Day 58: The New Hometown: Belonging and Longing For A Sense of Place In Real Time and Movie Time

28February 2011

The 58th Day of 2011

This morning The Stone Sage Lion was growling. It wasn’t really a roar, but I could see his teeth clearly.  His garment of snow had melted; he was soaking wet from a rainy night.  I tried to tell him (but does he ever listen?) February was almost over.  By midnight it would be March, and that next year, he would have to endure another full day of a difficult month.  “It’s Leap Year in 2012!”  I whispered to him through the glass door to the terrace.  I knew he wasn’t paying any attention.  Perhaps he was thinking of taking a long leap over the terrace and into the land of sunshine where he once lived with me.  Then again, he was probably only acting as the mirror to my thoughts.

… Once Upon A Time..

To be precise:  Once Upon Three Decades Ago And A Bit

… With a purse filled heavy with the spare change of Hope, I sat on the corner in a small restaurant’s glass-covered porch.  I looked down the street and stared up at this terrace that would in a few days become my new home.  The restaurant was then a French bistro called Central Parc (if memory hasn’t failed me). It’s been many different restaurants serving many cuisines in those 30 plus years, from the bistro of that February day to the present time — including a lobster joint and finally a well-established deli (which does deliver).  I don’t remember everything I thought that bleak and grey winter’s day, but I did wonder if I were about to make the mistake of a lifetime.  On the other hand, New York was the place of my fantasy-life.

Many people move to Hollywood for those reasons – the fantasy of starting over, of recreating oneself, of finding the true and hidden inner-self.  With the Oscar Awards freshly over, I can’t help but think above movies.  I was a Southern California girl who watched movies about New York.  When I decided to make the move to Manhattan my father said most people moved from the cold East Coast to the warmer West Coast. He couldn’t legitimately persuade me Manhattan wasn’t worth a shot. He had already filled my head with stories about the magic of New York City and they had far more weight than the movies did. He lived and worked in New York after the Depression and those years and times never left him.  Of course, like so many others veterans who fought in the European Theatre of Operations against Hitler and his forces, he shipped out and returned through New York’s Harbor.  On their way into danger, the Statue of Liberty embodied the life they were leaving and the prayer of safe return and victory.  At the end of the War, she was their first greeter as the ships with surviving veterans sailed into home waters.

My father was in Paris during the War and was captivated by it, even in its diminished state. He fell in love with all things Paris and that too became his lore.  For my 9th birthday he took me to see the movie Gigi, on the biggest screen in our hometown of Long Beach and at the fanciest theatre.  Then we had lunch at a restaurant owned by a friend of his. It was a very adult afternoon. I adored the movie and was convinced Paris would become my adult home.  This fantasy was fueled further by my French Aunt (by marriage to one of my mother’s brothers) and by her mother, who served as a surrogate Grandmother and tutored me in French every Saturday morning.

My mother was less than amused by the birthday surprise.  “You have taken our daughter to see a movie about a courtesan?”  I heard them in the next room, and quickly hit the unabridged leather-bound thumb indexed edition of the Webster’s. The word’s definitions provided more words I didn’t understand.  Finally, I got the point – almost.  When my father and I were alone, I asked him directly.  And he answered directly that Gigi was going to be taken care of by the love-of-her-life but he would not marry her and she wanted more than that.  And in her resistance to her grandmother and her aunt, she had gotten what she desired, to be a wife.  I didn’t know that I wanted to be a wife, but I surely wanted to live in Paris forever.

Gigi had replaced an inappropriate film from the year before, the iconic, An Affair to Remember, and so Paris took first place over New York.  By 1961 Breakfast at Tiffany’s won my heart and it was back to New York for me.  Recalling the movie obsessions of my girlhood, I am struck that they hardly predicted the woman I would become. Those movies were each in different but overlapping ways about being with a man, if not defined by one. But, it wasn’t the romantic relationships in those films that intrigued me but the glamour of the cities, far more than being chosen by a man.  I moved to New York to claim an independence of mind, spirit and creativity.  It’s also true I relocated to New York because of a broken heart.  What was to be one year in Manhattan has turned into the place I have lived more than half my life.  Yet, I still think of it as the new hometown.

The first time I saw New York off-screen I was on my way to Paris.  My father had encouraged me to apply to a special pre-college program in Paris and I was accepted.  Paris was all I had dreamed and more. Mid-point in the term, I called him (quite an expensive decision) and begged him to let me stay on in Paris.  “Just let me do all my college here and I promise I’ll come back to California.”  He said I would not come home.  I would become an ex-patriot and I was far too young to make that decision.  What he didn’t say was the truth of why it was an impossible dream – chronic illness had already landed me in the American Hospital in Paris.

Years later I found myself in Paris again, a woman old enough to stay and become a part of the large American ex-pat community.  However, I suspected I would always feel like an outsider. Although it might have been exotic to say: “I am a girl from Long Beach, California, but I live in Paris now,” I knew would never be able to say: “I am a Parisian.” I needed and wanted to belong to a place in a new way; I wanted to make a new life that wasn’t a replication of a movie.

And so, I moved to Manhattan.  That February day I looked up at the terrace from the bistro.  My Stone Sage Lion was still basking in the sun on the patio of his Berkeley home. He had no idea a long trip across the country in a crate was in his future.  And I had no idea what was in my future.  One of us Stone and the other one Flesh yet, we were in the same situation, but I was in charge of his next moves as well as my own.

Manhattan has changed as much as I have in these last decades.  For many years I could look out the window and see terraces and roofs all the way to 57th Street.  Now glass and steel towers have blocked that view and the sunshine.  But other reflections bring other forms of pleasure and satisfaction.  The loss of the lights of the Chrysler Building on the Western side of the apartment was an enormous sorrow.  I could dine by the lights of its “nostrils” as I used to call the Chrysler Building at night. When it was covered over by a new skyscraper, I held a farewell party to that glorious building.  We toasted a New York that was leaving us.

In 2001 Manhattan changed forever. When the Twin Towers were attacked and collapsed the city was transformed in unimaginable ways.  I still gasp with a momentary forgetfulness when I return from JFK and observe the presence of absence in our skyline.  I want to remember those weeks and months after the attack, not only as a mental memorial to those killed but also because of the ways we behaved as a community. We were one hometown, helping one another, mourning with each other, moving into the future as neighbors and friends.  I was often on Broadway in those early weeks and months after 9-11. People from all over the globe came to the city to see plays. And they came to visit us and to make us believe we would recover.  There was a sea of the ubiquitous I LOVE NEW YORK buttons with a bruised heart in the place of the word Love.  I heard languages spoken I couldn’t pretend to understand.

All of us experience multiple Manhattans simultaneously.  I sometimes still live within in the memories of the Manhattan that existed the February day of my decision to give this city a try.  That date is further behind me than my colleagues Susan and Michael are old.  I also reside in the New York of my father’s stories, which only existed in his mind. When he first visited me and sat on this terrace, it was a rocky transition.  Then he adjusted and lived happily in my Manhattan too.  Each new week of this year, I attempt to understand the Manhattan Susan and Michael and their generation will live in and make better.   And one grey and rainy February day, many decades from now, they might even remember the New York that exists — right this minute.

That’s it for the Stone Sage Lion and for his storyteller for this week. See you next Monday. Visit From This Terrace often and tell your friends.  We both get lonely without you!

©2011 Alida Brill From This Terrace



Filed under Community, Friendship, Hope, Inspiration, Life, Memories, Relationships, Seasons, Time, Uncategorized, Women

4 responses to “Day 58: The New Hometown: Belonging and Longing For A Sense of Place In Real Time and Movie Time

  1. I love this for so many reasons, as usual. You know why I first came to love New York and the child within me who wishes to visit someday but filled with the difficulties of such travel. It is always a treat to read about it from your perspective.

  2. Carolyn Hitt

    “the presence of absence . . .”

  3. What a beautiful love letter to New York. I’ve never felt at home when I’ve visited your city; I found it endlessly fascinating but I knew it wasn’t for me to stay in long term. But I fell in love with Paris immediately and felt I could live there. Yet a friend of my son’s who’s married a Parisian woman and has a good life there with their two children is begging her to move back to California. He finds French society stultifying and inflexible (despite its reputation to the contrary). He says he sometimes feel like he can’t breath (metaphorically of course).

    Oh, and Gigi was one of my favorite childhood movies too. I watched it over and over again. Never having been told she was a courtesan, I never thought of her as anyone other than the beautiful Gigi.

    Thanks for sharing your New York with me.

  4. Katie Bamberger

    I loved reading about your New York. As one of many, I dream of New York and all the possibilities the city offers. Your story reminds us of the many journeys and dreams we all have along the way. Thank you for sharing this with us!

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