Photograph courtesy nycfoto.com
There are two places in the world that I love above all others: my parents’ village in the Peak District of England (at top)–and New York City (above). Go figure: it’s very schizophrenic, one a beautiful English village where my family has lived for generations, the other a frenetic US city where I knew no one when I first moved there. But somehow, this dichotomy works for me.
New York was in my thoughts yesterday, the 11th anniversary of the attack. It put me in mind of an essay that I wrote soon after 9/11 which was published in my local Boston newspaper. Since no link is available, I’m putting it here, in a slightly abbreviated version.
New York, A Love Story
November 8, 2001
On the Sunday before the Tuesday of September 11th, 2001, I went to a wedding in Montclair, N.J. As I drove home to Boston, I automatically took the exit for New York.
“We live in Boston! Boston!” my companion called out. I yanked the steering wheel to the right, knowing that more than anything, even after four years of living in Boston, New York was still home.
Like the most passionate love affairs, my love for New York was first borne of hatred.
In 1982, on a hot, steamy, late summer afternoon, I emerged from the subway at 103rd Street and Broadway into what was surely one of the circles of hell. The city stank of rotting food, urine, and exhaust fumes. The noise was unbearable: everything was too fast, too loud, too frantic. I was in my 20s and, like many transplants, I had come for a job. If you worked in book publishing, New York was the only place to be.
Manhattan was in the midst of a huge real estate boom. The rental market was extremely tight, the vacancy rate was almost nonexistent, and there was a lot of money to be made. Stories circulated about one person who rented space under a grand piano, another who rented a bay window. When I told a colleague about the apartment that I had found through a Village Voice want ad that I shared with two roommates–2,000 square feet, three bedrooms, three bathrooms, maid’s room, two living rooms, dining room, kitchen, western exposures over the Hudson River–an entire elevator full of people fell silent as we traveled from the lobby to the 42nd floor. The only other time an elevator ride was so quiet was when Jackie Kennedy Onassis, an editor at my company, graced us with her presence. One time I was racing quickly–too quickly–to the Xerox room and ran flat into Ms. Onassis, who was turning a corner. She said, “Yoiks,” so now you know what she says when she’s unpleasantly surprised.
After a while I began to wonder how I had lucked into such an incredible apartment–no one I knew at my income level had anything like my living situation. One of my roommates finally enlightened me: the previous tenant had been bludgeoned to death in our living room. The market was so tight and I’d never get anything at all like this, so I stayed, but I never again went into the living room.
I and my two roommates, strangers, got along well despite our differences: male, female; gay, straight; Catholic, Protestant, Jewish; Italian, English, Russian; from New Jersey, Chicago and England, Australia. Then the apartment went coop. The two people on the lease–my two roommates–could buy cheaply, sell high. Wanting the apartment for himself, my male roommate embarked on a crusade of terrorizing us and threatening to kill us. With my roommate and me gone, he flipped the apartment, buying it for $217,000 and selling it the same day for $487,000–a fortune in those days. It’s now worth well over four million.
My work situations were no better. My first New York boss wrote me love letters. Another boss grew despondent over impending layoffs in our division, and for two months I spent every morning trying to talk him out of jumping out the window.
My secretary was the victim of domestic abuse, her brother, a drug addict, was dying of AIDS. Her husband made kamikaze visits to our office; he was convinced that his wife was having an affair with my suicidal boss. The company put a guard on our floor, in case he ever came with a gun. Then the layoffs came, and I, one of the sole survivors, spent the next year telling distraught authors that their contracts were cancelled and helping the company dodge their threatened lawsuits.
If the halls of the workplace were vicious, the streets were no better.
A mentally ill homeless man terrorized my neighborhood of West 98th Street, throwing chunks of cement, bottles, and garbage cans at women and children (never at men). He would be taken away for several weeks, but would always return.
Grass grew long in Central Park, rats ran over city playgrounds, and racial tension flared. A gang of youths from Harlem were charged (wrongly, as it turned out many years later) with raping and beating a female jogger in Central Park; the media picked up the phrase “wilding” and drove the city into a panic. Crown Heights tore the city in two.
Outside Carnegie Hall, a man lunged at me with a knife. On Park Avenue a homeless man urinated on my shoes. One of my authors, seven months pregnant, was stalked and accosted on the subway by a crazy man. Two months later she saw him on the news: Colin Ferguson, who had just murdered four people on the Long Island Railroad.
The streets had become home to the walking dead. Men showed up at the church I attended in Greenwich Village, grew thin, then were seen no more. The prayer list went on for pages.
By 1990, the year that more than 2,000 people were murdered in New York, all I wanted to do was leave, but my job, under a new, but also troubled, boss, kept me there.
In February 1993, the World Trade Center was bombed. I looked out of my office window down Fifth Avenue to see plumes of smoke rising behind the Pan Am building. It seemed as if the world had gone insane and I felt that my heart would break under the strain.
Then something miraculous happened–or two things, only one of my making.
William Bratton, the new police chief brought in from Boston by Mayor Rudy Giuliani to take control of the escalating violence, started to show results. To the amazement of everyone, the crime rate started plummeting, dropping from 2,000 murders a year to around 500.
Slowly but surely a sense of control was returning to the city.
And I had a baby.
The love I felt for her was indescribable. And I found that I had fallen in love, not just with my child, but with my city.
I found that with a baby in tow, the friendliness that had lain dormant came to the fore. Countermen gave my daughter bagels, cookies, grapes; store assistants spoke to her, strangers on the street patted her head. She had her first taste of watermelon from a taxi driver’s lunch, and wherever we went there were people to talk to.
As I traveled this very different city, everywhere I went I saw touches of kindness and connection. When I returned to the deli next to my old office in Midtown two years after I had left my job, the counterman broke into a big smile and greeted me with, “Provolone on a roll, tomato, lettuce”–my regular order. One morning I saw a girl around 11 or 12 who was crying on the M107 Broadway bus. An older woman left her seat, put her arm around the girl, stroked her head, and murmured in her ear for blocks.
In the past weeks since 9/11, New York has shown that incredible goodness of which it is capable: the people who refused to leave strangers in the World Trade Center and who perished with them when the building collapsed; the men who carried a woman in a wheelchair down more than 60 floors in the smoke-filled inferno; the firefighters who selflessly raced into a doomed building to save others.
But my Boston friends ask me: why would I want to return to a city that has undergone such destruction, that would be in continuing danger?
I think: would I really want to return to sit with my friend Steve on his sofa on the Upper West Side, watching CNN obsessively while reliving his experiences as the World Trade Center crashed and burned a few blocks away, and where two of his former colleagues died? Would I truly want to visit my friend Alyson in Brooklyn and smell the stench of burning flesh from the fires that still burn two months after the attack? Or be with Dan as he mourned the deaths of 60 people from his Upper West Side temple; or with Joan, who lives an hour out of New York and lost 15 members of her church? Would I really want to return to this place of horror, where such evil has been done?
Don’t get me wrong: I love Boston, its history, its architecture, its coast, the fact that people pull over for ambulances and stand on the T for women and children.
I have made friends here and I like it a lot. And I know it’s better for my young children to continue living here among their friends, living the life they enjoy, the only life they remember. But as for me? I’d return to the city I love in a New York second.