The first time I went to NYC was in 1986 when I was 19 years old. It was the 100-year anniversary of the Statue of Liberty and a big celebration was planned. I was supposed to meet a friend who flew in from Detroit ahead of me, but we didn’t connect. There I was, alone at the airport, without a place to stay. Luckily my mom had given me my cousin’s phone number, “just in case.” I put a coin in the payphone and crossed my fingers he was home. He was. I got on a graffiti covered subway car, then transferred to another one just as gritty, and climbed a set of stairs out into the lower eastside of Manhattan.
It was late, but people were everywhere, many sitting on blankets on the sidewalks selling all manner of things. I’d never seen anything like it. It was a night bazaar. I quickly realized most were probably homeless and earning money so they could at least eat.
My cousin lived in a small cellar studio apartment. It was crammed full of everything, including a girlfriend. She took my surprise visit well, and we three walked to the firework mega-display together. What a blast that was.
The next time I came to NYC was 1997. I came in on the Amtrak from Lamy, New Mexico, arriving on my 30th birthday with the intention of living in the big city. A friend met me at the station and gave me the welcome gift of a taxi ride to my new digs on the upper west side. I was to stay with a friend’s grandmother, a 90-year old Hungarian Jew named Rose who would prove to be quite the hardcore character. She enjoyed her vodka and beer, and moving furniture around by herself. The pre-war apartment was spacious, and there was a doorman. The upper west side felt like a world away from where my cousin lived on the lower east side. His part of town was where the actors and artists struggling to make ends meet lived; this neighborhood was much more affluent.
New York in the mid-90s was a transformed world from the mid-80s. I remember the moment I realized this was fact. It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. I was walking from a friend’s house in Greenwich Village and wandered under an archway into a big public park. People were picnicking, playing Hacky Sack, and hanging out listening to the live music of a lone saxophone player. The water splashing from a large fountain reflected the bright sunlight. The sky was blue. It was an idyllic environment.
Then it hit me: I was in Washington Square Park! Ten years prior this place had been full of drug dealers offering me every kind of substance at a good price. I couldn’t believe it! The change was astounding. I knew it was due to the new policies under the new mayor, a man called Giuliani. But where did all the homeless people go? And the drug dealers? It was like they had vanished without a trace.
The last time I had been in New York City was in 2001. I had moved there once again from New Mexico. I left on Buddha’s birthday – May 5th. From the moment I arrived I noticed the city felt different. The usual vibrancy of New York and its people seemed off, subdued somehow; a negative energy was palpable. I kept saying to a friend: It feels like the apocalypse has happened, but no one knows it yet. I wanted to leave immediately. I stayed only two months before I drove with a friend to Burning Man out in the desert of Nevada, then onward to San Francisco. It was there that I awoke to the news that the World Trade Center towers had collapsed. The horror and sadness I felt was only intensified by the fact that I had walked those streets so recently. I wondered if the unsettled feeling I had experienced in New York was some eerie premonition of 9/11.
To my eye, Manhattan was the same as it ever was – lots of people of every demographic and ethnicity, some in penthouses, others on the street. Though this time the homeless looked young, as I noticed they did in Chicago, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Like always, people played chess in the parks and sold used books on the sidewalks. Drivers honked horns impatiently when traffic stopped too long, and ambulances still had to squeeze their way through the congestion. And I caught whiffs of garbage as I walked down streets. But the subways were cleaner, and there was less graffiti. When I searched out remnants of old New York I found them – old bakeries, 24-hour delis, produce stands, street musicians, repertory theatres, and museums.
I didn’t see too many signs of what I had been reading in magazines and hearing from friends – that NYC was now more for the wealthy than for the everyday person. Maybe the change is subtle, like in the cost of living rather than an increase of blatant bling. But in Chinatown I did see the encroachment of boutique stores, and in the Bowery I found the legendary music venue CBGB’s was now a high-end men’s clothing store.
The biggest difference I noticed between my short stint in 2001 and this one in 2015 was that people seemed more relaxed and nicer to each other. I was able to make eye contact and engage in a little conversation with strangers on the subway, merchants in stores, and lovers of music hanging out in parks. I had the sense that a lingering residue of 9/11 hung in the air, reminding people that life is precious. I felt more a part of the big family of humanity living together in the Big Apple than I ever had before. It felt good.