An essay by Anja Tyson
Last Spring, in a classic desperate modern parenting move, I relocated myself and my daughter from the house she had lived in her whole life so far to a shinier, better-situated place zoned for a higher caliber public school.
The apartment was in a newly-constructed high-rise, outsized and gargantuan as are all of the new buildings creeping down Flatbush from the bridge, like a highly infectious virus carried over the lower deck from Manhattan. But this particular apartment faces out over the half of Kings County that hasn’t been viciously overdeveloped yet, and so in the whole of the 180 degree views everything beneath us was hundreds of feet down, the same visual effect as hiking to the top of a cliff to survey the land below. I opened my eyes each morning to walls bathed in pink as the sun crept over the eastern horizon, and then read my daughter to sleep in her bedroom each evening filled with syrupy golden end-of-day light. One of her most highly-requested holiday gifts was a disco ball, which ended up finding a home on the floor of our living room, filling the background of each day with shining bright dots on every surface. When I think back to this period one day, I will primarily remember it as being bathed in sun, and the effect was of peace and solitude, as if there were not one thousand other people below and around me but we had found some lone perch in the sky to nest in.
For someone who has never successfully meditated, city-gazing became a trance for me.
I could see the street we had moved from, the hospital where I was born, the church my father lived next to when he started dating my mother, the library my mother visited with me as a small child. In the summer we could see drumlines and block parties and kids in sprinklers, in the winter all the trees disappeared and we could see every cement and brick for miles on clear days, a cold, barren city full of people casting long sharp shadows as the sun went down in the middle of the afternoon. I had always been wary of living so high, for a myriad of reasons each only related by my high anxiety, but soon I found myself staring aimlessly out into the distance while washing the dishes, or while talking on the phone, or sometimes just drifting over mid-task to stare.
One of the things New York is best at is reminding you of exactly how small you are, and one late evening from the window this was impressed upon me in a brand new way as I gazed up at the flight paths for all three major airports, approaching from the south due to high winds, and counted 11 planes total, all seemingly suspended and floating in air but actually barreling toward the city at deceptively violent speeds. 11 planes is about 2,000 people, all packed in likesardines, all being commanded to put their phones away, all getting ready to land and go home to a couple thousand different apartments and townhouses. During New York’s pandemic shutdown I found out that there are 28,000 people per square mile in New York City, and I thought back to this moment when I counted the people flying through the air, only 2,000, each out of their 28,000 person square mile, out of the 300 square miles of New York City as a whole if you count Staten Island (I do, when it’s convenient), and then I thought about my little family and my seemingly inconsequential body in the window of our apartment and decided to turn in for the night before I felt too small to be able to reach the floor to get there.
“Tell me about when I was a baby and you used to bring me to the park and lay me in the grass.” This is my daughter’s favorite story, because she has remembered only the very specific details from her own perspective, which is, due to age and temperament, one of celebratorial and unconditional adoration. On these park trips, she used to stare up at me from the stroller, alternating between a peaceful well-fed slumber and a wide awake smile with bright half moon eyes and an expectant stare. My daughter, as an infant, would wake up and fix her gaze on me with the expression of someone bewildered at their own luck, someone holding a winning lottery ticket or at least about to cash in a very lucrative Vanguard account, someone who was excited for life. But on these walks, which often lasted all day, because babies are portable and I was most often alone as a single mother to an infant, I was tired, hungry, stressed from work, worried about money, worried about my health, worried about things that felt only a second or two ahead of me.
I will briefly digress – you have likely heard before the expression Time Is Money. No one knows this fact better than someone who does not have enough money. But the money/time relation is not the minimum wage calculation you would expect. To have no money is to only be able to think of the things one or two seconds ahead of you; your phone bill, this week’s groceries, things you can reach when you simply extend your arms from your body. The more money you have, the more time you can see. Suddenly there is a distant vacation. A savings account. An IRA. The mega-wealthy can see so far beyond their immediate grasp that they are building wealth for generations that haven’t even been born yet. People who haven’t even been named. This is the way I look at finances – not as an accumulation but how far in front of me I can see at any given time.
Anyway, the walks started on the far flung sidewalk outside our house in Bed Stuy, and typically reached their crescendo at some southerly tip of Prospect Park. We would walk small streets through Crown Heights and Prospect Heights, no real map aside from a direction, stopping to admire a window display full of cheap colorful toys or a sidewalk steel drummer or large scale graffiti or even just the beeping of trucks driving in reverse, which used to delight my daughter for reasons still unclear. We would turn down Classon and run into the Panamanian Independence Day Parade, turn on Eastern Parkway and be approached by young Orthodox Jews looking to meet their blessing quota for Sukkot, a quick turn onto Flatbush and find a festival outside of the library, down Ocean to the park entrance by the Zoo, suddenly confronted by a dozen family barbeques.
People often speak about hiking in the woods in an irreverent way, to commune with nature, be shown the path by the universe, recognize their connection to all living things. I’ve always been an early bloomer (those of us who bloom early can tell you this is not a compliment), and in my late 20s I entertained a bout of planning to move to the woods to live for a while. Not the chic woods of the Hudson Valley or Litchfield County, but the semi-feral woods of Vermont, so unapologetically inurbane that it would render most of my existing wardrobe and skill set in the fashion industry completely obsolete.
What was I searching for in exploring that move? The theory of wilderness, the theory of access to fresh air – a theory which, by the way, still taunts me as my friends depart single file out of New York City in favor of the hills and woods of Los Angeles, quitting the “hustle”, desiring “space”, loving “the beach”. I watch their updates of sweeping vistas and misty forests and nature smells that I can probably only imagine, but nothing holds me the way Brooklyn holds me, and this is what I revisit when I walk the streets these days clad in surgical masks, brandishing hand sanitizer. Walking to the park this weekend with my now older, wiser daughter, I passed the same streets that younger, dumber (but early blooming!) me pushed her stroller along on early weekend mornings, on her way to place her small child in the grass in the hopes there was something natural below that had energy to give her, because I certainly did not.
Sometime at the end of the first year I stopped admiring the view as much, or I grew accustomed to being able to see everything everywhere at all times, and the novelty wore off. Around this time the pandemic arrived, and New York shut down, our ivory tower suddenly felt like a cage above the sick and suffering city. Each day we peered out and surveyed the situation, trying to understand what was happening in the world, feeling guilt-ridden at the comfort I received from being very far away from the ground. We kept off the streets and saw our friends over video, just like everyone else, sent money to mutual aid funds and checked in on the vulnerable. More than anything, we desperately, painfully missed New York.
As protests erupted in the early summer and fireworks suddenly started appearing on every street corner, late at night I would sit in the window again, no planes in the sky, and watch the entire horizon light up with fireworks for miles.
The noise kept people up all night long, friends with small children lamented over perilously interrupted sleep, there were numerous articles circulated positing theories of the police’s clandestine involvement, but, objectively, the sheer spectacle of 100 degrees of skyline being covered with explosions night after night was humbling. Like watching the planes line up to land the year earlier, I imagined individual groups of friends and family on each and every block for miles setting off fireworks in the middle of a global pandemic that had halted the economy – and, realistically, our lives – and it was somehow a balm. Feeling isolated and self-obsessed after being cooped up at home, I found myself repeating in my mind, we are all together, we are together when we don’t even know it, we are each a small part of the world.
Almost a decade ago I lived in the West Village in a tiny apartment just next to the river. In the midst of Hurricane Irene, which I had decided to stay put through out of sheer nerve and stupidity, the power cut, cell signals stopped, and a gas line burst in the basement. Moments later a fireman with a bullhorn was shouting evacuation orders through my window, and so I gathered my bag and my dog and headed out into the night with a plan to tap on my friend’s window down the street. In a hurricane. As I stepped outside, I heard my shoes land on something wet, and I looked down and had what remains the most curious realization I have had in my life, I am standing in the Hudson River. I looked to the left and the river had risen over the highway and come to meet us on our little corner at Weehawken Street. The power had long since gone out and the water was black and still and seemingly infinite, only disrupted by the tops of a few shrubs poking through the surface on West Street. The water at my feet was the water in the river was the water in the ocean was the water that touched the deepest sea floor that no one’s ever even seen; we are all together, we are together when we don’t even know it, we are each a small part of the world.
And after the storm I went back to my house with no power, and through the pandemic we waited patiently in a city with no amenities, mostly because of trust. New York is a lot of things to a lot of people, and to me it can be a lot like a parent (if I am a child), and so more often than not I sit faithfully by its side while it hurts people, drives drunk, makes bad investments, because it’s supposed to be in charge.
I would love New York to be a location but it is a relationship, particularly if you’re not just passing through, which cannot be defined as love but lust instead. So many of us struggle to activate and nurture our love lives and it’s due in no small part to the unrealized truth that in New York, you are always a part of a thrupple, and the best case scenario is that you and your significant other are both equally in love with this third party, the city. New York is the longest romantic relationship of my 36 years on earth, and I’m not outright calling her a homewrecker, but she has played a pivotal role in the demise of most of my significant love stories.
But since we have long ago cleared the wilderness away from these islands there is nothing left to keep alive here that is not man made. The food, the culture, the events, the world we live in here is all made by the hands of its citizens, and the constant analysis of The Death of New York covered by celebrities, restaurateurs, club owners, and overzealous New York Times op-ed columnists fails to mention that New York is suffering because of the multitudes of individuals that make New York worth it are suffering, and even as we force a return to some semblance of normal for the sake of our sanity, most of these people have been left behind with no resolution in sight, and they, my friends, are what is missing from New York right now. While I walk down the streets of my neighborhood these days I wait expectantly for the same feeling that I have always had, that Brooklyn will hold me. And instead, right now, it feels like I am supposed to be holding Brooklyn.
I love New York so much that it could not be anything other than a base pair in my DNA, however embarrassing that might be, and so much that the very thought of her “death” haerkens to the way widowers feel after losing their significant others – adrift, indentitless, like a shell. From this stupid cage in the sky I watch the ailing health of the city, and therefore each of its people, and wonder what my purpose is in this relationship. We are all together, we are together when we don’t even know it, we are each a small part of the world.
(Photograph by Richard Sandler. Words by Anja Tyson)