As always, the drive into the city blots out all that has happened in the last decades and puts me into my childhood days again. Especially as we crawl into the gut of Manhattan at 49th, near the UN, just blocks from where I lived during my first years here.
I don’t think it has the same effect on Ed. I hear him groan as we move in that incremental way one moves from east to west here. Let’s get out and walk, he says. We do. An overnight bag rolling behind us, backpacks in place – we look weird, but, as always in this city, not weird enough to stand out.
I remember three years ago, during my routine trips here, I’d walk the streets at midnight, often in great distress, often sobbing actually, at the enormity of life and the difficulty of finding a good way to move forward and I did not stand out then either. New York is a city that pretends that eccentric is normal so that it can turn away and ignore all that should not be ignored.
It’s a gorgeous, albeit crispy cool day. It makes the city look clean and fresh, especially if you look up toward that patch of blue.
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I leave Ed and the suitcase to the vultures of law and set out to meet a family friend (Martha) back at the UN. It’s a rare chance for me to get back inside and look around. I used to have a pass, but security measures have tightened so much over the years that our permanent passes became worthless and we, once children of the UN, have become part of the crowd again. Outsiders.
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Did you notice there are no children at all visiting the UN? Martha asks me. No school groups. No children. They’re not allowed. The building is not up to code.
It’s one of the reasons why I am here: come spring, the UN is going to be gutted and rebuilt from the inside. For the next four or five years, it will be closed, under construction. And once it reopens, all the remaining people that I still know and could ask to let me inside, will have retired.
We stroll now past the big rooms – the Security Council, the General Assembly.
head of the Polish delegation ?
And the delegates’s lounge, where you can get your espresso fix.
My father, after his stint as head of the Polish delegation, returned later to the UN as USG. Two ends of a career in diplomacy: the first trip was so brilliantly optimistic and exciting. The second – so different! The family’s grown and gone, the wife’s tired of diplomatic functions, the future is uncertain.
My parents broke up after his final years at the UN. He went back to Poland, she stayed behind. As I walk now with Martha, I remember these spaces as ones I walked through on my own. It had been my father’s world, but I knew it best as a place where I hung out in the company of no one.
from inside the glass tower of the Secretariat
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looking out from the UN cafeteria
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Out on the streets again, I move rapidly to reconnect with Ed. And now I am in his world. From the midtown law firm, we walk to Union Square, with suitcase, backpacks, my cameras, all of it. Hobos in black and blue, past the shadowed streets of a city rushing to call it quits for the week.
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We spend some time with his cousin. Ed has family business stuff to talk over and I listen to them speak in that familiar way that you have toward those you needn’t pretend anything anymore. You’ve been through it all, childhood, bar mitzvahs, funerals, and now you talk in short cuts, with references to facts and faces that are understood.
And then I am tired. It’s evening and I do not want to go to the free MoMA exhibits. I want to go to Brooklyn, leave our bags and find dinner.
I know very little of Brooklyn. I used to go swimming at St. George hotel somewhere in this borough, because they had a pool open to the public. End of Brooklyn experience.
Now we are in a neighborhood that is very much as it may have been forty years ago.
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Except for the occasional brownstone that is being renovated (for example, our B&B on Sterling Place)...
... it is still a place for people who are just hanging in there. A place where meats are roasted outside a grocer's and people hang out casually, in pairs or small groups.
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Our hosts recommend Cheryl’s soul food and it is a good choice, even though I think it says something about Brooklyn that we should be in a basically Black neighborhood, with African American restauranteurs, serving food to mostly White people. Distinctly New York types. A family with a son who reads during the entire meal. Grandparents with a college kid who brags about her ambitions all evening long. Three couples who call themselves troublemakers, sending back the by-the-glass wine, complaining of too much spice in it. Who sends back house wine?
At the b&b, I struggle with the Internet, but not for long. I have never known the night life of New York, not the part that continues past midnight. And I wont know it this time. And that’s a good thing. New York was at its best for me when I was a kid. That’s the part that’s pleasurable now as well. The bars, the nightclubs—that’s someone else’s New York, not mine.