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New York State of Mind

Photo by H&D Zielske/Gallery Stock.

When you bring a four-year-old to the Big Apple, things get weird.

Dr. Sally Simmermon ate a quick breakfast, grabbed her gear, and began the daylong ascent of Mt. Veroli. She had studied volcanoes all her life, and she scaled the craggy peak with mounting enthusiasm. What kind of pyroclastic flow would she see? Would there be flank eruptions? Then she tripped and fell in. Burned up horribly. Tons of screaming and stuff.

The first 500 volcano stories you tell your four-year-old pour out like water. After that, your eyes cross, your brain pickles, and you start to fantasize about hurling yourself into a good Vesuvius or Krakatoa— which Cora, our kind, thoughtful daughter, would’ve loved, fleeting grief notwithstanding. She had developed a freakishly narrow obsession with volcanoes, and her scientific curiosity was matched handily by an interest in people sailing over the edge. We were not to skimp on gore. So I did what any parent of a budding vulcanologist would do. I bought us tickets to New York City.

We touched down at midnight amid a blinding February blizzard. JFK was in full grime mode, all things wet and gray and cold and tired. We threaded the grime—me, my wife, Amy, Cora, and, lashed to Amy’s chest, Cora’s new brother, Casper, eight weeks old. Taking my still- wobbly family to New York in the middle of winter was, by all the major indices, dumb. But greater forces were in control at this point.

Mid Town Manhattan

Photo by Neil Emerson.

Cora’s fascination with volcanoes was cover for questions about mortality. If you’ve never possessed a four-year-old, this will sound like a stretch. Otherwise, you know there comes a moment when kids start doubting their special sanctuary in the bosom of the universe. Up to that point, a cheery varnish coats the world of the middle-class North American child. Look at Dora the Explorer’s face, that big empty-headed grin. “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies,” observed one of my favorite New Yorkers, the poet and playwright Edna St. Vincent Millay. Cora had begun scratching at the kingdom walls. What lay beyond? Every request for a gnarly volcano catastrophe, I think, was a way of asking what the grownup cosmos is capable of. Can it really just gobble you up, impervious to your innocence and carefully placed barrettes?

Amy and I wanted to honor that impulse, in a PG kind of way. New York is the opposite of a big, empty-headed grin. It’s not meant to cheer you, or reassure you, or do anything to you at all. It exists for its own sake. The veneer of gentility has been not just peeled back here, but peed on, wheat-pasted over, demolished by a Saudi developer, and then photographed from inside a garbage bag by an art student whose parents have been priced out to Hoboken.

From JFK we beat a path to Brooklyn Heights, where a vacationing friend had loaned us his small apartment. It was late, and the streets were pink with streetlight-tarnished snow. Casper was just a snoring parcel under Amy’s coat. But Cora sprinted ahead under a cathedral of wet black boughs, squealing and galloping and eating unconscionable hues of snow. She was delighted—actual delight, that emotion from books.

“Daddy, does your body just disappear if you fall into lava?” She knew the answer but needed me to say it. We were walking to the subway the next morning, past block after block of cozy Greek revivals and Italianate brownstones, windows aglow from chandeliers and good fortune, handsome families within, reading Henry James by the fire. Yes, I said, lava just sort of swallows you.

Snow Blankets New York

Photo by Craig Ruttle.

If you’re reading this and you’re six years old, you’ve always known New York to be the convivial artisanal pickle mart it is today. I grew up coming here in the ’70s and ’80s—I had grandparents in the outer boroughs—and regarded it primarily as a place where I might finally get to see a switchblade or two. My friend Mika remembers her parents trying to keep people from having sex on the hood of her family car in those days, under what’s now the immaculate High Line. Her husband, Todd, says his father would visit Katz’s Delicatessen on sweltering summer days and watch sweat drip down the old dudes’ noses as they sliced pastrami. It would pause theatrically at the tip, then fall into the meat. It was a mesmerizing but not troubling sight to Todd’s dad. The pastrami was pleasantly salty.

Everything’s cleaner now—Mayor Bloomberg famously called New York City “a luxury product”—and I felt a predictable compulsion to show my daughter whatever grit had yet to be sanded away.

For the next seven days, the four of us would drift around Manhattan, through Brooklyn, and into Queens. Traveling with a four-year-old isn’t like regular traveling. You can be lost in the poignancy of some little urban moment and she’ll ask permission to pick her nose. But following the demented whims of a child has its advantages, too. We searched out the pleasingly dark and volcanic parts of New York, and also, because we’re not monsters, the happy nice stuff, too. Which is why, on this first snowy morning, we emerged in the Lower East Side and knocked on the door of a 14-year-old born in 1902.

Victoria Confino opened the door a crack—what did we want? We wanted to see how some 2 million immigrants were adapting to life in early 20th-century New York.

War and misfortune had sent the Confino family from Kastoria in Greece to a tenement apartment on Orchard Street. Over the years, 7,000 immigrants from 20 countries would call this building home.

The Tenement Museum is, on paper, a kind of history center for the immigrant experience in New York. This encapsulation falls so short of the mark it hurts to type it. The place is a marvel: a museum, yes, but also an ongoing, Oscar-deserving reenactment of what happened at this site between 1863 and 1935. Admission to the city should be contingent on a visit.

“They tell us thees ees land of fun,” Victoria was telling us. “But we just work all the time.”

Tenement Museum

Photo by Emiliano Granado.

We were in her apartment, a dozen of us in the role of new arrivals from Greece. For half an hour this actress described her life, or, rather, the life of the real Victoria Confino, who’d lived until 1989. Not one of us doubted it was now 1914, and that this girl indeed worked full-time in her father’s garment factory, and her younger brother slept on orange crates. I watched Cora file that one away, a world where a little boy sleeps on orange crates.

When we finally staggered back into the 21st century, I expected a jarring transition. But if you’re primed to look, New York’s new-arrival narrative has merely evolved. We’d begun trudging west on Houston when I heard Bob Dylan pouring out of someone’s tinny radio. He was singing about being a newcomer himself, landing in 1961 just blocks from where the Confinos did:

Thought I’d seen some ups and downs

’Til I come into New York town

People goin’ down to the ground

Buildings goin’ up to the sky

I pictured Dylan and Victoria Confino—the real one—passing each other on the sidewalk; half a century ago their downtown tenure would’ve overlapped. We walked now past glassy buildings that had gone up to the sky since my last visit. People going down to the ground. That one’s harder to see. How? Someone once laid it out for me years ago.

I lived in New York in the ’90s. I have no specific memories, just a blur of biking around on hot nights, or else bending into the whipping wind as I slogged to the F train. Everything was extreme. The weather, the lack of money, the dreary grind of temping or bike messengering. I lived in Brooklyn, near a pizza place. They always burned the crust. I kept going back.

I owned little more than a duffel bag when I left the city. Now look at me: the full catastrophe, as Zorba the Greek put it—wife, house, kids. But middle-age boringness doesn’t dilute one’s complicated New York feelings. We love the place. We hate it. We miss it. In my case, my New York feelings revolve around something a more-or-less stranger said to me a decade ago.

I’d just published my first book and had been invited to appear on a middle-of-the-night radio program, presumably designed for cabbies and insomniacs. After my interview, I chatted with the host, a gruff but amiable man named Joey Reynolds. Close your eyes and picture a New Yorker and you’ll have him. A talk-radio legend in an earlier phase of a career spanning five decades, he’d achieved wisdom on all things. Our talk turned to my adopted city, San Francisco.

“Wonderful place,” he decreed, “but in the end, you have to live where there’s grief.” I nodded thoughtfully and then obsessed about the remark for the next 10 years.

West 49th street in the snow

Photo by Jonathan Pozniak.

There’s grief everywhere! I wanted to say. But Reynolds’s comment also played into my abiding doubts. Everyone who leaves New York devotes a tiny part of themselves to fearing they shouldn’t have. Grief struck me as shorthand for that candid and rawer and maybe fuller existence New York offers—that commitment to grabbing live wires once or twice a week. To live where there’s grief is to choose the rim of the volcano over the comfy lodge at the base.

I interpreted this approach as broadly as possible with Cora, amassing New Yorky moments and hoping they’d stick. The dingy, harried charms of Nom Wah, the city’s first and unreconstructed dim sum parlor; the igloo we built with that friendly photographer and his daughter in the East Village; Cora’s first ice cream sundae, near where I used to drink cheap beer. Built into New York’s bones is your future self saying, I used to drink beer here.

On day four, we shot nearly a sixth of a mile into the air. There are those who would forgo the ascent of a skyscraper on the grounds that it is touristy. This is akin to skipping dinner because the meal has gotten so popular. It’s a fool who visits New York and passes up the chance to spy on humanity from 70 stories above. It’s also a fool who waits in the Empire State Building lines rather than zipping up to the Top of the Rock, the summit of Rockefeller Center, where the views are every bit as excellent and include the Empire State Building itself. Seeing New York from 850 feet affords you a sweep that includes incalculable chunks of civilization itself—in one scan, you can take in everyone from Joan Didion to the Knicks to whoever’s hanging out at the UN, and everyone in between. You feel like God. Well, the opposite of God—stretched out below is this vast dominion over which you have zero control. You’re nobody, which perversely affirms your place in New York.

“Is the Umpire State Building taller than Mount Saint Helens?” Cora asked.

“Yes,” I said.

It was a lie born of a deeper truth: New York outdoes nature in its utter and majestic indifference to my existence. Yours, too. This is central to its vast appeal and occasional perceived cruelties, however kind its individual inhabitants are—and they are. The writer John DeVore wrote that “if New York were a cat, it would eat your face after you collapsed in the kitchen from a heart attack.”

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Photo by Emiliano Granado.

I began seeing grand indifference everywhere. The immigrant struggles against waves of economic indifference. The chaos of the ’70s and ’80s that evinced municipal indifference. The luck of falling in love with wife-to-be Amy here, being awakened that first summer morning together by the call to prayer from that mosque on State Street—this was luck and beauty in the face of indifference all around. Tumble in off the rim, and it will swallow up every facet of you.

You don’t tell your kid you’re the world’s best parent. She concludes this naturally, upon learning that you’ve heroically located one of the precious few vulcanologists working in New York City, then sweet-talked this stranger into a behind-the-scenes tour of the sublime American Museum of Natural History.

At the appointed hour, Cora and I were escorted through a series of special doors and past the great dioramas until we were in the bowels of science itself. Men and women in actual lab coats padded knowledgeably by, and then, there she was: Patricia Nadeau, an outwardly normal human who occasionally scoops up lava and dumps it in a bucket. In her people’s highest display of respect, my child darted fully behind my leg.

Nadeau, a young woman with curly hair and a warm smile, led us to her small office, where we proceeded to politely grill her about the life of a New York–based vulcanologist. She was awesome, frankly. She did an impression of the crackle-and-pop sound lava makes upon turning to glass. We held a piece of Mars.

Then, at the foot of her vulcan goddess, Cora got overwhelmed and tuned out—and started doing somersaults on an office chair. I considered all manner of holy rebukes but opted instead for some New York wisdom: All plans are contingent; just surrender to the flow of things. I didn’t actually feel that way, but I struck the pose, which itself felt New Yorkish.

Museum of Nat History

Photo by Emiliano Granado.

Cruelest of all indifference, of course, is the capricious indifference of fortune. One night you’re at Pok Pok, feasting on roast game hen and Vietnamese catfish; the next morning you’re driving through Queens bleakness—dirty snow, dirty check- cashing places, tired people in big coats shuffling down dirty avenues—till you finally run out of city. On a crisp Friday morning, we pulled up in the modest oceanside community of Far Rockaway, which Hurricane Sandy had devastated.

PS 104Q is an elementary school that serves mostly African American and Latino kids, three-quarters of whom live at, or below, the poverty line. A sweet, tough middle-aged woman named Mary Bermudez had volunteered to introduce Amy, Cora, Casper, and me to a couple of classrooms and tell us, in coded language, about the hell that washed in on October 29, 2012, and never really left.

Officially, Mary is a special education teacher at 104Q, but since Sandy she has been one of the saints giving every minute of her life over to the kids and fellow teachers who lost everything: shelter, clothes, belongings, food, basic stability.

“These kids were homeless and starving. One of my special ed girls had to swim out of her house with her mom and her cat and dog,” she says. “The school became a place for triage, teachers driving around looking for food or clothing. People don’t realize that’s still where we are.”

Mary led us to a kindergarten classroom where the kids were opening some care packages. They lined up along the perimeter of their classroom rug and sat impressively still as their names were called, one by one. Then they politely accepted a small package of crayons, thanked their teacher, and returned to their seats. Mary told us later that the kids had recently started showing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms—hoarding food, hiding it under their beds.

We spent hours there, far longer than I’d planned. Going in, I’d thought it would be good if Cora saw some of the human beings behind the abstract disaster stories she reads about. And I’d thought, this is how you see a place—you walk the lovely High Line, sure, but you absorb the city in crisis, too. These are the things I thought, going into 104Q. Going out, all those thoughts had left. I just kept seeing the water, surging in.

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Photo by Emiliano Granado.

I had one more stop. It was a drizzly afternoon when I tucked in my shirt and ducked into the Friars Club. The 110-year-old private club for comedians and actors occupies a stately English Renaissance mansion on East 55th. It is a classic haunt of wood-paneled, Sinatra-drank-here Manhattan.

There exists on our planet a Billy Crystal Room, and it was here, as an elderly bartender solemnly dried glasses, that I spotted a gruff but amiable-looking fellow sitting in the corner with a pair of associates. I walked over. A decade earlier, this fellow had unhinged me with a single offhand remark.

“Joey Reynolds,” I said. He’d shown up as promised.

He and his companions had apparently been discussing Reynolds’s extensive career, and I was invited to hear the highlights. He did the first nationwide satellite broadcast, in the 1970s. He filled Howard Stern’s vacated slot at NBC Radio. He had a five-hour show at one point. The TVs that blare in New York taxis? “I got that going,” he said.

But now, not much else was going. The radio show on which I’d been a guest was off the air, and Reynolds and his associates were hatching second-act schemes. In addition to engineering a “triple-cast comeback” for him—radio, TV, Internet—they wanted to market his famous cheesecake. They turned to me when they said famous cheesecake, and
I nodded assurance, as though reports of its deliciousness come to me often on the other side of the continent.

New York’s indifference seldom shines brighter than on a man discussing comeback strategies while a waitress clears the drinks from the table, then removes the table itself. “It’s OK, sweetheart,” he said. We were just sitting there, the two of us. The associates had left at this point. The gloomy midtown afternoon had penetrated the Billy Crystal Room. The man who’d so rattled me with a comment about grief was now describing his own.

“Drugs, alcohol, divorce, bankruptcy. Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again, but it takes a lot of Krazy Glue,” he told me. The glue dried. Then came an infestation of mold. He was staying with a friend, waiting for his Harlem apartment to become habitable again.

I was struck. Reynolds had come to stand for New York itself in my mind—big, great, imperious, vaguely unimpressed. Now he was apart from New York, looking for a way back in. I thought of Dylan going down to the ground, of Victoria Confino in the garment factory, of the PS 104Q kids, of myself haunted by Reynolds’s ancient, minor remark.

When we left, he kindly offered me a ride. Cruising west toward Chelsea, I finally made my move.

“That night we met, a decade ago,” I began, “you told me it’s better to live in New York than San Francisco, because you have to live where there’s grief.”

Pigeon On Empire State Building, View Of New York City

Photo by Jeorg Buschmann.

I suppose I wanted absolution of some sort—permission from this man to have chosen a lesser city. But this wasn’t in his power; he’d forgotten the remark, of course, just as New York forgets you. “Grief is where calamity meets serenity,” he offered gamely. He riffed randomly on the idea as we turned onto Ninth Avenue, and then that was that. I got out and we said good-bye, that fond farewell reserved for strangers who were briefly something other than that.

I took the train back to our borrowed Brooklyn apartment and walked with Cora down to the river in the last of the daylight. Since I’d moved away, someone had built a lovely park here, shin-deep now with downy snow. Just beyond, the water was a gray slab. It was
a wonderful gray, as moody and complicated as all who look at it. Cora wasn’t moody, though. I followed her happy gaze across the river, over the darkening clumps of buildings. She was staring, I finally realized, at the Umpire State Building, smiling to have recognized its great old blockiness and indifferent to the gloom settling around us.

Plan an off-the-beaten-path family trip to New York here.

This appeared in the November/December 2014 issue.