I Happen to Like New York


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. 

An Open Letter to the Internet


Dear Internet:

How about we don’t put up examples of individual bad behavior anymore, especially if it’s to make some larger point about human nature, or society, or whatever.

Yes, yes, people do ignorant, crazy, borderline evil or just-plain-evil things every minute of every day. Some of them are still looking for the spankings they never got, and many others are looking for the love they never got. Either way, they’re misbehaving children.

Shaming them isn’t going to work. Public humiliation, finger pointing… it’s all a form of attention, and most bad behavior is just attention-seeking.

What’s the best way to deal with misbehavior?

A firm, gentle correction. And then role modeling the correct behavior.

So if some redneck wrote “n***er” instead of a tip amount on their dinner check, please don’t post a picture of it online and tell me that racism is still a problem in America.

If some selfish person took up two spaces to keep their Beemer from getting dinged, don’t snap it with your cellphone and share it everybody else who didn’t happen to be in the parking garage that day.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11. I was eight blocks away from the WTC that morning. I staggered off the island covered in the ashes of human beings, buildings I thought were permanent, and some of my own hopes and dreams. No need for more photos of grey smoke belching into that cobalt blue sky. I remember it. Show me the Freedom Tower instead. Because if you’re really just exploiting a horrific tragedy in order to drive up the number of eyeballs on your site, then…

Gandhi said we have to be the change we want to experience in the world. If that’s the case, amping up the audience for the despicable worst of human nature is not Being the Change. You might think you’re helping by spreading the word, but in fact you’re part of the problem.

What to post instead? Oh, anything, really. More pictures of your cat would be nice. Nicer, anyway.

Thanks. Oh, and BTW, Internet: love your other stuff.


Going Back


“There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. Certain numbers were the same way and certain dates and these with the names of the places were all you could say and have them mean anything. Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside them.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

When they reopened my office in lower Manhattan on Tuesday, September 18, 2001, I rode back into the city on my usual morning bus. All through the Lincoln Tunnel, a mile and a half under the Hudson, I gripped the armrests with white knuckles, certain that a bomb was going to go off. Nothing happened, just like nothing had happened during the previous week when I’d awaken in the middle of the night weeping, sweating, terrified. Then I’d check each window and door of our three-story house in the Jersey suburbs, making sure they were bolted. No terrorists out there. Back to bed, but not to sleep.

So after an eternity I made it through the tunnel, out of the bus station, up the escalator to the corner of 40th and 8th. At the entrance to Port Authority, on every wall, pillar, window, column were little 8½ x 11 posters. Each one was homemade, and said much the same thing: have you seen this person? The name, the family’s contact information, and a big picture of someone. Happy pictures of people on vacation, or at a birthday party. In those early confused days, some held onto the belief that missing relatives might be in local hospitals, disoriented or unconscious. Suddenly seeing those hundreds of smiling faces, and their little messages of love and grief, like candles held out to me in outstretched palms, the pain almost felled me to my knees. I felt stunned, like a man who’s been punched in the stomach. I stood there for a long time with them all watching me, not turning away, just feeling it.

The subway ride downtown. The World Trade Center had been a major transportation hub, and with it gone, there were fewer trains. What trains there were in service were all half empty this morning. Now normally on the train, people bury themselves in the paper or their iPods or sit with their eyes shut. You learn to avoid eye contact in a big city; it’s safer. But this morning, and for several days after, everyone looked right at you. Not just at you but into you, the way a lover looks into you sometimes, with a probing, delicate curiosity and defenselessness. A look you might flinch from, especially from a stranger. But our egos had crumbled to rubble and now we knew that looking away wasn’t going to make us any safer. Far, far from it. We had nothing left to hide from each other. Our faces all spoke the same holy, unspeakable thing.

Out of the subway and up the stairs to downtown, where everything was as silent and white as after a snowfall. Every surface still covered with the ashes of the World Trade Center. No color anywhere, it seemed — only the green camouflage of the soldiers who stood on every corner of the twisted little streets of lower Manhattan. The soldiers were all young men, huge GI Joe types with hulking V-shaped torsos and biceps like hams. God knows where they’d been shipped in from; nothing like that grows in New York. Their faces, at least, were not open. Each stood stock-still and expressionless at a wooden barricade with a huge semiautomatic weapon strapped over his shoulders. On guard just like I had been at my house, against a threat that wasn’t coming anymore because the most terrible thing that could happen already had.

The other thing about downtown was the smell. A week earlier, it hadn’t been so bad. Running to the water, I had given the rag that was covering my face to someone else, so I had breathed in the smoke and ash—but I didn’t recall anything like this. A burning smell, but not a sweet burning smell. A big white-noise charnel house smell that entered not just your nostrils but your pores. In it you could detect traces of plastic, rubber, wood, metal, and maybe something else. It’s the worst odor you can imagine, and if there’s a Hell, that’s how it smells. An elegantly dressed woman on the street next to me cried out something wordlessly about it… a sound I’ve never heard before or since. An animal moan of revulsion and sadness and protest.

Later, people put flowers and other memorials on the sidewalks, but for now there were just a few signs in windows: little makeshift printouts of flags, or pictures of the towers with the date. As if to just say “we were here,” the way miners trapped in a shaft might scrawl it on a wall. The merchandising hadn’t begun, nor the bickering over what to build at Ground Zero, nor the lies about how the air was perfectly safe to breathe—only the first of so many lies. In the blasted silence of downtown, with the smoke still belching from its enormous wound, there was only a terrible, stricken kind of humility and awe that had its own special… what?

Beauty, I guess.

The beauty of finally seeing, and knowing, the worst.

Photo of Ground Zero by Eddie Selover, September 2001.