While staying at the New York Hilton Midtown to attend the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference this week, I watched the vacationing children pose with an interactive screen in the lobby. Their parents photographed them in front of several iconic New York scenes, as indeed they could at the actual site, should the family travel to view them in person (although I understood the value of the distraction in air conditioning). The interactive screen beckoned with “Find Your New York City,” and I wondered how I could do exactly that in the limited time I had outside of conference sessions and the agent pitch slam.
My New York City is broken into several chunks of time, all somewhere, according to Einstein’s theory of relativity, but gone, according to me.
Born in Brooklyn, I spent my formative years there (show me the girl at seven and I’ll give you the woman). We moved a short distance out of the city (my father, a Philadelphian, was disturbed by my childish Brooklyn accent), but it remained our city, and then in dribs and drabs, we all moved back.
I lived in Manhattan for a peripatetic period when I was a twenty-something woman. In six years I lived in three apartments in West Greenwich Village, one in Yorkville, one in what was the Hungarian neighborhood of the East 70s, one in the East Village on Avenue A (but only very briefly: the cockroaches threw me out on my ear), and last, on West 69th Street between Central Park West and Columbus, bordering the Columbus end of the block. I left that apartment for Boston, and never returned to live in New York.
Walking in the mornings for exercise this week, or out in search of lunch, I found something of what was my New York City: Sabrett hot dog men, dashing and annoyed New Yorkers, exhausted and fleeced tourists, Carnegie Hall and Central Park, the sound of the streets, the brutality of the smells, good and bad, and the light, filtered through the haze of the traffic and the heat. I photographed the Art Students League for my wife, who had been a student there as a teenager. In the hotel staff and on the streets, I found people from all over the world, working and living in the city, making it their city. I found a phone box, albeit more like a carrel, with a man standing in it and screaming at no one; that seemed like a real throw back.
I didn’t find my former profound understanding of the transit system, although I could navigate the streets easily, and I found that I had no tolerance for the recklessness of cab drivers and jaywalkers. I found Trump Tower, an inevitable affair, standing on the former spot of the opulent building graced with Art Deco statues that had held the department store Bonwit Teller, lost thanks to the builder of the tower in 1980. Few of the regal stores on Fifth Avenue were still there. Naturally, I found the prices exorbitant and the bagels large and puffy, but I’d known about all of that for some time.
As I walked across Central Park I found a clean, well-cared for and well-used park, unlike the dirty, shabby and dangerous stretch it had been. I walked to my last apartment on West 69th St., one of a handsome threesome of brownstones with beautifully arched entrances. Unfortunately, the new owners had gutted what had been a real library from my old apartment, complete with built-in floor to ceiling shelves and rolling ladders, in order to add retail space (unoccupied as of this week).
I connected with my cousin, a young woman who came to New York to find her future. All other family members live elsewhere or can be found only by Einstein’s theory. The same can be said for friends, but that didn’t stop me from scanning the faces of the throngs, just in case.
Finding the city that was my place of birth and breeding, I failed to find the city that was my stomping ground: I couldn’t find my New York City.