy just thinking about it. The essence of New York’s attitude can be summed up in the words of Peter Venkman in Ghostbusters: “Nobody steps on a church in my town!” Defiant, humorous, and rooted in that small town sense of belonging and possession.

I don’t mean to downplay this anniversary. I just want to say that New York is much, much more than a day, or a disaster, or its heroes. It is its own sprawling, magnificent self.

Posted in Daily Life | 8 Comments »

8 Responses

  1. Bradley Denton Says:

    That brought a tear to my eye, Ms. Robins. You’ve made me homesick for a place I’ve never lived.

    Here’s to honking taxis, big ol’ soft pretzels, steam rising from sidewalk grates, hustle, bustle, and pastrami on rye. Here’s to the Knicks, the Mets, and (yes, even) the Yankees.

    Here’s to all those people streaming along all those sidewalks right this very minute.

    Here’s to ya, New York.

  2. Morgan J. Locke Says:

    A great tribute, Madeleine. And I agree with the message implicit in your post. It’s time to tone down our remembrance of 9/11. Not to forget, but to put it in context.

    PS I lived in NYC only briefly, but I came to love it deeply during that time.

  3. Madeleine Robins Says:

    I’d also like to have a moratorium on 9/11 being waved like a flag, to justify events or people. Just sayin’.

  4. nancy u. Says:

    Madeleine – This post puts the foundation under “The Stone War”, which I’ve read since haunting this site. It was clear in your book that you loved the city, and now even more evident that your love has deep and abiding roots. Thanks for sharing.

  5. Maureen McQ Says:

    I just want to add that I, too, love the subway, and it’s where I thought of my first novel, and it’s where I set a little of it.

    New York is my favorite city in the world.

  6. Caroline Spector Says:

    Thanks for such a great post on such a sad anniversary, Madeleine.

    When we went back NYC to put the headstone on Phil’s grave in 2002, it amazed me how resilient the people of New York were. Even though I find its vastness overwhelming when I’m there, I feel as if I’m plugged into the world.

    And the 2nd Avenue Deli is reopening. I may have to rethink that whole God thing.

  7. Madeleine Robins Says:

    Nancy–Thanks. I’m glad you liked Stone War, which was born out of my need to play with love of place and love of tribe (and I took every walk that Tietjen takes in the book…except the one down I-95; I’m stubborn but not crazy).

    Maureen–I remember reading that bit of China Mountain Zhang while sitting on the subway!

  8. Paula Helm Murray Says:

    Madeline, I have the same love for Kansas City, I grew up in the suburbs but loved downtown. Once we moved back from living in Lawrence, KS, every move has been more into “urbia.”

    Now that the energy is building up again downtown it’s good to be here.

    I’m now in one of the original suburbs, Hyde Park, about five minutes from downtown, five minutes to Westport. in a 1912-built house that is grand to live in

    the next move in our retirement (when we get tired of maintaining a house) will likely be into a loft.

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