For years I’ve been answering the questions: “You live in New York City? Like, right in New York City?” I live in Brooklyn Heights, but this is a distinction meaningful only to those with 100- zip code prefixes, so I would say yes and try to explain. It wasn’t what they thought, I would say, it’s not a swirling mass of faceless commuters, steel and pollution, lawless thugs, sci-fi androids, wreaking havoc while misplaced demi-Americans like me ran for cover from sub-machine gun fire, clutching dry-cleaning and loaves of bread. It wasn’t like that at all, I’d say. Ok, there were days where it seemed like that. But, I would say, really, it’s just like any other small town.
It was a partial lie, of course, the unspoken, “…with really good restaurants, important museums, significant theater, and the financial pulse of the world…” hanging heavy in the air. We liked having it both ways: little town and power capital. Let’s face it, in most New Yorkers’ derisive “Middle America” slurring was included everything besides Los Angeles, San Francisco, the college town where they may have spent four years, and Seattle after Kurt Cobain.
Still, no one lives in a city of ten million. We live in villages, in many cases smaller, more provincial and more proscriptive than the inbred fundamentalist backwaters we allude to like we know what we’re talking about. But in the days since 9/11, we’ve been shell-shocked, knocked down, and made earnest. Sadly, our blood isn’t needed right now and it turns out most of us don’t have viable disaster skills. Volunteering at Long Island College Hospital that first day, I answered three questions in the negative — Did I have a car? A medical background? Know CPR? – and was given a sweet smile and a number to call on an hourly basis. Days Two and Three I wondered why I had never learned to weld.
Clearly, I am not alone. And that left many of us with little to do but bear witness and simply populate the city, our mere presence, our one hundred, one-hundred and fifty, two-hundred pounds, whatever, anchoring the city in the way the World Trade Center once did. This close to the blast site, with its mountain of rubble burning and, even in total collapse, still higher than the Washington Monument, there is little joy in being alive while it sinks in and sinks in and sinks in and we understand war is coming. But there is the accident and the necessity of being alive and somehow letting everyone know it. And we seem to be doing it by joining the rest of the country, our de facto secessionist tendencies wiped away by grief, our small town sentiments aroused by fear, and our notions of what it means to be a Rockwellian American filtered through the lens of what is still New York City.
If you somehow impossibly woke up on Day Two or Day Three and didn’t know what had happened, you would have wondered where you were living. Strangers nodded as they passed on the street, beat cops stood on every corner and people came up to them to shake their hands or pat them on the backs. No car horns honked. When you went into stores, inquiries were made about your family and friends. Everyone safe? Doors were held. Lampposts were covered in notices about church services, synagogue services, mosque services, ecumenical services.
Downtown there were more signs: The Blood Center Has Reached Capacity. Thank you. Please try again next week. Flags flew from every stationary and moving object: homes, storefronts, cars, people. At the candlelight vigil on the Promenade on Thursday night there were more flags, prayer, fewer renditions of, say, “My Sweet Lord” than “The Star Spangled Banner”.
We fell in love with our mayor.
Had we not had been preoccupied with sorrow, rage, fear, and the sudden unfurling of history, we would’ve noticed sooner how weird this was. We’re walking the streets and lighting candles and talking politics not so altered we don’t know how altered we are. But too altered to really understand what it means to be here on 9/12, 9/13, 9/14, 9/15, 9/16…
There is nothing wrong with this. Nothing except it’s all so wrong. Not in its essence. We are Americans living in America. Even if our streets, cosmetically speaking, seldom resemble the America we think we know, you know, that America, there’s nothing foolish about emulating the aspects that, once scorned, suddenly seem comforting.
But because it’s a transformation informed utterly and completely by evil so profound most of us haven’t yet even scratched the surface of it, it can’t help but bring with it a certain shadow-self sensibility. From this, we’ve produced not an accurate image, but instead a retina image of a small town we think we can recall or become, that we can see when we close our eyes instead the vision of two big bullets filled with human shrapnel, instead of the World Trade Center burning hellishly and falling straight down like a KO’d brain-dead boxer.
At our core, we are already a real community, which is what this is all about, and we always have been. At the pettiest level, most of us don’t even have enough square feet to make staying home a lot a comfortable option. We’re out and about and rubbing elbows and rubbing each other the wrong way, and more often the right way. Confronted with lesser evils, we’ve come together in the face of them time and time again. There are shopkeepers, people on the subway platform, neighbors we know and who know us. The sane and loving, and there are millions of us, have always found their ways to one another.
In the late 60’s there was a children’s book, “Maxie”, set in New York City. Maxie was an old woman who felt useless (and if written now, clinically depressed…) so she decided not to get out of bed one morning. Before long the entire neighborhood was on her doorstep. One neighbor woke up from Maxie’s slippers on the floor and had overslept. Another knew to leave for work when Maxie’s too tightly sprung window shade shot up. Others set time by Maxie’s teakettle, from her bird chirping when she fed him, when she got her newspaper and her bottle of milk, and so on. This being New York, they surrounded her bed – rather menacingly, to my child’s mind — with concern and not a little irritation. So Maxie got out of bed.
My friend, Angela, had her concerns about a neighbor in the days following the blast. He’d moved in across the street, and had a bright florescent light, so she was always aware of when he was home and she could see him as he moved around the apartment with his shades up. His lights, she said, hadn’t been on since at least Tuesday. Sitting on her stoop, after the candlelight vigil on the Promenade, we watched his dark windows.
Then he came home. A man entered the building and a moment later the lights on the third floor flipped on. We sat there cheering, feeling this small joy over a stranger we didn’t know by name or face, by occupation or anything else, but whose absence we had noted. We imagined, only half-jokingly, going up to him and saying, we’re so glad you’re alive. Chances are he wasn’t anywhere near the blast. But chances are he would understand.
As I write, there are plenty of lights that are not flipping on, and plenty of people feeling the pain of that, up close, or across streets, across the country and the world, people who are known or not known but who are grieved. If we are transforming ourselves, and clearly we irrevocably and inevitably are, it needn’t be in parody, grotesque or otherwise, and it needn’t be conjured from sheer shock and reaction. New York is not a small town, not the kind we imagine exists somewhere free from cruelty or isolation but plump with kindness and old-fashioned virtue. The flags will probably fall away or be waved for war instead of the complicated ways they’re waving now, car horns will sound again, and we’ll witness or perpetuate any number of little or big incivilities. But the sentiment behind this new city is not a bad one these days: I’m so glad you’re alive.
When you come right down to it, and New York City has, it’s the only sentiment that matters. And that’s not just about small town America or just about big town America or just about America at all.