My grandfather, a Russian-Jewish émigré and New York painter named Raphael Soyer, used to say, in his wonderful old-world accent, “New York is my country.” The year 2001 finds me living in Boston in the eighteenth year of my self-imposed exile from the island of Manhattan, the village of my childhood. I am the only one in my family to have fled the nest (I do not count my brother and sister, who in their adulthood ventured across the East River to Brooklyn). Still, I have my own version of my grandfather’’s axiom, and, indeed, the longer my exile the tighter I cling to it: “New York,” I tell anyone who will listen, “is in my bones.”
Thinking about that expression now, I ponder its meaning. Bones are our foundation, of course, the deepest most innate part of us; without them we would be little more than puddles of tissue, blood and organs. But what resides in the bone? Two things come to mind: marrow, the sustainer of life, and cancer, its destroyer.
I left New York because, though it nurtured and sustained me like no other place ever has, it also seemed bent on destroying me. It was the pace and the pressure that I fled, the heightened sense of time and movement and energy, the relentlessness of life in a world of pavement. The heavy toll it took on my body and my spirit. And yet, like all expatriate New Yorkers, I am drawn back as an ant is drawn back to its hole. I left New York but the city never let me go.
Like many Americans, I wandered the shattered psychic landscape of 9/11 in a confused state of shock and fear, in a condition of numbness unlike any I had known. It was such a painfully gorgeous late summer day, clean blue skies so strange against the unfolding nightmare. I spent the day frantically calling my family and my friends to make sure they were all still alive. Phone lines were down, cell phones unusable. It turned out that all of my people survived, but many were much too close.
My brother, biking on to the Brooklyn Bridge in the shadow of the World Trade Center, saw the second plane hit. He had stopped to talk with another rider about the fire in the first tower. “It was a plane,” the man told him, “it was flying much too low.”
“Like that one,” the man said.
He and my brother watched in silence as the plane made its now famous banking turn. They saw the explosion, the fire, the falling bodies. Later, my brother watched from the roof of his house in Park Slope as the towers vanished in puffs of dust and smoke, one after the other. For days, he tells me, the wind carried papers and ash to his street.
My sister, emerging from the subway at Prince Street in Soho, noticed smoke billowing from the two towers. Strange, she thought, the World Trade Center is on fire. But the import of what she saw did not quite penetrate her consciousness. Once upstairs in the loft where her office is located, she found her colleagues at the window, a stunned group gazing south, a radio on someone’s desk reporting the unimaginable.
A bit later, there was her childhood friend Lisa standing at her office door, ghost-like, covered in soot. She had walked down from the 82nd floor of the second tower. My sister had not even known she worked there. From the moment I learned of the attack, I felt an urgent need to be home, home in the city of my bones, home among my people. The grief hit me on the Monday after the attack, harder and more suddenly than I could have imagined, like the low back spasm that knocked me unexpectedly to my bedroom floor two years ago.
After putting my boys to bed, I was listening to the radio, a phone-in program on WNYC hosted by Brooke Gladstone. The theme was “How do New Yorkers get on with their lives after this?”
“I don’’t know,” I said aloud to the sinkful of dishes, “I don’’t know.” I slumped down over a kitchen chair, feeling the enormity of our loss, the enormity of my loss. They did this to my city! They savaged my ancestral home, the island where three generations of my family have lived and struggled and fallen in love and died, the sanctuary to which my grandparents so gratefully fled the dangers and indignities of life as a Jew in Russia and Eastern Europe, the center of culture and art and liberalism that spawned me and sent me out into the world. The idea of moving on amidst such overwhelming sorrow and loss seemed to me on that night in my kitchen in Boston an impossibility.
This bottomless sadness has not yet passed, and it sometimes feels as if it never will. One thing about being an expatriate New Yorker, especially one who has traveled as much and lived in as many places as I have, is that you get accustomed to having to explain yourself in a way natives of other places simply are not required to do. It is not only New York City you have to explain — yes, people actually are born there and actually have childhoods there, yes, you really did ride the subway to school — but you have to explain yourself as well. You have to overtly demonstrate that you are not a bully, not a snob, that you do not think you are smarter than everyone else (even if you secretly know that you really are what people jealously consider a snob simply by virtue of having grown up and come of age amidst such culture and diversity). You have to publicly declare the excellence of local cuisine lest you be presumed to think (as you invariably do, but never admit aloud) that it pales in comparison to New York’s gastronomy. When outnumbered by non-New Yorkers — as you so often tend to be in the diaspora — you have to laugh off the constant and petty slights against your town. You carry your city with you, close to the chest and near the heart.
Perverse thoughts have crossed my mind. The one I cannot shake is this: Only in New York could anyone have pulled this off on such a scale. New York where everything is writ large — life, finance, politics, art, sports, and, yes, architecture — has now become the site of the most monstrous act of international terrorism. On the grand stage of New York’s skyline, against a pure blue sky, evil achieved its finest moment, its greatest success. Only in New York.
I talk on the phone with an old friend on West 86th Street. She tells me about the stench, how it drifts with the wind, how you never know when exactly it will find you. They say it’s the smell of burning computers and desks and chairs, she says, of electrical fires and burning insulation. The odor makes her close her windows tight to the cool autumn nights. There is something else mixed in there, she says, something that makes her wake up coughing, gasping for air. “I don’’t know . . .” her voice trails off. Of course, I know what she is thinking. Silently for a moment, across the wires, we together contemplate the unspeakable. “It’s burning flesh,” she says; nothing, any longer, unspeakable.
Next week, finally, I am going home. I must show my five year-old son that New York is still there, that the buildings in which his grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins live are still standing, that airplanes are not falling from the sky. My brother, he of the Brooklyn Bridge, seems to know better. He doesn’t have the false sense of perspective I claim to enjoy from Boston. He has not left town since the calamity. When I tell him that I want to show my son that New York is still there, he replies, “I’m not sure it is.”
But like any self-respecting New Yorker — like the dozens of poor souls whom I just know stuck around to watch the terrible excitement on 9/11 only to be crushed by the weight of the collapsing towers — I have to see for myself.