Saturday, November 20, 2010

A meandering, disjointed, unfocused ode to New York

Every night after work I sit in the rear of a New Jersey Transit bus and cross the George Washington Bridge. Tonight, like it will be for the next several months, it was dark as the bus barreled over the bridge, and the New York City skyline looked something like it does above. There's really not any view like it in the world; the only rivals might be from other New York City bridges. I'm often grouchy or annoyed on the trip home, depending on how long everyone had to wait for the bus to arrive. Still, I try to look out the window most nights to gaze south. Maybe native New Yorkers get used to such views and maybe transplanted New Yorkers are too cool to appreciate the view, but more often than not, I still find myself looking at it with the same wonder I had the first time I drove over it in February 2002. At least these days I know where I'm going.

I've been in New York City six and a half years now, and I still don't fully appreciate where I live. Maybe I never will. But it's not because of laziness or complacency or indifference. It's simply that a person could live here for a hundred years and venture out every day and they still wouldn't have enough time to soak in all of the history that's a part of the city.

So much has happened here. So much still happens. So much will happen. Remembering how I walked around the city my first few weeks here, my head tilted back, looking up, only needing a fanny pack to complete the caricature of the type of tourist longtime New Yorkers love to complain about, it's hard to believe that it's only taken six years for me to get used to the fact this is now my home.

Last Sunday, about 20 blocks south of our apartment, dozens of people dressed up in strange garb to re-enact an event that happened three centuries ago. November 16 was the 234th anniversary of the Battle of Fort Washington, a key fight in the Revolutionary War that saw the Brits rout the Americans. It was a crushing defeat for the Continental Army, but being that the people in this country can now read about Prince William's upcoming nuptials but don't have to worry about one day being ruled by him, you know that it was not a decisive victory for the Brits.

The Battle of Fort Washington isn't among the most well-known battles in American history, but maybe that's because the wrong side - depending on your accent - won. Still, it's a vital piece of history, a crucial battle that was followed by some of George Washington's greatest victories. And it happened three subway stops from our apartment. Cool.

I can walk five minutes and be on the spot where the Dutch bought Manhattan, an event that changed the fortunes of millions, for better and worse. It practically took place in my backyard - a backyard I, of course, share with tens of thousands of people.

Sometimes it takes a movie to remind me that I live in Manhattan and that I always dreamed of living here but never thought it'd happen, especially after my first attempt failed. We'll be sitting in the theater and New York appears on the screen - perhaps as the setting for a horrible romantic comedy, perhaps while being destroyed by an asteroid or tsunami - and I think, hey, we live there. Millions of people across the world are watching the same thing in different theaters and are thinking about New York's size and chaos and regard it as more of a character than a real city where real people live.

The city can be exhausting, especially on weekends when the subways aren't running on a normal schedule and the lines that are running are improbably crammed even more than usual. The city's not just a museum. People live here and struggle here, fighting traffic, rats, garbage, pollution, neighbors, cockroaches, bed bugs, terrorist threats and ridiculous rents. With all of that, it's easy for a person to forget what drew them here: the lights, the opportunities, the culture, the people, the sites, the sounds and, yes, the history, whether it's the Met or a long-ago battle fought before the United States was even really a country.

I do my best to appreciate the history of any place I visit, so I certainly try and appreciate the history of New York. It's easy to get distracted or caught up in the present. But I want to remember the city's past because that's why I originally dreamed of coming here and is part of the reason I stay here. The myths and the legends helped bring me here.

Right now thousands of people of all ages are dreaming of coming to New York, whether for a week or a lifetime. They want to escape their problems or seize an opportunity. They want to climb the skyscrapers or party underground. They're dreaming of New York. They're dreaming about my home. And that I do appreciate.

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