Monday, January 9, 2012

New York just likes me as a friend: May 24, 2009

I used to live near New York City and, as luck would have it, I lived near New York City during part of my exquisitely rebellious adolescence. Honestly, I immersed myself in rebellious adolescence as if I were practicing a dark art, and I spent a lot of time traipsing through New York when I should have been in school.

Years later, my return to New York City as a grown-up gave me a whole new perspective on the place. It turns out I still love that city. And because I love it so, I laughed until I nearly hyperventilated when I spotted a T-shirt that read 'New York just likes you as a friend.'

New York, I will absolutely settle for that.

20 years later,‘the city’ still makes me happy

    In 1988, my family was stationed in Bayonne, N.J. — a town with a small military port just across the water from “the city” — which is as specific as you have to get to make yourself understood when you live that close to New York.

    Dad could see the Statue of Liberty from his office. We lived on JFK Boulevard, known to locals simply as “the boulevard.” The boulevard was two blocks over from a parallel street called Broadway — accent on the second syllable — BroadWAY. (Though it was not the BroadWAY you’re thinking of, probably.)

    It was an abrupt transition for teenaged me. I was 16 when we moved to urban New Jersey from remotest Arizona. Dad’s previous assignment had been at the nearly impossible to pronounce Fort Huachuca (I can still spell that without looking it up) near the border of Mexico. Bayonne, N.J., was truly a whole other world.

    But I was an adaptable kid. Within a couple of months, I had made friends with other teenagers in the area. Soon I found myself regularly climbing into and out of taxis and subways, making forays into “the city” when I should have been at school, wandering Greenwich Village with my friends, buying mood rings and cheap T-shirts and sitting on sidewalks to eat mysterious foods we bought from street vendors.

    Sometimes we did the tourist stuff. I took an elevator to the top of the twin towers one cloudy day just to say I had done it, despite a fear of heights that turns my knees to jelly. We had a wonderful time, all the time, and we somehow always managed to stay out of trouble.

    When I think now about the months we lived in New Jersey, I am amazed at how intrepid I was. I didn’t have the vaguest idea where I was going or what I was doing. To this day, I could not tell you where in the city I was half the time I went there. Sometimes we accidentally got off the subway at the wrong stop and then blithely walked dozens of blocks with just a general sense of where we were going, based mainly on the numerical order of the streets.

    And now it has been 20 years, almost exactly, since my family packed up the house on the boulevard and moved to Tennessee. I am 37, the mother of two, 10 years married and happily ensconced in a three-bedroom house on a leafy cul-de-sac.

    Until this week, I had not been back to “the city” since my days as a teenager. But I’m attending a professional development conference, and I am writing this in a hotel room on the 24th floor of a hotel in Times Square.

    I am learning a lot this week, hearing from top-flight journalists and media relations pros from all over the country, filling notebooks with new ideas on how to approach my job in corporate communications.

    But I am also learning that 20 years away from this place distorted my memory of it. As a mother decades removed from my teenaged self, the recollection of my adventures in the city was clouded by my alarm at the realization that I was a 16-year-old girl stomping unchaperoned across a mammoth metropolis of millions.

    Decades later, I had forgotten the inspired energy and noise and vitality of New York’s streets — the musical sound of mingled languages, the amazing range of co-existing people, the lights that make midnight look like midday and the oddly empowering joy of stepping to the curb, raising your arm and having a car materialize.

    I had forgotten how much I enjoyed the city, why I was drawn to it over and over back in the days when it was in my backyard, how much fun I had just feeling like a tiny part of something so big, so noisy, so alive.

    As a mom, I can’t say I’d be eager to turn my sons loose here once they’re 16. But I do hope someday they have something like the experiences I had as a teenager in the city. I hope they’ll have adventures and make memories and feel a small part of something bigger and more fantastic than they could ever have imagined.

    Because it may have taken me 20 years to make my way back, but it has been a joyful experience to realize that, even after all this time, I still love New York.

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