Inspiration Point, August 6th — I (Fuckin’) Love New York

Last week, the hubby and I took the kids on “vacation” to New York City. We stayed in a midtown hotel and tried to give our bambinos an immersion course in city life.


We still grapple with our decision to retreat to the relative safety and homogenous streets of the suburbs, once we had children. We probably always will.



The old man and I haven’t lived in Manhattan for almost fifteen years.  We were there before we were married, before we were parents, before we were thirty and forty and God knows what else, in a crappy apartment complex off Third Avenue, in a loft on 22nd Street, with the Met Life clock tower as our living room timepiece, in a sixties-era white-walled studio further down the street, and finally, in a third-floor walkup on a tree-lined section of Charles Street that still makes me teary, once I’m beneath its canopy of oak and maple leaves.


All week, as we walked the streets and stared out cab windows, we spent a lot of time talking together about things that used to be in Manhattan.  We remembered restaurants where we used to eat and bodegas we used to run into for expired milk and mom-and-pop drugstores that no longer exist, and took note of the Gaps and Starbucks and Marc Jacobs storefronts and many precious, precious cupcake shops, which have somehow all replaced what once was.  We’ve reached that age where we remember New York as it was, as it used to be. We can marvel, like old people, at how quickly it has changed, and at how unrecognizable it will be in a few more years’ time. 

If you’ve read my blog before, you know that I’m a native New Yorker. I may have the distinction of being the only Irish kid from Inwood (or the “Irish ghetto,” as my father was fond of calling it) who was born in tony Mount Sinai Hospital on the Upper East Side. I was always told that my father had to write a bad check to get my mother and I out of the maternity ward.


We moved to Queens when I was about two, back to the outerboroughs where my parents were from, and we lived there until my mother and father said uncle and got us out of a city hurtling to the depths in a dirty, ugly free fall. New York was dying, and my parents didn’t want us going under with it. We left in the early eighties, like so many others did, and we tried to become part of somewhere else.



But New York City never left me. Never. Its graffiti, its cracked, crumbling streets, its gargantuan, gorgeous, gruesome heart still beat right alongside my own. I understood myself better in New York, more than any place else I’d ever been in the world.


New York never left my parents, either. After the trip, I spoke to my father and shared with him what we’d done with the kids.  Dad’s a Brooklyn native who’s never forgiven me for losing the baseball he had signed by Gil Hodges, and he’s worked in Manhattan for more than forty years.  

While we talked, I explained that as much as the kids had seen in a week, they couldn’t ever see what we’d seen — as city children of the fifties and seventies. They’d never know what we did, for good or for bad.  I remarked that New York is as Disney-fied as any major city in the US today, leaving it more common than I wanted to admit. The city’s lost some of its soul, if that makes any sense.  It was still there, if you knew where to look for it, but for the tourists who sat at cafe tables in now-squeaky-clean Times Square, it was nowhere to be found.  I felt sorry for them, sometimes, because they’d paid a helluva lot of money to miss out on what New York truly was.

Pop told me that he misses the New York of the seventies — the grime, the dirt, the hurried, harried, masses of people moving like salmon struggling upstream, mouths open, eyes straight ahead, dead, dull and unwavering. I get it, because it’s what my first New York experience was, as a native myself, and because it’s what defined New York as we knew it all those years ago. Back then, New Yorkers walked with purpose, with loneliness, with defiance, like we were the only people left on earth.  And as far as knew, maybe we were.

Johnny Carson killed us, night after night in his ’70s monologues, and we wore it like a fucking badge of honor.  We were the ones who got “Annie Hall,” who understood why LA and its residents were so plainly God-awful, who felt the ghosts of our grandfathers on the Lower East Side, who knew what sacred ground lay beneath the Jackie Robinson projects in Crown Heights, and who sensed the city’s terrible beauty surrounding us.

During our trip last week, I was berated on Facebook — and rightfully so — by my father’s old friend, a Brooklyn native, who was horrified that I posted about eating several meals at chain restaurants in Manhattan. What the fuck was I thinking? If he was geographically closer, he would have smacked me on the forehead with the back of his hand. I WAS A NATIVE, fuh Godsakes. Use the power God gave you and do the damn city right. Leave the Shake Shack to the out-of-towners on matinee day.   Had I no shame?

I heard him, but in truth, old New York was getting harder and harder to be found. 


We took the kids to Grand Central (I don’t say “terminal” or “station,” I just say “Grand Central.” Doesn’t everybody?) and we took an audio tour, much to the kids’ delight. The ’70s kid in me held tight to my purse and kept my eye on the children at all times, since I looked like such a friggin’ tourist with my headphones on. 

We learned about the hidden spiral staircase in the GCT information booth, about the carved acorns and oak leaves throughout its facade, and that the second staircase added to the main room in the nineties is approximately one inch shorter than the original staircase built at Vanderbilt Avenue. 


Then I bought some t-shirts from the newest location of the Magnolia Bakery, in Grand Central’s food hall on the lower level. It was brilliant, it was beautiful, it was bustling — and it wasn’t the New York I knew at all. It was better, if I chose to be honest with myself, but the bite, the spice, the stench, the dull, muddied sparkle — was all fading from view.


We took the kids to the Empire State Building towards the end of the trip, and we paid a premium price so as not to stand for hours in the snaking lines of irritated tourists. (I recommend it highly.)

I had only been to the top of the Empire State Building once or twice before.  The first time I went, I was twenty-five, and I had gone on a lark after dinner in the city with my mother. Like any born-and-bred New Yorker, I hadn’t gotten around to it. 


This was before 9/11, before so much had changed about the city and our collective American psyche. There wasn’t any need for security checks or bag searches then, because no one could have imagined why we’d need them.  My mother and I took a jerky, whining elevator up to the 86th floor, walked past the tired, cheesy souvenir counter, and headed out onto the observation deck to gasp at all that lay beneath us, twinkling and tiny. 


It was something to boast about, up there, to be from here.


Fifteen years later, the 86th floor was unrecognizable. The area was dedicated to panel upon panel of the building’s history, to flat-screen TVs looping sped-up black-and-white films of workmen and King Kong and blimps that never docked on the top of the building. The gift shop was huge, with Empire States on every surface imaginable.

Once we made our way out to the observation deck, I felt the old stirrings of New York return.  She was still there, as she always had been, stretched out in her grid pattern, except for the swath of Broadway that cut through her midsection. 
She was right there, in the Art Deco facades and the glint of the Chrysler Building arches, in the misty waters where Ellis and Liberty Island stood guard, in the building that would always be the Pan Am building to me, in the boxy grand dames of the Ladies’ Mile, in the bridges that spanned the island, in the industrial-age skyscrapers, still standing tall and proud in light of their no-longer-heralded heights, in the people, the people who scurried and shuffled below, so miniscule, so meaningful, so crucial to her very survival. 



She had been here all along, quietly waiting for us to find her.


I pointed out as many landmarks as I could to my children —  from the glorious shape of the Flatiron Building, to the Tetris-like shape of Creedmoor Psychiatric Hospital all the way out in Queens, rising up in the humid, gray air, and every possible thing I could find between those points.  New York was there, laid out before us, as she always had been. You just had to open your eyes and see it.


I looked to the south and saw the skeleton of the Freedom Tower, stretching and reaching and yearning to become part of the skyline. It’s foreign to me, something I’m not used to, just as I’m still not used to not seeing those twin towers ever again, every time I turn my gaze to lower Manhattan. But it will become part of my children’s New York, as it will for millions of children born after 9/11, children who will only know the events of that still-unspeakable day from the internet and elementary school lessons. 

After 9/11, we had stumbled in grief to the Empire State Building’s simple beauty, once the towers had been taken from us.  It had returned to its rightful place as a shining symbol of New York. It sounds odd to personify a steel structure, but I will always feel simple gratitude for its role as a placeholder, as a touchstone, as a constant in the aftermath of the attacks. It still stood after all that happened. It — and we — were still here.

I thought of my parents’ childhood view of the skyline, when the Empire State Building was the pinnacle, the jewel in the crown, when the Twin Towers were not yet anyone’s idea or reality. So shall it be for me, old enough now to know what once was, and what isn’t anymore. But oh, what it might be!

Which brings me to the last part of our visit — the High Line. Built in the 1930s as an elevated freight railway to transport goods in and out of Manhattan, the High Line railway fell out of service by the early eighties, but its metal bones remained, snaking in and out of lower Manhattan on the west side.

It was an eyesore, a rusted-out derelict resident of the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, and community groups wanted it torn down.  Over the last thirty years, it had “self-seeded” and become an overgrown wonderland — dangerous, to be sure — and a wild-eyed wonder above the sidewalks of Manhattan.  


But a few smart people got together to save a part of New York’s history and make nearby neighborhoods greener.  

Today, it’s an elevated park, grazing industrial warehouses and city streets with undulating waves of milkweed and switch grass, where asters, catmint, salvia and coneflower abound. It’s an oasis right next to the West Side Highway, and it’s an example of how little control we have over nature’s plans.  

 It was an incredible place to stroll with my family, to witness the effects of nature and change, and to demonstrate to my children that one person, with one small voice, can make a difference in a place like Manhattan.






New York, I fuckin’ love you. 
Always and forever.



And please God, so will they.

On their own terms and in their own way.






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