It is one of those perfect days in the city: mid-70s (F) and sunny, with a light breeze. A lot like September 11, 2001, actually. Over the years I’ve learned that many New Yorkers have come to find their own 9/11 rituals, such as making contact with the people who experienced that day with them, or paying tribute in person at their neighborhood firehouse. A friend I met for dinner last night said she goes out to the Hudson River Park piers. She likes to be near the water, and to look at the downtown skyline and the Statue of Liberty in the harbor. Me, I’m not big on ritual or tradition (shocking, I know), but if I had to come up with something for 9/11, I guess I would say that I try to write a blog post or two, and find some joy in my day. You know: just like I do every other day of the year.
In light of the spectacular weather, today’s pursuit of joy involved a pleasant afternoon hike to Union Square and back, for no particular purpose. I zigged and zagged along the way, avoiding the busiest thoroughfares in favor of quiet, tree-lined streets. On the way back, my meandering led me unintentionally to a bustling stretch of 14th Street, between 5th and 6th Avenues. Rather than wait for the light, I braced myself, took a deep breath, cranked up my headphones and bounded into the foot traffic. I wasn’t expecting it, but the brief walk along this single block painted for me a vivid picture of exactly how amazing New York City is — or can be. How incredible the United States is — or can be. How astonishing our species is — or can be.
First, there are the buildings. Structures high and low. Architecture old and new. A high-end spa and a low-end nail salon. A dollar store and a union headquarters. A shop that sells cheap wigs and cosmetics, and a store that, after glancing at the window display, I could not tell you what is sold there if my life depended on it. A deli, a pub, and a coffee shop. “Fabco Shoes.” A subway entrance.
But the real treat was the people. An impossibly glamorous couple dressed head to toe in flowing bright whites, waiting for the light. People with canes, walkers and wheelchairs. School kids in uniforms. Babies in strollers. Women in ornate saris. Joggers. A gay couple (actually I should just say “two men walking hand in hand,” and leave it at that). Teenage girls laughing. A man sitting on the sidewalk holding a paper cup and a sign that said “HIV & homeless. Please help.” Businessmen in sharp suits and expensive sunglasses. Street vendors. Men and women and none-of-the-above. Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, and every conceivable mixture thereof. Young families, and the elderly. A policewoman. The shockingly obese and the scarily skinny and the utterly, unfathomably unremarkable.
I live here. But in a very real sense, we all live here. That stretch of 14th Street is not just a snapshot of New York City, although it is certainly that. It’s a slice of the people who make up this country. And beyond that, it’s a sample of the humanity that stretches around the globe. This is why it irritates me to no end whenever I hear conservatives refer to “American culture.” They have something entirely different in mind than I do—or, I would venture, than the majority of people on 14th Street today do. Theirs involves wearing flag pins and being seen in church on Sunday. Mine involves people of diverse backgrounds and unique life histories making their way in the world, all of them happy to step aside for someone else passing by on a crowded sidewalk. Well, most of them are anyway. This is New York.