A friend asked me the other day if I miss New York. I get asked that every now and then, and every time I get stumped. I don’t know what to say. Sure, I miss it, but I miss it the way I miss college, which is to say I don’t want to go back. I say that as a native New Yorker who has left twice. Think of Michael Corleone and how the mob kept pulling him back.
New York is that mob, except this time it’s not pulling me back. I’ve broken free. I got it out of my system. I remember years ago arguing with my wife, who referred to me as “The Ruinator,” as we dragged our luggage from the subway stop at Long Island City to our hotel. We had flown in from California, and I hadn’t been back to New York in years. I stopped abruptly in the middle of the street to savor the night air. She stopped, too, not to savor but to stare. She told me later I acted like a fish that had been thrown back into the water. Eventually, she threw me into the deep end, but that’s another story.
I miss New York, both of them: the one I grew up in and left and the one I returned to and left. They are as different as Staten Island from the Bronx, the Mets from the Yankees, Bud from microbrew, green cabs from yellow ones. I’m not calling the Bronx elegant (who would?) or Staten Island shabby (too many mob bosses have had their mansions there), but there is a difference. It has to do with “the City” (aka Manhattan) and the “outer boroughs.” Technically, the Bronx is an outer borough, but I spent so much time at Lincoln Center in Midtown that I was well aware of the distinction. I lived it, moving back and forth with ease.
The same Ruinator wife, after telling a colleague that her husband had grown up in New York, was informed that Staten Island “isn’t New York.” It was meant as a put-down and I took it that way initially, but then I agreed. Staten Island isn’t the New York this transplant from Indiana had experienced working briefly in Manhattan. It’s a different New York, off the main expressway. You won’t find it in Fodor’s or PlanetWare.
The outer boroughs have a pecking order, too. A friend from Brooklyn used to make fun of the Bronx where I lived the second time around as if it were a desolation of tenements and drive-bys. To be sure, Arthur Avenue and Fordham University where I worked are located in Congressional District 15, one of the poorest in the country, but it wasn’t something from a Mad Max movie. Did similarities cause the rivalry, a case of sociological projection, or was my friend using it to get one over on me? Maybe it was a bit of both. I’ll probably never know.
Home may not be something you find.
What I do know is that holding two worlds within you isn’t confined to space. It isn’t just about the places you’ve lived in. It’s about time as well. We hold generations within us, including those who have gone on to the cemetery, noted or not, as T.S Eliot wrote. In my case it becomes harder to convey a sense of either version of New York to children and grandchildren reared on another coast, although one daughter went to Pace College in Manhattan. She dismisses the renowned New York penchant for dressing up by saying, “All they do is add a scarf to everything.” That warms my heart.
This may be one of the saddest things to occur with aging. How do you pass on your experience of the world so that the next generation can learn from it even as they identify and create their own experiences? How do you avoid being displaced either in space or time and thus become more isolated? I used to think the answer was in the archetypal quest for home. Find it and you’ll be fine. I’m rethinking that. Home may not be something you find. It may find you, and it may have been following you all along.
So, do I miss New York? I dunno. What’s your pernt?
Image credits: feature by Fred Moon. Like fiction? Check out the Mercury “trilogy” (The Gringo, Laura Fedora) here. Also, go to Robert Brancatelli. This post is dedicated to my favorite twins. Happy birthday, Rose and Deanna.