Last month I found myself with a few days off in New York City. I can’t really explain what the circumstances were that had me in that situation, I’ll just say I wasn’t in a good place. In many ways I’d really been looking forward to having a few days to spend in the great city in which I lived for so many years (nineties), but under these particular circumstances, not good.
I hadn’t been back in a few years, and my recent impressions had me feeling pretty unfamiliar with the place. On this particular visit more than ever, I found myself wondering why I no longer felt the sense of abandonment and individuality that I once had had. I had to accept that part of this likely had to do with me and with life itself – as a guy my age with a family vs. as a young guy just embarking on his adult life. But I did notice a difference, and my state of mind didn’t help. Upon my initial arrival to New York, I remember feeling that it was a place where people felt free to be exactly who they wanted to be (unlike how I felt about my hometown Toronto). People moved THERE to invent or reinvent themselves. This actually seemed a wholly American concept to me, and felt like the most liberating discovery I’d ever explored. Today it kind of seems to me to cost way too much to be that person. I had memories of the faces on the subways that my visiting dad used to say looked so hardened. Now not so hardened. Guys now walking around lower Manhattan wearing flip flops.
I walked up Hudson St by the little place where I had my first employment. I remembered the corner bodega on the block, the Cowgirl Hall of Fame bar, the taxi stand that I’d once convinced myself HAD to be the one used on “Taxi” – all now gone of course – and as a guy with no reason to be there anymore myself, damn if I didn’t feel a bit like a ghost. All that was still around was the White Horse, where Dylan Thomas had once embarked on a last epic bender, before dying at the Chelsea Hotel. There were lots of students. Across town, one of the grimiest bars on the lower east side – the Marz bar – was now a beautiful Toronto Dominion bank. Rats used to cross the street in front of you on your way over to Marz bar from the Bowery. I walked past what was once the record store at which I’d once answered the one and only flyer ad I ever answered, for a band looking for a guitar player. I ended up playing for 5 years with those guys before deciding that maybe I could do my own songs. In fact, I wrote about 200 of them just inside this door in Queens…
It had been a week of brutal professional setbacks, and of tough, frustrating decisions surrounding my family life, and I didn’t even know who I was or what I was doing in the place. Yet as I started to walk around and revisit old neighborhoods, a funny thing happened. I did start to feel a bit of magic. A kid came up to me, “Excuse me…would you want to take advice from a 12 year old on how the world works?”, “Sure”, “Would You want to go back and be 12 again?”, “No, not really”, “Thank you very much”.
While walking back to my borrowed apartment on Bleeker at 1 am, I randomly walked into The Red Lion and there was a band playing – a homeless looking 60 year old guy playing drums like the second coming of Jack DeJohnette, leading a band as tight, and almost as funky, as the Famous Flames. This on Bleeker Street. A twenty-something year old Chinese girl in the band, playing sax like she could have been with Phil Woods. This doesn’t go on in Tupelo.
At one point I looked up and to my right, and lo and behold there was the Freedom Tower. Now you have to understand, I left not long after 9/11 (no relation). I’ve been back, but I’ve never seen the new tower in person. Now I’m walking down the same avenues, burning up the same damn muscles in my legs that I only ever burned up on those streets, I look up and where I used to see the twin towers, bam – there’s this new tower. In that moment it felt like.. “Cut us down? Fine. You’re irrelevant. We’re just going to build right there, even bigger”. I won’t lie, it moved me.
At the end of the day, I felt like New York was always going to be New York, even if it’s a New York I don’t know anymore. It’s been rich, broke, vibrant, everywhere in between, and ultimately, it’s always going to represent a dream for someone. The dream is just not mine anymore. Once, I decided all I wanted to do was move to New York and become who I wanted to be. Now all I wanted to do was be with my family, to kiss my wife and hold my young son and show him things about life. I’m grateful for the years I spent there, but parts of me died that week last month.