Listen to Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind.
I lived in Joy-zee when my pudgy fingers struggled to grasp a plum Crayola, let alone to tie the laces on my magenta Barbie sneakers, but I was never there long enough to develop an accent. It was a thumbtack in the world map my paternal grandmother used to keep in her basement, marking all the places my dad has been. But that tack was sharp–I can still remember the house on the cauldesac and its view from the kitchen, out the main door, to the little tikes tricycle outside.
My dad was a commuter then, working in New York City, and we would traverse the city on weekends. Kept tight on my parents’ leash, I stayed in the Crown Plaza for a night, disappeared within FAO Schwarz, the city’s famous, multi-level toy store, and rode the indoor ferris wheel at the rival Toys ‘R Us.
My mom said I cried when the U-Haul came, and I wailed about leaving my best friend, Sammy. My mom took me to the Disney store to quiet me, and it wasn’t until I was clad in a princess Ariel costume, complete with scarlet wig and fishtail, that I complied.
It is the only move I even somewhat remember. The tacks of Illinois, Ukraine and Mason in my early years are dull, deadened. But New York City whispered to me, though my makeshift brain couldn’t yet comprehend it.
For my thirteenth birthday, I returned to the whispers with pink hair and a leather jacket and pretended they disguised my Midwest aura. I heard the city reminisce over all the two-year-old me had lost: the hills my brother and I climbed in Central Park, the price tag-less jewelry found on all three floors of Tiffany’s, the billboard on to which a live camera projected my face in Times Square.
Click through a slideshow of my trip to New York.
The city returned to me, laughed with me, but as its whispers grew faint, an ache crescendoed in my chest. I had yet to see anything other than what the New Yorkers had wanted me to see–all the glitzy, cash-draining tourist traps.
I wanted to mix with the people that had enraptured me, spray-painted and skinny and stoned as they were, but I did not know the city like they did. I failed to see that Houston Street is pronounced “House-ton,” that no local stays in town for New Year’s Eve, that the best coffee comes not from Starbucks but a rude caramel-eyed barista two blocks from the office.
As I taste sixteen, I can sense the city that lingers under New York’s surface, but I can no more inhabit it than the spaghetti-haired toddler I once was. Instead I anticipate whispers as I plan my return in June–whispers I now realize come not from the city’s glamour but from the locals themselves.
“I believe in New Yorkers. Whether they’ve ever questioned the dream in which they live, I wouldn’t know, because I won’t ever dare ask that question.” ~Dylan Thomas
It may take years to join them, to know the New York I have yet to see, but I will listen for their whispers until the Statue of Liberty no longer disappears from my horizon.
I will never stop.