A New York state of mind
May 1, 2002
“Driver, please take me to 228th and Broadway,” I recited from Joanna’s instructions. The flight to LaGuardia had gone as scheduled and I found myself on the front stoop of my daughter’s three-family house on a cobblestone street in the Bronx.
We stayed in that night after grabbing Chinese take-put from the place down the street, watching “You’ve Got Mail” on DVD complete with its little tour of the Upper West Side, getting into a New York state of mind.
The last time I visited New York City was 1971, two years before the World Trade Center was completed. I had stayed with friends of friends on the Lower East Side — two conscientious objectors and a former nun who kept their toothbrushes in the refrigerator so the cockroaches wouldn’t get them. We did lots of free and cheap stuff, mostly walking around, riding subways.
This time Joanna and I would do everything that cost money because I was paying. The Circle Line, a Broadway show, art museums, nice meals.
Once we started getting around town however, I noticed similarities to a trip to Disneyland, of all places.
We rode a train or bus to each new land we visited — Little Italy, SoHo, Chinatown, Ground Zero. Every time we passed someone on the street, we heard a different language.
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Each has its own distinct look and smell and taste.
We planned our water consumption around the availability of restrooms. We went before we left. We went when we didn’t have to go. And we washed our hands every chance we got.
Everywhere we looked were images we’d seen in movies or on TV: the stone lions in front of the New York Public Library, Gray’s Papaya, joggers in Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, The Lion King were somehow familiar.
We walked so much that by mid-afternoon we sought out activities that would allow us to sit. The Circle Line tour of New York Harbor offers two hours of sitting for only $20.
Even Macy’s (all nine floors of it, by the way) reminded me of the Emporium on Main Street at closing time, everyone desperate to buy something before they left.
Food and souvenirs — T-shirts, “Prada” bags, postcards — are sold by vendors with carts on the street.
But some things are real New Yorky and very un-Disney.
People on subways listen to portable stereos with headphones, they sleep, but mostly they read. They read magazines, newspapers and paperbacks in more languages than I’ve ever seen in one place. Hebrew newsletters, Spanish novels.
Also, you can pay people to walk just about anyone or anything — dogs, babies, little old ladies. Even an envelope, a bolt of fabric or a seat cushion can be delivered by messenger. Probably that messenger is on bicycle, talking on his cell-phone while dodging city buses and yellow cabs.
The Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side gave us a glimpse of how our immigrant ancestors likely lived. The five-story structure was built in 1864 with four two-bedroom apartments on each floor. No plumbing. No lights. A water pump and privy in the back yard. About 1910 two toilets were added to each floor. Four families — two toilets. I wonder if our ability to get along with each other has diminished in the past 100 years because we no longer have to share a toilet with 15 others?
Viewing the images at the storefront gallery in SoHo where amateur photographers display photos of Sept. 11 caught me by surprise. I thought I’d seen it all, desensitized myself by watching days and days of video, as that airliner relentlessly flew into to the tower again and again.
These photographs brought all that back. A NY firefighter’s face crumpled in grief at a memorial service. The still life of a lovely tea set on a tray, covered in ash, reminded us how many normal, everyday events were interrupted or terminated by an event that was anything but normal and everyday.
I’m not sure I can even express what I felt when we finally got to Ground Zero on my last day. Waves of emotion transported me from spending my spring vacation with my daughter, to a memory so sad and profound it literally stopped me in my tracks. Broken concrete, gaping holes, dust and ash reminded me of the ache in my heart that awful, interminable September morning not knowing where or how Joanna was. And the relief and gratitude I felt when I knew she was OK.
As we were leaving Ground Zero, we noticed bubbles floating up from somewhere ahead. Sweet ephemeral symbols of the spirits lost there. I imagined an innocent child blowing them into existence with his kisses. A child, sending little prayers, wishes, blessings aloft.
As we got closer we saw that a little boy in a stroller, shooting bubbles from a toy machine gun, blasting away at good guys and bad guys alike. Just like the terrorists.
Suddenly I knew it was time to come home. I longed for a Nevada state of mind.
Lorie Schaefer and her husband have lived in Carson City for over 20 years. She is a reading specialist at Seeliger School.
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