New York Stories

© Jeff Horner Photography

My mom lived in Manhattan from 1958 through 1960, and shared an apartment on 89th Street they’d sublet from a divorcée who just wanted to be rid of the place, rid of the city. All of the furniture and utensils were included, if they’d just take it off the lady’s hands. Through my childhood I’d hear about this chair or that spatula that came “from the apartment in New York.” So many TV sitcoms were set in New York, or a nameless city just like it. So many movies. Books. Stories. And Mom, and this chair, and that spatula. A white suburban schlub in Madison, Wisconsin, I was fascinated.

At least once a year, in the ’60s and ’70s, we would travel back to spend time with Mom’s family in Virginia, either in Richmond or Virginia Beach. Winters we’d fly, summers we’d drive. Most of the Interstate system was built by then, but the three-numbered bypass circles were still going in, pillars rising into the sky, ready to hold access ramps and receive connectors from one highway to another. “Look, boys!” Mom would say. “Look what we can do!” The wonder an appreciation for building and technology — what we can do — has never left. We would drive for two days, through different states in the Midwest and then the East. Just past Youngstown, Ohio, there was an old original Interstate sign with two directional arrows. One would point to “Penna.,” the other to “New York City.” The state of Pennsylvania this way, the City of New York that way. “Let’s go!” I’d say. But we never went. That fascinating city, a place Mom could show us around like a pro, seemed just a few exits away, but we never went that way. Years later I realized that, by then, it was the mid-’70s. No wonder we took the other way and never looked back. New York City was a cesspool.

My grandparents would often take Mom and her sister up to New York from Richmond by train when they were girls in the ’40s. They’d stay at the Warwick at 54th and 6th, they’d dine out, they’d shop. Basically, in the ’40s ad ’50s, they knew New York at it’s best; it’s apotheosis. When Mom left in 1960 to get married, the City was just about to start its slide into the worst of what it became in 1975, although few realized it yet. “Ford To City: Drop Dead!” was what New York had become by the time I was old enough to feel its magnet.

We flew to Washington in 1976 for the Bicentennial that summer.  I remember the pilot came on and said that, for air traffic reasons, we’d fly due east over the Atlantic, then circle back and land at National. As we begin our slow descent and head out over the ocean, those passengers seated on the right side of the plane will be interested to see New York City as we pass the coast. I was! I did! I saw New York in the flesh, from the safety of a 727 thirty thousand feet up, and I was pumped. Nobody else seemed to care, but I was pressed up against the window, my eyes fixed on the twin towers of the World Trade Center until it passed away out of site. Mom and her mother had had a conversation a few years earlier about “what they’re building up in New York,” those two hideous upended boxes that everybody hated, and then everybody loved, and then everybody worshipped. In ’76, they were really the only aspect of New York I could recognize, the bay, rivers, and the island just incidental around them. We saw DC, the Smithsonian, the Capital, the White House, the whole pre-Metro shebang and we loved it, but I always remembered that trip as also the first time I actually saw New York. I didn’t know what I was looking at, really, but I new it was awesome.

Ten more years went by, until just out of college in the summer of 1986, a friend and I loaded up my four-door ’82 Chevy Chevette — certifiably never the vehicle you picture when you think of the Great American Roadtrip — and pilgrimed East, to see my family in Virginia, and to visit his cousin at NYU in lower Manhattan. I was twenty-three, old enough to take care of myself no matter what the City had to offer, but New York was already entering its true modern renaissance (some would say its forced sterilization). Brooklyn’s burning brownstones were gone, the graffiti’ed trains were being cleaned up, the City was beginning to gleam in ways that soon nobody would ever have imagined.

No matter how you come to New York, you always see it grow in front of you long before you get there. In fact, by the time you get there you can’t really see it anymore, either underground in a train, stuck away at an airport, or just perspective-shifted by its enormity from its streets. We’d spent the trip so far camping in the Poconos and drinking oceans of Miller, and now here we were entering the vortex around Teterboro, New Jersey, pulling us into New York, the Manhattan skyline firmly risen in the windshield. The country that weekend was all abuzz over something called Hands Across America, where people all over the nation were to join hands at one time and form an actual human chain from one coast across to the other one. Here I was, listening to it on the radio (a little disdainfully, even then) and crossing the country in my own way, to the mother of all cities, hands unencumbered and excited as a Christmas kid.

I should be strung up for making this analogy, but I’ll make it anyway. When I lived in Minneapolis and people everywhere were strangely excited in the same way about coming to see the Mall of America (Hugedale, we called it), virtually everyone realized after a short time that, after all, it was just a mall. A huge mall, with a flume and a rolley-coaster in the middle, but a Gap- and Abercrombie-saturated shopping mall nonetheless. Upon crossing the GWB and tumbling onto the FDR down the east side of Manhattan, New York City cast a similar pall for a bit: It’s a city. A really big city.

The NYU dorms we were looking for were down on 24th Street, but you couldn’t get to 24th Street from the FDR (still can’t). We drove around trying to figure our way, and when we stopped at a light the now-infamous groups of windshield washers would run up and clean the glass. “No thanks,” we’d shout, rolling up the windows and convinced something bad was about to happen.

But nothing bad did happen. Not in New York, not then, and not since. New York turned out to be wonderful. In the intervening years I’ve found a real polarization in how Americans especially hold New York: We either love it or hate it. We’re intimidated by it or we embrace it. We see the excitement and the possibilities, or we see the otherness and the we distrust it. It’s true what people say: There’s an energy to the City. Not just in the people there, but in everything. Truly, it’s like a current, an actual electrical presence, and depending on how you perceive this thrum — if you perceive it at all — it can make New York a thrill to be a part of or it can push you away. I can’t imagine not being thrilled by it.

My friend’s cousin took us in, put us up, showed us around. I’ve since returned the favor many times, but we had no idea how fortunate we were. There’s nothing like being taken around New York by somebody who actually knows the city. We walked everywhere. Everything was new, everything was First Time. The lions in front of the library. The statue in the bay. The skyscrapers. Bagels, hot dogs, paper-cup coffee (long before Starbucks), people everywhere. The ’80s were in full bloom, the geometric clothes, the geometric hair. CBGBs. Even though Manhattan’s renaissance was already gathering steam, a great deal of the battered, shuttered city still showed up everywhere. Times Square was still a dark place, the XXX theaters and hookers and dealers still in plain view.

Manhattan After Sandy — 10/31/12

NY1

© Jeff Horner

Just got back from a last foray into Lower Manhattan. It’s so otherworldly down there, a classic case of “life imitating art.” I think it would be the more beautiful if it weren’t so tragic, or at least so emblematic of tragedy.

I’ve been down there the last three nights, taking a different route each time. Never, have I seen so many stars in the New York sky. Each time the dead traffic signals begin around 33rd Street or so, until you realize the Avenues are still lit but the cross streets are wholly dark, both street and building. At first it’s odd to find yourself among others who automatically stop at crossing signals (if anyone in NY ever actually stops for them) that are cold dead. Down to 23rd Street there is intermittent light, but below that the whole area is dark, dark, dark. Yet everywhere – everywhere, without exception – there are people. Sometimes it’s an individual approaching and passing you by, other times it’s a group of people at a dark corner.
The first night after the hurricane, Tuesday night, cars were still allowed on the road unqualified, and the cars combined with the taxis and the squad cars made for ridiculous road traffic, the headlights the only source of light. Restaurants and delis had their doors and windows open and were selling their food on the street, for reduced prices or for free, trying to get rid of it that first 24 hours before it started to go bad. As I sank below 14th Street, two separate groups approached me and asked me if I was “from the light,” which added to the sci-fi movie feeling. “When does the light begin,” asked another, people floating up to where they’d heard there was still power. I was repeatedly struck by the feeling that I was sinking underwater, in a sense, the further down Manhattan I walked. The light from “above” faded quickly, and there was no moon that first night. People were illuminated either by their cell phones or by little LED flashlights, which appeared for all the world like those impossibly deep and invisible sea creatures who carry their own small, eerie light source with them, surrounded by black.I had stopped to help as a volunteer in Union Square at first, but after the first hour I broke away and explored the dark on my own. Here traffic thinned on the Avenues, and on the cross streets there were blocks with no street traffic at all, each with the occasional quiet pedestrian or group, making their way some place or another. Each night – even last night, Halloween – I noticed how quiet it was. No reveling, no screaming punks, no shouting across the streets. It was just the entire of Lower Manhattan, walking slowly and talking quietly among themselves.The smell was continual, and it wasn’t bad, at least not at that point. There was the smell of the earth and of earthworms, of boxwood and of the occasional fireplace fire from some of the older buildings and restaurants, and the almost out-of-place smell of freshly-split wood, coming from fallen limbs and downed branches everywhere. I had the sense that I had really moved back in time, trite as it sounds, and that I was standing on the very streets of Manhattan in 1912, or in 1882, or such. There was the utter nighttime darkness, the quiet foot traffic in front of brownstones on the street, and the flickering of candlelight, be it directly in the windows or deep inside the rooms, emanating orange and dim. All that was really missing was the sound of horses’ hooves on cobblestone and the illusion would have been complete. Floating on my lips was the quiet phrase that I later heard coming from so many mouths, quietly: “So weird.”

NY2

© Jeff Horner

I made my way over to the Lower East Side to check on the relative of a friend, and by then the loss of power must have been affecting cell tower or repeaters, because phone service was nonexistent. Also, normally anywhere in New York, when you browse for nearby Wi-Fi networks you get a long list, but now there were none at all. It was the same everywhere, east side and west. A few hours later I decided to head back up into the light, but I went back last night with a camera. I had no tripod, so I was reduced to using the pointed tips of wrought-iron fence posts, parked cars, bicycles or garbage cans, or sometimes trying to stand impossibly still for the exposure, but I was never really able to get a proper nighttime shot of the dead landmarks normally blazing with light. One of my favorite buildings in New York is the Met Life tower, an enormous stone building with a huge clock on each face standing at 23rd and Lex, and is normally almost blinding in the night sky over Madison Square Park, shining bone-white in the night. It’s a ghost in the darkness now, lit last night at least by the waning moon above. I went back briefly again tonight, ostensibly my last night in New York, just to experience it again.
But I and so many others up here are so fortunate not to have lost more than some time to Sandy and her aftermath. I’ve met many people up here who have simply checked in to a hotel as a group, briefly, to shower and charge their phones, or to come to their Midtown offices to work before going home to the dark. They’re scared. The first night held an excitement and a relief that physical damage in Manhattan wasn’t any worse, and a sense that we had all experienced something historic together. Last night was Halloween, and the first break in the clouds. By tonight, the novelty is beginning to wear off. I’ll be glad finally to get on a plane tomorrow, and to wonder from the sky how long it’ll take before anything like normal returns here.

NY3

© Jeff Horner