I'm Just Saying…

June 19, 2010

A New York State of Mind

Yesterday, I hosted a co-worker for his first visit to the Big Apple. I was happy to play the tour guide; I love New York City. Although I live a mere hour and a half away by train, I don’t visit nearly enough.

When I decided to use New York City as the backdrop for my book “For Better or Worse, I commented to my mother that I wished I could express what I love about New York so much. I never seem to be able to put it into words.

“You’re a writer,” she said.

Good point.

I’ve loved New York City since I daydreamed at 16 about moving there and working as a translator for the United Nations. If I recall correctly, there was a penthouse apartment in that daydream as well. Why not? That’s what New York is for, isn’t it? Dreaming.  

“The City” is the name given to New York by Long Islanders, implying a far away foreign metropolis, as if going into “the city” meant leaving the Shire for a trek to Mordor.  That’s why many of our parents left “the city” all those years ago; they were looking for wide open spaces, peace, and quiet.

You went to “the city” for the day, saw what you wanted to see, only to come home wanting to shower right away to erase the grit and grime. “Don’t sit on the furniture in those clothes,” my mother would always say, “you’ve been wandering around the city all day. Get changed and put those clothes in the hamper to be washed.”

I always loved Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” her beautiful essay on what she loved about New York and yet she left and what made her go.  Some come only for a vacation and take away  photographs and key chains for memories, like a visit to the circus to see something alien and fantastical. Others come and could never leave, feeling a break in the connection would injure their soul. Then there may be some like me. I have brief visits, a few hours of leaving my “real life” and visiting a dream, the dream of a life I wished I’d had, a dream that was only an hour and a half away by train. I always wanted to live in New York City but it never quite happened. I talked of it fondly as something I might do, but never quite got to, like a shopping list with items I continually forgot to pick up. Maybe that’s what is incomplete in my mind. I wish I had a living experience of New York that was my own, memories to write about. In the end, I think Joan Didion is correct. In its own way, New York is “a city only for the very young.”

So yesterday I saw the city as a tourist would. I took my acquaintance to The Empire State Building, then off for a ride on the Tour Bus. I saw the familiar sights, sights I’ve seen countless times: Herald Square, the Flatiron Building, the Bull down on Wall Street. We passed a little place downtown, Seňor Swanky’s.  I fondly remembered an afternoon years ago sitting with a friend at a table outside the restaurant. We drank too much Malibu and Pineapple, ate tortilla chips, and talked of all we would accomplish; writing for me, filmmaking for him. That’s what New York is for, isn’t it? Endless possibilities. I fell out of touch with my friend. I hope he achieved what he wanted even as I am still finding my way. Perhaps one day if I have a book signing in New York City I’ll feel as if I’ve arrived.

We visited St. Paul’s Chapel. For the first time I saw the memorials and keepsakes for September 11th and the days that followed. There were many people but there was not a sound in the chapel. Maybe sometimes there isn’t a way to express how you feel; you can’t put it into words.  Maybe everything you want to say is contained in the silence.

Later in the day, my co-worker did his shopping and I confess I caught a little tourist fever myself. The key rings and cups, New York logo t-shirts, even flip-flops . I had to control myself. I nearly bought a cup that had a climbing King Kong figurine attached. You can see why, can’t you? It’s so New York.

In my mind, when I wrote “For Better or Worse” New York City was one of the characters, not just a backdrop. New York is never just a backdrop. Without New York there wouldn’t be a story. Without the city they are living in, my characters wouldn’t exist.

As a writer, I tried to see New York through the eyes of my character.  I imagined it as a scene in a movie,  Elton John’s classic “Mona Lisa and Mad Hatters” playing in the background. Ian, new to the city, walking the empty streets of New York late at night, making his way down 7th Avenue, then standing on an empty platform in the subway station waiting for the train.

Maybe that’s not the New York experience at all. Maybe it’s what my co-worker said as we stood on the 86th floor Observatory of The Empire State Building. “We are so small,” he said. Yes, we are. Whether looking down from the 86th floor or standing in Times Square staring up at the towering billboards and blaring lights, we are tiny against “the city.” But we want to be part of it, all the same.

Yesterday, I got off the train around 6 p.m. and drove home. Sitting in my chair on my porch, I listened to the silence, watching  a baby rabbit root around in my garden. It felt good to be home. Today I’m up early, ready for my normal routine. But I think about when I’ll go back again, knowing when I get off at Penn Station and I approach the top of the stairs, I’ll hear the groundswell of noise, the blare of the taxis, the hum of “the city.” I hope it’s soon. I don’t like to stay away too long.

J.

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