Sunday, May 27, 2007

New York City Serenade

When I first arrived in New York City in the spring of 1997, being a relatively impoverished recent college graduate, I roomed with my friend Sebastian Quezada at his modest apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The neighborhood at that time, as I have noted on this blog before, had a distinctly Latin flavor, largely of the Puerto Rican and Dominican variety, with a smattering of Mexican influence, as well as a large and still-remaining population of Yiddish-speaking Satmar Hassidim Jews in rather far-out traditional costumes living along the southside. Beyond the main strip of Bedford Avenue, warehouses, many rusting and disused, still stretched on for blocks at a time before halting at the churning expanse of the East River, the Lower East Side of Manhattan visible in the distance. The Domino Sugar refinery, which had been part of Brooklyn's waterfront since the 19th century, was still the neighborhood’s most regular employer. At that time, Williamsburg was a place where, at a local joint called simply “Pizza Restaurant,” one could get a $5 plate of carne guisada con arroz y habichuelas, and young folks who were actually struggling financially could afford to live.

It has been quite a pivotal decade both for myself and New York City since then. On the personal side, I’ve gotten to know all of the neighborhoods I’ve lived in - Williamsburg, Fort Greene, Park Slope and now Astoria - quite well, never having the funds to live on the other side of the East River in Manhattan and being perfectly fine with that, as Brooklyn and Queens offer a dizzying diversity that much of Manhattan (not named “Millionaire’s Island” for nothing) decidedly lacks. I’ve traveled to quite a few countries, writing probably hundreds of articles at this point, having written and published a book, watched my friends and I edge into out thirties (losing some on the way and gaining new ones) and had about as many amity and romance-based interactions as one could ever ask for in that amount of time. I’ve acquired so many books that any apartment I have is now essentially a library where I sleep, witnessed some great concerts lots of concerts (Cheb Mami in Prospect Park and the Tindersticks and Seu Jorge in Central Park come to mind) and seen how truly glorious and alive New York becomes as the city edges into its lustrous summer, as it’s doing now.

For New York’s part, we witnessed the 1997 campaign and re-election of mayor Rudolph Giuliani (now running for president) as mayor, the 1999 slaying of unarmed African immigrant Amadou Diallo by four New York Police Department plain-clothed officers (who were subsequently acquitted in a criminal trial), the terrible attacks of September, 11, 2001 (which I witnessed first-hand and during which I walked home to Brooklyn over the Manhattan Bridge with tens of thousands of other New Yorkers) and the subsequent election (and re-election) of billionaire tycoon Michael Bloomberg as the city’s mayor. The city that was robust and vibrant when I arrived in 1997 picked itself up and dusted itself off after the events of 2001 and now is every bit as vital as it ever has been.

It really has been quite a time.

But now I start a new chapter, and, tomorrow, I say goodbye to the city I have called home for the last ten years. I do so without regret, but perhaps a twinge of melancholy that we all feel when parting from a familiar companion, one so we’ve become so used to that we often take for granted how deeply it has immersed itself into our daily lives, out habits, our personalities. No matter where I go in the world, a large part of me will always be a New Yorker, and that is a sobriquet that I am very proud to carry.

Many things have changed with the city’s economic and political fortunes over the years. The Old Dutch Mustard factory on Metropolitan Avenue is now gone, torn down last year. The Domino Sugar refinery largely ceased business in 2003. The great Norfolk Street music venue Tonic shut down this spring. But, mercifully, as I found out this week, Pizza Restaurant still exists, with the same ebullient boriqua women behind the counter, dishing out Caribbean food, a place to sit and chat and a measure of my past, $5 at a time.

As Walt Whitman wrote in his 1860 poem “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,”

We use you, and do not cast you aside—we plant you permanently within us;
We fathom you not—we love you—there is perfection in you also;
You furnish your parts toward eternity;
Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul.

Adios, New York, and cuídate, may you always shine so lovely, reflecting the firmament to those of us here on earth.


Tracy Q said...

Where you going, honey? Stay in touch!!

Cari said...

Safe travels. I hope Paris is good to you.

Sebastian said...

im going to Pizza restaruat now , they did have good cheap eats. But in Paris, dude so Jelous of the food there

Cielito said...

Au revoir Michael! Maggie and I will always remember that shapely bottle of Rhum Barbancourt that was your escort to our party in Crown Heights. Someone's feet got a milk bath that night, either mine or yours. (BTW, this year marks the 20th for me.)

Eve said...

what? no reference to kokies?
i spose thats now become a cliché or something...
see you out here somewhere!

preet srivastava said...

i will see you in your visits to nyc.
i will see you in my visits to paris.
the world will see us as rich and famous.