My City Crush
I’ve been thinking about Place in fiction, my preoccupation with it (the blue mountains of my childhood), and my avoidance of it (the incredible city where I now live). It was always my dream to live in New York City; as a child, coiled up in those mountains, even then I dreamed of it. And here I am, undeniably a citizen of this city—I do pay my taxes—and yet something always keeps me from delving deeply, with my writing, into this place. It’s almost as if I’m not allowed to write about it. That I am not authentic enough. A part of me hesitates to call New York City “home,” like maybe real New Yorkers don’t grow up barefoot blowing dandelions to the wind. Still, I have a crush on New York City, always have, just like I still have a crush on my own husband. Just try and stop me.
Off the Boat
Some days I know I’m meant to be living in this city. The real surprise is that no one in my family—not from either side—is still here. Both sides of my family arrived by boat generations ago. My great-great grandparents and my great grandparents came from towns in Hungary, Italy, Poland, Sicily. I don’t know the names of the towns; our family history tends to stop and start with New York. Upon arriving here, one side of my family had their Sicilian name misspelled on their entrance papers. The Jewish side kept their names until my grandfather, my mother’s father, changed his last name completely to keep from sounding so Jewish, which is how my mother ended up being born under her father’s first name. One side settled in Brooklyn, the other on the northern tip of Manhattan. When one of my grandfathers courted my grandmother, they didn’t have much pocket money, so their most glamorous dates were riding the Fifth Avenue bus up and down the length of the island. In my family were furniture salespeople, photographers, seamstresses, milliners, factory workers, eventual factory owners, mostly people who did what they could. I don’t know of any writers, not one.
Abandoning the Island
Both sides of my family left Manhattan before I was born. First, they moved to an island nearby, an island of suburbs, which was connected by a commuter train to Manhattan, where they still worked. My mother lived in a series of apartments there, though the furniture always stayed the same. Her friends lived in giant houses in gated communities, and she was always aware of what she didn’t have. So she looked to Manhattan; she called it “The City.” She had lofty dreams, and the city would give them to her… except she met my father and got married and moved upstate and, sure enough, had me. So, she instilled these city dreams in me. The magic of her teenage years exploring the wilds of Manhattan were fed to me like fairy tales. I aspired to one day find my way there, to stay. Everyone else I am even tenuously related to has fled. They are living upstate, or in other states, in other cities. They have no desire to come back. How can this be? I am the last straggler, the only one willing to pay a terrible amount for a tiny box of an apartment because it is more important to live here than to own property in New Jersey or Pennsylvania or Maryland or up north. I am the only one who cares enough, or is warped enough, to stay.
Pins and Needles
One side of my family had a sewing factory in Manhattan. You may not think of me as the daughter of a factory owner, but I am. The estranged daughter of a factory owner, but still the same. Back then, my father slept weeknights in the city. He had a foldout bed in a storeroom. We lived upstate in an terribly insulated house with a jumpy smoke alarm, but sometimes we’d visit him at work. I remember running between the rows of sewing machines, the dark iron hulks of the machines, playing with the giant colorful spools of thread. (My mother, then a seamstress, must have shuddered to think of me breaking them; those industrial Singers are a bitch to thread.) I remember coming away from the factory with strands of thread knotted up in my shoelaces. I remember the thunderous noise of the factory before closing time. The dark shadowed quiet after everyone had gone home. I remember trying to “help” by collecting fallen pins with a giant magnet. I remember counting yellow cabs from the office windows. I remember going outside to the streets below, to have a treat we could only get in the city: a delicious crusty knish. Many years later, when I was grown up, E was filming a short movie in a converted loft space in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, that had once been a sewing factory. No one told me that rows and rows of sewing machines had been there; I just knew. I knew by the pins. They were hidden in the cracks between floorboards, the sturdy silver industrial pins of my childhood, the points sharper than you’d think. We could see the skyline from where we were filming and I looked toward it, nostalgic. My mouth watered, inexplicably, for a street-cart knish.
Even more than the city of New York has made me who I am, or who I want to be, the long road leading into the city of New York came to define me as well. The New York State Thruway was two-and-a-half hours of bland pavement between me and where I wanted to live. At its end was the tunnel that led into Midtown Manhattan, the Lincoln Tunnel, its familiar tiled walls an underwater route I’ve traveled hundreds of times. I remember driving the thruway’s excruciating (it seemed) length for forced visitations with my father, for family events, for school trips, for excursions to buy shoes. I remember each rest stop, each toll booth. I remember the curved ramp in New Jersey, which seemed miles and miles long, on which we’d wait agonizingly for our turn at the tunnel. When I reached high school, traveling to New York from upstate was the most exciting of all adventures. Sure, we snuck swims in the reservoir, we sped through the dirt roads, careless near the cliffs, we skipped school to hike Overlook Mountain and climb the fire tower, we lived in a spot where other people spent their vacations… but it was not enough. Especially for me. The summer before I left for college we went to a pro-marijuana festival (or was it a protest? what was it, really, I have no idea) in a park in downtown Manhattan that happens to be just a couple blocks from where I live today. I recall sitting on the ground, gazing at city sights around me, convinced, completely and totally CONVINCED that I would one day live there. Everyone was like, Yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah, but I was adamant about it, even on the long ride home along the oh-so-familiar thruway. A premonition? Sure, I was probably high at the time, okay clearly I was high, but it came true, did it not? Maybe I am simply here due to my sheer, naive determination.
My Very First Apartment
E and I went to a college where we were expected to do internships (called “co-ops”) for college credit twice a year. We met, fell deeply in love, and decided to do our first co-op together. Where did we choose to go? New York, obviously. We arrived with leads on jobs, but nowhere to live. I wanted desperately to live in Manhattan. We started by staying in E’s mother’s apartment in Queens—my first taste of spicy homemade kimchee soup, my tongue turned afire, my face bright red, and I thought, for a single moment there, that I might die. His mother began surreptitiously washing the kimchee off for me in a bowl of water kept always beside my plate, which made me feel a bit embarrassed, though immensely grateful at her kindness. We stayed with E’s mother for weeks while we looked for an apartment. The apartment I wanted was in Alphabet City, but we were discouraged by the menacing men guarding the sidewalk and the stairwell, and the slanting floor in the studio apartment itself, so if you left a ball on one side it would roll swiftly to the other. The apartment we ended up with was on 100th Street, on the west side, discouragingly far from downtown. I remember it fondly, too fondly, my first New York apartment. It was one room. It had one window. We had a mattress on the floor, no couch, and one chair. When spring turned to summer it was so hot we actually kept the hallway door open for a cross-breeze. But it was three blocks from a branch of the public library. It was near the subway, a knish cart not far away. It was in New York, it was in New York, it was in New York. Not even the cockroach infestation by summer’s end could have made my affection for that place go away.
I had three internships that spring and summer. The first was for a symphony that performed in New York. When they hired me, they didn’t realize I happen to be tone deaf, nor that I was impeccably shy. This job consisted mainly of delivering sheet music to the musicians living all over the city, me who had barely maneuvered the subway beyond the N/R from Times Square to 8th Street, the only route I knew. My second internship was for a start-up newspaper, which was headquartered in a man’s apartment so far away in Brooklyn I don’t now recall where exactly it was. My third internship was one day a week, at a literary journal at a university far, far uptown. In this way, I traveled all over, trying new subway lines, getting used to buses, getting used to pounding the pavement by foot. I learned to wear comfortable shoes. I got lost in Brooklyn. I got lost in Harlem. I got lost in the Village. I got lost in Central Park. I got lost, and I found my way, in each place. I stopped carrying a map. I gained confidence. I walked faster, as the only way to keep from sticking out like a sore thumb on the busy city streets is to walk fast. I learned complicated subway transfers. That was the summer someone we knew from college died; her body was found in Tompkins Square Park. That was the summer of mono, of Pill-induced mood swings, of the “talking-to” in the taxi by the director of the symphony who was not happy with my work because I was too shy. That was the summer my boss at the so-called newspaper turned out to be seriously unstable, the summer I realized I should have been afraid of him the whole time. The summer of the writing class at the Y that sent me sobbing into the streets one night, thinking of giving up on writing forever and ever. The summer of such intense heat I was covered, constantly, with a film of slick sweat. But when I was navigating myself through the streets, down into the subway tunnels and up again, I felt sure of myself for the first time in my life. I felt like I could make it here, if I had to. I hoped that one day I’d really have the chance.
The Glorious Gates
I first saw the campus of Columbia University when I was 19. I’d delivered sheet music there, through those gates, into the very building in the art school where I would one day have classes. So it was that when I was applying for graduate school during my last year of college in a small town in Ohio, I sent in a who-knows, what-the-hell application there. I didn’t expect to get in. In fact, when I was accepted to another program in another city, I sent in my deposit and starting making plans to move there. Then I got the April Fools’ Day phone call that told me Columbia had said yes. If you are ever wondering why I’d risk my entire financial future to take out loans and live in the most expensive place in the country while studying for a completely impractical degree, all you need to remember is how I felt about New York. You should know that it seemed like my chance, my first real chance, to really live there. It was a choice made before I was even born. Really, what choice was there? Of course I would choose New York. And I’ve been here ever since.
I have it in mind to better learn French, seeing as one day before I die I am going to find a way to spend at least a year living and writing in Paris. I want to learn Italian, so I can spend some time in Rome. To learn Japanese, to live again in Kyoto. (The first time, so brief, I barely spoke a word.) I can speak English, so I’m all set for the year I’ll spend living in Edinburgh. I’d like to see Lima. A year in Buenos Aires. I think I’d like Toronto. San Francisco, always wanted to see it. Los Angeles, I liked more than I thought I would—clearly it was a combination of the ocean, good company, stellar strawberries, and a magical visit to the desert. But New York City, this will always be my city, my home base, even if I am not sure of the word. My heart knows it. If you’re in the car with me when we approach the city, you’ll see me sit up straight, eyes wide, looking. Even on the Chinatown bus, sick with stops and starts and exhaust fumes, I come awake in the night when we approach the Holland Tunnel. The lights are out there. I’ll wait in traffic forever if I get to see those lights.
On the Page
So why do I hesitate to write about this city I love so much? I am always skirting around it in my fiction. A few scenes here and there, one chapter, one story. It’s the tiniest of tastes and then I make myself let go. It’s like I’m saving the city, saving it in bits and pieces and glimpses and smells and sighs for later. When later? I don’t know yet. Maybe this novel I am rewriting (when I talk to myself about it, alarmingly more and more often, I like to say reimagining, rather than rewriting) will find its way to New York, as I think it might. Maybe I will one day write a very large novel that encompasses everything I have to say about this city, one day when I am very old. Maybe, by then, I’ll feel the right to truly call it home.