New Yorkers eat out, a lot. Partly because the restaurants are so good – a wild mix of cuisines from the affordable to the astronomical – and partly because most residents live in shoebox apartments with pokey, uninspiring kitchens. In the later afternoons and early evenings, New York’s restaurants and diners are buzzing with people driven from their homes into the welcoming throng of good food and good company. Back in London, when we first met, it was a trait I was both surprised and delighted by in my boyfriend. Four years a New Yorker, he had eaten out most days. Harder when you’re in London, where the restaurants are meaner, but we venture out nonetheless. Because New York changes people.
My boyfriend was living in Manhattan when the Twin Towers fell on 9/11. He would have been relatively new to the city, having just started his law degree, but the Towers were as familiar to him as the rising sun. A horizon which was never interrupted; the steady backdrop to the new chapter in his life. And then, suddenly, they weren’t there. Occasionally I catch glimpses from him of what happened then, and in the aftermath. They ate out; everyone did, he said. In bars, in diners and in restaurants, people all over New York came together. They clung to what they knew and loved, they talked and questioned and consoled, and they ate and drank whatever was on the menu, whatever the supply routes had allowed through.
This weather, he said once, reminds me. 72 degrees, and clear, blue skies. We were walking back from the park one morning where we’d had lazy bagels and coffee with our newspapers, in late May, more than seven years on. There was no threat in West London that day, but his senses were sharpened. Because New York changes people.
I have lived a little while in parts of the US, including New York, but always after the fact. I had never known the steel and glass feel as real to me as my own body, as it had to so many others. At dinner in Hells Kitchen one evening, with my New Yorker friends, we fell to silence as one quietly recalled the fear – total and consuming – of that day. I felt, he said, like they were coming after me. And where would we go? The next morning, whilst I took a ride to the East Side, I remembered his comment as an emergency up ahead had called on the NYFD; fire engines streamed behind, beside and in front of us. If my driver could have parked on the wall, he would have. Cars took to pavements, forecourts, sliproads, in seconds. Clear the way, now. Because New York changes people.
My boyfriend and I have been back to New York, together, now. Our separate experiences of living there finally shared in favourite haunts and old digs. Through accident, rather than design, we ended up at Ground Zero one early afternoon having taken the ferry from Staten Island. We stopped and watched the cranes through holes in the plastic sheeting surrounding the raw and unplanned building site, and listened to traders selling hoodies and caps proudly celebrating the services which got New York back on her feet. I don’t know what we talked about, then, or if we spent much time recalling where we had both been on that fatal day. One of us must have motioned to move off. As we hit Broadway from its lowest point in the city, and counted up through the districts, our tightly-held memories of 9/11 peeled away. At one point my boyfriend looked back; I wondered whether it was confusion which played on his face, in that moment, or the flicker of recognition where his mind filled in the gaps with a silhouette of a memory. His New York horizon, interrupted. But for what?
If I were in New York this morning, exactly ten years from 9/11, I know what I would do. I would eat out. I would take my friends to my favourite local joint, and we would enjoy what New York does best. Good food and good company. Nothing is more defiant than carrying on with what you know and love, as New Yorkers demonstrated in those first few days and weeks.
So here’s to you, New York. I nod my salt beef on rye and endlessly refilled coffee cup in your direction. Your backdrop has changed, and your lives have been altered in more ways than I can ever hope to know. I love you and the people you have brought into my life who change me too.
Because after 9/11, only one thing remains clear: New York changes people. She always has, and she always will.