My Own Private Manhattan
My vision of New York City was born at the movies. Annie Hall, Manhattan, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I grew up on one of the five boroughs, but it was the forgotten one—Staten Island—and we always referred to Manhattan as “The City.” Everyone knew which city we were referring to.
My parents took us into the city constantly, for “cultah.” My mother would say, “Aren’t we lucky to live so close to the city?” And I would think, “Not close enough.”
My movie version didn’t reflect the real Manhattan. There were no urine-soaked alleys or homeless people on the corner. My view was drenched in sepia tones, with the sound of jazz music in the background instead of jackhammers.
After I was engaged to be married, in 1983, I was so excited that my guy from the country agreed to give Manhattan a go while I finished my last year of college. I didn’t even mind when he decided to live in what was then referred to as no-man’s land, Gateway Plaza, the only apartment building on the lower west side, right across from the World Trade Center. It wasn’t ideal. The whole of lower Manhattan was under construction the entire time he lived there. There was one grocery store, the Red Apple, where none of the apples were red. You had to go all the way to Chelsea to get decent Chinese food. And worst of all, it was a delivery-free zone.
But I loved looking at the World Trade Center. The restaurant, Windows on the World, held special memories as the place that my parents would go for family celebrations. You would take the elevator and as it whooshed to the top you felt the building vibrate. At the top, you could see all the way to Pennsylvania.
After we got married, we moved into my sister’s old apartment in the West Village. But you could still see the World Trade Center reigning over lower Manhattan. Finally, after three more years of New York, my husband cried “Uncle.” I believe the precise moment came when our car was melted on the street by vandals.
We moved to Washington, D.C., our compromise city, but I was still connected to The City. My family still lived on Staten Island. And my hairdresser was in New York. I worked for a large law firm that had a New York office. For a period of six months, I took the three-hour train to Penn Station and lived in a hotel overlooking Central Park. New York on an expense account; I loved it.
While I still cried that I wasn’t living in the city, I eventually told myself I was part of a new movie, Mrs. Sherman Goes to Washington. Then in 2001, after 16 years in D.C., we made the decision to move to Rochester—even farther from my city—for my husband’s business. We planned to be in Rochester by December 2001.
But before we moved, I wanted one last easy train ride into Manhattan, so I told my husband we needed a romantic night away. We chose Sept. 10.
We took the train and checked into a hotel on Union Square. We specifically asked for a room high up in the hotel facing lower Manhattan because we loved the view of the World Trade Center.
We had a strange and magical evening. A friend was opening a new cabaret act, so we went to see it. Celebrities dotted the audience, including Cynthia Nixon from “Sex and the City,” who I chatted with about kindergarten (our kids were the same age). We stepped out of the club into the pouring rain and a cab mysteriously appeared to swoop us up.
We drove to the Union Square Café and waited at the bar while our table was readied. Two beautifully dressed ladies were sitting at the bar next to me, and I complimented one of them on her bracelet and asked where she had purchased it. “At home, in Rochester, New York,” she said. Weird. I described our impending move, and they said we would love our new city. I protested that I was being forced to move, but the ladies were so nice—and so much better dressed than Cynthia Nixon—it gave me hope. I took their phone numbers and said we would call when we got there.
Finally, we skipped back to our room and watched the glow of lower Manhattan from the window. We closed the drapes and drifted off to sleep.
And we woke up the next morning in a different kind of New York movie—this time a horror movie.
We had slept later than normal, and when the waiter came up to the room he said, “Did you hear? A plane has flown into the World Trade Center.” He opened the drapes and we looked out the window. A moment later, we saw the second plane hit the building. We turned on the television and the whole world fell apart.
My husband said we had to try to get home to D.C., unaware of the plane that had flown into the Pentagon. We finally got through to our nanny who was home with our daughter and told her that she should get our son home from kindergarten and not let the kids watch TV.
We packed and went to check out. The hotel manager exhorted us to stay, as he didn’t think anyone would be leaving Manhattan. But my husband was determined. We left, setting off on foot for Penn Station.
I felt safe with my big guy by my side, and I hoped for the best in the chaos of the streets. In the middle of it all, I started to worry about those two ladies from Rochester. They were staying at an apartment in the Village, but I wondered if they had been able to get home.
We dragged our luggage uptown and walked over to 5th Avenue. Suddenly everyone stopped, with mouths agape, and stared at lower Manhattan. “Don’t look back,” my husband said. “Keep going.” But like Lot’s wife, I couldn’t resist. In that moment, in a cloud of dust, we saw the towers fall.
We ran into Penn Station and saw the mobs trying to get tickets. I was standing on line and started talking to a woman with a worried look on her face. She said, “I’m trying to get home to Rochester, New York.” I took her card and wished her luck. And then I saw policemen start flooding the station and the ticket sellers closing down all the counters.
I pleaded with my husband to leave the station. “What if this is the next target?” And for good measure, I added, “This will be the biggest ‘I told you so’ ever if we lose our hotel room.”
We hurried back downtown and saw a flood of people walking uptown. Buses were filled with stunned people crushed together. One man, in a suit covered in gray dust, sat on a curb with his head in his hands, weeping.
Back at the hotel, the manager welcomed us back. He had been holding our room, just in case.
That night we went to find some food with my brother-in-law, who hadn’t even been able to get back to Staten Island and was sleeping on our hotel-room floor. It was a beautiful late summer night in Manhattan. The sky was a vibrant blue, without a cloud in it. The restaurant was jammed with people drinking at the bar. Like any other night in Manhattan. And yet this night, we were prisoners on my beloved island, unable to get to our loved ones.
After a sleepless night, at 5 a.m., we left the hotel. We saw the National Guard setting up barriers as they closed down lower Manhattan below Union Square. Overnight, people had placed pictures of the missing on the barriers.
The conductor at Penn Station told us we could use our tickets from the day before. There was no security search as we entered the train. I spied my fellow passengers with fear, including a young man who sat in front of us with a huge package on his lap. I eyed him nervously until I overheard him talking to his bride-to-be about their upcoming wedding. Yes, he had the tuxes in that box.
As the train left Manhattan and pulled out of the underground into the bright New Jersey sky, we looked back at the smoldering holes in lower Manhattan. My fantasy city would never be the same again.
Washington, D.C., was eerily quiet. There was no air traffic, no helicopters buzzing, no flights taking off from National Airport.
We drove home, eager to see our children. As we walked into our house, I heard the TV. The kids were watching another one of my favorite movies, The Wizard of Oz. As we hugged our kids tight, we heard Glinda telling Dorothy that she had the power all along to go home. All she had to do was click her heels and say, “There’s no place like home.” My husband and I started to cry.
I called those ladies from Rochester to make sure they had gotten home safely. They had taken an early morning flight and had gotten home just fine.
In December, when we moved from D.C., people said, “Oh, you’re moving up there because it’s safe.” But we had decided to move away before the world turned upside down.
We have been living in Rochester for six years this December. So while I’m not living in the City, Rochester is now my city. Perhaps in moving to a place that isn’t the center of the universe, the universe was sending me a message. Because this city has widened my horizons in ways I never could have imagined with my New York City myopia.
Today, I am starring in a new movie of my own making, about my life lived near a cornfield. Maybe, in reality, no place is really safe. But I do know there is still no place like home.
As first published in the Democrat + Chronicle and on the USA Today Network