I Heart New York

A year after 9/11, I was working at an adorable family-owned restaurant in the West Village. I was 24 and while my ambition was to be a professional dancer, I had just started managing the joint, which basically meant overseeing the evening operations. My boss, a Yankees cap-wearing, beer-drinking kind of guy in his early thirties, assigned me my first night shift on September 11, 2002. More than the good food and drink, he prided himself on training us to create the perfect atmosphere — wrong light levels and improper music choices were very grave sins and he often mocked us if he strolled over from his nearby apartment (a common occurrence) and found the place too dark or too loud or overrun by Belle and Sebastian (another common occurrence). Although I had been in New York on September 11, 2001, and although I had been working at the coffee shop for six months by then — I knew most of the customers and my cappuccinos foamed nicely — on the one-year anniversary, I worried that I wouldn’t do a good job of reading the crowd. Should it be a somber night (a little Magnetic Fields or Joni Mitchell)? Or should I play something calming but heart-warming (Jack Johnson or Tracy Chapman)?

This “Help Wanted” says it all.

Night fell and people packed in — it was the neighborhood, feel-good joint, after all, and it seemed we all longed for something familiar. It was a warm, beginning-of-Fall evening, so the rickety French doors were open onto Carmine Street. By 7pm, everyone wanted a table, a burger and a beer — including my boss, who had come by with his wife, new baby, and some friends. When he walked in, Bruce Springsteen’s newly released “The Rising” was blasting on the stereo and I was busy rearranging and clearing tables to accommodate every last person who walked in that night. My own boss sauntered behind the counter to get his crew some drinks from the tap and said, “It’s perfect in here.”

I looked out. It was perfect. A perfect little corner of what was becoming my tiny home in the city. It was full of friends and families crowded over their meals, happy to be out, happy to be together, happy to be in New York. The Boss was followed by the Police and the Grateful Dead and maybe even some CCR or Johnny Cash or Stevie Wonder — old, easy favorites. Singalong, I-know-all-the-words songs. Songs that make you feel, even momentarily, that despite the chaos, we’re all just doing our best to keep on, to care for each other — and our city — in the process.

Lots of things happened that night, but my main memory is of standing behind the counter with my boss, looking out over tables full of New Yorkers, listening to the Boss sing one of the songs that came to represent that moment in New York’s history and its resilience to keep on.

A Manhattan building, summer 2012.

Let me stop here and say that I am not writing this from New York, and I was not in New York during Hurricane Sandy, so anything I say here has to be taken with a whopping heap of salt. Unlike all the other major and minor catastrophes that have befallen NYC in the last decade (9/11, the Blackout, the Subway Strike, Hurricane Irene, etc), I watched Sandy not from my Brooklyn window, but online and on TV with my mouth ajar and my eyes brimming with tears. I called Brooklyn home for 12 years and still have an apartment there (it’s fine, thank you) and almost all of my closest friends live within a 20 block radius of it (they are also all fine, thank you). Staring into my iPhone, I squinted at, and then recognized, corners and blocks that were now underwater.  I heard news of terrifying and unnecessary deaths and was bowled over by sympathy for those families and friends. How could it be?

View out my Brooklyn window.

Obviously we have no idea what will come in the next few days and weeks and months, and far be it for me, someone who has moved far away, to say what it feels like in that old city of mine. It is never entirely as it appears from afar. I can’t smell the diesel mixed with stale water rising along roads in Red Hook where I swam laps every day for three summers; or see the long river along Avenue C, where I used to go to dance rehearsals. I am not trying to board the only bus traveling from Brooklyn to Manhattan with 600,000 other frustrated, stressed out people desperate to get to work (or to help someone, or home). I am not stranded in an apartment with no running water, no flushing toilet and no power (although, thanks to Hurricane Irene, I have been; that time, however, we just wanted to get out of the Catskills and home to Brooklyn, where everyone was safe).

Of course there will always be horror stories. Surely a lot of these are true. But if what I see on Twitter and Facebook and from the emails I’m getting from friends are any indication, people are banding together, as they did over a decade ago. That energy and force and love — along with FEMA, the Red Cross, the thousands of city workers and volunteers who will put in countless hours — will, eventually, put the city back together again, albeit on shaky waters. Now how this city — The City, the only one of its kind, an intricate web of communities from every reach of the globe suspended on an island — will survive if we turn a blind eye to global warming is another matter entirely.

Perhaps this is one issue that (God help us) Obama’s second term will now — finally — take seriously.

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4 thoughts on “I Heart New York

  1. I currently have two brooklynites staying with me now. What is it about New York that somehow allows its citizens to love it the way they do? In a world where community is becoming harder to define, more disparate to build, New York is an incredible exception. The way my guests hearts ache for their city, it is impressive and touching. And while I’m grateful my own allegiances to places I love and come from have not been tested as yours have, I can’t help but wonder If I would feel enough if they were, if I’ve allowed myself to be tied to any place with such love.

  2. I was watching the coverage before Sandy and while the media was full of fear, I don’t recall anyone being interviewed on television who shared that fear. It was like people were almost excited to see what it would be like. Sure, boarding up home and leaving town in some cases, but with a sense of stoic pride. Then after the storm the devastation was just heartbreaking and people were also grimly determined to recover, but not just for themselves. It was like they spoke for the whole city, or at least their whole district or community. BEZ is right, “In a world where community is becoming harder to define, more disparate to build, New York is an incredible exception.”

    I don’t know NYC. I’ve only been there once to visit friends I dearly wanted to see, and I’ll admit I otherwise had no desire to go. But (perhaps, in part, because they were such outstanding tour guides) I have a whole different appreciation for the place now. I was as charmed as everyone else. I’m glad to hear that your own place there was safe and that your friends were okay too.

    It’s curious to me how we can be indifferent to all manner of tragedies, by switching the channel or turning to the entertainment section of the newspaper, but can watch endless news coverage of storms. Maybe we have a common sense of helplessness in the face of nature because it is blind to socio-economic and ethnic distinctions? It’s “nobody’s fault” so we are free to feel compassion and awe rather than a sense of guilt? (Well, until we talk about climate change which, as you note, is a whole other story.) I don’t know why that is but I hope that people continue to pull together while things are falling apart. Thank you for a vivid and thoughtful share.

  3. I loved your description of that restaurant and the sense of community there. And also how you point out that with every disaster, the city pulls together to patch things up. It’s amazing to see how people can come together in hardship – and I know your city will pull itself back together!

  4. Of course, I love this. You’ve so beautifully depicted the basic and simple solace in having a community to turn to, and the unique and slightly odd way in which a city of such volume is able to also feel like one village. I remember the same feeling that you describe just after 9/11. I remember walking by a group of firefighters on a corner somewhere downtown– they must’ve been on break, with the tops of their turnout gear off and hanging from their waists. I really wanted to hug them, and they looked back at me with such understanding, as if they felt my impulse to connect with them and appreciated it. (Of course, I did not walk up and hug a group of firefighters– there are boundaries.) It was a very simple but very powerful moment. That city constantly surprises me with the meaningfulness of ‘civilization.’

    Another undertone in this post, I think, has to do with the pain of being away from ‘home’ in a difficult time. Although on the one hand, it’s good that you were safe and out of the way of all the danger and difficulty, there is probably another part of you that would be comforted to have been there, as those hard times so strongly remind us that we belong to a place and to each other. This post is a lovely way to tap into that connection and sense of belonging.

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