Sects and the City, Part 3
It’s difficult in times like these: ideals, dreams, and cherished hopes rise within us, only to be crushed by grim reality. It’s a wonder I haven’t abandoned all my ideals . . . yet I cling to them because I still beli
eve, in spite of everything, that people are truly good at heart.—Anne Frank
I never actually went inside the towers of the World Trade Center but I loved them all the same. They were the great New York couple, a marriage that could only be made, and exist, in a place as high as heaven. Like the ceramic lovers in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” the two—each of its own gender, the steepled one visibly male—stood in their “silent form,” frozen in time, “breathing human passion far above.” As doth eternity: Cold pastoral! For the rest of us poor souls at street-level the towers endured as an expression of our romantic longing, as stable as the bedrock on which they were founded, a pair of noble grandparents at the top of the family tree.
So now what? There has been much talk about Love in the Wake of September 11. New Yorkers in particular have been divided into two new categories: those who want to get married and start a family while the heart of America is still beating, and those who want to have sex with every last living thing. The pundits ask: “How have our ideas, and ideals, of love been affected?” My mother asks me, “When are you going to find yourself a husband?” I ask my brother: “Do you think Mom is lonely, all by herself in that big house?” He asks me: “Are you lonely, all by yourself in that tiny Brooklyn apartment?” I ask myself: “Am I?” Like Adam and Eve before us, we’re all still trying to recover from the Fall, wandering about the city streets, naked, seeking shelter.
As an adolescent growing up in the material-girl decade of the ’80s, love was the only thing I wanted. I was no doubt as selfish as any young, Jewish suburbanite who felt entitled to her wants could be. But one could not have what one could not buy, and the more I looked for the perfect representation of love—at school, on MTV, in the mirror—the less it looked like what everyone else was looking for.
Unlike my friends, who wore bubble-gum-flavored lip gloss and stuffed their bras with maxi pads before gym class, I was not interested in breeding a recreational romance. Nor was I willing to wait on a single-file line and be a last-pick for the kickball team, so to speak. I longed for a bigger playing field; I dreamed of a love that would place me beyond the backstops of Boston’s outer-boroughs. A place where you could eat pizza around the clock, have meaningful conversations on door-stoops, and wear panty-hose as head-bands like Madonna did. That place was none other than a faraway, enchanted island called Manhattan—the only place in the world, it seemed, where you could be yourself and love yourself for it.
And so it was that New York, not Israel, became my promised land. My religion. Like any practicing New Yorker worth her (kosher) salt, I studied the history of my city, the culture of my people. I watched Annie Hall and “Diff’rent Strokes.” I listened to Gershwin. Ate a lot of (Lender’s) bagels. No book, photograph, dance move, or fashion that was characterized by or reminiscent of New York escaped my notice. I was, to put it gently, fanatic. The same is still true to this day.
Of course I am not alone. New York has always been a city of dreams, a harbor for all those huddled masses yearning to breathe free. In the words of E.B. White, from his timeless 1949 essay “Here is New York,” this city “is to the nation what the white church spire is to the village —the visible symbol of aspiration and faith . . . [a] vigorous spear that presses heaven hard.” Now, for the first time in history, people are making the pilgrimage to New York not to look up and see the skyscrapers but to go downtown and see what lies beneath at Ground Zero. They arrive with their cameras, crosses, stars, and stripes to pay their respects. They mourn for us. They pray for our souls. They pardon us for being heretics, homosexuals, blacks, Jews. With hand over heart they recite the words to America’s new Pledge of Allegiance: I Love New York.
I’m not sure I’ve ever had a so-called “religious experience” in my lifetime, but I think my first real date with my first real boyfriend comes pretty close. I was a freshman in college, at New York University, and one night, after working late in the library, he invited me to take a stroll through Washington Square Park in the snow. It was one of those rare settings when the sky is black and the marble moon hangs low and the air is still and the ground feels soft underfoot. Perhaps none of these details is accurate; it might have been a blurry night with spits of rain and mounds of frozen mud. But my body believed that the former was true: I was in full bloom in the dead of December, my veins like roots pumping blood into my once-barren heart. We lay curled up on a park bench in near silence, speaking only to ask if the other was warm enough, or if I saw that squirrel, or if he could breathe through my wooly hair. The answer was always “yes.” Yes I’m OK without gloves. Yes you can put your hands right there.
He eventually fell asleep but my eyes never closed. I felt like a kid again, camped out in my backyard with my babysitter, peeking through the velcro flap of the tent, adjusting my eyes to the muffling darkness that made my home in the near distance appear miles and hours away. Real life took place in bedrooms and cafeterias and doctor’s offices but outside, after dark, dreams ruled the universe, and sleeping through them could be considered a crime against nature. So it was then, with a bag of peanuts and a flashlight, and so it was beneath the brightest lights of the biggest city in the world.
And then it was morning. Once the fog dispersed, my perspective shifted beyond the limits of the park. A solitary runner, a woman, came into focus. Through sidewalks bathed in slush and fallen branches she swept forward, like an angel, never once looking down to contemplate her next step. “Love,” I whispered into my scarf, over and over, as the reflectors on her shoes circled the park, like planets. Her gait, quick and light, looked effortless, as if she alone stood still and the Square was spinning on an axis. With my boyfriend’s warm breath at my neck and the epic Twin Towers hovering over the treetops and the faint ringing of church bells in the distance I sensed that everything in my life had led me to this one, pre-dawn moment of cosmic confirmation: “Love” required faith. It was something you could neither look for nor hide from; it would find you as long as you kept your eyes open and kept on moving, like Galileo’s humbled Earth. This was not a sophisticated philosophy, I can concede, but one that felt uniquely New York at the time. All that talk about marathons and rat-races and “if I can make it there” and suddenly I was there, in the running—just like I am, and we all are, right now.
So what about Love in the Wake of September 11? How have our ideas, and ideals, of love been affected? Am I lonely all by myself in my tiny Brooklyn apartment? Are you? Seems the only thing left to do is what Anne Frank did: keep hope alive. “It is utterly impossible for me to build my life on a foundation of chaos, suffering, and death,” she wrote in her diary, in 1944. “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness. I hear the approaching thunder. I feel the suffering of millions.” And six months later:
Yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, this cruelty too shall end—and that peace and tranquility will return once more.
If she could believe it, then maybe we can too.
Elizabeth Frankenberger wrote a musical about Anne Frank when she was in elementary school in Andover, Mass. She is now a NYC-based SJF whose work recently appeared in Before and After: Stories from New York.