Growing up, I’d watch TV shows featuring quirky and quintessential New York City characters like Kramer, Archie Bunker and Louie De Palma. They exuded a darker, seedier and sometimes sexier side of life.
That was New York to me. And that’s what I got the first two times I visited the city, in 1992 & 1997.
But my third visit, this past June, was different.
My first visit happened to be the same week when then Vice President Dan Quayle spelled ‘potatoe’ wrong – and David Letterman would not let the mistake go. Less than two weeks later, MTV debuted the first ever ‘The Real World,’ which was taped in New York City earlier that year. And on my flight home via Philadelphia, I shared a commercial flight with supermodel Naomi Campbell.
The second time I visited with my mother, during spring break from the University of Nevada, Reno in early April 1997.
This time a deadly shooting occurred atop the Empire State Building a week prior to my arrival. I refused to go when my mother asked if I’d like to visit. “Maybe next time, but not this time.”
We watched live tapings of ‘Late Night With Conan O’Brien’ and the ‘Late Show With David Letterman’ – the same day the Cornell men’s soccer team also decided to go. Since it was a few days before Letterman’s 50th birthday, I brought along a gift certificate to the Mustang Ranch, but alas he never got it since we spent most of our pre-show Q & A time on a man from New Jersey. (And now that portions of the original Mustang brothel don’t exist due to various reasons, I refuse to forfeit that certificate!)
Outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, oceans of taxi-cabs whooshed by in one long yellow blur. HONK! HONK! No matter where I went. HONK! HONK! The constant noise pollution gave me insomnia.
And then at 6:52 a.m. on September 2001, I woke up my mother with what she described as “a strange look.” I pointed to the TV and said, “I think we’re under attack.”
By chance I took that morning off from working the morning show at my local news station. Around midnight that night on our police scanner I heard about a possible suicidal man “saying ‘God Bless America’ and then he hung up.” Minutes later, alone in the newsroom, I heard a dispatcher call out a definitive ‘Code 50’ – meaning dead body. To this day, I’m pretty sure it was the same man.
For weeks after I aired live shots from NYC with CBS News correspondents in front of massive piles of steaming twisted steel. Viewers I did not know personally thanked my station, and me, for reporting the news.
It was surreal.
And it’s surreal to know I played gleeful tourist in that same city earlier this month. It still doesn’t mentally register that that was the same site where thousands of people perished, what I saw on TV all those years ago nearly 3,000 miles away.
I think I was in more shock – and appalled – by the newest technology to emerge within that sacred place – the selfie-stick. I can’t tell how many I saw within a two-hour span. Unfazed by the tackiness, a man walked up to one of the towers’ memorial fountains next to me. He pointed to a name. “You see this name?” he asked his young son. “Yeah.” “I knew that man,” he said gliding his hand against the engraved letters.
While I don’t know anyone who died there, I felt the man’s sorrow, compassion and pride he showed his son in those short moments.
It’s those fleeting thoughts that made me realize that maybe, just maybe, that traumatic history helped sweeten the city’s famous gritty feel.
I started to notice that nearly everywhere people were nicer.
A woman tripped and smashed her face onto the bricks inside a subway terminal, and everyone around her stopped to help. “Are you ok?” “Do you need us to call someone?” While the generosity was nice to see, what happened to the New York City I grew up with? The angry cabbies? The don’t-give-a-damn pedestrians? The chain-smoking butchers squinting at passersby while on break? It seemingly disappeared. And I believe it’s in part due to the terrorist attacks. There’s a wider police presence, MetroCards ask people to call a terrorist hotline ‘if you see something, say something’ – and some subway cars even display ‘Courtesy Counts’ doorway banners.
Wall Street is now closed off to traffic, and there’s a thin, long center median along Broadway in front of the now temporarily closed Ed Sullivan Theater.
And did I mention Times Square? A lot of it is closed to vehicles, and thanks to stadium seating, it looks more like a spectator’s view to ever-changing eye candy.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll always cherish the Big Apple, but I can’t help wonder what happened to the Old World feel I got watching those TV shows growing up?
Singular no more, this city has morphed into a ‘we’ as in ‘United We Stand’ or maybe, ‘We (heart symbol) NY.’