When I lived in New York City I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art almost every Sunday. My church was on the upper west side and I would walk down to 86th street, take the crosstown bus to the east side and spend my afternoon in the museum.
Seventeen years after moving to New York City with nothing but a bucketload of chutzpah (or so said my patron that wrote the introduction letter that landed me a job), I got the chance to take my 2 year old daughter to see the city that stole my heart.
Three months before September 11, 2001 I moved into a 7’x7’ room in an apartment in New York City with three roommates and one bathroom. One year earlier, I had graduated with a studio art degree and was working at a photo lab. The lab was closing their doors so I had to make a change. I recently had a successful exhibition of photographs and fabric installations and had about 4 months of living expenses saved so I decided to gamble for my dream and move to NYC before I even had a job there. Thanks to a letter of introduction to Ralph Gibson, a photographer and publisher, I landed a job quickly. Then September 11 came and the world felt upside down.
On the morning of September 11, 2001 I was asleep in my single mattress loft bed, under which my clothes were stored, when my phone rang. It was my dear friend and gallery owner Lamar Seizemore telling me to turn on the tv. I turned on New York 1 in time to see the second plane hit the tower. I was confused. I thought it must be some massive accident. All the phones went dead quickly. At one point later in the day I was able to get a phone connection to let my family know that I was ok, and that was the last phone call I could make for a week. The reality and gravity of the horror that had occurred took weeks to sink in.
The A train that ran through my neighborhood was one of the lines that stopped at World Trade Center so our train was down for some time. I was a bit nervous for my first few rides on the train again after September 11. But as I looked around, seeing strangers going on with their lives, my fears subsided. If they weren’t afraid, why should I be?
My roommates were medical students. For days they sat around the apartment in fresh scrubs waiting for a call to head downtown, anxious to help. As days passed we started to realize there would be no one to help, everyone inside had perished. It was all beyond belief, unimaginable.
When I finally went to work for Ralph in his Tribeca studio the air outside smelled charred and all the puddles in the street were filmed in a layer of ash that lasted for months.
After September 11, New York City was a different place for a little while. People actually talked to each other on the subway. People smiled and hugged and made friends with strangers. New York gets a bad rep for being unfriendly and I disagree with that and for those few months the New York that I saw was full of love and grit and survivors guilt. There were stories that haunted me with the miracle of grace, but also stories of hate crimes on Muslims that horrified me.
I talked to teenagers on the streets in my Dominican neighborhood that were joining the army because they were outraged that someone had attacked the country that had changed their families lives for the better. The city quickly retuned to work and I seldom saw fear on anyone’s face, although I admit seeing armed military on the train platforms made me uneasy. But an entire city of people made a decision not to stop because that means they win.
Of course New York would still hold a special place in my heart even if I hadn’t lived there through September 11th. But I must admit I think I love it more because I saw the city brought to its knees and watched it stand right back up again and fight for a return to normalcy. We were all grasping for a couple weeks but soon enough we were crawling and just like a child learning to walk, soon enough we were back to the racing pace that defines New York City.
Sharing the city that I love so dearly with my daughter made every landmark feel new. I saw the Metropolitan Museum of Art with fresh eyes. It was much different than the time I spent there alone two decades ago. I got less quiet time in front of the paintings but my heart was lighter and I saw a new beauty in paintings I had come to know as old friends.
Walking my sleepy daughter up those marble steps was a literal dream come true. The best part was seeing her delight. We are regular museum goers at home, in North Carolina, but she had never seen paintings so large and she was as captivated with the art as I was with her expressions. She likes telling me the colors and pointing out the babies in paintings. Museum days are our favorite days.
Luckily for me, my daughter fell asleep on my chest in time to let me view the Vermeers without wiggly kicky legs. I saw Vermeer and Delacroix with a warm baby asleep on my chest. I can add that to the list of perfect moments NYC has given me over the last two decades.