Right after 9/11, people all around me talked about leaving the city.
“It’s not safe here,” they said.
I thought, “Isn’t that the point?” Wasn’t it always?
Though stunned like everyone by the surreal, human tragedy and the shock of that space looking straight down 6th Avenue where the towers had stood, no way I was leaving.
I was a real New Yorker. Ride-or-die.
I’ve never lived anywhere but the city, and have never planned to. That’s why it’s so strange to find myself here: doing the “shelter in place” thing in a place where deliveries are dropped on the porch and you pay attention to garbage day. A place that’s arguably “the country.”
Stepping over a bag of mulch in the back yard and noting that the linden tree’s buds are “really coming in,” I wonder, Who am I?
Enough people consider me their “New York friend” that several forwarded the same interview with Fran Lebowitz in March on how she’s “never leaving New York.”
(One added, Also, because she talks about being lazy. Thought of you!)
Never leaving New York: that’s what makes a real New Yorker.
Fran Lebowitz wasn’t born in New York. She didn’t come till she was 18, which, in my mind, shaves off more than a few “real New Yorker” points. But she did come, and then stick it out, during the late 70’s — the city’s grittiest time.
Some (not the real New Yorkers) say it was the “lowest.”
That’s when I was just old enough to walk around and even take the bus, if not the subway, by myself.
In 1979 bunkmates at my Vermont sleepaway camp looked at me all saucer-eyed when I said where I was from.
“Isn’t it dangerous?”
“Nah,” I shrugged. “I mean sort of? But not really.”
My family lived on the Upper West Side, which was considered rough, but only compared to the Upper East Side, its better groomed, old-money twin across the park.
We had a doorman, and we had Zabars. How dangerous could a neighborhood be if it had a place where you could buy the best sliced nova? Not to mention David’s Cookies, $5 for a grease-bottomed, half-pound box!
Sure, there were dangers lurking, especially on side streets and in Riverside Park. Danger was a fact of life, one my family accepted and denied at once. To my parents, both native New Yorkers, living anywhere else was inconceivable. New York was everything, and the crime was part of it.
My sister and I, If we spied our mom on the street, liked to walk stealthily behind her. We thought it was hilarious when, sensing a presence, she quickened her step and clutched her purse. That’s what a woman living in New York was trained to do.
Like all my schoolmates, I carried 5–10 dollars in “mugging money,” just in case.
I kept mine inside a nylon, velcro-fastened wrist wallet. The hottest thing in nerd wear. Never faced with a mugger, I used my money at “The Family Amusement Center” video arcade in seedy Times Square, a 24/7 social hall for pimps and perverts. I didn’t have permission to go there. My mother thought I was ice skating at Rockefeller Center. She’d drawn me a map to get there on the M5 bus.
My parents wanted me safe, not sheltered. Dad took me for rides in our ’56 Chevy down 11th avenue to look at hookers — the way most parents take their kids to see the sea lions at the zoo. “Wait, go back, that one’s not wearing pants!” No one asked if we wanted to party, but at stoplights, “riff-raff” approached, showing all of two teeth, and pointing at our car. “What year?”
My dad would grin, roll down the window, and shout “‘56!” as we peeled off.
During my thirties, the city got so gentrified and defanged, you could walk unbothered through most neighborhoods wearing hundred-dollar bills stuck all over your soft, pale parts. Zero danger — and still, friends moved to the suburbs. They cited “more room for the kids.” I tried to reason with one friend, who’d found a place in Bedford and was excited about a swing set, “But doesn’t your happiness count, too? Up there, you won’t be able to walk to restaurants.”
“Yeah…” She halted — as if she was about to tell me, “I eat kittens for dinner now.”
“I really don’t care about going to restaurants. It’s not that fun for me.”
I think that’s when we stopped being close.
Who happily, willingly leaves New York?
Leaving New York is for the weak.
And this time, that’s me.
This time, I was the chickenshit. A wimpy-ass, piss-pants wuss. Actually scared of my city.
My husband, nearly 60, is at the age marker of “vulnerable.” And younger people (I’m generously filing myself in that category) die of COVID-19, too. For us, it doesn’t feel super cozy living in an official “hot zone.”
Because guess what? The virus doesn’t care if you’re “street smart” and have keys handy to lace through your fingers like the cop taught your class in 6th grade. It doesn’t care if you live in a doorman building. In fact, it’s even likelier to follow you inside.
We just happened to close on a home on Long Island (yes, fine, the Hamptons) when all hell broke loose. A house “out there” was never something I thought wanted. I’m such a city girl, I actually love the city heat in July. I enjoy going for a walk when the air feels like the vent of a laundromat.
After the closing, we went back to the city for one hasty night to grab a few things like we were headed into witness protection, and that was it.
We’re now in that loathsome category mentioned in recent articles: “Manhattan Residents Flee to Weekend Homes, Bringing Pets, Cashmere Sweats, and Coronavirus.”
I feel safer out here—though it’s probably no safer in our local Citarella, a grocery chain with such tight aisles and so many knucklehead customers fondling every chunk of aged parmesan and getting close enough to kiss you when they reach for arugula that I’ve nicknamed it “Citarona.” My husband thinks “Covidarella” is catchier.
But we haven’t had to stress about elevator rides. Did I touch my face after I pressed “1”? How long does COVID really linger in this 5-foot cube?
Out here, even during the state’s Covid peak, we‘ve been able to go for walks unworried about a “viral load” hovering in the air like a swarm of bees, or who’s touched the doorknob when we get back. Just us!
With a mix of guilt and FOMO, I’ve watched friends’ posts of the nightly 7pm clapping and cheering for the frontline workers. On Facebook, a friend who lives on our block asked whether we’d been cheering. I had to confess we were out in the Hamptons. “Stay safe!”
I felt what New Yorkers who weren’t in town for 9/11 must have felt.
Until now, I guess, I’ve thought myself protected, the way I did watching hookers through my dad’s car window on the way back up to our doorman building.
It’s easy to make fun of people who leave New York — until someone sneezes and you’re the first to swim to Sag Harbor.
Shielded by all that privilege and luck, I never had to think: “I’m getting out of here.”
Fran Lebowitz is never leaving New York. Now that I have, I have to ask:
Am I still a real New Yorker?