SM was in the bathroom, getting ready for dinner. I ran down to the corner drugstore, a thankful cliché in New York, to reload on nicotine patches and mints. I was craving a cigarette so badly that I felt like a cast extra to Requiem for a Dream. A woman in front of me on line was compulsively price checking items. She wasn’t buying anything. She had simply gathered a mass of items – shampoos, tampons, and toothbrushes seemed to be a theme – and requested that the clerk price check each item.
“Sweet Christ on a stick,” I said, finally fed up. I slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter. “Splurge on the Pantene. I’m buying.”
The lady stared at me. Shrugging, I gave my order to the cashier, who mouthed a silent “thank you” to me. I nodded, grabbed my bag, and hustled to the door.
A short sprint and I was back at the hotel. I checked my watch. We were due at the restaurant in twenty minutes. SM was still in the bathroom. I decided to run down a mental list of what I needed. Shirt. Tie. I grimaced. No tie. Pants. What the hell, I’ll wear pants. I grab a pair of linen pants and a linen sport coat from my garment bag and lay them out on the bed. I smooth out a few lines that appeared on the shoulders of the coat, despite the fact that I wrapped the coat in plastic.
I could hear SM step out from the bathroom behind me as I picked at the suit. I reached over and grabbed my Dopp Kit from my bag and turned toward her.
“It’ll just take me a few minutes to….” I dropped my Dopp Kit. SM looked so incredibly elegant in her black dress that, for once, I seemed to be without words.
“Hmm?” She asked.
“Oh, uh… well, I’ll just… I’ll just be out of the bathroom in a minute. I grabbed my kit, my jacket, shirt, and pants, and headed for the black marbled floors of the bathroom. I closed the sliding mahogany door behind me. Wonderful. I’m talking like an addled fourteen year old.
Ten minutes later, we were on our way to the Top of the Tower. The cab ride to the restaurant was quiet. I pointed out my old office on Lexington Street, where I clerked for an entertainment law firm, realizing that it had been three years since I had gone through those doors. I had been devoted to my firm for three years. I didn’t realize that it could be such a long time.
We sat down in a booth alongside the window, watching the sun drop down below the horizon amongst the downtown buildings. Behind us, a couple noisily argued. After a few minutes, it became clear that this argument was a date. Ouch. The man pedantically and relentlessly questioned the woman as to whether she was leading him on. It’s dating, sport. Half the fun is being taken for a ride. Well, metaphorically speaking.
A good Chianti and a bit of duck, and I was sated. We went out to the balcony of the restaurant, where I pointed out the city to SM. My city, I was beginning to think. I was getting tipsy, as I usually did after a bottle of wine. Still, I was feeling the sort of pride in the city that came regardless of how much wine I had ingested. The city is alive, an entity unto itself. It’s such a seductive city, I thought as I continued to point out landmarks.
“That’s the Citi Group headquarters over there. The only tall building in Queens. Of course, that’s because it’s Queens. That down there is Brooklyn.”
“No, behind the two bridges. Neat place. Nearly as big as Manhattan. Used to be bigger than the city, back in the day.”
Now it’s the suburb of New York. The place where city dwellers go to escape the city. Meanwhile, their eyes, like mine in New Jersey, turned toward Manhattan, like sailors listening to a siren’s call. ‘Come back to the life,’ it called to me, reminding me of my brief stint in one of the truly big law firms, ‘come and be aggressive. You know you want to….’ I shook my head, clearing it of the reverie.
“And over there?” SM asked.
“That? Well, that’s Jersey. The lit-up part is Perth Amboy. From there, ships run out to Battery Park for commuters. A lot of people took those back after 9-11. There’s a hell of a Portuguese community in that town. All of these incredible restaurants, and it looks like a refinery at night. They ought to fix that place up.”
“And where’s your town?”
I sighed and tried to reconnoiter my home from landmarks.
“There,” I said pointing, “Over there. Follow the highway down into the cleft between two hills. That’s the Raritan Bay, there. Running up from that bay beside the hill on the left, you can see lights heading out – way out – to sea. That’s where the Navy resupplies its frigates. Earle Naval Weapons Center, it’s called. Just before the lights leave land, follow the hill straight up. I’m on the other side, on the Navesink Bay.”
“It’s dark over there.”
It’s peace there. It’s friends and trees and those things I want to hold dear. It’s the walking away from opportunity, the embrace of that which was not merely work, that gave me a taste of the fortune that is contentment.
“There’s not much there. A few small suburbs, a minor city or two, and the Navy. But, I guess, that’s its charm.”
We turned to head in. The wind was picking up off the Atlantic, and a group of tourists with thick German accents were bustling past us aggressively. After a failed attempt at entering the Empire State Building, wherein one of my worst attempts at a con with the security guard failed to get us in after closing time, we headed down to the Temple Bar.
I could feel the weight of work on me. As much as I wanted to, there was no way we could stay up all night, enjoying the City. After a few drinks at the bar, we headed back and crashed.
“Oh God,” I said, “My brain is broken.”
It was 11:00. That much I could figure out as I stared up at my wristwatch, confused. I hadn’t realized how much I had to drink the night before. Aching and dry-throated, I rolled off the settee and stumbled into the bathroom. I needed water. After the second glass, I stepped into the shower, resting my head against the cool tile on the wall.
“I’m broken,” I moaned.
We made it out of the room slowly, meandering to one of the traditional New York style delis. SM and I were glassy eyed and slow-minded, and took a while to re-caffeinate and become human again.
“What’s a …. Blintz?”
“It’s a crepe, metastasized into something horribly wrong,” I mumbled, still trying to figure out how to get sugar out of its crusty aluminum-and-glass container and into my coffee.
“And gefilte fish?”
“Pure evil. Outlawed in combat under the Geneva Conventions after the ’72 Olympics.”
I shrugged as I succeeded in popping off the top of the sugar dispenser. Half of the container of sugar ended up in my coffee.
“Fish. Evil fish. There’s nothing good about them. Comes with horseradish. Designed for masochists and people who don’t talk often.”
We ended up settling on the salmon for SM and the roast beef for me. The waitress came back with what appeared to be two full filets of salmon for her and a pound – this I verified with the waitress – of roast beef between two feeble slices of rye for me.
“Well, salmon’s back on the endangered list,” SM joked.
“I’m eating an entire cow. I have a mad cow. Here. In my hands,” I said as I waived half of my sandwich around, “A mad cow. Maybe three of them.”
We needed more caffeine, it was clear.
After lunch, we headed down to the Financial District. SM wanted to see Ground Zero. In truth, I didn’t. I hadn’t been back to the Financial District since before September 11. I had made it a practice to require all of my Wall Street clients to come to me. I had avoided seminars or committees that took place in or near the Southern District of New York’s courthouse, a few blocks away. To see the place was to remember. That, I did not want to do.
Still, there we were, twenty minutes after leaving the deli. It was quiet, walking down Church Street. A few tourists mingled around a Haitian selling World Trade Center-themed trinkets. Perhaps when I was younger, I would have found that offensive. Perhaps I would have considered it turning a temple into a robber’s den, but now, I felt as though it was a symbol that New York was still, well, New York. It was still there for someone to make a buck, to be an entrepreneur, to find that which people wanted.
We continued on past the hawker, and made our way to the chain link fence surrounding Ground Zero. I was beginning to shake, I could tell.
I started explaining to SM my story of September 11th. I was supposed to be in the city for a conference on valuation. I was late because I couldn’t find the address to the graveyard in which was buried Alexander Hamilton. I ended up going to the office, instead, because I missed my train. The graveyard was a block from Ground Zero. My father had a bench-bar conference in the federal offices at Seven World Trade Center Plaza (which collapsed under the weight of Tower Two). After spending a lazy half-hour checking out ESPN’s website, my father missed the early ferry from Atlantic Highlands. He stepped off of the ferry at Battery Park just in time for the explosion that consumed most of the towers. He turned around and got back onto the ferry, never leaving the dock. My father, one of the more punctual men I have known, and I, one of the least punctual men alive, were saved by procrastination, it seemed.
Some friends weren’t saved. Swede Chevalier, a classmate from high school, worked in Cantor Fitzgerald. He had a landscaping business that he used to pay his way through college and business school. Each summer during our college years, I would see him driving around town in a ragged old Ford pick-up, a ton of mulch in the back, a wood chipper in tow. Quiet, resourceful, and remarkably humble for a stockbroker, Swede was rarely likely to leave an impression, but for a sense of genuine decency.
I saw Swede’s name on the “Wall of Heroes” that had been attached to the chain link fence, and turned away. I didn’t want to be there at all. SM took a hold of my hand.
“I think,” I said, pressing my thumb and forefinger to my eyes, “I think that is what’s left of the Deutsche Bank building. The towers fell on that, too.”
They fell on everyone and everything within one hundred miles. They are the zeitgeist of this city now. They turned this from a gleeful, charming den of tricksters to a mausoleum, with sackcloth and ashes.
We walked down to the end of the towers, looking into the gaping hole that was once their foundations. SM still held my hand. The warmth was there, a sweet gesture reminding me that there was still life, that there was still a pulse here.
“How about we go to Battery Park?” I suggested.
We had paid our respects, and it was time to leave. I won’t come back.
Battery Park was filled with tourists getting tickets to see Ellis Island. The line of people waiting to see where half of today’s America came from stretched fifty yards, and looped back and forth within that distance. We decided against going to the island. Instead, we watched the ferries and ships pass back and forth between the Hudson, the Arthur Kill, and out into the Atlantic. Street performers and proselytizers passed us, selling their wares or beliefs. We grabbed bottles of water at a hotdog stand, and continued to mill around, looking at the pictures being sold at booths, the children playing amongst the trees, and the water shimmering around us.
At Central Park, a half-hour after leaving Battery Park, we saw a regular weekend contingent there. SM commented that it seemed packed, as though there were a mob there. I thought back to when I saw Paul Simon in the park, and it was truly packed. Nearly a half million people were there that night. We walked up past Strawberry Fields, past the carousel (where I restrained myself from quoting lines from Ransom, which was filmed nearby), and down to the smaller south Park lakes. There we sat, watching the rollerbladers, commenting on those that shouldn’t wear tight clothing (beside myself), and amusing ourselves with general inanities. Strange, how people can become friends simply by writing to each other; as though the words we type or utter are substitutes for common identities or histories.
After braving the Empire State Building, where I rediscovered my fear of heights (an irony I dealt with back when I used to rock climb), we headed over to Grand Central Station. Our energy levels had dropped precipitously. I was still in love with the frescos painted on the ceiling, the neo-renaissance constellations painted on an indigo background. We grabbed some ice cream and slumped down at tables on the floor below the Metro North station.
I ended up missing the last train out of the city that night. We stayed up talking, first over Thai food in a shoebox-sized Gramercy restaurant, then walking the streets around Times Square. I found a picture to add to my growing collection of neon sign shots.
We found that we enjoyed the lazy rhythm of conversation. Ebb and flow. We found out that it was well after 11:20 PM. I gathered up my gear, and headed down to Times Square. There was no way I could take the light rail across the Hudson to Newark in time for a train out of that city. Besides, I realized, the thought of waiting for a train in the wee hours of the morning in Newark was a decidedly foolhardy endeavor. I decided, instead, to do something I had wanted to do for years.
“How would you like to make $100 tonight?” I said to the cabby through the dirty, scratched Plexiglas barrier.
“Wherever you want to go, sir.” The cabby had a thick Dominican accent.
“Drive. Just drive, he said.”
“Take me to New Jersey.”
Sitting in work on Monday, I felt fried. I had enjoyed the weekend, free – truly free – from work for the first time in months. It was just as cleansing as it was exhausting. I had a bit of life back. Thus, when SM called and asked if I would be coming up for dinner that night as well, I had no trouble making that decision.