Neighborhood: Letter From Abroad

10 years ago today, 9/11/01, I had not yet read E.B. White’s 1949 essay “Here is New York,” which includes the following passage:

“The sublest change in New York is something people don’t speak much about but that is in everyone’s mind. The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overheard, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

10 years ago today this born-and-bred New Yorker was an early twentysomething who worked for a newspaper with “New York” in its name. He attended and reviewed nightly concerts of the Philharmonic he had grown up romanticizing at Lincoln Center. He rewatched films in old theaters with “Manhattan” in their title. A Woody Allen/Neil Simon disciple, he had dreams of making his life in the city, because of the city, listening to music about the city, creating within the boundless boundaries of the city.

He’d grown up reading the Times Magazine with his father, visiting the Met with his mother, seeing the Yankees lose with his friends. His maternal grandfather, a religious Jew who had escaped the Holocaust, took him for Coney Island hot dogs, even during Passover. 10 years ago today this young man watched Seinfeld reruns, wondering how the show could possibly appeal to anyone outside the metro area, so close did it hit home. He had attended college outside New York but could not stomach life elsewhere and returned promptly after some professional experimentation in the nation’s capital. Not even the pull of a high-paying national media job felt right on the Potomac river. America’s capitol was on the Hudson.

As I wrote on this website, later  in a book published by the site’s founder, about 9/11, I watched planes decimate the towers from a family home on Long Island. I had not yet stepped onto the train for a job interview that was supposed to happen that day in the financial district, two blocks from the towers. Later that day I watched a burly stock trader return to the suburbs covered in white powder. He could have been a baker or piece of art at the Brooklyn Museum. But he was not to be objectified. He was crying, tears melting the power away in choice spots on his sharky suit.

I didn’t cry on 9/11. I didn’t cry afterwards or feel particularly scared that the attacks would happen again. I was perhaps still fueled by the naïve invincibility of a young man who had just survived a near-death medical battle. But plenty of people, young and old and healthy, in New York felt as I did. The terrorists got lucky. It would never happen again. I’m not scared. I’m going to work. I’m going to that concert. Why are we going to war? This wasn’t an act of war, it was an act of serial murder.

Less than three years later I found myself living in Los Angeles, the polar opposite of New York City. I started a west-coast life despite having already met the lovely woman who would become my wife, who I left in New York, at least in body, to make my claim on the other coast. I moved from NY to LA for work, a different kind of life, less stress, more canyon. Not because New York no longer promised the hope it had instilled in me from birth. I wasn’t scared to be in New York, after 9/11/01, throughout those few following years of multicolored terrorism-potential announcements (e.g., “Today’s level: orange”). I didn’t feel trapped on the subways, suddenly claustrophobic; that was just job-related tension. I didn’t think about what else could happen, if my parents were safe on Long Island, where so many people could become so easily trapped by another attack. I wasn’t terribly angry that Stockhausen, the avant-garde composer, had called 9/11 “the greatest work of art ever.” The guy wrote a quartet for helicopter.

I was living in denial, and I wasn’t the only one.

Plenty of young adults, right out of college, observed 9/11 in New York and subsequently journeyed to worlds beyond, in many cases, the west coast, California. One of my closest friends ended up in San Francisco by 2002. Another few went to Portland in 2003, and when I went to LA there were more recent New York transplants than the Jewish delis could handle.

Suddenly people were writing LA articles with anger about the bad bagels, worse pizza, lackluster Cantonese food in a city that set the stage for a film called “Chinatown.” This wasn’t the average NYC expat ragging that had gone on for decades. It was rage.

Soon, LA became what one prominent magazine called the new cultural capital of America. Did that have anything to do with how many New Yorkers flocked there in the years following 9/11? I am not a census-taker or infographic designer. I do not have the numbers. But all of a sudden there were better, if still inferior, bagels, attempts to make pizza with “New York Water,” an indie music scene that rivaled Brooklyn, pasta from Italians new to America who in decades prior might have went to New York straightaway.

Suddenly East Coast rap fused with West Coast, a savory beat-mash served up warm and fertile. Anything could happen in the design galleries, and before I could say Guggenheim the art museums of LA were written up everywhere. Hip young American adults were no longer going for New York-inspired loft-like or pre-war interiors; obsessed with midcentury modernism, as practiced by Richard Neutra and John Lautner, they were turning their apartments into 1960s California. Everyone bought Eames chairs and Saarinen furniture, and everyone gawked at Taschen books about Palm Springs living.

Where was New York?

It didn’t go anywhere, of course. I returned to visit many times, but now all my friends were gone. My family remained, but the young people who would become prominent artists, writers, musicians, technologists had moved on, lived. Young people still flocked to New York, but it was Gens Y and Z. Kids who were too disconnected from reality on 9/11/01 to know what they were moving into, the life that sent us across the country, away.

It was an adventure for this new crop of twentysomethings, something bold. To move to New York in the middle aughts or closer to 2010 seemed positively safe in its audaciousness. Anesthetics in the form of video games and bad 3D movies had already created a generation of new young New Yorkers who would make comfortable lives in the city because they feared nothing, felt less.

Tweeting out of a Bushwick apartment isn’t meeting every night for drinks in the same Tribeca bar, as my newspaper colleagues had liked to do. Digital, the virtual world and social networks, created a safety zone, an invisible buffer. Don’t leave your house as much, and your chances of being poisoned with Anthrax on the A Train decrease.

I recently returned from a week in New York. I sojourned there for my brother’s wedding. I quoted the aforementioned E.B. White essay in my Best Man’s Speech. I repeated the line: “No one should move to New York to live unless he is willing to be lucky.”

That statement makes more sense now than ever. For no matter how much security-insulation our government-funded protectors wrap around the city, still America’s best, just getting by to see tomorrow is an entirely different kind of feat in 2011.

I long to return to New York but enjoy my California life too much. I’ve softened, weakened, calmed down. I’ve incorporated New York into my LA persona, and NYC Me works because it’s real. My professional output shows changes, though: I don’t want and go for It as much. I meditate more. But I remain proud of the instinct to think critically, ask questions. That’s good in many respects; it sets me apart at times, reminds me where I’m from: what real people are like, and that I come from a place where you don’t need a Ph.D. to have some sense about you. But I know that I’m quite different than I was 10 years ago, when I traded NYC air and clouds for LA sun and smog. I know that I’m more in-the-moment, more foggy, and less interested in performing, sharing. Now I watch “Manhattan” at home on a flatscreen next to windows with a view of the sun setting over the Pacific ocean; it’s a little unholy. I wrote more, played more music, created more art, and had deeper conversations in New York before 9/11 than I did anywhere.

That will always be the truth. Until They hit the Hollywood Sign. Because, someday, They will.

Adam Baer (@glassshallot) is a writer in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Harper’s, the New York Times, and on NPR.

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