My fear of romantic commitment has been well hashed-over by my friends, family, and ex-boyfriends. But the commitment that’s been hardest for me to make is one to New York, despite the fact that I’ve lived in Brooklyn for a dozen years, written tender articles about New York’s subway system and abandoned buildings, and published a book about its cab drivers. Yet my feelings for the city are anything but soft and fluttery. Case in point: One of my favorite T-shirts, a gift from a friend, says: I Kind of Heart New York
When I moved to New York in 2000, I had hoped to be a mentor with Big Brothers Big Sisters, but couldn’t swallow the required two-year commitment. By now I could have raised the child. When friends and family in the Midwest asked over the years how long I’d stay in the city, I always say “one more year.” After 12 years here, I still think of the congressman from my parents’ Ohio neighborhood as my own. And when I meet a guy who extols his love for New York, I inwardly grimace and turn away
I have always had a manic-depressive relationship with New York. I felt ecstatic dancing to skilled DJs at rooftop warehouse parties and seeing my first outdoor movie in Bryant Park, skyscraper lights shining above the screen like stars. The live music in beer-sticky bars captivated me, as did the talented, creative new friends who helped me uncover my own potential. Yet the city’s darker side haunts me in the form of cement. Forget grass and trees, “parks” are slabs of concrete with benches – Union Square or McCarren Park anyone? Everyone’s in a hurry, rushing somewhere “important,” people on top of each other, crawling over each other. And when some of these people stand in front of the subways doors, refusing to move aside as others board the train, I want to punch them.
Still, I haven’t stayed in New York by accident or by default. So this summer I decided to commit – at least to Brooklyn, where I live, and Manhattan, where I work (The other three boroughs seem like a bit of a stretch.) Like a woman in marriage counseling, I decided to have regular date nights with New York. My plan: First, soak up as many concerts as possible and re-forge my original connection with the city and its music. Second, say yes to people and possibilities. Third, be deliberate, recognize positive and negative feelings, focus on the positive, and take pictures for prosperity.
My first date was in mid-June: a concert Prospect Park, sitting on a blanket under a canopy of trees, laughing with my new guy, too-sweet rosé with a screw-off cap and deli take-out. We never tried to learn the band’s name, but jazz and a dash of the deep Delta blues flowed from the stage and washed over me. Oh, I could do this.
Still, I almost canceled our second date after an exhausting drive to and from the Westchester suburbs left me yearning for my sofa. Then I reminded myself of my pact to prioritize Brooklyn, so I dragged myself out the door and rode my bike the five minutes from my apartment to Prospect Park and another concert. Even from the street, the rhythms and energy of Puerto Rican band Calle 13 began working on me. I laid my bike down on the grass outside the bandshell and shut off my brain. My body brightened, and within two songs I was dancing with the throng.
The guy beside me, selling water bottles from a cooler, struck up a conversation. Rather than brushing him off, as I might have done in the past, I told myself to be open. So we talked about accents (his was Haitian) and what it means to learn new languages and live different places (I’ve lived in Germany and Luxemburg). I surprised myself by enjoying the talk. He asked me out, I lied and said I had a boyfriend, we parted on good terms, and I wished him well. Between the music and meeting a gem of a person after ignoring my judgmental self, I felt great as I made my way home.
Brooklyn and I continued to rack up successful dates. If I missed a key outdoor music event, it was generally because I chose to do something else fun and unique to New York. I skipped the Grammy-winning gospel singer Shirley Caesar for a beach weekend (thank you for a nearby ocean with playful waves) and decided to miss Sigor Ros when a colleague from India took us to one of her favorite Indian restaurants, Dhaba, in Manhattan’s Curry Hill (thank you for a diversity of cool people to learn from). I forewent seeing Wild Flag to go dancing at Mehanata, the Bulgarian bar (thank you for diced fruit soaking in grain alcohol).
One guy slipped away, another arrived. On July 10, the newer guy and I planned to see the Dirty Projectors in Prospect Park for our first date, but got caught up talking over a bottle of wine at Bar Toto in Park Slope, enjoying the outdoor breeze. For our second date, we missed an outdoor screening of Slumdog Millionaire, enjoying each other’s company in the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge. Maybe it was the warm glow from the date, but I kept gazing at the Brooklyn Bridge, appreciating as if for the first time the design of its stone arches and elegant lines of its suspension wires, like the rigging of a tall sailing ship.
But I didn’t fall full-on in love with Brooklyn again until August 1 when I watched an outdoor screening of Dirty Dancing with my closest friends in McCarren Park. Cheers burst out when Patrick Swayze first walked on screen, and more cheers rose up at the key points in the movie, not least of which was “Nobody puts baby in a corner.” Having not seen the movie since middle school, I was surprised at how well it held up. And so steamy – how did my pre-teen self miss all that smoldering? At the end, right when Swayze and Baby are about to do their dance, the crowd stood up, swaying, singing along (more or less in unison) with “I’ve had the Time of my Life.”
Then the projector stopped. A screensaver with random graphics appeared on the screen. The crowed booed, then cheered, then booed, calling for the film. Miraculously, the projector started again and the crowd joyfully sang and danced to the end of the movie. The man said over the mic, “Thank you – this was the most magical night in the 7-year history of Summerscreen. Thank you.” I agreed.
Of course, there were misses. Exhaustion made me wish I hadn’t invited friends to hear Cuban jazz artist Arturo Sandoval on July 21 in Prospect Park. The temperature had dropped, and I spent the show huddled under two blankets, shivering, yawning, and desperate for bed. And my relationship with Brooklyn was sorely tested when my bike was stolen.
I discovered this loss on my way to an outdoor Wilco show, on Monday July 23, to which a friend of a friend offered me a free ticket. Carrying my bike helmet, I tried to walk off the feeling of loss and vulnerability. I stopped and ordered a pork bahn mi sandwich (be thankful I live in a city with Vietnamese sandwich shops). I ate it on a bench while chatting with a woman from Reno in town to see grandchildren (be open, don’t shun, talk). It’s only a material possession, I thought, let it go, let the bike go. (Confession: All signs indicate that when I wrapped my bike lock around the signpost, I forgot to loop it around my bike frame. So by stolen, I mean I didn’t lock up my bike and someone walked away with it. Still, this knowledge did not make the loss any easier.)
When I finally walked to Prospect Park and into the bandshell, Wilco’s music worked like a salve. We sat under a large tree, sheltered from the spurts of sprinkling rain. I don’t naturally gravitate towards college folk rock with a jam-band feel, yet every time I listen to Wilco I’m struck by their harmonies, the sweetness of the guitars and the spirited piano. I sipped my beer, reveling in the tightness of the performance. Wilco’s sounds conjured up the comforting smells of bonfires, woods, and camping. The rain intensified, and the crowd oohed when lightning flitted across the purple sky. Was Brooklyn supporting me while I was down? That might be taking things a bit far. But the music, the kindness of a free ticket, the crowd – all of it Brooklyn – helped me feel better.
A few weeks later, I rode my bike to Prospect Park to hear the Swedish electronica group Little Dragon, hoping for another soothing musical experience. The night before the newer guy and I had stopped dating. Sad, underslept, and alone, I reached for my phone, then stopped myself. I needed to practice being by myself, and besides, I should be concentrating on what Brooklyn could send me. When you’re wrapped up in an imaginary iPhone world, you miss all the signals.
The park smelled like sunscreen and the trees rose above me; the lights in the distance had a yellow-green glow, and I decided they could look like steady fireflies. Little Dragon sounded like a more rhythm- and bass-driven Massive Attack. I started to dance – not like the guy who was flat-out raving to my left, or like the bopping man with the toddler to my right, but my own little dance, the type that won’t attract much attention. And, as happens when I dance, I began to feel freer.
The singer yelled, “We love you Brooklyn” roughly every other song. I wished it were so easy for me to feel that way. Then again, I doubt she thought about her relationship to the borough as much as I did.
Now, with Labor Day weekend, we head into fall. The summer date season is almost over, and I’m a bit worried. I’ve had more fun living in New York the past few months than I have in years. But as the weather cools, will I become an indoor hermit? Will the city and I back-track?
I’m hopeful that New York and I have come to an understanding – we’re not soul mates, but we accept each other as we are. For all it gives me, New York still rarely feels comfortable or comforting, like an afghan blanket draped over a sofa, or sitting on a porch, listening to cicadas and watching fireflies – a vision that, for me, equals the peace and acceptance of home. But New York offers me something else – a challenge, a sea of interesting people, a wild underbelly, a creative feast. That, I hope, is enough.
Amy Braunschweiger is a recovering journalist and the author of Taxi Confidential: Life, Death and 3 a.m. Revelations in New York City Cabs. In July, she wrote an essay for FP about her relationship with Elvis Presley. She was once a master at climbing trees, but hey, times change.