How New York City came to consume me.
Yes, I am married. Enough about that.
The City, which we all know means New York, is my lover. San Francisco, by contrast is my oddball ex, the kind you return to periodically to remember why you left. I went to grad school there in a reluctant pursuit of architecture that, with writing, became my lifelong calling. So unsure was I of both Berkeley and architecture that I arrived right before my time in the studio became all-consuming, but without an apartment or many clothes. I slept on plastic sheets, in the city, at the Y. Communal showers. Ugly commute.
Oh, but architecture. There was the lilting voice of my South African Yoda, Stanley Saitowitz, who called me Vichon and inspired me to draw with ink, build models with concrete and caress surfaces with light. After being born in Calcutta but bred in the working-class suburbs of Boston — where I heard and received no shortage of racial epithets — maybe, just maybe, far-flung San Francisco was the promised land?
I tried, I really did. I drove cross country. I hiked. I bathed in desert sunsets. I forgave the chilly summer. But it never took.
I first came to Manhattan in the 1970s with my parents, sister and grandfather. He had a law degree, was a Bengali farmer of sorts and had sired 14 children, the last of whom died in childbirth along with my elegant grandmother. He cowered at the site of the Empire State Building. My father, the seventh of the 14, was furious that despite the arduous travel, his father refused the ascent upward. But we did see “West Side Story” on Broadway that night, probably because of my musical mother. Maybe it was that night — tonight, tonight, it all began tonight — that the City became my lover.
In the City, I had found my long-lost brother, the loyal sibling I had always wanted but never knew.
It took more than another decade to finally move here. It was 1988. By day I worked as a transportation planner in World Trade Center One. Months before, I had called the general number of the Port Authority from my apartment in Ithaca, a confused graduating art history and engineering student, and begged the operator to connect me to anyone, anyone, as long as they weren’t in Human Resources.
“What are you interested in?”
“There’s an office of Long Range Transportation Planning, do you want to talk to them?”
“Who there do you want to speak to?”
“The head person.”
“Yes, can you connect me, please?”
Suddenly, I was chatting up Mr. Botzow. Hermann. He invited me for an interview, I think because I had the audacity to cold-call him. One bad family graduation experience later, there I was, in my sole gray Brooks Brothers suit I would go on to wear five days a week, hustling towards the towers. The first day, I got out at the wrong stop on the Lex – City Hall instead of Fulton Street. It was past eight on a Monday morning, and I didn’t want to be late. The crosswalk at Park Row and Broadway was confusing, and in my rush, I lost my footing for a moment, barely saving myself and my battle regalia from a ruinous fall. A man swiftly skirted around me.
“8:30 in the morning, and you’re drunk!?”
Welcome to New York, kid. The 54th floor of the World Trade Center. Christ. The second child of the seventh child of 14 children from village India who had come here with $32.
I was young and part of the problem. Restless. The City raced through me like a virus. I never left the Roxy before sunrise. I got noticed, which hadn’t happened in my first 20 years. My skin wasn’t a liability, not here.
My heart beat so hard it might bounce onto the torch of the statue in the harbor, like a kebab.
Yamasaki’s lobby was huge and gothic, with light streaming through on the darkest of days, even in those ash-filled videos from 9/11. The building blew in the wind, a dry leaf, Brooklyn waving to the east. In a snowstorm, you disappeared.
Its iridescent 110 stories of chamfered aluminum grew out of the ground like a great sequoia, the same ground where my love of architecture would take firmer root. The glistening sky lobby housed the cafeteria where the old timers traded model trains. Some of them had worked with Moses. They loved trains and boats and planes.
I had no idea that this would be the last moment in human history when many people writ large loved their jobs just for the joy of it — not for money, not for self-actualization, just for the love of moving people.
I was young and part of the problem. Restless. The City raced through me like a virus. I never left the Roxy before sunrise. I got noticed, which hadn’t happened in my first 20 years. My skin wasn’t a liability, not here. From whatever bed I found myself in I would climb back home, into that sole suit, and head off to the World Trade Center, waving in the wind, knowing that while I was utterly homeless, I had finally found my home. Not in the usual sense — my roommate and I lived in a one-bedroom on East 16th Street replete with floor-to-ceiling interlocked diamond-shaped mirrors, a place we dubbed Versailles. We sublet it from a man named Shah and his wife Candi, with an “i,” who collected rent the first Tuesday of every month in cash, after midnight.
In the City, I had found my long-lost brother, the loyal sibling I had always wanted but never knew. The person who provided me counsel on the sidewalk, rain pounding the pavement, helping me unpack myself in a way that no one and no place ever had. I finally realized, I was no different from the millions and billions around me, we were all imposters.
People in California, and to be fair, across the states, always asked, “Where are you from?” Sometimes Boston, I would say, sometimes New York. These responses would drive them batshit crazy because what they were really asking about was my skin. “No, I mean where are you really from?”
But no one in New York ever asked this, because no one here gives a shit. No one here is interested in where you are from, they are only interested in where you are going.
During one of my few dates in Berkeley, I was berated for my lack of interest in yoga.
“Do you practice?”
“But you work out.”
“Yeah, I like weights. I run and bike sometimes.”
“So aren’t you in touch with your roots? Your culture is one of the great cultures of the planet, and yoga is its center, VEEshan. Don’t you feel guilty for being so…Americanized?”
These things just don’t happen in New York City. Few would brave such idiocy. Gotham is great not because it is good, but because it is guttural. The corpus of the City has no room for lazy assumptions. The City does not brook the ignorance of easy comfort.
This is why I have no fear for this cosmopolis in the face of Zoom. I mean, please. I helped to rebuild this place after 9/11, which was all the less daunting because almost everyone here believes in the City as much as they complain about it. The civilians beyond our borders just don’t get it. They don’t get why we live here, how we raise children here, how we share almost everything and why we will fight for that everything with our last dying breath. Our homes aren’t homes, they are repositories, closets with bathrooms.
Anyone who thinks remote work can bring this miracle down is clueless about why we live here in the first place. You can make it here only because you can make it anywhere, but why would you ever go anywhere when you can make it here?
In San Francisco, the city is a means to an end. For us, New York is the end, however mean.
About San Francisco, I worry much more. Twenty-five years after grad school, during the pandemic, I returned there with my family, this time not as a student but as dean. It was a tragic experience for us, especially our kids, and though we have been back in New York almost two years, we are still recovering. Few in the Bay Area seem to have a fight for the place in their bones — the tech companies in particular show little geographic loyalty. Sure, people care about kayaking in Point Reyes or hiking in the ever-burning Sierras; they will forever drive and drive to drier and drier beauty, destroying the nature they so blindly love.
Because in San Francisco, the city is a means to an end. For us, New York is the end, however mean.
I do wish my old ex the best. She’s a gorgeous siren but she no longer calls me, especially with my parents’ youthful passing, and, with them, the desire to emigrate. When I was a teen I thought that same wanderlust would never leave me, that my restlessness would propel my body past its limits. But New York channels that energy without mercy or sentimentality, pushing my body past every limit all while staying put.
The City is my lover not because it completes me, not because it relaxes me, but because each day it has the capacity to unleash unexpected, all-consuming, ever-expansive ecstasy. Everyone is a nobody and a star, which is why the stars are nobody here. Every season — the sweltering summer, Billie’s Autumn, the spring when the sidewalks ripen with verdant flesh, the brilliant, specular winter — the City rubs against your skin and makes you feel more alive than you could have imagined shooting through birth’s canal. It reminds you always of how incomplete you are, how much you need to push… not how much you need to do, or to accomplish, or to buff… but to push yourself to go make something of your one life, your one brain, your one body.
This City tugs at me like an impatient first love. I can’t imagine life without it, how dull it would be, how listless I would be, how unaroused the world would be, how uninspired these flying decades, count them one upon ten, would be.
From where would my ashes fly, because sure as shit, I assure you bridge of Brooklyn, they will never fly from the Golden Gate.