sog & the city
a love letter to New York, city of my heart
This is a cross-post of my newsletter, which you can receive via email (monthly-ish) by subscribing here.
The last time I went to New York City, I sat beside my father in Yemen Café on Atlantic Ave with cardamom chai and a fat slab of baklava, watching the TV flip through photos of sand caves that we probably will never see. In the corner, a waiter plucked the oud, singing about a street he had called home for forty years.
Later, at the pier, we watched a storm cut orange across the Hudson, between the Statue of Liberty and the One World Trade center.
“Take a picture of that uncle,” Papa said. “This is everything beautiful about this place.” The man’s blue eyes were clouded under a taqiyah that could be from Lucknow, where, ten time zones away, my grandfather was rising for his Hindu prayers.
Now, six months later, I live in a small mountain town in Colorado. I woke up to mountains ringed with thick fog on September 11th, and thought suddenly of New York City. This is part-reflection, part-love letter to the city around which my family has built a life for the past twenty-five years.
My first memory is a farewell. It’s a cloudy Lucknow morning and my parents are pulling me out of my grandmother’s saggy arms and lavender starched sari. I am leaving India for the first time, Manhattan-bound. “Don’t worry, beti, it’ll only be a year,” they say.
My parents showed me their Kodak albums. They crinkle their eyes and let their jet-black hair fly into their toothy smiles. They carry me on their shoulders in a small blue raincoat in the JFK arrivals lounge, in front of the NYC skyline, and on the steps of their first apartment in Astoria.
Mamma told me that this “first-world apartment” was the worst place they ever lived. They were alone, with no neighborhood aunties to invite them over for hot eggy parathas after work, no boy-crazy maids or mustachioed drivers. Mold and cockroach corpses stained the walls, and bedbugs purpled my small body with bites. Cab drivers had trouble with their accents; a man driving Mamma and me to a holiday party once told her to shut me up before he did it for her. She got out of the cab and walked with me the rest of the way, her sari dragging tracks through the snow.
Occasional alienation notwithstanding, my parents delighted in their new home, cramming as many parks, pumpkin festivals, and ferry rides into their lives as possible before our return home. Weeks before our flight to India, Papa applied on a whim to a Wall Street job that he was sure he wouldn’t get. To his shock, he passed the initial interview. My parents postponed our ticket until the next round. The sequence lasted several months, our home packed in a boxed limbo until he finally landed the job.
Soon, we moved across the river to Secaucus, New Jersey, a former pig farmland and mafia graveyard, now unremarkable except for its wetlands, warehouses, and proximity to Manhattan. A quarter century later, we are still here.
For most of my childhood, I had no New York without Papa. He showed me how to tell which avenues led West and who the friendly musicians on the ACE line were, always tipping most those whom he deemed least-skilled. We went to the Lego store and office Christmas parties and always left just a little too late, running through Port Authority to catch the bus home from Gate 314.
On my seventh day of kindergarten, we raced to see who could get ready first. As usual, he let me win. An hour later, as I sat cross-legged in Ms. Kelly’s classroom, he emerged from the World Trade Center subway smelling kerosene and walked into a black smoke cloud. He saw a dismembered plane behind pentagram silhouettes of people holding hands and jumping from their windows. He watched the second plane plunge into the second tower from the steps of Trinity Church and waited there to die.
Mamma picked me up from school and we sat in bed watching the phone, rocking my one-year-old sister to sleep over the quiet drone of the TV. She heard the neighbor’s door open and ran to ask how he had gotten back from Manhattan. “Fuck you,” the neighbor screamed, ash in his breath. “I don’t want to talk to you about your husband.”
Papa came home seven hours later. For the next year, he woke up several times a night with visions of smoke and blood. At my school Mass, I bent my head to remember my classmates’ dead parents and, through tears, sang I’m Proud to be an American.
Eventually, we resumed our lives like characters exiting a slow-motion film clip. Papa’s nightmares wore off and his office moved to Madison Square. I finished first grade. There was more music in the subway and running through bus stations. We went to the US Open every summer in matching Federer caps on the 7 train and he yelled my name when I sprinted across the side courts at ballkid tryouts. The city was a pulsating mass, and he was my guidepost.
As I grew up, I started to discover New York on my own terms. I went to the city alone for the first time when I was fifteen, quickly ending up on the the 2 train in the wrong direction.
I hopped off at 86th street, surrounded by Chinese grocers and brown brick video rental stores. “Do you know where the Guggenheim is?” I asked passers-by, who scrunched up their faces in confusion. “Do you mean in Manhattan?” someone asked finally. Standing on the street corner, we stared at each other and laughed. I sat on a street corner with my sketchbook, drawing Brooklyn deliverymen instead of the Basque sculptures I had planned.
I returned home feeling like I had been a part of the city’s crowds, and I was exhilarated. That summer, I found a job in Carroll Gardens, commuting by foot, on the NJ Transit, and the long F-train into Brooklyn.
Each day, I met a collision of characters. French-African artists watched me draw, wild-eyed evangelists tried to convert me to Jehovah’s church, and businessmen commented on the books I read on the subway, one launching into a soliloquy to Gabriel Garcia-Marquez in the middle of Penn Station. Surrounded by strangers, I grew into myself. I had my first public speech at the New York Public Library, my first book reading at Bluestockings, and my first kiss at the Bryant Park ice rink. A few months later, a Common App essay about how I loved the people I met on the subway got me into Princeton.
Part of the reason that New York always felt comfortable was that I could assume any personality and still remain just another one of its unremarkable millions. Race, gender, religion, and language always felt fluid. Class was one layer, however, that I didn’t think much about until later in college.
One spring break, on a walk in Central Park, my little sister asked me where I thought I’d live one day. “I already know,” she said. “It’s going to be a place like that,” pointing to a gilded penthouse overlooking the Onassis reservoir.
I never realized that my father had been part of the Manhattan elite until the market crashed and he wasn’t. Years after his last job on Wall Street, we still sometimes visited family friends in their glass-encased Upper West Side flats, where I pet tiny dogs and ate catered falafel, listening to pre-school admissions stories and wondering about my parents’ retirement savings.
At Princeton, I asked the Dalai Lama what I should do to help the world and he told me to work in the private sector, if I could bear it. I took internship at an investment office and saw a new side of the city. This was a city of glassy skyscrapers and leathered conference rooms, where beautiful secretaries served coffee to pasty investors and acne-ridden associates who analyzed undervalued lawn care businesses. Money and a suburban mansion seemed a few hours of interviews and a signatory flourish away.
I went on a date at the New York Athletic Club, whose membership entails a private selection process with two sponsors, a ten-thousand-dollar initiation fee, and an additional three thousand annually. I waited for my boyfriend outside, pacing past expensive stores until my heels started to kill me. Finally, I barreled inside past the door man and sat in the turquoise oasis of the ladies’ room until he arrived.
Dinner featured a live band and a thirty-dollar salad. I spoke at the top of my lungs, but no one could hear a thing I said. I ran barefoot to the subway station to make my train, handing my leftover food to a homeless man on the corner. This, too, was New York.
What does it mean to love a place? New York City is neither geographically set nor internally consistent. Its tendrils, arguably, extend through the suburbs of New Jersey and the hills of the Hudson Valley. Between these imagined borders stretch worlds of difference, from glassy private equity towers to gritty basketball courts. There are more sidewalks I haven’t seen than those I ever will.
I can’t define the place I love, but I can tell you about the feeling I love. It is the feeling of toeing an easy line between strangerhood and familiarity. It is the feeling of finding a person or a place that feels unexpected in one moment — but completely natural in the next.
I think of a dollar store I visited in Brighton beach this winter, where I could understand neither the Cyrillic script or the expression of the stoic cashier. Taped to the wall was a small Russian Hare Krishna calendar. I pointed at it and, in an instant, he lit up. “They have meetings upstairs every other weekend — maybe you would like to come.” Endless small collisions like these change people’s collective imaginations of who fits where, and why.
Maybe this works, like many mythologies of the city tell us, because we’re all searching for something similar: a new start, reinvention, self-actualization. But maybe we’re all just here, and that is enough.
This winter, I dragged my dad with me to Astoria. I wanted to find the first apartment where we had lived, but I didn’t tell him so. We had no records of the address, so it would have to be a search guided by feeling. “No one has time for that sentimental nonsense,” he would have said.
Once we got off at Steinway Street, I let the idea slip. Impossibly, he agreed to humor me. “It was somewhere near the subway line,” he said. “Let’s walk.” So we walked west across Broadway, past 99 cent stores, Souvlaki joints, money-lenders and cell-phone shops. When we hit the subway on 31st street, I felt something change. Our steps grew faster. We took a wrong turn, doubled back, and eventually, hit a corner where he stopped.
“It’s here,” he said. He pointed at three smokestacks in the distance above the subway tracks. “That was our view from the window.” Thrilled, I FaceTimed my mother, who was driving back home from the Garden State Plaza. She wasn’t sure about the view, but it didn’t matter.
“This is it,” he said. “This is it.”
On the ground floor, now, was a burger and beer joint called Snowdonia. In the apartments above, one window was open. I imagined a family there with a new child, not knowing how long they might stay.
We were late for the bus home, as usual. I started running in the wrong direction until he pulled me back, leading me up through a shortcut to Gate 314 like he had hundreds of times before.
From Brazil to Berkeley, people ask where I’m from and I never have a real answer. Neither India, New Jersey, or New York City seem quite right. Home is what I miss when I’ve been too far away. It is daal on the porch watching the sunset on the Hackensack, playing doubles with middle class, white-sneakered Italians. Ten-minute NJ transit rides into the city I love most, warm subway steam mixed with the breaths of nine million others.