Sunday, November 4, 2012

Swept Away

My extended absence from this blog would make it seem as if my breakup with New York were complete. Things have demanded my attention: the election, my business,  the fall planting, and an array of time-consuming personal matters that demand more attention as the years pass. Principally, though, the urge to do write about you, New York, deserted me as FF and I passed our one year anniversary here in Piedmont. After 28 years, New York, you'd think it would take me longer to get over us, wouldn't you?

Am I over us?

Photo by Tenured Radical
I felt keenly vulnerable in my last years as a resident of New York City.  I knew what it was to watch a skyscraper crumble, a subway line flood, a mischief of rats storm up the A Train platform to escape the fire and fumes of downtown. I knew what it was to bend myself double against a winter blast, ten times harsher and colder than normal because of the glass canyons of midtown. I knew the desperation of walking more than 100 blocks in summer heat to get home when the transportation system shut down.  People weren't made to live like that, I thought. I wasn't made to live like that. And what pretty pipe dream of fame and fortune is worth that much trouble, anyway? Why endure it? Just to say I live in New York City?

As Hurricane Sandy pummeled the Northeast last week, here in Piedmont we  were sitting pretty. Cozied up here in the folds of these ancient hills, we were spared and are spared the worst weather most of the time. Hurricanes rarely penetrate deep enough inland to threaten, and the scattering of tornadoes seem to come to a cartoon-ish, screeching halt at RTP. Sometimes it rains a lot, but our abundance of fragrant balsam forests handle the water pretty well, except in those spots where developers have been too imprudent in their love affair with concrete. 

Last week, FF and I noted that we still had our preparations from hurricane Irene pretty much in place: The baker's shelf of canned goods, the lantern, lamp oil, flashlights and batteries, the Coleman stove and bottled gas, and the gallons of bottled water. This time, we added sandbags, filled and stacked neatly against the cellar door, and a backup sump pump and a manual pump just in case of power outage. Seasoned firewood was stacked cozily in the garage, the patio furniture stowed in the crawl space and, thus prepared, we waited. But we didn't have to break into our stores for Sandy and we merely passed several cold, gray days watching the hurricane gather itself, follow the train tracks north, and then punch you, New York City, right in the schnozz.

When FF and I left New York for the last time a year and a half ago, having dropped the key to my Harlem apartment with a clatter into the mailbox, we passed over the George Washington Bridge and I felt a tug at my heart as we made our way to the mainland, the lights of Riverside Drive receding in the rear view mirror. But beyond the nostalgia, I felt an urgent sense that I was getting out just in the nick of time. And when the apartment finally sold and I pulled my last material  assets out of the city, I experienced a breathless feeling as one might if a nightmare magically resolved itself and that dream suitcase you had been trying to pack was finally packed, or the dream person you couldn't find was finally found, or whatever anxiety-charged situation you were facing in your sleeping life suddenly morphed into a nice dream from which you woke up, warm and smiling in your own bed. I felt as if I had cheated fate when I got out of New York City without suffering heavy losses, like a person who had the presence of mind to leave the casino with a few dollars still in his pockets.

This feeling of having escaped in the nick is not something I've talk about with almost anyone. It's not a conversation I imagine that my old friends, who still see the City as the center of the worthwhile universe, would want to have with me. I lived through 9/11 there, and I experienced first-hand what it's like when things go very, very wrong in that  huge Rube Goldberg device called Manhattan, and I know how hard it is to make it work again.  I was there in hurricane Gloria in 1985 which, though it didn't hit the city head on, caused the evacuation of all the high rises. I'll never forget fighting my way in to work that day because I was new on the job, and finding no one on the darkened 32nd floor of the Time and Life Building except my obsessive compulsive boss, reading the Times in the yellow glow of a desk lamp,  and the big plate glass windows shimmying so fast in the wind that they rang like bells. I've been in floods, snowstorms, blackouts and pretty much everything that could go wrong in a big city except invasion by zombies, and when the chance presented itself to opt for a less disaster-prone environment, I leaped at it and into the waiting arms of my beloved FF, who never trusted the place, anyway.

Sandy with and her peak 80 mph sustained winds doesn't come close to matching The Long Island Express of 1938. Sandy was a big fat, wet storm, but she wasn't nearly as powerful as the storm of '38 that killed nearly 700 people in the New York City area and changed the topography of Long Island forever. But it's possible that when all the numbers are added up that Sandy will be the more expensive date, not only in terms of dollars but also for the cultural losses. Coney Island is a muddy memory now, and Staten Island a place of  homelessness and death.  Out in the Rockaways, fire and water consumed communities that had already suffered airplane crashes in the last decade, and had lost nearly 300 people in 9/11. The word "apocalypse" has been used a lot for Sandy, and such low-lying places as these cannot help but continue to be victimized as changing climate, urban congestion and global political unrest heighten indefinitely. 

Idiots and heroes were in abundance on TV this week, making me hoot and weep as I watched you take it in the teeth, New York City. I fumed angrily at the story of the man who refused to open his door to a woman in distress with two little boys who later drowned. My heart swelled in admiration for a man who rescued his 81 year old mother from her flooded house with only waders and a surf board as equipment. And yesterday, somebody put up a YouTube featuring the whole Lower East Side cheering for about 15 minutes all up and down First Avenue and beyond because the electricity was finally back on. And at that moment I had a pang of missing you, New York. I actually missed being part of that cheering crowd that had spent the last five days dealing together with the miserable cold, the food rotting in the refrigerator and no hot showers. Briefly, I felt as if I were missing the main event. Will I ever know such difficulties again? Will I ever know such triumph? Are the highs you offer worth the insane lows you inflict?

25 years in New York and I was never convinced that I was a real New Yorker. I felt most like a New Yorker when I was somewhere else, on a stage singing in Germany, or working a cruise ship. "You're from New York? Wow!" the Europeans would say, a glimmer of admiration in their eyes.  But it felt good to bask in your reflected glory, good to accept that prize of specialness that being from New York (undeservedly) gave me.  Back home, though, I lived in Harlem where I was nicknamed Snowflake and where I was never really an accepted member of the Harlem club. Neither in the other neighborhoods where I lived did I ever feel like a New Yorker truly, nor did I understand what truly linked New Yorkers to each except the capacity to endure insult after insult, and a tireless belief that maybe one day they would "make it". Or at least know someone who did.

Here in Piedmont, life is smooth. The mountains are old and round, the rivers are many, the forests are big and the coast is long.  I know already that I'll never really belong to this place any more than I did in New York City. But I have adopted Piedmont wholeheartedly as the place I will likely spend the rest of my life, and I hope I can offer it something while I'm here. Carolinians are not, in the main, interested in far-fetched ideas of glory, power or drama. They like to be outdoors, enjoy the back porch, watch the seasons pass, and they are known for making things with their hands that take patience, like guitars and quilts. Carolina smells good, and the beauty outweighs the ugly by a long shot. These old mountains don't care about roller-coaster highs and lows: they are the face of eternity and the glory of nature, and are unconcerned with the self-glorification of mankind.

As they say here, there may be something better somewhere, but this is as good a place as any to wait for better to come along.  So  I can't imagine a true Carolinian ever feeling, as I did for a brief moment this week, that I should have been in New York City, not in this peaceful place, when a bunch of cold, dirty, tired New Yorkers cheered in the streets just because the lights came on.

2 comments:

Tenured Radical said...

Awesome post -- you need to pick up this blog again!

Urban Exile said...

Thank you, TR. And thank you for the excellent image above. Yes, you're right, time to face the page again.