This past Saturday night, I was at a wedding taking place deep in the woods in Sierraville, CA. This was not a wedding I was a guest at or photographing—I am moonlighting as a car/limo driver to make extra cash and I was waiting for the festivities to be complete so I could shuttle the guests back to their lodgings.
It was a beautiful and starry night, with a bite in the air foretelling the just-around-the-corner autumn. After trying in vain to nap in the car, I stood outside about fifty yards from the wedding party, occasionally looking up at a sky carpeted with stars and listening to the music from the wedding party. The music snob in me, honed finely over decades, smirked a bit at some of the choices towards the end of the festivities; “September,” by Earth Wind and Fire (it’s September now, get it?), the Beatles’ version of “Twist and Shout,” and curiously, Metallica’s “Enter Sandman,” the playing of which puzzled me as I watched some young and drunk men play air guitar (off time, of course).
And then I heard an instantly familiar riff of horns and a series of notes I’ve heard a million times before, but on this particular night and location, was completely surprising to me: The opening notes to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
“Start spreadin’ the news…”
To move from New York City to Reno, Nevada is not a move that most people would describe as typical. Whenever someone here asks me where I’m from and I tell them, nine times out of ten, I get the same question, asked in a similar manner of incredulousness: “What on earth made you do that???”
I have ready answers to that question—that I fell in with a great community of people; that I wanted to be closer to nature; that as I transitioned from the music business to becoming a photographer I knew I didn’t want to play the New York game around it; that I wanted to live in a more open and spacious energy; that I wanted to live more in my body than in my intellect; that I had enough of the constrictive pressures of New York, and that, especially after my father’s death, it was simply time, for the first time, to truly leave home.
Those answers usually satisfy the questioner, but there are often follow-ups. “Yeah, but don’t you miss it,” “Don’t you miss the food,” and a few others. I have ready answers for those questions, too—that I had a very full and rich experience in New York and that I had had all the great restaurant/great bar/club/museum/culture/ experiences that I needed for much of a lifetime and that other than loved ones, no, I don’t miss New York at all.
“I want to wake up in a city that never sleeps…”
As I listened to Sinatra sing his last great record, my New York City life flashed before my eyes. My apartments; my music business career; love affairs; breakups; Springsteen shows at the Garden; ridiculous late night fun with friends; memories of being with my parents in various places over the course of roughly five decades; successes and epic failures; people watching; the magical autumns; book stores like the Strand; various awesome hole-in-the-wall restaurants; becoming a photographer; seeing a zillion bands at their beginnings in various clubs all over the city; the eternally stylish and dazzling women; scoring in dangerous places; Yankee games at the Stadium from Reggie Jackson and Thurman Munson to Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera and a host of other shards of memory. I remembered the feeling I would have when I’d be flying home into LaGuardia after a business trip and would see the skyline and would be so happy and proud that I was a small little part of what was going on in that magical and impossible city. I recalled the feeling of excited possibility I felt on so many nights as I walked out of my apartment building, wondering what the night would bring. And then that vision cut off abruptly as I remembered something.
“It’s almost September 11th.”
“I’m gonna make a brand new start of it in old New York…”
Since moving west, I’ve had a handful of occasions where I’ve been asked what it was like to have been in the city on that awful day. I am careful to say that my experience is simply my experience; that depending on where you were in the city on that day your experience was vastly different and that since I didn’t lose anyone I personally knew in the attacks, there is a level of horror about it that I am not related to. I tell them how perfect the weather was and how deep the blue of the sky was. I tell them about walking home from the gym at 8:45am and hearing the cacophony of sirens from fire trucks, ambulances and police cars. I talk about the shock of watching the towers burn and then collapse from the roof of my building, about two miles away from the World Trade Center. I tell them about the missing signs for people who weren’t coming back that were papered all over the city and the acrid smell that drifted north the next day. I talk about seeing the throngs of survivors walking up Broadway from the financial district—many of them covered in soot and ash from the fallen towers.
And I tell them how the city came together. How in the aftermath of the horror, all the usual things that divide us from each other—our identities around class, race, religion, age, ethnicity, culture, etc.—simply fell away, and for a few weeks, the citizens of New York City were united by their pain, their grief, their shock—and their common humanity as both human beings and New Yorkers. It was a time that it was impossible to walk by a fire station and not cry when seeing the flowers, photos and tributes to the fallen. It was a time where you weren’t afraid to look directly into anyone’s eyes—you were exchanging with them the same look of shared pain and inquisitive care—it felt to me like people were asking with their eyes if you were alright and saying that they cared about how you were coping.
I knew instinctively that in our collective grief, a window had opened up for New Yorkers to be with each other in ways that were the opposite of typical; and that that window would eventually shut. And of course, it did. But I’ve never forgotten what those few weeks felt like. I wish it hadn’t happened, but I am always beyond grateful that I was in the city when it happened (I was traveling a lot for work in those days and I think it would have been torture for me to have experienced that day somewhere else) and for what I saw and experienced in the aftermath. It was a terrible, terrible beauty—and it taught me that who people, deep in their hearts, want to be there for other people.
“If I can make it there…”
By the time Frank Sinatra recorded “New York, New York” in 1980, his voice was not even close to being what it had been. Years of unfiltered Camels, rivers of Jack Daniels and continuous revelry had both weakened and coarsened that singular voice. But Sinatra reached back, especially in the last verse, and summoned a power that approached his glory days, belting out in that song a tribute to the city he aspired to be a part of as a boy living across the river in Hoboken New Jersey, the line that for New Yorkers, is something of a self-evident truth: “If I can make it there/I’m gonna make it anywhere.” And as I stood in the woods in Sierraville, CA listening to one of my favorite singers sing in tribute to the city that is and will forever be a treasured part of my heart, I cried—not with pain, but with love, a love of a place, a love of a people, a love of a youth lived and completed.
“It’s up to you, New York, New York”
The song ended and the tears quickly stopped. I smiled—feeling as connected to the city as I did on those nights when I’d be taking a late night cab home to Brooklyn and going over the Manhattan or Brooklyn Bridges, looking out to the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty or gazing back at that incomparable skyline.
It is an interesting and bittersweet thing to love a place deeply and passionately--and know that you no longer belong there. I am happy to no longer live in New York City and I love living where I currently do. But there is never a day that goes by that I don’t feel like a New Yorker—which, I presume, is something I will feel in ways both large and small, every day until my death. That presumption pleases the hell out of me and remains as much of a source of pride for me as it did when I lived in the East Village or in Brooklyn. On this September 11th, I declare my undimmed love for that incredible and maddening city, and for a little while today, my heart will be where it was then, in downtown Manhattan, pulsing with love and pride in being a New Yorker. I love New York--and I always will.