Back Then



59 warren st, new york, NY 1007

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

Some South Jersey friends and I have a Christmas evening tradition of ditching our families and meeting for drinks in a dive near Atlantic City. There was a time when most of us lived in New York, but we’ve since scattered, some further afield and others, like my friend Paul, back to NJ.

This year talk turned inevitably to September 11, and the festive mood temporarily, and appropriately, flatlined; that conversation can’t be anything but sad. But afterward I realized I’d forgotten to share a sweet, silly WTC memory that had suddenly resurfaced after the attacks.

It was 1991 and Paul and I had both just moved to the city. He’d landed a cheap share in Jackson Heights with two friends of a friend, one of whom suffered from water retention in her head and became, monthly, stark raving nutters. I was in a little rabbit hutch of a room on MacDougal and King. We both had crap first jobs that paid not more than $20,000 a year, jobs that only deluded young optimists could hold down without opening a vein. I was at an artsy nonprofit; Paul hefted boxes at Key Food.

On a late summer evening, our belongings freshly unpacked and our paychecks cashed, Paul and I went for a stroll through my new ’hood. Most of Soho was completely beyond our means, but we had yet to develop big-city blinders. We window shopped among the art galleries, inhaled whiffs of French bistros, skirted herds of thick-necked bridge-and-tunnel boyz. To us the city was a newly ripped open gift, thrilling in a way that it is only once in a lifetime, when you’ve just crossed the border into adulthood and your independence makes you fall in love with yourself and everything around you.

We wandered down Soho, through the transition from Tribeca to Wall Street, and stopped for $3.00 Rolling Rocks at the Raccoon Lodge. “They’re $2.00 in New Jersey,” I reminded Paul. We had arrived. We watched the pool players and talked about the things that weighed on the minds of our 22-year-old selves in 1991—our lousy jobs, my comatose relationship with the boy I’d lost my virginity to not terribly long ago, the sudden encroachment of grunge on our unsuspecting 12-string world. Paul had just discovered Kierkegaard. I’d just discovered Camel lights.

The Raccoon Lodge was a smallish beerlight dive amid the skyscrapers of the Financial District. When we exited, we almost immediately lost our bearings in a valley of glass and steel. But we had the Twin Towers as our guideposts, close enough for us to make out the the city lights reflected in their windows. We had to crane our necks to see their peaks rising from the lower end of the island, steady southern beacons to guide wayward souls who’d spent their allowances on cheap beer and couldn’t afford to hail a cab.

So, keeping the towers behind us, we walked. We walked through more blocks of tall clean buildings where money was made. The familiarity of covered ground never quite crept up on us, and the streets became quieter and emptier. Yet still the towers were at our backs. We walked on, knowing full well now that we weren’t bound toward Soho. By this time we were simply curious, and tipsy, and it was a Friday night in New York, one of our first ever, and we had nowhere to be and no one to answer to the next day.

A trimly manicured park appeared ahead of us, and beyond it the hush of the Hudson River. We walked up to the park’s periphery and read the sign there: Battery Park. We turned around and there they still were, our twin beacons. Only they weren’t on the very tip of the island, where we now stood. We only then realized, foolishly, that the towers served as southerly lodestars only to a point, which we’d passed so that they then lay to our north. From that perspective, they’d directed us to the city’s real southern edge. Who knew?

I meant to tell Paul at Christmas, but forgot, that it’s so sweet to me now that we could have been young enough, and the city new enough, for its geography to be so fluid. In one night two solid pillars slipped northward with little fuss. Shortly after that I would discover the intersection of West 4th and West 10th Streets, after which I felt nothing in this world could shock me.

One lucky advantage of coming from New Jersey (besides the mob connections) is that moving to New York is so often a group effort. Most of my friends and I became New Yorkers together. We all simultaneously fell passionately in love with the city, then passionately in love-hate. At Life Cafe (the bar from Rent, except not really) we swapped stories of fascist token clerks, sublime street performances, celebrity sightings and career crises. Mayors changed, neighborhoods gentrified, and apartments that seemed a wee bit steep when we moved into them evolved into fabulous deals.

And then, when we’d been here a decade and were oh so jaded, and some of us had moved away, and I’d decided to relocate to San Francisco, the Twin Towers were mortally attacked, and we remembered again that New York is all that. I love this recently recovered memory of them, where they stand as my own personal symbols of when the city was new, adulthood was new, and my friends and I were just about to start our lives. That’s the feeling, after all, that lures generation after generation of hopelessly disoriented, and even more hopelessly optimistic, 22-year-olds to New York. And that’s the feeling that makes me miss the towers like loved ones.

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