To survive in New York, it’s best to be deaf and blind. I’ve just spent three weeks visiting my old stomping grounds and I’m really happy to be back in California. I know that sounds rough, but stick with me here.
I love visiting Long Island (the place of my birth) and New York City (the place of my Mom’s birth) but I’ve turned the page and now consider it a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to resettle there.
On this trip, unlike any other, I relied on public transportation to get around. If you really want to infuse yourself with lower New York (Long Island and the isle of Manhattan), take public transit. Trains. Subways. Buses. Ingrates. Derelicts. Psychopaths. In New York City, you practically have no choice but to use public transit, but even if simply on foot, integrating into Manhattan presents its challenges. The nice and the not-so-nice are competing for your attention. Your mission–should you choose to accept it–is to come away enjoying it. To do that, you must experience it in your mind’s ear and eye.
Ignore the foul-mouthed teenagers intent on getting a reaction–speaking in colorful curse words and recounting their so-claimed sexual conquests or wet dreams. Look the other way when an otherwise normal person playing chess in the park flips you off New York style (the middle finger being the official bird of lower New York). And for what? Looking at him? Sit on a bench and get ready for the latest angry escapee from the loony bin that plants himself before you and begins ranting about your part in screwing up his life. It’s New York. Smile and roll with it.
It can really be rude, offensive and rough in the part-time black hole that is New York and I can get caught up in its occasional negative suction. In my opinion, it’s changed drastically and has gotten far worse than it was some 30 or 40 years ago. Maybe it’s big city? Maybe it’s any city? Maybe it’s just that when you step away from it, you realize there are a lot of places that just don’t have that razor edge like New York. And yet, something makes me long for it occasionally.
Nothing can take the place of what used to be known as home. When we visit the place of our youth, we might get that rush of nostalgia that feels like warm mashed potatoes in the tummy, soothing chicken soup when we’re cold, and soft-serve ice cream on a hot summer day. But if you have a long visit like I did (three weeks), you might recall why you left. The home of our youth lives most brilliantly in our hearts and minds, not in that tarnished old town that we now barely recognize.
On this past trip, my Mom and I strolled the streets of Greenwich Village in lower Manhattan, where she grew up and played as a child. Grove Street near 7th Avenue. 12th Street near 8th Avenue. Although the landscape of her youth was intact in her memory, in the physical world much had changed. She was elated to be in the old neighborhood and yet mindful of what was no longer there. The old stoops at many of the apartment buildings—including hers–where kids congregated and kisses were sometimes stolen by eager suitors (her second husband amongst them). The entire building where my Dad used to live seemingly cut out from two neighboring structures that still remain. Aunt Kitty’s restaurant and bar, the Sheridan Inn. And the bar known as Lynch’s where, on their way back from church each week, my great-grandfather propped my mom’s little 6-year-old self up on the bar and treated her to a Coke in exchange for a song. My Mom was such a ham, she gladly obliged. A clever scam, if you ask me, as her grandfather drank down a beer–her grandma none the wiser.
What was there, amongst other things, was a chance meeting with a 91-year old female resident of Grove Street who lived just down the way from my Mom’s first residence. This woman had lived there all her life. As my Mom and she bartered memories, this spunky woman shared her opinion of the neighborhood now. “It stinks,” she said. “I hate it now. Everything’s changed.” I guess she didn’t expect that. Do we ever?
Still, serenity ruled as Mom opened her eyes and ears to the portals of the past and reminisced–the backstreets of the West Village leading the way. There was a certain sugary glow in her eyes that afternoon, like a kid in a candy store as huge as the isle of Manhattan itself. I took photos and video to capture our new memories, including some chill time in Washington Square Park listening to a great jazz band comprised of guys from Chicago, Illinois, and Copenhagen, Denmark. Taking a rest, we raised a glass at lunch in a southwestern-themed restaurant. With mini-margaritas in hand, we toasted to all that was and all that is to come.
Like our stroll through Greenwich Village, not all is tarnished in New York. There were helpful types on the subway, happy to point out when our stop arrived. There was the seasoned female commercial pilot I had the pleasure talking with on the train out to Long Island; thanks to her I now know how to get from eastern Long Island all the way to Newark Airport in New Jersey, all by public transit.
There was an absolutely beautiful weekend I spent on the far east end of Long Island, complete with days at the beach, boating, tall ships, and live music.
I even jumped in with a band and played the cowbell for a Santana song down by the beach.
And I worked for a day assisting a chef friend in the kitchen at a fancy estate out in the Hamptons.
After making 400 meatballs that day and various other tasks, I have great respect for my friend who does this on a regular basis, all while sautéing and stirring a handful of pots and pans on the stove, and creatively preparing other dishes for the table. So interesting and rewarding.
Still, when it was time to go home, I was happy to let down my sensory shields and bid a fond farewell to my dual-personality friend, New York. I suppose every place has its good and bad, even sunny, Southern California. I’m grateful to simply experience it all.
Until we meet again, New York. Until we meet again.