On A New York Memory

2 June, 2010

Wherein I recall a vintage New York soundscape.

Growing up in Central Jersey in the 80s, we lived in the plush suburban periphery of New York City. As the product of two very New York parents (themselves the result of Brooklyn, Queens, Brooklyn and Brooklyn parentage), New York’s cultural legacy runs rich in my blood, but as a girl, my cognitive awareness of the city was fueled by what I saw on TV – the Nightly News more than Night Court.  In my mind, the Center of the Universe was a blend of the stories from the news of drugs, rape, murder, homelessness and filth and Adventures in Babysitting, which only mirrored what I believed the entire city to be.

My family maintained a fairly regular tradition of a monthly dinner in Chinatown, and these journeys were eagerly anticipated – not only for the promise of scallion pancakes and cold noodles with sesame sauce, but for the excitement of spending a few precious (and delicious) hours in the city.

I’ve always had a good memory, and have held on to so many moments from those New York Outings.  I remember the magic of the Lincoln Tunnel, anxiously awaiting the tiled indicator between “New Jersey” and “New York,” and the moment when my parents would, technically, be in New York and my sister and I in the backseat would still be in New Jersey.  I remember the looks on my parents’ faces as we circled Mott Street searching for a parking space – my father would always turn down the radio to help him concentrate.  I remember bouncing up and down on my father’s shoulders as we walked towards the restaurant where our friends would be waiting for us, downtown feeling gritty as could be but often bathed in a warm, orange sunset.  I remember shying away from the headless roasted chickens hanging in steamy windows, the intoxicating smell of a hundred restaurants drowning in brown garlic sauce, and the oil that would cling to my fingers as I greedily devoured scallion pancake after scallion pancake.  (My appetite was as healthy as my memory.)

I have two distinct sound memories from these nights; two, that is, not including the laughter of our party’s conversation and banter.  One is awfully specific – we passed an honest-to-goodness New York rocker (or so I thought), walking down the street with a boom-box balanced on his shoulder.  He wore a denim jacket that was no doubt stone and/or acid washed, and I believe he was wearing sunglasses, despite the late hour and darkness.  This moment may have been my very first validation of coolness as (present-day Me is not so proud to admit this, but I remember how excited 6-year-old Me was) his boom-box was playing the first and only cassette tape that my sister and I owned/shared: Starship’s “Knee Deep in the Hoopla” (not that we knew it was called that), and it was blasting the second ‘best’ song on the album: “Sara.”  I tripped over my words as I interrupted any and all conversations our group was having at that moment to brag that we had that song too!  And to think – we heard it in New York City.

But now – on to what inspired this blog post, on to what it’s really about.  There was one other sound that I associated with growing up and Koch’s New York City; music that was as far as you could get from Blondie or The Ramones, or, gratefully, Starship.

It was the slow, soulful wail of a saxophone, moaning long into the New York City night.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not completely sure if this memory truly mine, or if, too, belongs to the movies and television shows of my youth.  Was not every low-angle shot of a desolate and dirty midtown street accompanied by the wail of a lonesome sax?  Surely.  But somewhere in the recesses of my long and twisted recollection lies the soundtrack to those evenings in New York City as a child, and that soundtrack consists of a low cacophony of languages underscoring the whoosh of cars and far away sirens.  The prominent sound, though, was that of the saxophone, which felt to me like a cry out to the lost souls I imagined roamed the city, uniting the disparate and displaced, the wayward and the worried, those who were still awake it hear it’s howl.

All of this was easily delegated to the corners of my mind, stowed away in my memory with the smell of my grandparent’s old house and the feel of bunnysleepers against my young skin.

Until this afternoon.

This afternoon, I left my office in search of liquid salvation, that sweet ambrosia called Diet Coke.  I walked outside and squinted against the bright June sun and breathed in the warm, heavy air.  Then I heard it – as out of place as a 25 year old memory, yet just as desperate: the whine of a solo saxophone, played by a man who seemed just retro as the tune he played.  In a white tank top tucked into red shorts, a long ponytail pulled at the base of head and a pair of cheap sunglasses wrapped around his head, this man played notes from that long-ago score as few passersby dropped spare change into a neon green case propped up on the sidewalk.

Instantly, I was forced to reconcile present-day awareness – a bustling Chelsea block, the middle of my lackluster workday – with this sound that came straight out of the 80s, out of the place in my brain that lives next to “We Built This City,” and out of nights filled with General Tso’s chicken and Häagen-Dazs.  I circled the block, taking in the fresh if thick air, and the saxophone’s notes followed me, linking my tedious day with an ancient memory of carefree nights.  It was so  glaringly incongruous, yet no one else seemed moved by this, the sound that was as vintage as the high-waisted jeans that have unfortunately come back in fashion.

Once back in my office, through the half-assed windows that let in the winter draft, the sax wafted in, although muted, and filled my afternoon with a strange nostalgia, for a far-away part of my childhood, resurrected by the sound of a New York that I never really knew.

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