“I traveled 3,000 miles for these pumpkin waffles,” said native San Franciscan and former New Yorker Cecile Lozano, who, with knife and fork in hand, proceeded to dig into her breakfast at Sarabeth’s on Madison Avenue.
There have been times when I haven’t wanted to venture into another neighborhood to try “the great new restaurant” simply because it seemed like too much trouble. Sometimes New York, for all the opportunities it offers, can become like a boyfriend you tolerate—in fact, you think you’re doing him a favor by dating him—until someone else comes along and goes after him like he’s the top prize at a church bazaar. Only then do you remember why you liked him in the first place.
Such was my recent experience when my dear friend, who lived here for a decade 20 years ago, returned to our city for a visit. Spending time with Cecile just proved to me that so often, you don’t know what you’ve got to be thankful for until you see it through someone else’s eyes.
“I love this area,” Cecile was heard to say more than once, when we were walking around. I found myself questioning when the last time was that I strolled around Carnegie Hill or Yorkville or the Upper West Side and uttered, “I love this area.” I’m usually power walking down the block trying to get where I’m going, maneuvering around people who always seem to be in my way. Sometimes I don’t notice what area I’m in.
I, like so many of us, had been going through a period of disenchantment. It’s easy to start feeling as though you hate that which you love, taking New York City for granted or blaming it for all your woes. And the city isn’t exactly innocent. It antagonizes us with protracted projects like the Second Avenue subway or the World Trade Center memorial. It baits us with crowds everywhere, and mocks us with raised cab fares and yet, no raises for those of us lucky enough to still be employed and no jobs for those unlucky enough to still be looking for work. Let’s not forget the traffic tie-ups when elected officials visit, or the turmoil created when we hear that we will be hosting the perpetrators of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
And then there’s the inequality and realization that the rules don’t seem to apply to everybody. That’s why a town that has a two-term limit for mayor now has a mayor serving a third term, and why Caroline Kennedy, with no political experience, was taken seriously as a contender for U.S. Senate.
Even with all this being the case, I hate being a hater when it comes to the Manhattan I love. But once the “I’ve-got-a-beef” ball gets a rollin’, it’s hard to bring it to a halt. It may take a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes an “outta towna” to show we natives what to be thankful for in our own city.
“The best part of coming back is seeing that the places I used to go to are still here,” said Cecile, who moved to East 93rd Street in 1979 and moved back to California in 1989. When she was here she lived that Carrie Bradshaw-esque life (before Carrie B. even existed) as an advertising art director at two worldwide agencies. Much of that time, she had a boyfriend with whom to share the New York nightlife.
Aside from some restaurants and stores she used to frequent, as well as Wollman Rink, where she used to ice skate, Cecile also took in the museums and walked around sightseeing “like the tourist I now am.” Upon seeing Cooper Union at Astor Place, she reminisced about a concert she’d seen there. Then reeled off some factoid about how Abraham Lincoln had once given a speech there.
Who knows this kind of stuff? Do you? New York was one of the 13 original colonies. We are surrounded by history here. How many of us bother to really learn about where we live? Cecile did.
“When I first moved to New York, I had this guidebook—and I used it. It was really important to me to learn about all the different buildings and everything in the city. The buildings are so old and so gorgeous to look at. They’re a treat for your eyes. That’s what I love about this city. When I lived here I made a point to see everything and go everywhere at least once or twice,” Cecile said
But for all that she remembers New York being the way she left it, Cecile acknowledged, of course, that things had changed—for the better!
“They’ve beautified things,” she said, pointing to landscaping around the bases of trees on the avenues and streets that add flora to the neighborhoods.
She also noted that New York has gotten to be a greener city. Cecile noticed a lot more bikers and shrieked, “Oh my God, there’s bike lanes? Who would have thought you’d ever find so many New Yorkers riding bikes, instead of taking a cab or the bus?”
She also made a point to mention that cabs are nicer now: “There’s the little screen with the map that reports the weather and the news. It gives you something to do as the cabs are whizzing down the avenues.”
Up until then, disgruntled me had just considered it another intrusion of everyday life. Since she put a positive spin on it, though, I’ve made a point to not automatically turn off Taxi TV after telling the Eyewitness News team to shut up.
I also took to heart her observation that as a whole, New York has become a gentler city, emphasizing that service people are definitely much friendlier. “They’re willing to help you. They don’t snap at you like back in the day,” she said. I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt.
She also noticed that the city was cleaner, and that there seemed to be fewer homeless people than when she lived here. That was the era of the squeegee men, who used to wipe your windshield whether you liked it or not. Also, the trains were full of graffiti.
What hasn’t changed?
“New Yorkers have always had great style. The shoes, the bags; people still look great,” Cecile said.
Yes, we do, don’t we?
For all her walks down memory lane, she did want to see what’s new, so she headed downtown to the High Line, the place that started out as a creative way to salvage a relic in disrepair, then became a controversy about taxing local businesses and flasher hotel patrons.
“Incredible,” she extolled, adding that she loved Chelsea Market. “The way it’s done with the sculptures and steel is really great.” (Yet another thing I’ve never bothered to notice.)
She seemed a little sad, though, when it became apparent that time and distance had diminished some New York recollections—like referring to Columbus Avenue as Columbus Street. She also seemed shocked that New York had so many joggers. I had to remind her that long ago and far away, she used to run around the reservoir. “I totally forgot I used to do that,” she said.
Despite not being able to recall every little detail of what she did two decades ago, overall the memory of being a New Yorker is something that Cecile will cherish forever.
“I’m really proud and grateful I got to live here,” she said.
And so should be all of us. Happy Thanksgiving.
Lorraine Duffy Merkl’s debut novel, Fat Chick, from The Vineyard Press, is coming soon.
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