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)?
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.
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?
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.
Reminder: One week left to enter Mother Sugar’s first giveaway. Just leave a comment, telling us how what you thought life would be like when you were 18. Click here…