Sunday, September 11, 2005

Four years later

Manhattan is just to the right of the rest of America.

Not politically, but geographically.

Today, the New York Times published a short Spalding Gray essay in which he remarks, "I...came to Manhattan, that island off the coast of America..."

Sometimes I forget this. It's an island off the coast of America, like Bermuda or, if we can stretch it a bit, Hawaii.

I realized late this morning that today is September 11. I realized this as I walked under the clear, cool, sunny blue sky that exists no longer as the stage upon which summer takes its bow, but as the portentous, ironic lede that precedes every printed reflection of the defining tragedy of our cascading empire.

As I walked down 116th Street in East Harlem to a diner for breakfast, I did not see any American flags. Back in Hampden, my atavistically patriotic neighborhood in Baltimore, the only place you won't see a flag is the inside of your eyelids. There is not one place you can stand where a breeze is not accompanied by the fluttering of a flag. Hampden supports our troops. Manhattan grieves.

Manhattan is not just an island. It is an island of a million islands, islands surrounded not by water but by iPod earbuds, pipe dreams, and honking horns. It is the longest ladder in the world, with Donald Trump stretching for the top rung and thousands of immigrants knocking each other off the bottom rung. It is an island of striving, ambitious individuals who have managed, if only because they are stacked on top of one another like Legos, to preserve the unquantifiable web of social ties that make a place truly civilized.

Before coming here, I thought, "I'll never be a New Yorker." I'm just passing through, you know? The "real New York" is not here anymore, people say every couple of years, the way college seniors and recent graduates complain that younger students don't know how to have fun anymore. Plus, arriving here 4 years after 9/11, I feel like I'm stepping on the toes of ghosts.

But New York demands your attention like a puppy--a Great Dane puppy. I'm losing touch with my true home, and my home away from home is now under several feet of toxic sludge. I am still a Baltimoron, but this "third-rate Babylon" feels more and more like home everyday.

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