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A love letter to New York
When the ghosts of my past collide with my present
This is your time.
Fall, when the sun’s lower angle on the horizon softens the stark edges between summer’s light and shadows. When the heaviness of August and early September finally slip into days that feel as crisp as turning the pages of a brand new book. I want to soak in your afternoon amber light. Even inside, I find myself gravitating towards the window feeling the warmth of the sun, light flares radiating through the glass from in between the trees as I watch it descend behind buildings.
Walking in the city this time of year brings me back to why I love New York. My neighborhood shamelessly embraces holiday cheese and decorates its brownstones like a dress rehearsal for a classic Meg Ryan movie set in NYC. Suburban houses aren’t the only ones who get to have fun on Halloween. On my walks I see giant spiders scale the side of brownstone buildings, spinning webs that tumble from third story windows all the way down to the parlor floor. I pass skeletons having tea parties on stoop landings and ghosts lurking in the trees. I even find bales of hay in front yards, which in Brooklyn is defined by that slab of concrete next to stoops, fenced in by black iron gates. Despite what goes on in the world, you can always bet that the homes in brownstone Brooklyn will dress up for Halloween.
New York in the Fall provokes nostalgia like no other season. One of my favorite NYC memories is the annual Halloween party at Theater for The New City on First Ave when I was in college. We’d duck into Yaffa Cafe on St. Mark’s beforehand and order the Sunshine burger, served to us by a waiter dressed as The Mad Hatter while someone dressed as an octopus played an old upright piano in the corner. My friends and I would sit on some random doorway stoop later that night and would people watch as Halloween revelers paraded across the East Village.
More than any other season, Fall brings me back to my childhood in Queens, but not in the form of distinct memories. I remember more the feeling and the sensory associations that are conjured up this time of year, mainly the crush of leaves under my feet as I walked home from school, or the vague whiff of campfires I would catch as I turned the corner onto my block. I think about my kids’ own NYC childhoods and how it’s different from mine, but then there are moments when we walk down certain streets and I swear I can see ghosts of my past colliding with my present.
The saying goes that New York is like that abusive relationship you just can’t quit. I kind of hate that phrase, but the sentiment is spot on.
New York, I tried to quit you back in my early 20s when Times Square was a different kind of hellhole. Back when you can still get a slice or a falafel for a dollar, back when we were warned not to wander into the alphabet streets in the Lower East Side. I did anyway—and often—and even ventured into abandoned buildings that turned itself into long-time squats with names like Umbrella House and C-Squat. I remember whole floors and ceilings missing while sleeping bags and other belongings marked off areas of personal space just a few feet away from these gaping holes. I remember the broken stairs as I tried to make the climb to the upper floors to visit some people I knew from around the neighborhood. And cats. I remember there were a lot of cats in these abandoned-but-not-abandoned buildings. What I can’t tell you is where these squats were. I don’t remember that. I often wonder if they’re still around or if they finally got razed to make room for a condo.
I don’t recognize many parts of the city from my youth anymore. It’s strange to me now that I once used to live on St. Mark’s Place or Baxter Street in Chinatown. There’s a certain degree of disassociation that progresses over the years, partly because I’ve changed, but also because the city has too. Sometimes my mind registers an old address when I walk by, flooding it with memories for a fleeting moment, and other times I pass by without even a thought or a nod of acknowledgement, much like any other interaction with a stranger on the street.
Fall reminds me of my early college days because I would get reacquainted with New York all over again after I’d return to art school after three months of traveling around the country in a car—until I left for good when I was 20.
Or so I thought.
After five years in the Pacific Northwest, I came crawling back even though I insisted many times over that NYC and I were over. Who was I kidding? Even though Seattle and the NW had my heart for a beat, I never belonged in Portland. So, what is it that keeps me here, that makes it home? It’s not the food anymore because the rest of the country has caught up—you can find good food nearly everywhere if you seek it out and we rarely eat out much anyways. I do love the arts and culture, but the number of times I venture out these days to take it in is shockingly rare that it’s an embarrassment.
What I love about New York isn’t anything tangible or concrete. It isn’t a neighborhood or a particular building or institution. It’s a feeling, an energy that I learned I couldn’t live without because I couldn’t find it anywhere else. It’s part grit and friction that drives the hunger and desire to dream. It’s the paradox of everyday life here, the love and the hate. That energy isn’t for everyone, but maybe because I was raised here, or an immigrant,1 or because it so matches my personality, it’s deeply embedded in my bones.
What I do know is that I belong.
What I don’t know—even now—is if I will stay forever when I’m old. Like many things we love, there comes a time when we have to let the things we love go.