You could see the New York City skyline from the house in Montclair, NJ, where I grew up. Strung across the horizon, a shadowy gray line of type by day and a sparkly necklace at night, it told you which way was east, stabilizing your internal compass. Like Jerusalem or Mecca, it was also a spiritual anchor – where my father went to work every day, where anything worth reading was published, where the museums and theaters and restaurants and concert halls that really mattered were located, where the Yankees played and the TV signals originated.
When I was in high school in the early 1970s, I got nervous about nuclear holocaust. New York City seemed liked the likeliest target, and the thought of how close we lived kept me up at night. One night, I dreamt about the proximity.
New York is so close, my dream-self thought, the image of the skyline stretched across my dreamscape, that I can see every building from my window.
It’s so close, I thought, the visual zooming in like Google Street View, that I can see every window.
It’s so close… I realized, as the visual zoomed in once again, incredibly, to Times Square. In those strictly analog days, the only animated ad in Times Square was the smoker who blew rings made from steam. In my dream, every billboard was a TV screen showing a different, full-color movie. The City wasn’t just close, my dream was telling me. It was the place where anything was possible.
When the city blacked out in 1977, we saw the skyline turn off. First it was there it then it wasn’t, as if someone had simply flipped the light switch.
When the World Trade Center went up, I didn’t like it. The towers were too big. Too rectangular. Too far south. They skewed the scale of the entire skyline and threw off the composition, drawing the eye to the left, away from the Empire State and the Chrysler buildings, where the viewer’s attention belonged.
Eventually, I got used to the towers. When we drove down from Vermont with our kids in the early 1990s, Sam would catch sight of the skyline and shout, “I see the Two Twins!” His older cousins who are twins lived in Montclair. The “Two Twins” seemed a suitable monument.
My parents died in 1994 and 1999. By September, 2001, another family was living in our childhood home. I don’t know whether anyone was there at 9 am that Tuesday. If they had been, they would have had a clear view of the devastation.
I was at my desk in Vermont, writing a picture book tentatively entitled One With the Wind, an idealistic little story about what a small world we live in, and how something as seemingly insignificant as a sneeze can have a ripple effect that’s felt two continents away.
David called from his office and said I might want to turn on the TV. What I remember him saying is, “The whole world seems to be on fire.” As I stood watching the buildings collapse, one of my first thoughts was, “At least Mommy didn’t have to see this.”
After college, I lived in Los Angeles, where west was the Pacific and east was the San Gabriels, when you could see them. When we moved to Vermont, east was the Green Mountains and west was Lake Champlain. Now east is Narragansett Bay. It’s been a long time since I relied on the New York City skyline to let me know where I am.
But the memory of New York as the shining city out the window — of living so close to, but not in, something so important — still anchors me.
I don’t get back to Montclair much these days. My visits have been infrequent enough so I’m still startled by the way two sets of new owners have altered the family house, and by the lack of World Trade Center on the skyline. I stare at the house, trying to put it back to the way it’s supposed to look. I stare at the space where the towers should be, trying to put them back.
It’s a strange feeling, and by now sadly familiar, this sense of something you love being so close and so beyond reach.