We visited New York twice since September 11. Each time it was a different experience for us. We were apprehensive about our son, Jaideep, living in New York, who was an eyewitness to the events of September. In December, there were some trepidations and tensions that were palpable among New Yorkers. Spring of 2002 seemed to have changed all that and ostensibly there is little memory of the disaster of September 2001. The city has rejuvenated itself in the true spirit of spring. These are two accounts of our visits to New York in December 2001 and April 2002.
December to remember
Three months after the Attack
I tend to agree with the old clich' that there are these United States and then there is New York. It is a special place indeed. The life in the big city is as vibrant as ever. The events of September 11 seem to have been all but forgotten, at least on the surface to a casual observer. People, I am told, still tend to be nervous when some fire truck goes screeching down the street with sirens blowing. It surely reminds the residents of that day of infamy in their history. But life seems to have returned to a normal state, for the most part. William Shakespeare said that life was as tedious as a twice-told story. But he was not thinking of New York, where life is the life-blood of the city.
It is December in the Big Apple and there is no other city on the planet that is more beautiful in December. The colorful display of lighting in mid-town and the spruced up decorations of the shops are breathtaking sights. The weather during the first week of December was a complement to all the hustle and bustle of life in the city. Especially this year, the gods have to be smiling on the city. The New Yorkers need a break and even providence is aware of this.
In many respects it is the New York of the old. Masses of people everywhere. Crowds pushing their way through, for no apparent reason, always in a hurry to get somewhere, anywhere. With rudeness that comes so naturally to the impatient people, nothing has mellowed as I had foolishly expected, since the events of September 11. Where else would you see a runaway cart filled with store goods careening down the sidewalk and people dodging to avoid being run over? And the storekeeper calmly retrieves the cart without a word of apology! A dozen lemons slip out of their crates and roll on to the sidewalk and spread people helter-skelter. Again no apology from the owners. Hey, this is New York. When we tried our chance at getting tickets for a long running Broadway show, the petulant lady at the window sniggered and seemed to be saying (using an unmistakably New York word), 'What a Shmuck! Doesn't he know that OUR show is sold out for the next hundred years? He must be from out of town!' Irksome characters are to be expected in New York. On these respects, nothing much seemed to have changed in the city. Without these traits New York would lose its identity.
The city is bustling. Business is as usual. We were not able to see the skating rink at Rockefeller center because of the stifling crowds. We were satisfied with seeing the famous spruce tree lit with glorious colorful lights. The window dressings and the grandiose decorations were breathtaking. It was heartening to see parents with little children in strollers trying to maneuver the crowds. I, surprisingly, did not mind the crowd. Psychologically, it was an uplifting experience to see and mingle with the masses than to see empty streets. I felt a kind of camaraderie with the crowd. The restaurants were doing brisk business. Jaideep, our son has now moved to an apartment in the Upper East Side and here is where true New York action is, if one considers the number of restaurants and century old museums. Each block has three or four restaurants and they are of all ethnic background one can imagine. I saw three Indian restaurants in a row on one street! Business is brisk indeed. Every third store seemed to be a florist and garden shop showing off its ware of brightly colored flowers and bouquets. The museums are adjacent to central park, and are only a few blocks from Jaideep's apartment.
The first night we landed in New York, we went to visit Jaideep in downtown at the place of his work. He works in the financial district and puts in many odd hours of work. I jokingly told Rathna that we perhaps lost our son to the dungeons of financial world in New York. By the time we left I believed my own joke. He certainly works many more hours than I did when I was a surgical intern in New York, a quarter century earlier. And that, I thought was inhumane and cruel. Anyway, we consoled ourselves that he is young and should be thankful for the opportunity to work as hard as he does. This can only bring good results in the future. Fortunately, he thinks so too and this makes work easier to endure.
We took the train, packed like sardines. Little did we know that we would surface on the corner of Fulton Street and Broadway, which is next to Ground Zero. The massive rubble that used to be World Trade Center is now a shrine. People come to see the sheer destruction and the colossal work in progress through day and night, under bright lights, and watch in awe. It is a tomb, perhaps ten stories high, where more than three thousand bodies are still buried. The most hardened and stoic person can expect to get emotional at the spectacle. An old church at the corner serves as a place where the loved ones leave pieces of memorabilia of the innocent people who lost their lives on that fateful day. This only adds to the sanctity of the shrine that used to be called World Trade Center. Life certainly is not normal here now. Half the apartments in the downtown area are empty and the businesses that were forced to close still have not returned. But it is only a matter of time before the so-called Ground Zero and the Battery Park City are rebuilt as monuments for all the lives lost. It reminded me of the old adage that life goes on within you or without you! Life must and will go on.
The Guggenheim museum had an exquisite exhibit of Norman Rockwell retrospective. It was a wonderful collection of his paintings that celebrates life and its little instances. Only a keen observer of such nuances like Rockwell could bring these emotions to life in life like paintings. It was fitting to see such a praise of life in the aftermath of such destruction and death. 'What a fine comedy this world would be if one did not have to play a part in it', wrote 18th century French writer Denis Diderot. Norman Rockwell seems to defy this and say that the little things in life with its little characters make life pleasant and bearable, even when one is forced to be a part of it. Rockwell proves that life is not a tragedy even when seen in close-up.
Yes, we did manage to see a Broadway show. We got great seats for the matinee and saw 'Les Miserables' (popularly called Le Miz). If you have not seen this show in New York, I urge you to do so. Make a special trip if you need to but please see it in New York. It is the heart-wrenching story of a convict who unfairly spent nineteen years in prison doing hard labor for a petty crime before the French Revolution. He had made up his mind to change his ways and love and help people around him. It is a celebration of goodness of life. 'As our life is short, so it is miserable, and therefore it is well it is short' wrote Jenny Taylor, the seventeenth century Anglican theologian. Le Miz shows one how to make the best use of the short life.
We are now back home and we are glad to be home. One may have vacationed in Paradise but is always happy to return home. But the experience in New York, despite the oddity of it all, was enchanting. I always had a soft corner for New York. Now I am convinced that New York is where life is celebrated at its best. The company of our friends, especially Marge and Phil Tassi from Flushing, makes New York a major attraction for us. Their grace, dignity and their infectious love of life are more reasons why our trip to the Big Apple was a worthwhile adventure at this time. With friends like these and our son living in there, New York beckons us again.
Creation – An act of mercy – New York revisited
William Blake wrote that creation is an act of mercy. His words ring true during spring in New York. God must have created the world during spring.
New York in the spring is a special place. The air is lighter and the weather is warmer. The spring flowers are bursting through. The flowering trees along the streets are in full bloom and the forsythias are a stunningly bright yellow. Magnolia trees are heavy with their magnificent white and pink blossoms. Central park is picture perfect. Tender green and crimson leaves are shooting off the bare branches giving the unmistakable impression of celebration of life. Winding asphalt paths leading to nowhere in particular, with graceful swans swimming with pride and dignity in ponds of all sizes, makes one forget that this is the middle of an urban sprawl. Oblivious to passersby and undaunted by the cacophony of the bustle of the city among the skyscrapers around the perimeter of the park, red –breasted Robbins are busy pecking at invisible critters on the yellow-green grass.
The suburban streets are not only lined with the white dogwood trees but the homes are putting on a show with bushes of rhododendron and azalea flowers, interspersed with the copper-leaved Japanese maple trees. The tulips with their bright colors of red, yellow or white are everywhere, always in groups of similar colors, like rows of uniformed soldiers. Neatly arranged daffodils and hyacinths are swaying in the cool breeze.
Macy’s, the landmark New York store at Harold Square, commemorated the coming of spring with its own flower show. The entrance appeared like an enchanting garden with various spring flowers gorgeously arranged, adding fragrance to the already heavily fragrant perfume department. The botanical gardens with their manicured green lawns and prodigious nosegays, with roses and pastel colored flowers between the bright arrays of flowering trees seem to brighten everyone’s heart. Love and romance is a natural byproduct of such magnificent scenery. Men with stylish overcoats and light mufflers are walking hand in hand with shapely women in dresses and knee length shoes with bright colored scarves. Even an ordinary event seems to enhance the abundance of the beauty of spring. To be surrounded by such beauty and perfection is a blessing and makes one remember Blake’s words that creation is an act of mercy.
It was to this setting we went to New York in April, at the onset of spring. We were quite apprehensive about the unpredictability of the weather but were prepared for any eventuality. It is not easy to prepare to travel in this period of transition between winter and summer. One never knows what kind of clothes to pack. Surely, the whole week was not going to be uniformly warm and spring-like. So we took winter coats, sweaters as well as shorts and T-shirts, just in case. The weather did not disappoint us. The first part of the week was warm and the latter half was cold like the winter. At least we had a chance to wear all the clothes that we had carried.
The restaurants seemed to be doing brisk business. The prices are preposterous and the abstemiousness of the entrees is legendary, (an ordinary bowl of spaghetti and sauce can cost $18 in trendy restaurants in the Upper East Side), giving it a definite New York flair. Countless Indian restaurants seem to be doing well now when compared to their fate a quarter century ago, when I lived here. However, the camaraderie all the Indians had from those days seemed to be strangely absent. There was a time when all the Indians acknowledged each other, even though they may be total strangers. There always would be something to talk about and small talk to exchange. Now the Indian population has boomed and it is not unusual to find a dozen of them in the same street at the same time. I read a report in the New York Times that there are 170,000 Indians, 35,000 Pakistanis and 15,000 Bangla Deshis in New York alone. No wonder that we do not have the same rapport with other Indians any longer. There are too many of us doing too many jobs in New York. Gone are the days when all of us were professionals, mostly doctors and engineers doing skilled jobs. There is hardly a newspaper stand that is not operated by an Indian. So are the deli and sandwich shops as well as liquor stores. I was proud of the hard working, entrepreneurial countrymen of mine. The cab drivers invariably are Asians; many of them can be heard talking in their native tongues on their cell phones while driving the treacherous roads of Manhattan. I wondered if the cabby was ordering his wife to keep his dinner warm, as he seemed to be barking orders in his native Panjabi dialect on the cell phone.
Most people appeared to be oblivious of September 11 at this stage. I did not notice any nervous tics or snickers even when a noisy airplane flew overhead. Our son, Jaideep, who had watched the events from the window of the Financial Center, still has nightmares. He jumps at sudden strident noises or blasts (an all too common occurrence in New York). He feels that jittery edginess will be with him for a long time to come. Ground zero appears to be a construction site more than the hallowed ground I had seen in December. All the debris and steel columns are flattened and the relentless work is still in progress. It is strange to be able to see large buildings clear across the site, which used to be completely blocked by the twin towers before September. At night two powerful beams of light, representing the twin towers illuminates the sky. On a misty day the refracted light can be seen all over Manhattan. When there are clouds high in the sky, the light shines on it giving the appearance of a divine concert in the sky, touching the face of God. West Side Highway is now open and some semblance of normalcy is returning to downtown New York. Battery Park is again full of picnickers and tourists hurrying to catch the ferry to visit the Liberty Island and view the magnificent Lady of Manhattan, the Statue of Liberty.
A walk through the Metropolitan Museum, to rake in the history and the beauty of the artifacts and the arts exhilarated our moods, though a detailed examination would have taken many more days. We were able to see only one floor of the museum before our legs started cramping with fatigue. Apart from the customary visit to the Roman galleries and the Egyptian section with rows and rows of empty coffins of the mummies, we wandered into the South American section with their filigree jewelry work. The nose gear and earrings made from gold resembled Indian art though these appeared enormously cumbersome to wear. The gallery of the art from Pacific Islands and Easter Islands were unmistakably unique. Elongated figures of men and women, carved from wood with exaggerated features and some with large phalluses. They were a testament to the embodiment of the power, generative or otherwise, of males in the ancient times. The modern art appeared meaningless to an untrained eye like mine. Most of the paintings and artifacts appeared to be quite ordinary, some extraordinarily ordinary. There was even a couch made of cloth resembling a dirty beaten one I had possessed in my less affluent days.
Abutting the Central Park, the Metropolitan Museum is in the ritzy part of town. Penthouses and ostentatiously opulent apartments line Fifth Avenue, overlooking the park. They seem to intimidate a tourist, though one can only imagine and wonder at the décor and luxury within. It is humbling to think that there is a world out there that one like me, perhaps, can never know or fathom. New York’s most famous (and expensive) restaurant, Tavern On the Green, sits on Fifth Avenue and 67th street sheltered by large oak trees. The trees in the center of the restaurant are lit by thousands of colorful light bulbs covering every inch of the trees all the way up to the peripheral branches. Stretch limos were making a steady caravan to the front of the restaurant bringing in world famous people in the cover of darkness, lest gawkers like us mob them. This is the spot a lovelorn man will bring his lover and pop the ultimate question. Since I was already married and not so famous, I did not see the need to dine in Tavern On the Green!
Metro travel has indeed become much safer than twenty-five years ago. During the rush hours most people of all colors seem to commute by subway. However, during off hours, it is a different story. It is a collage of ethnic minorities, blacks, browns and Asians. An unlimited pass for the week costs only $17 and is quite affordable. During all hours, we fit right in and were never intimidated by the stories of ruffians, thugs, hooligans and muggers. On the contrary, one can study in the vast diversity of New York in the subway. All kinds of people in all different garbs tell a story of the city on the move. Then there are the panhandlers, though they do not beg for money directly. They show off their crafts, be it playing the synthesizer or singing jazz songs. I even saw a maestro in the making, singing Schubert’s Ave Maria in not so bad tones. He was proud of himself and was able to take his voice to quite a much higher octave. A few people handed him dollar bills. I saw some venders selling trinkets and other wares without hassling anyone. Everyone has a job to do in New York, that great melting pot. Everyone takes a bite of the Big Apple.
Spring in New York is memorable for its beauty and splendor, even as life in the city that never sleeps seems to move at a relentless pace. The rejuvenation of New York since the ghastly episodes of September 11 seems to be well under way. I end these accounts with a quote from the Bible. Mankind has celebrated spring and the renewal of new life for thousands of years.
My beloved spake, and said unto me,
Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come away.
For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.
Bible: Song of Solomon 2:10-12