Back to The City

This weekend I got to go back to NYC. For seven hours. It sounds sort of insane because, frankly, it was. My company sponsors a bus trip every year from my home outside DC. I didn’t go last year because I was like, “Sitting on a bus for 10 hours just for half a day in New York? I’m not insane.” Evidently something has changed between last year and this year, because this year I went. So perhaps I am actually insane. I took my six year old son. So, yes, the insanity possibility remains. 

We got on a bus at 6am. We spent seven hours in NYC, and then got back on the bus. We got home at 3am. 

And I learned a few things. 

1) I still love NYC. Even though everything we did and saw was completely swamped and mobbed with people… when I lived there — the times I write about in Girlfriends of Gotham — I avoided the tourist stuff like the plague. I wouldn’t walk through Times Square if you paid me. I’d NEVER go to Rockefeller Center during the holidays. And being crowd claustrophobic, I still didn’t enjoy that stuff. But in the midst of the worst crowds I’ve ever seen and in the middle of a serious smash of humanity, I realized that I could still appreciate that particular brand of hell. There are few places in the world where people would put up with that complete redassery just to see a giant tree lit up, where people will stand in line to enter a toy store (yes, we did this to get into FAO Schwartz). And it reminded me that even though I didn’t necessarily enjoy the touristy stuff — there was a time when I got to be an insider…when I owned just the tiniest piece of everything that ROCKS about New York City.

2) My kid is a rock star. The little guy spent most of the day awash in a sea of strangers, with me gripping his hand in a deathclaw grip and dragging him past an endless parade of other people’s butts. I’m 5’9″ tall and almost always in 3-4″ heels. I can see over almost everyone. But he couldn’t see crap. He saw butts and hands and other kids looking terrified, and he handled it like a champion. Every now and then I’d hoist him up and carry him so he could see stuff (yes, I carried my 60 pound kid while wearing three and a half inch heels…I’m like that). But when I’d check in with him as I pulled him through crowds, he was completely fine. And happy. And smiling. 

3) The Spiderman show is AWESOME. We got tickets in advance, and I was SO glad we did it. If you have kids and you’re in the city, it’s totally worth it. 

4) Seeing your old life and knowing you’ll never have it again is hard. As I sat on a bus with a bunch of crazy women screaming “NYC Baby!” while we crossed the GW bridge into the city, I swallowed down my annoyance. I remember the feeling I used to have, when I entered the city at the end of a trip, the feeling I had when I was coming home to the city… it was a feeling of belonging, of pride. When I saw that skyline, I felt a surge of something incredible that I’d never felt before and haven’t felt since. NYC was the first place I ever really felt at home. And with Frank Sinatra’s line in my head, it made me feel like I could make it anywhere. On that bus, though, I had to accept that I didn’t belong anymore. I have become a tourist. New York City is like a snowglobe. Lots of people look at it and see the same things. They scurry over the glossy top of it, ogling the Empire State Building and talking about Times Square. They see the things we see on television, in movies. But they don’t see the inside. When I lived there, I was inside the globe. I got to walk the hidden side streets that tourists rarely find. I knew how to get places without getting swamped by people. I was an insider. But now I wander the hard surface of the globe with everyone else. At least when I’m there for only 7 hours on an insane bus trip. 

5) I miss my girlfriends. I was in Manhattan for four days in May to celebrate my 40th. And none of what I just said applied then. When you have enough time to delve deeper, you get to see some of that inner goodness. But for me, NYC is only ever right if I’m with my best friends — the original Girlfriends of Gotham. I look forward to our next visit to the city!

New York, New York

It’s not a secret at this point that I am in love with New York City. My book is all about the excitement and romance that I feel when I think of that place… along with a bit of realism, I hope. But there’s another site that I visit regularly that really exemplifies why a city so rich in history provides the fodder for endless stories. If you haven’t checked out Ephemeral New York before, please do. It’s guaranteed to make you into a Gothamophile…

I Wasn’t There

There’s no way to overstate what a difficult and important day 9/11 has become in the consciousness of our country. Both of my young sons — ages 2 and 5 — can describe to people the day when bad men took three planes full of innocent people and crashed them into buildings full of more innocent people. They can tell you that they, as Americans, will never let it happen again. They talk about being proud, about being strong. They know about this because it’s something I talk about.

9/11 is a day that weighs heavily on me — for all of the reasons I share with other Americans, but also for personal reasons; not because I lost someone personally, but because I lost a bit of myself.

New York City was my home on 9/11/2001. I’d lived there for four years and had never felt more at home with myself or in a physical place. Growing up in California, I’d never really fit in. On a family vacation at 14, I stood beneath one of the towers of the World Trade Center next to my brother and looked up at my mom, the steely grey of the tower rising behind her. I told her, “I’m going to live here someday.” That was pre-Guiliani, and my declaration terrified my parents.

When I threw everything I owned into my car at age 24 and drove across the country, they warned me that I might be making a terrible mistake. They saw me, at 14, standing amid the grafitti scrawl and gang violence that had characterized that city in the 80s, and they were scared. But I was exhilarated. For four years, I let the city seep into my pores, let my soul be scoured and reshaped by the energy that found me there.

I worked at a technology start-up in 2001. Our offices were on Maiden Lane, and we spent lunch hours roaming the mall beneath the World Trade Center, dropping through Ben and Jerry’s on the way out and Century 21 across the street before heading back to work. The company was struggling, and I was laid off in August. I decided to travel back to California to visit my family. My boyfriend would fly to LA to meet me on September 12th, and we were planning a vacation together.

Our plans changed.

I woke up the morning of 9/11 to my friend, Amy, coming back in her front door just moments after she’d left for work. Someone had stopped her in her parking garage to tell her that she probably wouldn’t be working today and to go turn on the TV. The Today Show’s Matt and Katie looked strange to me, but it was early and I had been sound asleep. The events that elicited their deer-in-headlights look took on a dreamlike quality in the cloudiness of my waking mind. We watched the second plane plow into the tower and disappear, and I asked Amy, “Is this a movie?”

In the wake of those events, Amy went back to work and I found myself stranded in Los Angeles. I wandered up and down Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica, trying to understand how I felt, what had happened, and what had changed. I felt seething anger when I passed sidewalk tables with diners chatting happily and laughing just days after the events. Huge naval ships were visible only as outlines looming out on the horizon of the Pacific.

When I finally got back to New York, I felt as if I was outside a bubble looking in. I felt like I’d missed a crucial moment in the life of the city that defined my own. I felt the way I imagined I might if I’d missed my child’s most important game or recital. I felt like I’d let my city down. Of course, NYC didn’t notice my absence, but that void will always live within me.

My boyfriend told me that I was more upset than people who’d been there when it happened. As we leaned against the railing on his rooftop and watched the constant plume of smoke billowing up into the sky a month later, he said that he didn’t understand why I couldn’t move on.

But he’d already said it. I wasn’t even there.

Almost Forgot

Some of you know that most of my stories / novels are set in New York City. I can’t help it. I lived there for only four years, but they were my formative years (for me, this was ages 24-29 – I was a bit of a late bloomer). Anyway, the place grips and owns me. I doubt I’ll ever really understand why or escape its grasp. And that’s okay with me.

That said, I spend a lot of time researching various historical aspects of the city, and stumbled upon my new VERY FAVORITE site. Check it out: Ephemeral New York. I love it almost as much as ice cream.