Where NOBODY knows your name

There’s a wonderful little documentary called New York made by Ken Burns. I put this documentary on when I kind of need soothing. It’s as you may have guessed, the history of New York, told by academics and historians with wonderful old pictures of the city as it was. It’s quite an old city, older than most people realize because next to nothing of it’s really historical buildings remain, lost to time and expansion.

There’s an episode about the history of the World Trade Center. It’s probably my favorite episode because it features a great hero of mine, Philippe Petit, who in some fit of madness swung a tight rope between those two towers and decided to walk between them. The episode of course culminates in the horrible and sad destruction of the towers on September 11. One of the speakers in the documentary says “”Whether you grow up in Beijing, Bilbao or Bombay, everyone has a New York in their heads, even if they have never been there,”a quote from Timothy Garton Ash, great historian. I think about this quote a lot and I was especially thinking about it on my last visit to the city when I snapped this picture:

I think it’s how a lot of people see the city. I mean it’s even how I see the city, as a person who grew up there.

I have a rather uneasy relationship with New York though. I spent my childhood there, a wonderful childhood, very normal and warm. Then we left when I was 12 to a hostile region just north of the city. New York was our safe place in that time, where we returned to go “home” whatever that means. If there was any wish I had had in those years was that we could leave where we had moved and we could just go back to the city, where we belonged.

Growing up though there was another place that was kind of MY New York. New York is an anonymous, rather impersonal city at times and I remember watching a show growing up where people hung out in a bar and formed a community of their own. That show of course was called Cheers. There was a place where everyone knows your name and they’re always glad you came. That really appealed to me growing up for some reason. Most people have a New York in their mind. Maybe fewer have a Boston on their mind. Not to mention, never in a million years did I ever imagine that I would be working as an instructor at the university up the street from the bar where Diane Chambers had matriculated and where her boyfriend occupied a chair. I also now occupy a chair at the same university, in that I have an office with a chair in it.

I’ve now lived in Boston for 12 years, longer than anywhere I have lived in my entire life. Am I a Bostonian now or a New Yorker? I am never sure. The New York of the 1980s, the Fran Lebowitz New York lives in my mind constantly. But on this past visit to New York, I realized that New York is the city where no one knows your name. I mean Boston, we ALL know each other. We are all two degrees of separation from each other. When I walk around in Boston, I always think — I’m with people I know, even if my fellow commuters are actually strangers. In New York though, I always feel like I’m surrounded by strangers. Maybe it’s because I haven’t lived in the city for a long time. I mean it’s New York, full of wonderful, amazing things but I can’t help it think that I do want to go back to the place where, corny as this might sound, everybody knows your name.

On every trip, I realize how much less of a New Yorker I am. I still cannot stand the subway. The subway stations are still after all of these years, absolutely disgusting to me. I really dislike the trains. The heights of the buildings overwhelm me. The number of people has started overwhelming me too. I have become what I fear most — a small town person. Boston will never be a big city to me and that is how I will always think of it.

On this past visit, I went to a place called Summit One Vanderbilt. It is a new observation deck behind the Chrysler building. It was one of the most amazing places I have ever been to in my entire life. I thought — how are they going to sell the New York skyline to jaded New Yorkers or even visitors? They found a way. The friends I visited as well in New York live in Long Island City, with an INSANE view of the city right out their window. No matter how many times I see that skyline, it still takes my breath away. That will never change. Have a taken a million shots of the skyline? Yes. Will I take a million more? Yes. Will I ever get tired of the skyline? Well, no. Probably, more than likely not.

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