Taxicabs speed down Broadway near the intersection of Seventh Avenue and 42nd street in Times Square, Thursday, May 5, 2005 (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)
Recently, after years of avoiding New York City—or, more accurately, not being able to afford it—I traveled there from the small, middle-of-nowhere Midwestern town where I teach writing. I was going to give a few readings, meet my new agent, whom I somehow managed to sign with without stepping foot in New York, and hang out with friends. I was terrified. I knew I wouldn’t be chic enough or thin enough. In the car on the way to the hotel, we were stuck in traffic. It was warm out. Radios blared and exhaust filled the air. Certain things about the city never change. My driver was on the phone having a heated conversation in a language I couldn’t recognize. He was clearly on the losing end of the argument. I called my mother to tell her I had arrived safely.
In the 1970s, she and my father came from Haiti to New York, separately, my father by way of Montreal. They met at a wedding in New York. They fell in love in New York. They married in New York. I was even baptized in New York, though I’ve never lived in the city. Back in the day, my parents lived in the Bronx, when it was all burned up. I remember this detail because they remember this detail, quite vividly. They had little nice to say about the borough, but when they first came here, they were overwhelmed—new place, new language, so much cold and concrete.
My mom asked me how things were going and I said, “Well, the traffic is interesting.” She laughed. She said, “Your father can no longer tolerate that city for long periods of time. He doesn’t understand why people would live on top of each other like that.”
For a moment, I felt this pang of… envy, or maybe wistfulness, because so many of the important moments in their lives happened in New York, because some part of me very much understood why people would live like that.
Throughout my childhood, even though we sometimes visited family in New York, the city seemed more like an idea than a real place—an idea I very much wanted to be a part of—bright lights, big city.
Because of my father’s job, we moved often and always lived in suburbs or rural places that bore little resemblance to the sights and sounds of The City. We were in Nebraska, or the suburbs of Chicago, or the outskirts of Denver. We were in the land of sprawling malls, and new construction and chain restaurants that advertised with catchy slogans. There was more: we were always the only people who looked like us in our neighborhoods, at school. Not only were we of a different race, we were of an entirely different culture—Haitians in the middle of America, strangers in a strange world.
My mother has a sprawling family, nine brothers and sisters. My father has four brothers and sisters. When their families immigrated to the United States, most of them settled in New York City, in close proximity to one another. They were determined not to be strangers in a strange land, alone. We’d fly to the city on holidays and cram into my maternal grandmother’s apartment, so many of us, my grandmother at the stove cooking Haitian food, making fried plantains in a manner no one else can replicate (the secret is to soak them in salt water before frying), and clucking over her children and grandchildren with great fondness.