If you’re looking for recipes, I’ll be back on the regular food blog track later this week. Today I want to share my love affair with a city that captured my imagination in the 80s when I lived there as a kid and that called me back in the late 90s for college.
I rarely talk about my undergraduate years since they feel so connected to pre- and post-9/11 conversations. I didn’t actually live in the area at the time of the event. Unlike the people who suffered firsthand from the trauma of that day, I’ve always believed I have no right to speak on the subject. Even today, eleven years later, I’m apprehensive to write about 9/11, but I do feel okay writing about the city that made such a powerful impact on me.
I spent four years traipsing through Manhattan and its boroughs, consistently overwhelmed and in love with a place so unlike where I had grown up. One summer I worked at an nonprofit on South Broad Street near Wall Street and Battery Park.
In the mornings I’d commute from college in Westchester down to Grand Central and then take the subway to the Wall Street or Broad Street stop. I could not have looked more different from the well-dressed folks in dark suits and briefcases who shoved against me in our rattling rat race ride to work.
Often I wondered what someone like me could share in common with the men and women chain smoking and pounding coffee outside the NYSE before the markets opened. I was a leftist roustabout who couldn’t afford new shoes had I wanted them and who was often involved in labor and social justice protests. (In case you’re wondering…yes, I consistently stressed out my parents.)
Manhattan made room for the lot of us, though—the long-time residents, the newcomers like me, the immigrants from all over the world, the hardcore conservatives and equally hardcore liberals. You name a particular group of people, and you’ll find an enclave somewhere in the city and its boroughs. The sheer volume of history and culture and human life stole my heart when I moved there as a fresh-faced 18-year old.
To say I was a starving college student is putting it lightly. My scholarship put a dent in tuition and housing, and my library work study gave me just enough extra cash to scrap by. Despite my financial dire straits, most weekends I’d grab a free college shuttle ride into the city and wander through different parts of the city on my own, splurging occasionally on chewy bagels and bialys, pillowy knishes, spicy Chinese tofu, or simple vegan fare.
The Big Apple certainly captivated the hearts and minds of many visitors, too. The summer I worked at the nonprofit, I spent my lunch breaks eating PB&J sandwiches and eying the long line of tourists awaiting their ferry ride to Liberty Island. “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live here,” I heard more than once from a weary tourist leaning into a loved one in line.
New York City was an amazing place to visit, and I lived along its edges, wading into its immense, frenetic, gritty, always surprising sea of people. In June 2001 I left with promises to return, to visit with friends and maybe find myself an official residence.
Then, 9/11 unfolded. This place, which so many people love dearly, endured a trauma that created a permanent reconfiguration of American identity. I haven’t been able to return to New York since. Like most of the world, via television I watched with disbelief and then growing dread as the WTC buildings collapsed again and again, on loop. I’ll never be able to imagine the terror experienced by people fleeing that destruction, doing everything in their power just to survive.
I used to think Bellow’s “Adventures of Augie March” was the story of the mid-century modern American.
After 9/11, I can’t help but recognize that the story of a Chicago man pulled along by modern history is the story of my time as well, that as much as I once believed the stockbroker and the ratty college radical lived in different worlds, the very fact that we lived alongside one another at the same time in history not only bound us as humans on that small rock off mainland New York and New Jersey but bound all of us to each other on this slightly larger rock in the solar system.
Like so many parts of the world I have visited, New York City pre- and post-9/11 made me who I am. I love this city the way you love a person who could take you or leave you. It’s a complicated and imperfect love. I hope one day to see you again, big crazy fabulous city, to walk along your busy sidewalks, to run through your historic parks, and to stand at your island edge and watch the East River and the Hudson and the mighty mid-Atlantic rush and rumble against your water-worn docks.