The specifics of this story are unlikely to match any of yours but perhaps there is something in your life that provokes a similar longing.
It begins at Christmas 69 years ago. I've told this part of the story on TGB in the past and if you know it, well – too bad. It belongs here today too.
As a gift that season, my parents received a 78 rpm record set of Manhattan Tower, a musical suite about New York City composed and conducted by Gordon Jenkins.
I was only five years old that Christmas but I was captivated with it. I listened and listened and listened until I knew every word and then I listened some more over all the years of my childhood and youth, placing myself within the story of the songs, dreaming of living in Manhattan some day.
(You can listen to Manhattan Tower here in four parts. It's about 16 minutes long altogether.)
The recording stayed behind when I left home after high school in 1957 and I don't recall if I thought about it in the following years. I suppose I must have because I certainly didn't lose the idea that I would someday live in New York.
Life has a way of interrupting all kinds of dreams but eventually I married and over a few years, we moved from San Francisco to Houston to Minneapolis to Chicago and then, in 1968, to New York City. Manhattan.
My first grown-up magazine subscription ten years earlier had been to The New Yorker and that's how, through the years, I learned my way around the city even before I got there – the streets and avenues, names of the neighborhoods, the subway lines, Broadway theaters, museums, the main library with the lions, restaurants that came and went, what parts of town they were all in and more.
I also read biographies and autobiographies of well-known New Yorkers. I read histories of the city and politics, and pored over maps. I went to movies that were shot in New York whether I cared about the stories or not and generally absorbed as much of the sense and sensibility of the city as one can get from a distance.
You can read about my first day in Manhattan here. On second thought, no. This too belongs here today. I want it all I one place and if this gets to be too long for you, it's easy to click away. Besides, I'm writing this more for me than you.
So, from 12 October 2004:
On my first day in Manhattan 35 years ago, having just stepped off a bus, I stood on the corner of 50th and Broadway orienting myself as to east, west, north and south to determine which way to walk to my destination.
It was noontime and the crowd was the largest and busiest I’d ever seen, a whirlwind of bodies weaving in and out and around one another, each independently intent on their individual goal.
As I sorted out the street signs from the profusion of gaudy neon, flashing store front lights, and walk/don’t walk indicators, a single voice made itself apparent above the din of traffic and several hundred people.
When I located the source of the shouting, I was mortified to see a man in a propeller beanie yelling, “Pervert, Pervert, Pervert,” while pointing directly at me.
No one stopped as they passed, but they glanced at him and then at me, and I wished with all my might to be made invisible. In a panic, I took off in the direction I hoped was the one I wanted, with that pointing finger and his words, “Pervert, Pervert, Pervert,” following me across the street.
A few minutes later, as I waited for my friend in front of the entrance to Saks Fifth Avenue, taking in the amazing crowds of New York City at lunchtime, a well-dressed man of about 30 suddenly grabbed my arm and asked, “Are you married?”
Having escaped the verbal assault just 15 minutes earlier and shocked again at being singled out by a stranger in this strange, new town, I managed to stutter, “Uh, well, uh, yes.” The man looked at his companion as they walked on and said, “Damn, I’ll never find anyone to marry me.”
Welcome to Gotham, little girl.
Nothing like those two incidents had ever happened to me anywhere in my life and when the surprise wore off, I loved it. They made me laugh and what I learned was that anything, any amazing thing could happen at any time – even twice within an hour.
And over the next 40 years, they did, many times, and I made Manhattan my home as much as if I owned the island, as if I had been born there.
In fact, I came to believe (still do) that it was where I had always belonged, and it was just that the gods had maybe been busy on 7 April 1941; that they got the location mixed up a little on the day I was born.
Leaping ahead 40 years, after nearly 12 months of banging my head against an immovable wall trying to find work at age 64 following a layoff, I made the soul-searing decision to sell my apartment in Greenwich Village and leave Manhattan.
Although I knew I had no other choice, it took a three-day weekend home alone weeping and wailing to come to terms with it before I could start planning.
A short time later, Dr. William Thomas, in his book, What Are Old People For?, supplied an explanation for why it was so hard for me even in the face of financial ruin if I didn't:
“…far more powerful is the older person’s attachment to place,” he wrote. “This should not be confused with nostalgia or simple habit. A sense of place is woven into the being of an elder in ways that adults have a hard time understanding. A sapling can be dug up and transplanted with little difficulty. Uproot a mighty oak and it will die…
“The gift of place is the gift of meaning. Human beings possess a remarkable ability to unite meaning with the material world. This is how a person, place, or thing becomes sacred.
“Is a Bible, a Torah, or a Koran made of paper, ink, and glue? Yes. Is it much more than paper, ink, and glue? Yes, again. Holy books are different from telephone books because the former are enriched with meaning while the latter have none…
“For the elder, a loss of place carries with it a potentially lethal loss of meaning. Taking meaning away from a person or place is a form of profanity…”
Well, not lethal in my case but too strong an attachment to get rid of like a pair of worn-out shoes. New York is my home.
Now, at last we arrive, you and I, at what I've been leading up to all along.
A couple of days ago, in a long phone conversation with an old friend who lives in New York, we talked about how, sometimes, a certain song can perfectly capture an era.
Oh so correctly in that regard he named Billy Joel's New York State of Mind as being that perfect song for the city in the aftermath of 9/11 - that it did then and still does rip at your heart in the way that awful day did and makes you ache for that certain spot on the planet, for your home there that you love almost like a person.
We went on about New York songs a bit and I told my friend that I had once made a playlist for myself (I would never inflict it on friends) of the hundred-plus songs about New York that I own. He countered with the fact that he has a much longer list.
Yesterday morning, he emailed it to me. Oh my. Thirty-two single-spaced pages of New York songs. Okay, some are the same song by several different artists but still.
I have been gone from New York now for nine years. I miss it every day and I sometimes think this is how exiles (back in the days of ancient Rome and other olden times when exile was a punishment for crimes against the state) must feel.
From time to time, though not often nor for long, I allow myself to wallow in the depths of my yearning for New York.
I did that yesterday morning, and as I perused my friend's New York song list, I recalled what we had said about New York State of Mind while I let my fingers wander over the computer keyboard until I arrived at YouTube.
As it always is when I think too hard about New York nowadays, my heart was aching even before I clicked the play button. And the last 90 seconds of the song just about destroyed me - in the best and worst possible ways at once.
This was recorded live at Madison Square Garden in 2009, the concert for the 25th anniversary of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen.
“I don't care if it's Chinatown or Riverside...”
There wasn't any way for a little, five-year-old girl to know in 1946 that a Christmas gift to her parents would create a theme that has carried through her entire life.