I first saw the skyline of Manhattan from a rental car. My boss and I were driving through New Jersey on a business trip, and we rounded a corner on the turnpike. Suddenly buildings and random objects parted and you could see across the Hudson. From that angle, the skyscrapers seemed to be shooting right up from the water, dozens of them, hundreds, I don’t know. The sight of it was overwhelming. It was like falling in love at first sight, like my heart being pulled out of my chest, like BOOM! I want that. I need that.
What was it I really wanted? I still don’t know. I’m an aggressive, competitive person. Maybe it just looked like the world’s biggest jungle gym. A place to prove myself, prove something to myself. A day or two later I sat in the Rainbow Room at the top of Rockefeller Center, at a window seat, looking at the same view from 50 stories over Midtown, looking south toward the tip of the island. I ordered a martini and as I sipped it, I reflected that I must, after all, be a grownup. Because only a grownup could be having this experience.
I was 35 years old, but in my defense I lived in Los Angeles at the time. Californians are encouraged to stay at the age of 19 mentally, emotionally, and physically — forever. It’s easy to do when there are no seasons, and every day passes by like every other day, just blue skies and dry winds rustling the palm fronds.
This was different. This was real. Manhattan is two things at once… a magical kind of dreamscape in which millions of people live together on a little island, their homes and stores and workplaces rising up to crazy heights, but also a very brutal place. It’s made of steel and glass and concrete, built with untold amounts of sweat and grit and hard work, and it’s loud, unrelenting, pounding, and filthy. Walk down the street on a summer day and enjoy the sun filtering through the trees of Central Park, the profusion of unbelievably beautiful women of all ages, the colorful jumble of street vendors and shop windows… and then you pass a steaming manhole cover and almost pass out at the reeking stench of garbage and human waste that’s been dropped down somewhere under the island for three centuries.
“I happen to like New York,” Cole Porter wrote in one of his magnificent little songs of the 30s.
I happen to like New York, I happen to like this town.
I like the city air, I like to drink of it,
The more I know New York the more I think of it.
I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it.
I happen to like New York.
You have to like the stink of it as much as everything else. New York is not for the faint of heart, or the sensitive. It’s a tough town. Later, a few years after the business trip, I found myself working there, and I felt for the first time in my life that I had something between my teeth that maybe I could never chew down completely. Something I’d never really master, but also never get enough of, that would never go stale, never disappoint me. It was a feeling of personal power and a kind of triumph. Watch me slowly savor a cigar on the sidewalk, then run to catch the subway and make it to Carnegie Hall just in time for the Kurt Weill concert. Boom! Top of the World, Ma!
And then came 9/11/01.
I saw the skyline from the water again that day. I was on a little boat with 30 other people, a few hours after watching the first tower fall from my office window eight short blocks away. Once the black fog shrouding downtown lifted enough to permit us to leave our building, we ran a few blocks to the water’s edge. I was looking for the first thing that floated and whatever it was, I was going to jump on it. That turned out to be this little pleasure craft. When it was full, we pulled away and headed up and across the river to Jersey. As we rounded the corner of the island, the buildings rose up, glittering in the sun as always, but you didn’t see them, really. Your eyes were only for the enormous plume of grey smoke and ash spewing from a hole where the World Trade Center had been earlier that same morning. At the bottom, this plume looked like the dark, churning, hellish monstrosity it was, but toward the top, almost as high as the towers had been, it had the audacity to begin softening, lightening, and wafting slowly sideways as it hit a current of air.
This hole with the smoke billowing from it was like seeing a profusely bleeding gunshot wound on the body of someone you love. No sound. No other distraction. Just the awareness of a spreading stain that’s slowly and remorselessly blotting out everything you care about most, pulling you toward a new and much worse place and you can’t make it stop.
Yeah, she survived. New York’s knees buckled, as someone wrote at the time, and then she slowly stood up again. But I will never be quite the same. That wound is my wound as well, and I’ll carry it forever.
But here’s the thing. I would not trade it for anything. We were together. Hurt together. It bound us. After that day, New York wasn’t a jungle gym to me anymore. Not a place to prove myself. Maybe that’s when you become a grownup for real, when those you love are no longer a reflection of your own ego. When the people and places around you stop being something you take your own reflected identity from, and instead just become parts of you that you love deeply, in all their complexity and with all their flaws. Not objects anymore.
Last summer I was in Central Park again, walking around the Reservoir. Joggers went past, and parents with strollers, old couples clutching each other, teenagers on skateboards. Wide-eyed tourists pointed their cameras up at the buildings that ring the Park. Ice cream carts jingled their bells. I had a date that night with a couple I totally dig, and we were going to go see a Broadway musical I’d wanted to see since I was a kid, but there was only one place you could see it. But all that doing and planning faded into silence as I felt something so tremendous rising up from the earth beneath me. Not that blasted rifleshot silence of shock and trauma on 9/11, but instead a silence of utter peace, of profound stillness in the heart of all the noise and tumult. The silence of an embrace. I knew I was alright, that I would always be alright, no matter what happened. I knew that New York, with all her huge beating heart, loved me right back.
And when I have to give the world a last farewell,
And the undertaker starts to ring my funeral bell,
I don’t want to go to heaven, don’t want to go to hell.
I happen to like New York. I happen to love New York.