I'm the granddaughter of two New Yorkers on my mother's side. He, born and raised in the Bronx. She, born in Manhattan and raised in Brooklyn. (Apparently, my grandmother's family owned a house in Brooklyn at one point, but they lost it in '38.) My grandparents met at the USO during the war, married in April 1946 and never lived in the city again, although they were stationed on Long Island and in Connecticut for brief periods.
I never saw Manhattan as a child, but I went to Brooklyn regularly. People think it's crazy that someone who looks as Irish as I do and has a thoroughly Irish-American name should insist that she's Italian. Even my baby brother, seven years my junior, thinks it's a bit nutty, but he has no memories of Brooklyn. I do. I remember two tiny one-bedroom apartments, one belonging to my great-grandmother and one belonging to her aunt by marriage, roughly the same age. The food we'd have on those trips! Anti-pasta the like of which I'll never taste again and ravioli where you could see the fork marks where they'd pressed the seams. And meatballs and sausage and utterly fantastic red sauce! Even with all of that, I used to go into Zizi's (my great-great-great-aunt's) bedroom and stare at the jar of blue cellophane-wrapped mints on her dresser. She'd say, "Not until after dinner." After dinner, I'd go back in and stare again until she gave me one.
My father would take my brother and I for a walk before dinner -- the apartments were really too small to hold eight people -- and sometimes he'd buy us Italian ices. I'd get a red one, and when I came back my mother and grandmother would each fuss at us for different reasons. Mom would say, "[Red's father], you let her get a red one? She'll get it all over her dress!" Grammy would say, "[Red], dahlin' (imagine "darlin'" with a Brooklyn accent), don't you know the only real Italian ices are lemon?"
Zizi passed when I was about five and my great-grandmother went into a home on Staten Island when I was seven. My mom and I saw the Sadler Wells ballet at the Brooklyn Academy of Music with a dance school field trip when I was eight. I remember riding home on the bus and thinking I'd seen Brooklyn for the last time.
Thankfully, it wasn't even close to true. I thought about going to college in New York, but I was too scared at 18. By 22, I'd spent a semester in London, gotten a degree in theatre, and felt like now was the time. A college friend and I got a place on W. 148th St., between Broadway and Amsterdam. For those of you who don't know New York, that's pretty far uptown. It was, unbeknownst to me, just barely north of some of the worst drug blocks in the city. A few weeks after we moved in, shots rang out around 2 a.m. By the end of the next day, there was a picture of the victim surrounded by two or three dozen candles. The shooting occurred in front of the building next door. I thought, "Oh, good Lord, what have I gotten myself into?" I was afraid it was gang-related, but part of me hoped it was, because then they might be less likely to shoot at me. I wanted to live in Manhattan by hook or by crook, and this was what I could afford.
For those of you who don't know it, New York is completely fantastic (the above story notwithstanding). You don't have to think so, though. New York is big and New York is tough and it is what it is, no more and no less because of whatever you may happen to think of it. I'll never forget my first year in "the City". 22 is a great age to live in New York, and New York is a great place to be 22. While the rents are sky high, you can actually get food pretty cheap if you know where to shop. Good food, too. I also like the restaurants better there. I know a half dozen places in Hell's Kitchen alone where you can get weekend brunch, including a drink, for about ten bucks. Going out to eat in DC is almost invariably more expensive, and in New York you have more options at any given price point.
There's great stuff to do in New York. Museums, theatre, shopping, restaurants, shopping, the parks, and of course, let's not forget about the shopping. Not just clothes shopping, but music shopping, memorabilia shopping, book shopping! The Strand in lower Manhattan has eight miles of books. It's a fabulous place to while away as much time as you've got. Ditto Bleeker Bob's for records, and there are bunches of other music stores, too, though that's the one that stands out in my mind. There's also great free stuff to do besides window shopping, which is another reason New York is a great place to be young and broke. Among the people I've seen perform at various places in New York for free are Sting, John Mellencamp, Bon Jovi, Barry Manilow and the Charlie Daniels Band, to name a few. I've seen some utterly amazing people do Shakespeare in the Park, which is free. In the summer, the New York Grand Opera puts on completely staged operas - for free. Most of the museums have a day or time that you can get in free, or "pay-what-you-can". And if you're actually willing to spend money, there's even better stuff to do.
Eventually, I found out how to get paid for seeing stuff - I became an usher at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I saw Ben Folds one of the first nights I worked there. Tom Waits wrote a musical called Woyzcek, and this completely fantastic director staged it. It was this awesome swirl of sound and movement and color and it was rough and jaded and brilliant. I saw it twice, and made $25 a pop. Fiona Shaw did Medea. An awesome company of actors came over from England and did Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya in rep. Emily Watson, who maybe you've seen in movies, starred with some other amazing people whose names you probably don't know, but it isn't because they're not worth knowing. (For any of my London gang who may tune in, Mark Strong played Orsino and the doctor, and by that time I'd grown up enough to appreciate just how sexy he is.)
I also volunteered to usher in Manhattan. That was how I saw Lea Thompson in Cabaret, and she was fabulous. I also paid for shows when I had to, and I've seen Gabriel Byrne, Brian Dennehy, Cherry Jones, Bernadette Peters, Neil Patrick Harris, Christopher Walken, Kristen Chenoweth, George Wendt and so, so many more. See, theatre is my thing, and New York is the best place in America to be if that's the case. But whatever your thing is, I guarantee you they have it in New York.
So if it's so damn great, why did I leave? Well, we all know, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere," but I never made it quite the way I wanted. I came to DC to go to grad school, and I've stayed because life here is easier. Not quite as much fun, maybe, and nowhere near as cool, but I have a car and I like my apartment and I don't have to carry all my groceries for blocks and blocks. I've also had much better luck with dating in DC. I still have a lot of friends in New York, and I wish I got back more often. Another mitigating circumstance is that I've got some medical issues that make me more or less incapable of doing the amount of walking I used to do, but I used to love it. On many an occasion, I've walked 50, 60, 100 blocks or more, just for fun. It's a great place to take a Saturday stroll and see what you see.
It's the place where my wallet was once stolen out of my desk, but it's also the place where someone turned in my credit card when I left it sitting out by a computer in the library. It's where people double park every single weekend, but it's also where a kind stranger walked ahead of my moving truck on 151st street for an entire block and folded the mirrors of the cars in for me so that I could move down the street without hitting them.
I toured for a children's theatre company from May 2001-May 2002. I was mainly in the West of the country, and the reaction of the people I met out there varied, but many of them were fascinated by a place they were only slightly more likely to visit than, say, Moscow. I remember a 40-something mother of two in Beulah, ND asking me, "What would I do if I went to New York?" I told her "Whatever you want!" Especially if you've never been, I encourage all of you to go and do the same.
Thursday, May 01, 2008
WILATU #14: NYC
New York is beyond something I like about the universe. I love New York. My version of the T-shirt is actually a black fitted T that says "I [heart] NY More Than Ever". (It's the post 9/11 version.)