New York City is my city in a way that Atlanta will never be. Yet, walking the streets of my once hometown, I recognize that I must remain in exile for a little while longer, while I finish raising my children and walking my aging dog along the suburban sidewalks of my current neighborhood. New York is an unlivable city — too expensive, too noisy, too dirty, too crowded– too much for our family, right now. But stepping off the train in Grand Central Station, herded along with too many people through the narrow exit to the terminal, I vow to return to this city. I feel the City’s gravitational pull as it draws me toward the center of my universe.
My recent visit was too short. I arrived at the tail end of rush hour, exited Grand Central, and crossed town through the Diamond District as the shop keepers began reassembling their displays for the day. I turned right on Broadway into the heart of the Theater District, the brisk morning air charging my spirit forward. I am headed back to my neighborhood, the Upper West Side, as if an invisible tether leads me there.
In the ten years since I left home, the price of a subway ride has climbed to an unimaginable $2.25. I swipe the Metrocard and notice that everyone around me is hooked to a device: Blue Tooth, Blackberry, iPod, iPhone. No one on the #1 uptown train leans against the pole, clutching a NY Times folded into a narrow column. I am forced to supply this visual from my memory. In the crowded car, I am jostled against my neighbors but I do not feel claustrophobic. I look around again, careful to maintain an impassive New Yorker expression. There is an endless diversity of humanity here, and I realize how much I miss this particular form of human contact.
Emerging from the subway, I discover that the audio is the still the same– the train pulling away from the station, the blaring of car horns, the shouts of delivery men. Mostly, though, my memory is triggered by the scents of the City. Approaching H & H Bagels, inhaling deeply, I feel nostalgia and a longing for a warm pumpernickel with butter.
I spend several hours wandering up and down Broadway, until it is a respectable time for a deli lunch. The healthy diet of my middle age will not permit the overindulges of my youth: I order a half-sandwich, a long-awaited hot pastrami on rye, to be washed down with a Dr. Brown’s diet cream soda. The waiter wordlessly sets down a plastic cup of ice, a monkey dish of cole slaw, and a bowl of pickles. I bite into a half-sour; it is crunchy, perfect. The half-sandwich arrives, piled so high that I am sure its caloric content outpaces any full sandwich I have consumed in Atlanta during the last ten years. I have to squeeze it firmly to get my mouth around it. Ultimately, it is my sense of taste that evokes the strongest memories of my life here. I am sitting in a booth in a NYC deli, 1,000 miles from my house in Marietta, GA, savoring the feeling of coming home.