As part of her final assignment for a class last year called New York City in Literature, my daughter wrote a series of letters saying goodbye to the city as she stood on the threshold of leaving it to attend college. With her permission, I'm sharing them here because I love the rawness and posturing and testing in these letters, their gathering assurance, profanity and all. (The photos are from an eighth grade trip to Chinatown the spring before my girl entered high school. She refers to that period as her awkward phase as in, "I sure hit that awkward phase HARD." But she didn't really. )
Dear New York,
Let’s talk about us. You know, together. I have to say, the past 17 years have been an experience I will never forget. There’s just so much I want to say about our time together, thoughts I have never known how to genuinely express. I sometimes feel that you thrill at the chance to drag me down. Other moments with you have been breathtaking, full of your effervescence. As I leave you, my veins, so intricately crafted like your endless streets, will perpetually yearn for the mob of people, the smog, the traffic, the noise, like a newborn abruptly separated from its mother. How can anyone get enough of you in one lifetime? I am just getting started, just beginning to understand the endless adventures that exist along your avenues. Hopefully we will reunite one day.
Dear New York,
Fuck you. I know this seems like a sudden change of tone from the last letter to you, but I don’t want to write this shit about you. Actually, it’s not that I don’t want to write about you, I just don’t know how. When I think about you, I inevitably think about myself, and then the doubt trickles in. Because apparently I don’t fucking know New York like I thought I did. I only know Manhattan, and not even all of it. I know the Upper West Side, I know Harlem. And still, I feel like I failed to truly penetrate the amazing vibrant culture that is just waiting to seep out of those gritty streets.
I’m hoping that by going on a stupid fucking rant with a lot of curse words I’ll come up with something genius to say about you. I want my grandkids to be fucking astonished at how well their grandmother portrayed New York in her farewell letter. But mostly New York, I want to do you justice. Of course you’re that amazing bitch who all the other cities are jealous of. I mean shit, I would be jealous of you too. Maybe I am. Because you know who you are New York. There’s just so much diversity, culture, and life within you. People either want to be you, or to be with you. What an amazing opportunity I’ve been given to take your lead and to be myself. Did I just fucking throw that away all these years by being (mostly) unconscious? I guess you never know a good thing till it’s (almost) gone.
No offense, but sometimes I think you’re on the verge of bipolar. Actually no, now that I think about it, you’re just an angry bitch. Who I love. And who has given me everything. When I take a step back and look at you, I can’t help but wish that I saw more of myself in you. I like to dream that I actually am a fast paced, independent go-getter who will be eternally admired. I want to be able to know in my sinew that you are seriously a part of me. That without you, who would I be today? With you, who will I be tomorrow? Am I trying to convince myself that I do need you to feel alive? That without the hustle and bustle of things, and the constant dance of dodging random strangers, I would be naked, a person stripped of all she is? It kind of scares me to think that I might ever not be a city person. Because I’ve lived in the city my whole life, how can I not be?
So you know what? Deuces bitch. I’m outta her come Fall.
Dear New York,
So I just wrote a really angry letter to you. And truth is I don’t hate you New York, not in the slightest. I just thought maybe if I could be one of those really raw writers, you know those really urban ones who use the word “fuck” all the time, that I truly would be a New Yorker. A lot of people think I’m a sweet girl. In reality, I swear like a motherfucking sailor. Worse. And I cannot go twenty minutes without (occasionally biting) sarcasm oozing from my words. But now that I have a moment to reflect, I don’t think being a New Yorker is always about being angry and brash. I think a lot of being a New Yorker is about being unafraid to connect with a stranger, because no matter how different we are, we have a common experience. We’re both surviving this crazy bitch of a city, New York.
Early on, Walt Whitman recognized the connection of sharing similar lives within New York. He understood that no matter how much you changed through the generations, New York, we could all feel united just through appreciating your raw electric beauty. Personifying the city in Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, he wrote: "I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence; I project myself—also I return—I am with you, and know how it is.”
New York, you were with me that day. You saw it all. Was it you who worked everything out to the last detail so that this could all occur? I mean, who sent those freshmen to ask me a million and one questions about buying Dance Concert tickets. Then, who made them settle on waiting after all to buy them. Who worked out that I would walk that slowly to the station, and then decide that I would have to sprint to the other end of the platform just to catch my train? These things have a funny way of aligning themselves, you know.
By the time I stepped out onto the outdoor elevated platform, the sun had already retired for the day. At first, I couldn’t quite piece together the situation. The only thing I really saw was two young kids, one boy, one girl. Both of them couldn’t have been older than six. They were slamming their tiny palms on the subway door that had just cruelly shut in their faces. It finally hit me when I saw the pure panic in their eyes; their mom was on that train. These children were lost in Harlem, on a subway platform about a story above a street full of speeding cars. Now that I think about it, how much scarier could New York seem to these two kids? First, an older man walked up, brashly asking what had happened. Clearly, he was not the best person to watch after them. Than another older lady came up, ready to watch over them, but obviously unsympathetic. She didn’t seem to understand why the children were frightened, and told them harshly to stop crying. I couldn’t walk away from these children and leave them with these two.
It went down like this.
As soon as I walk up the old guy is like “Alright you got ‘em? Bye!” and peaces out. Fantastic. The little girl is crying that she wants her mommy, while the little boy never utters a word. At first I think he is handling the whole situation oddly well, but then it dawns on me that he is too traumatized to even make a sound. I fear that I don’t have the instinct to care for these kids the way they actually need. At 17, I feel like I’m still growing up myself. I have so much life experience under my belt and know how to make good decisions and all of that, but for a quick moment up on that cold platform, I understand just how young I really am. How do I know that I am really doing the right thing?
I tell the children that their mom will be coming back for them any second, that they should just hold on because she’ll be on the next train. And the train comes. And their mom doesn’t get off. Shit. I feel like a liar. A goddamn dirty liar. The doubt again.
Another woman walks towards us. She is young, maybe in her thirties, and says she has kids of her own. I will always be grateful to this woman, she knows what to do, how to calm things down, what decisions to make. Finally a train pulls up next to us, with a conductor asking for the lost children. We follow his car down the platform, children in hand. He radios to the next station saying, “We have the kids.” I immediately offer to ride with them without really thinking about it, and the younger lady offers to come with me. As soon as the doors slide shut, the conductor starts going off about how he doesn’t know how parents can do something like this, bashing the kids' parents in front of them, implying that they are unloved. I think, classic New York.
We pull up and there the parents are, and about six other family members, just waiting to fold in the kids as soon as the door opens. I still wonder how they knew exactly what door their children would come out of, because literally they are right there. I will never ever forget the tears and the arms. I’ve never seen arms so open. Those arms will forever be stuck in my mind because I can tell, just by that mother’s arms, those children are loved, and mistakes happen, especially in New York on the subway at dusk.
Her arms gave me a sense of relief, if that makes any sense to you, New York. As if I hadn’t been doing the wrong thing after all. The woman and I simply left. We didn’t stick around to hear the mother’s gratitude. Truthfully, were we even supposed to? Sometimes I wonder if they looked up to find no one there, thinking to themselves that New York had left their children to fend for themselves. I seriously hope not, because you’re so much better than that New York. Your city offers up a support system, even among strangers. Nobody can really be left alone in New York.
As I walked up the yellow-lit block towards my house, I remembered a Yiddish word, Mensch, that my teacher Dr. Melman had taught our class. To be a Mensch means to be a person of integrity and honor, and to do a kindness without asking for recognition. A Mensch is the truly selfless person. Had I just been a Mensch? Slowly but surely the feeling began to creep up on me. Yet underneath it all I could still sense something almost petulant, under appreciation. How could I not tell somebody? It wasn’t about getting credit for being there for two lost kids. It was about wanting to tell the world about my real New York experience. Isn’t it a characteristic of a true New Yorker to be able to weave incredible and dramatic stories from everyday experiences?
Maybe I belong with you after all, New York.
Dear New York,
I want to thank you. For making me a tougher person. For showing me the value in being spontaneous. And for allowing me to see the light in everything, even though at first glance you may appear gray, dirty and hard. You will never know how much I truly appreciate you, New York, because even now I’m having trouble putting my gratitude into words. You will always be my first love, the one I’ll never forget, and the one I will never ever truly get over. I would ask you not to forget me, but I know as soon as you finish reading my words, I will become just another one of your eight million, destined to slip into the back of your mind.
I know I am not the only New Yorker to ever feel torn between loving you and leaving you. But as Colson Whitehead wrote in Colossus of New York, "Maybe we become New Yorkers the day we realize that New York will go on without us. To put off the inevitable, we try to fix the city in place, remember it as it was, doing to the city what we would never allow to be done to ourselves." My letters to you are my attempt to preserve our memories, because if I can record our relationship in these pages, we will somehow exist together eternally, at least on paper. You will always be my New York.