Dear Soul Beings,
I am sitting in Starbucks at the corner of 63rd and Broadway. It’s 8 am and packed with people; people in workout clothes, suits, skirts and saris. In the corner, a homeless man is strewn across the bench. Another one sits by the front door. Outside, the streets are humming with traffic. It’s overcast. This morning, at least, is cooler, the humidity less oppressive than before. The screech of trucks, buses and jackhammers, however, sounds horrendously pounding and just as bad as I remember.
It’s been years since I’ve been back to visit. At least ten. My skin is vibrating from the noise. I am happy Marika is still asleep. I have a little time to reflect. We got in Saturday night, in a jumble of traffic and rain. The bus let us off on Tenth and Twenty-Ninth. It took me a while to figure out my north and south but eventually we found a cab and headed through traffic to the Upper West Side.
Once settled into the hotel, we went on a little exploration to find Whole Foods. We found it, beneath the glitzy stores of the Time Warner Building. The entire lower level was Whole Foods. What else would you expect in New York City? Assistants stand at the bottom of the escalator guiding you from one food station to another: sushi, meat, pizza, cheese, pastries. It seemed to go on for blocks. There was however, no wine. A bottle of water was three bucks. (Down from five at the hotel). The checkout felt like we were at a casino, standing in corrals, waiting for a register.
“Number 23 on 4. Number 8 on 42.”
We leave with take out, snacks, cheese, salami and bagels and take the escalator up to the street, then turn back and decide to eat at Whole Foods. We need sustenance to face the crowds.
On the walk back, Marika says to me, “New York is not a place for innocent people. It is a place of cigarettes and heartbreak.”
I think of the millions of blocks I have walked in that city, smoking and ruminating. It never seemed this crowded. Sure, there were a lot of people. A lot of competition in the dance world. A lot of expectations. But I had personal contacts. Like Nenette Charisse, my ballet teacher. She had heart. That kept me going.
Like the little girl I took care of in Tribeca. I fed her, changed her, walked with her everywhere. Just before bedtime, I’d read to her. Our favorite story to read together was The Chronicles of Narnia:
“I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead. I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept…And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay…” — C.S. Lewis,
“I love Aslan,” she would say, “He’s so big, so kind and so powerful.”
She’s grown and lives in New York with her own family now.
Mostly I lived below Fourteenth Street. In the early years, I shared a loft on Chambers Street. It was the grittiest place I ever lived. I had no money and I would walk from Chambers Street, up to 55th and Broadway, to my beloved ballet class at Steps Studios. I survived on bananas, milkshakes and cigarettes.
I think of my dreams to become a dancer, my naiveté at the time, working as a nanny, teaching exercise classes at the Y, working at the health food store and my final decision to learn how to type, so I could work down in Wall Street and find stability.
Of course that meant denouncing the dream. I walked to work at 70 Pine Street, from my studio in the East Village, past Houston and the people living in cardboard houses on the street, down to the skyscrapers in the Financial District. Who am I? I would ask. What am I doing here? Why is there so much dichotomy between those that have and those that don’t? Finally, illness, depression and heartbreak forced the question, is this all there is?
So what am I doing here now, in this noisy city? Well, Marika’s just finished five weeks at Boston University’s Summer Theatre Intensive. As I was flying to Boston to pick her up I thought, why not hop over to NYC? She’d never been.
On the way down to New York, we sat together on the bus, her head on my shoulder. She told me stories. I didn’t say much but listened. I knew the program had given her life-changing experiences. I wanted to hold her and tell her I thought she was amazing and that she could be whatever she wanted. But I just listened. She was in a cocoon of memory and nostalgia. New York was not on her radar yet. I had hoped this trip would stave off the anticlimactic depression of leaving all these wonderful new friends.
I knew she was drained. Her heart and soul were committed to the program. Deep bonds were forged. I had the privilege of seeing them perform on the last night, and I was blown away by their authenticity, energy and raw story-telling talents. The ensemble pieces were written, directed and performed by the kids, who took their inspiration from an exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts on Megacities. The poetry and song that came out, was an honoring of life and repair, of wounding and healing, of mourning and celebration. Marika, amongst others, sang a solo that brought tears to my eyes.
We slept late the first morning in the city. Then slowly we made our way down to the southern tip of the island for a tour of Ground Zero. As we stood in front of St. Paul’s Chapel, or, “The Little Chapel That Stood,” and our guide began to speak, my eyes welled up with tears and my skin turned to gooseflesh.
The rear of the Chapel faces Church Street, opposite the east side of the World Trade Center site. St Paul’s served as a place of rest and refuge for the recovery workers. It survived without even a broken window and history says it was spared by a miracle sycamore tree that spread its branches over the church and protected the building. Afterwards, the church grounds became the place where people would place flowers, photos, teddy bears and other paraphernalia.
I had not been down to this area since I left in 1986. The several times I visited New York, now ten years past, I could not bring myself to come down. So much had changed….
After touring the site and the new construction, we came to the memorial. These two beautiful pools stand in the footprint of the Towers 1 and 2 with eternal waterfalls flowing down to the pit. The names of every person who perished in the terror attacks of February 3, 1993 and September 11, 2001 are imprinted and honored in bronze around the memorial. We see along one of the names… “…and her unborn child.” Alongside another name, is a beautiful white rose, for what would have been this child’s birthday.
I think about the time I spent delivering documents to offices in the WTC building. I think about the times I walked along the West Side Highway, about the little girl I used to take care of who lived on Duane and Greenwich. I wondered how they survived that horrific day and the days that followed. I wondered what happened to the businesses in Tribeca and how people managed to breathe with all the dust and fallout.
We went to the museum and all I could think was, this is what war looks like. What force and destruction. How many ruined lives? How many suffering from PTSD? I made us walk through it. It was important to see.
I felt proud to know Tom Joyce, the blacksmith and artist, who forged the steel letters on the plaque that reads:
“No day shall erase you from the memory of time.” Virgil
That seemed to capture the hope and tragedy of it all for me. Virgil’s words immediately took me back to the day and thoughts of Marika. She was nine months old at the time.
One hears that in New City, the morning of September 11th, the skies were sparkling blue. On that Tuesday morning, in Santa Fe, the air was still.
There was no light in our bedroom. I hadn’t slept well the night before and woke feeling groggy and cranky. The bed was empty but I could smell coffee brewing and figured Gavin had Marika in the kitchen. I could hear muffled sounds from the radio and TV. Then I heard a groan from Gavin and got up.
Marika’s voice piped up from the living room. She was sitting in front of the TV in her little leopard onesy, red-cheeked, nose running, and bottle by her side. She was pointing to the TV and said, “Momma, towers broken.”
I rushed over and scooped her up, saying, “Come here baby.” Then flipped off the TV as footage of the explosion filled the screen.
“Oh my god,” Gavin groaned again and ran off the litany of news that has become etched in the collective memory of the world.
I shivered and held my girl close. What was happening? Suddenly everything felt surreal.
Gavin said, ”I’m sorry but I’ve got to run to the office.”
“Please hold me,” I asked. He put both his arms around the two of us. “You’ll be back by one? I’ve got my interview at the Waves.”
“I’ll be back,” he said, not realizing that as the day grew longer, everything would begin to shut down.
People would stop working, traffic would die down, and markets would close.
Everyone became glued to his or her TV. I didn’t know what to do but instinct told me to keep the television off. I pulled on some sweats and changed Marika into warmer clothes. It wasn’t cold outside – I just felt chilled. The air was still and the skies were clear.
I set Marika in the blue canvas baby jogger and headed down the rocky drive. Then maneuvered into the arroyo. We headed down towards the road that led to out to an outcropping of land, a place with large expansive views, which often gave me a sense of beauty and peace.
New York was very far away but what had just happened seemed to bring the world under one parachute. My belly felt heavy with angst. Here I was, under wide New Mexico skies, totally separated from the dreadfulness of current events and yet I ached with a sense of annihilation and despair. What did I ache for? The horror of it all, the hint of bodies burning and falling through space, the feeling of helplessness, the unknown stories of children who would never see their fathers or mothers come home that day. I picked up speed and ran with the jogger until my chest burned. And then I stopped. Just unbuckled Marika and held her. How could I vanquish that explosion from her mind? Replace it with Monarch butterflies and blue skies and the red New Mexico earth…
“Momma, towers broken.”
Now, sixteen years later, she says:
“New York is not a place for innocent people. It is a place of cigarettes and heartbreak.”
I think the imprint is there. I think she is a sensitive soul. She’s an artist. I am so grateful we live in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I will treasure her last two years here. I know college is beckoning and later today we will explore Washington Square Park near New York University, but I somehow do not think New York will be her city.