Reflections: Moon Over Manhattan
Published: January 2011
By Chip Brown
I never wanted to live in halfway places like the overprotected suburban town I grew up in, where the grocery stores wrapped the coconuts in cellophane and the banks and country clubs found other, more insidious ways of insulating residents from the danger of foreign bodies. A hygienic background like that and you crave the sepsis of adventure. Before I came to New York I lived in a small town in Alaska, and I've always been struck less by the obvious differences between these two places than by what they had in common, which was a kind of extremity, an almost coercive intensity that could bind you to the world and make it seem real in a way that no halfway place could. On summer evenings in Alaska you could hear a million shorebirds keening on the tidal flats, a chorus akin to the ethereal hum of Manhattan late at night, when it is actually quiet enough to hear how the million pieces of the city sound in unison. The whole of life in concert.
I moved to New York because the city promised what Thoreau had in mind when he proposed to travel widely without leaving home. No one who comes here is averse to adventure, or incurious, or happy with a middling sort of life. To me, New York was always the world in your hand, the planet sized for walking. It was the take-out taste of Brazil, China, India, Italy, Thailand, Japan. It was the matchless and quintessentially urban pageant of cultures that weren't allowed to fully express themselves in their own countries. It was the frisson of poetic derangement and the traveler's infinite pleasure in looking in on other lives—on cabbies, architects, ironworkers, saxophonists, gangsters, brokers, artists, actors, hairdressers, drug addicts, skateboarders, fashion models. It was the drama of buildings going up, and movies being made, and hawks being born along the cliffs of Fifth Avenue. It was the endless flow of everyday heartache and emergency. But because the odds were against your knowing the stamp dealer who was being levered into the ambulance after a heart attack, or the sacked big shot drowning his sorrows in the tavern, or the dumped spouse weeping in a Chelsea doorway, the crisis didn't seem personal; it wasn't a terrible blow to the welfare of the congregation. It was simply another piece of theater on the city's grand stage.
New York's "gift of privacy," as E. B. White famously called it, always felt like a potent combination of immunity and invisibility. Until September 11, I used to feel slightly unnerved whenever I bumped into someone I actually knew in the city, as if I'd been caught flagrante delicto.
And yet there's a reason people want their coconuts in cellophane. Extremity is taxing. Even after becoming a practiced city rat I found it hard to live amid such a density of my kind, or to sustain the high pitch of adventure and openness that marked my first years in New York. I discovered that the city devours its naïfs. You wise up quickly when your wallet is pinched. Before long, even the pageant begins to pall. You stop listening for shorebirds in the small hours of the morning. You stop seeing the glory of Manhattan's glittering extremes. You lose sight of the city. Much of the traveling I did was to escape this blinding intensity. I wanted to get back to places like the town I'd left in Alaska, where nature had not been driven into retreat, where there was some sense of life in its other guises.
And truth to tell, when those zealots rammed their commandeered airliners into the towers of the World Trade Center, there was a moment when I thought, Okay, that's it. Give me the coconuts in the cellophane. Give me the overprotected middling life. A house in Peoria. Or some safe place far from the insanity of religious fruitcakes.
I watched the fire in the north tower from the window of my two-year-old son's nursery—13 blocks north of Ground Zero—and then saw the orange-and-black-veined fireball of the second plane engulf the south tower. From the roof, I watched people in business clothes falling down the silver precipice—the sort of horrifying sight you might see when a luckless climber loses his grip on one of the great walls of Yosemite Valley. But in the city?It didn't compute.
What I know from life in Alaska is that nature in principle cares nothing for its own creations. And what I know from life in New York is that that idea, strictly speaking, does not apply to us. To leave the city now for some terrorist-proof safe house filled with hermetically sealed coconuts would be to turn away from the essence of what we are.
At 3 a.m. that night, after the towers had disintegrated, I stood by my son's changing table, staring out the window at the vacuum. It was unnaturally quiet, quiet enough to hear all the shorebird voices of the city, the living and dead whorled together as never before. All that sophisticated New York sense of theater was gone. What had happened that day was something no human being could watch with a sense of detachment or irony or immunity. We saw our own deaths in the deaths of others. We saw our own lives, too—the best and most courageous parts of ourselves, our collective strength. I felt exhausted, as if I had come back from a long trip, but also buoyed, as if by a sense of finally getting home. Where the great towers had stood there was now only the incongruity of a tobacco moon quartering in the southern sky. A moon my two-year-old boy had never seen out these windows before. A moon that said what the moon always seems to say: Where have you been?Where are you going?Its novel light was shining down on what was gone, and on the dream of what might someday rise in our windows again.
Chip Brown has written for the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair.