I’ve heard — and the teller said he read this in an essay by Colson Whitehead — that a person is truly a New Yorker when they not only see the city around them, but when they perceive the invisible city that no longer exists.
When, for example, one looks at the poncey restaurant on the corner and in their mind’s eye sees the huge, disorganized video store that mostly trafficked in X-rated flicks which came before it. Native New Yorkers — by which I mean those who have decided to claim this town as their own, as the city welcomes all immigrants, dreamers, grifters, Jay Gatsby’s and Jay-Z’s alike, people with imagination looking to reincarnate themselves (and apologies to whomever I’m stealing that line from!) — walk through a city made of memories. Before that Starbucks stood a Five Guys, and before that, for as long as I can remember, a stationary store where the cashier wore fake eyelashes and dyed her waist-length hair jet-black like Elvira, Mistress of the Dark. The city is like a tree, always growing and changing, and the longer you live here, the more rings you can count, the more twigs you witness grow into branches and then vibrant limbs. (Or dead limbs, depending on your point-of-view. When I first moved here, Williamsburg was the edge of hip. No longer.)
Through this storied city roams a host of old selves — when I was a teacher, I spent Friday happy hours at the bar where I now often go to write in the afternoons. Here I sit on the couch typing away, while some years back, I perched in this very spot with people I no longer know, worried about kids who have grown into adults and whose names, even when aided with class photos, I can’t recall.
It would be easy to say that my memories of the city, and myself, break into two easily defined epochs: before fatherhood and after fatherhood. But that’s not true. There are many different me’s who have lived here, and even since the birth of Felix, I’ve continued to grow and change. The father I am today is similar to, and yet fundamentally different from, the one I was two years ago. I’m more patient now, for sure. But antsier too. Sometimes, we focus so much on our kids’ changing we don’t take time to reflect on the many ways they change us. Perhaps because those changes are harder to see.
Well, I’m beginning to see a few. I’ve always had one white eyelash, but yesterday I discovered a white eyebrow to go along with it, and strands of grey in my thick chest hair. Thick for now, anyway. The hair at my natural part is beginning to thin, to recede such that when the wind blows my forehead suddenly blooms into a five- or six-head. But that’s another story.
Today I realized my memories are starting to thicken to include my son; I don’t just see me in my mental rearview mirror, but Felix as well. Summers have, for the past two years, meant eating adventures for me and the boy. Our range has never been huge, but I’ve picked several spots in the city known for their delectable restaurants, like Chelsea Market, or Chinatown, and traveled there with Felix again and again, first in a carrier, then a stroller, and these days on our own, two guys off in the city, footloose and in search of good food.
At four years old, I see that he’s building a New York of the mind, too. He said to me today, “Daddy, let’s go to that dumpling place, the one with the good pork. Not that other one we went to. The green one? I didn’t like that one as much. What was it called?”
“Excellent Dumpling House.”
And then, when we arrived at the restaurant and I held him up so he could watch the women preparing our food, he leaned forward and said, “I didn’t like Excellent Dumpling House’s dumplings. I like your dumplings better.”
They smiled and waved, and I whispered to him, “Actually, you don’t eat these dumplings either. You like the pork sandwich.”
“Yeah, Daddy, let me tell them that.”
“No, that’s ok. Just say ‘thank you’ when they bring the food.” (That’s me. Always parenting.)
After scarfing down most of a pork sandwich, a menu item I introduced Felix to almost as soon as he could stomach solid food, he said, “Remember that time I lay on your lap after I ate?” He must have been two years old that day, when he felt less like eating and more like just watching the crowd of people getting dumplings and containers of soup for take-out! This kid’s got some memory.
He continued: “Let’s do that again. Let’s always do that when we come here.”
After his brief sojourn, we walked from Chinatown to SoHo for gelato, remembering how I used to push him in the stroller, pausing to marvel at all the playgrounds we always stop at, and observing how the construction work on this block has now moved to that block, and have you ever noticed that the busses in Manhattan are twice as long as they are in Brooklyn?
Only every time we come here.
A few blocks from Houston Street, I watched him skip ahead of me, excited for his frozen treat, and saw in his new little boy frame — the loose arms waggling at his sides, the upturn to his chest, this lithe, muscular body that seems made for dancing and acrobats and eating an incredible amount of food and metabolizing it like lightning — the toddler of six months ago, and the chubby new-walker before that. We see ourselves changing, growing old, and inevitably slowing down, losing our mojo. But our kids are like the city, ever expanding, transforming, ever vibrant, onto the next big thing — full of possibility and promise.
It’s a pleasure to walk these streets with my little man and glom onto their combined energy for a quick minute, it’s reinvigorating. I love this town. And my son. And the two together? Fuhgeddaboudit.