The first time I landed in New York City, it was a shivering Monday in January 2002. I was a curious and wide-eyed 21-year-old from Nashville, Tenn., tagging along with my attorney father who was there to meet with Jessie Jackson – “Reverend,” as my dad called him – about a case they were collaborating on. My perception of the city – in all of its cosmopolitan and frenetic glory – was as green as it was glittering.
We took a train in from Long Island to Grand Central Station, and then a cab to Rockefeller Center for lunch. Upon finishing our sandwiches, we zipped ourselves into our coats and boarded the subway for the site of what – only months prior – had been the World Trade Center. I wanted to offer up my veneration to what had provoked so many episodes of sobbing in front of my television.
But, what we arrived to find was more than a harrowing image – one that transcended the visual evidence of ruin.
I could feel the residuum of unanswered questions hovering over those bulldozers as they combed through the wreckage. My father and I gazed out – both speechless – at the jagged stacks upon stacks of rubble – piles of cement, dust and steel, now home to a graveyard of stories.
I imagined all of the feet swarming those grounds on that clear, blue morning just months before. Many suited up, briefcases and cups of coffee in hand with opulent dreams they presumed would stretch on far into the future. Some fresh to American soil – still learning the language and wondering where their aspirations would take them. Strategies made, never to be executed. Evening dinner plans never to be fulfilled. Apologies they had yet to make, but planned to.
It stirred me so painfully and poignantly. I was spooked by thoughts of Manhattan’s force of bustling ambition suddenly melting into the percussive cry of nonstop sirens and the terrifying sight of billowing smoke.
We wandered across the street from the wreckage and took notice of the countless signs taped everywhere. They were spread like quilts across fences, brick walls, lampposts and parking signs – collages upon collages of faces and names marked “missing.” Many were stained and tearing in corners. Some were accompanied by withered bouquets of flowers.
“Please call if you see…” the words pleaded – urgent desperation bleeding through all of them. I noticed splatterings of melted red and white wax along the sidewalk – lingerings of the candlelight vigils held in the weeks and months prior. I remember my cold tears hitting my gloves as my hands clutched a fence railing. That moment was like a “crossing over” – the moment I fell in love with the resilient spirit of New York City.
Later that day, I fell even harder when a store clerk in Midtown Manhattan chased us three blocks in rush hour, waving his arms and announcing, “Sir, sir! You left your credit card on my counter!”
And, again when we wandered over to Hell’s Kitchen after the sun fell below the skyline and I was served a slice of cheesecake and a cappuccino that arrested my tastebuds in such a way that it forever tainted my opinion of any confection or coffee sip I’ve had or will have since.
In the years that followed, I became a writer and returned several more times for my own business trips. I again wandered over to what had been that pile of rubble, admiring and offering up my reverence to a gorgeously-constructed memorial site. And, still, with every visit, my admiration only continued to form new branches – hovering over the city’s skyscrapers and twinkling lights.
I would swoon with fervor over and over.
I fell for its nooks of literary camaraderie, especially the ones inviting essay and poetry readings. For the darling charm of Chelsea. For the ornery grump handing me a delicious slice of greasy pizza in Greenwich Village. For the cobblestone streets of TriBeCa. For the eclectic vibe of Soho. For the rooftop views. For the clusters of teenagers on the subway and their feats to simultaneously applaud yet trump one another’s performances. For the collective brilliance and eccentric history contained within the Museum of Modern Art.
But, as much infatuation as I formed for all of those things, none of them compare to what I grew to love most – what I grow to love still.
I continue to fall in love not just with New York City itself, but with the city’s ability to challenge the depth of my relationship with being human.
Because, whether it be a deli in Soho or a market in Chinatown, I know I can find rare and magical forms of beauty hanging out in corners. They are always there – waiting to be marveled at or arrested by or dined upon. There is always a treasure unfamiliar to me – present to awaken a new part of me, expand my view of humanity while confronting privileges I didn’t know I had or biases and bigotries I was unaware of harboring. Where I can be stimulated by fresh perspectives on art or feminism, and where I step into pockets of diversity – all spread out like a smorgasbord of knowledge that promises to peel away at my walls of ignorance and evoke a new sociological or spiritual muscle to awaken.
I am captivated by its electrifying pulse – its blood that pumps chaotically in some corners and unceremoniously in others, but most all of them as if to say, “All variations of buzzing weirdness are demonstrated here. No explanation required.”
I love that inspiration is omnipresent: lurking in every street corner, wooing the creatively-charged and waiting for an able body to attach itself to. It’s in a myriad of interesting forms, taking an infinite number of names, creeds, races, stances and shapes – both illustrious and obscure.
In the winter, it tugs at my coat sleeves, flirting with me and informing me of another book or essay that must be written. It finds me in the faces of lost pedestrians. It’s in the breath of the lovers as their whispers meet the chill of the night air. It’s in the shoe prints that shape the snow and in the stacks of sandwiches prepared to feed the homeless.
In the summer, it’s in the mob of tourists with their selfie sticks. It’s in the drops of hot rain sliding across clusters of street-bought umbrellas and landing in puddles. It’s in the choir of conversations – all in different languages, blending and blurring together – overheard on the city’s very heartbeat: the subway. It’s in the lushness of Central Park – so abundant that the backdrop of the city in its usual towering fashion is partially hidden.
It’s in Times Square’s collective blend of energy from all over the world. It’s in the child’s expression, lit up by seeing its mob of flashing lights for the first time. It’s in the photographers snapping compulsively and frame-by-frame. It’s in knowing that most everyone who has ever touched down in New York has been drawn there at some point – whether they are visiting their cousin in Queens or their old friend in Williamsburg or studying abroad or auditioning for the Opera. No matter their reason for having landed in New York City, most everyone gravitates there to climb those stairs and bathe in its energetic nucleus – at least one time.
It’s the familiar look in a man’s eyes I pass on the street – a man I may never speak to or know, but with a gaze that demonstrates a blend of hope and despair I recognize and even wrote about once. There, we share a silent moment of knowing. A look that says, with a motionless nod, “I see you, fellow human. And, by the way, me too.”
Because isn’t that what the human quest for love is, after all? The beautifully complicated search for evidence that we are all the same. The knowing that we are all “out of place” somewhere – having experienced joy and suffering in vagarious ways. That everyone is grasping for something they think they want, but that the value is not in what we are grasping for, but in the reaching. That life can be seen through a number of lenses – perhaps all bumping up against one another on the sidewalks and in the subway – and each of them having something valuable to reveal to us. Each deserving of opportunity. And of celebration. And of being loved.
New York City – in all of its cosmopolitan and frenetic glory – never stops teaching me that.