There will be a lot of posts about 9/11 today. This is one too. But, it’s slightly different. Rather than dwell on the horrors of that day, I wanted to talk about everything I love about New York – and, specifically, Brooklyn, where I lived.
I lived in New York for four years prior to Sept 11. The aftermath of that day meant I could no longer find work as a musician and had to move back to Ireland. These were my thoughts before I left.
The day before I leave New York, I take a walk down by the water. I look out across the vast expanse of water, ironically called ‘The Narrows’. It seems to go on forever, widening and widening, until it opens up and gets sucked into the vast reaches of the Atlantic.
The sun is sparkling off the surface. The brightness of the sun is misleading. It’s not a day for brightness. There should be a melancholy hue hanging over everything. Instead, the air is crisp, the sun is shining and Brooklyn marches on – oblivious as always. She’s seen this so many times before.
Looking around at the inspiring view of the bay and the Verrazano Bridge, I’m thinking how different it all is to the idea of Brooklyn – the Brooklyn, that is, of the people who’ve never been there. The Brooklyn of the movies and books, with its violent neighbourhoods and dangerous characters.
Not the real Brooklyn. The real Brooklyn is a hundred different cities squeezed into one landmass. Paris has its Arch de Triomphe, its Gardens of Versailles, and its Pere Laichese; Brooklyn has Grand Army Plaza, Prospect Park and Greenwood Cemetery. Atlantic City has its boardwalks; Brooklyn has Coney Island. San Francisco has its bay and its bridge; Brooklyn has the Narrows and the Verrazano Bridge.
And all the countries of the world are here. Bay Ridge with its Irish bars, the young bar staff straight off the plane from Ireland, its Egyptian cafes where the men sit smoking hookah pipes and drinking coffee that looks like tar, and its sports bars like PJ’s, where the last of a dying breed gather to hum Sinatra tunes and talk about what life used to be like; Russia in Brighton Beach; Poland in Greenpoint; the Caribbean on Flatbush Avenue; Israel in Borough Park, where orthodox Jews swarm the streets in the early hours of Sunday morning after the Sabbath has ended; Mexico, Guatemala and Puerto Rico in Sunset Park, where the last of New York’s ‘real’ strip clubs – the only ones that survived Giuliani’s crackdowns – go to die; Italy in Bensonhurst, with the old guys sitting outside social clubs; Brooklyn Heights, with its old brownstones and its esplanade; DUMBO, where the last of the borough’s old cobbled streets sit in the shadow of the of Brooklyn Bridge.
I think about riding the B train into Manhattan, looking out the windows at the tenement buildings, with their fire escapes and their graffiti. How from the ‘El’ they look like toy houses, as though someone just placed them there. I think about the old ‘Textile’ sign that rises in the distance as you head for the Manhattan bridge, and all the old arcane neon signs that don’t light any more scattered around the area, their style recalling a long gone era.
And I think: I’m leaving it all.
The thought brings me back to reality. I look out at the bay again and think of all the ships that have sailed this way in the past 300 years; all the ships carrying immigrants on their way to Ellis Island. So many songs were written by those people bemoaning the fact that they had to leave their native countries. So many songs written by people who stood in this very spot, looking out over the ocean and dreaming of their home. But, how many were written by those who had to go back?
We need more songs. Songs that tell us that home is not dictated by a random geographical twist of fate. Home is not a place at all; it’s a state of mind. It’s something that inspires and fulfils you – that makes you whole.
You’ll know it when you get there. And you should never have to leave.
Photo credit: Zepfanman.com