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.