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.