The first time I saw the skyline of New York I felt a chill. We had arrived at a chaotic JFK airport and trundled in a taxi van through the ragged back streets of Queens. Nothing prepared me for the first sight of the soaring Empire State Building sticking up like a giant syringe in the sky, and the high towers that crowded her shoulders.
On the first night, we became lost in a labyrinth or bars and couldn't tell the taxi driver where we were staying on Park Avenue. It was an alcohol and angst-filled time. We could be happy in the haze of a drunken hour but far too sober suddenly at 5 a.m. My marriage was cold turkey by then. I was going through the motions, knowing but not fully coming to terms with her affair with somone just a few seats across every bar.
Being a journalist one never wants to be the story but looking back, I realize I probably was. So I buried myself in Bonfire of the Vanities, felt keenly the decline of Sherman McCoy and ticked off the group tourism activities washed down by copious amounts of overpriced beers.
I looked up too; at the eggshell blue sky above the Statue of Liberty and the snow that tumbled from a dark sky the next day and skipped down Fifth Avenue. We went up the North Tower and shuddered at the sheer distance above the flat roofs, little realizing that two years later people would be throwing themselves through the glass and to the ground below.
New York gives you space and perspective. It quickly cuts your problems down to size. On the last day in New York, I broke away alone and went to the Lower Eastside to tour the tenement museum where scores of families lived in teeming squalor early in the 20th century.
When you are suddenly alone after so many years it's frightening but liberating. I thought of all those people who had come here so many years before with just their shirt on their backs and thrived, or at least survived. I resisted the cliche of an old song - if you can make it here you can make it anywhere.
The second time I arrived in New York it was more than 16 years later. I was driving a sleek silver car with the kids in the back. It would a neat ending to say I had achieved the American dream and made it but that wasn't exactly the reality. I still don't live in a house with too many rooms with a wife who has a pedicure every week. I'm probably old enough to avoid such a grisly fate now. The car was a rental. The hotel may have cost an arm and a leg but it was a ragged place behind the car repair yards of Jersey City. It looked sketchy, but we walked.
The skyscrapers were as high as ever, although the Twin Towers had been replaced by the sleek Freedom Tower due to that aforementioned act of premeditated horror. . They seemed smaller than 16 years earlier. Maybe living in America had changed my perceptions. Those giant feats of man and machine and those images of workers on gantries high above the drop had become cliched.
I didn't get the buzz at first. There was the stress of finding the right bus and the numerous texts from the ex with instructions to prevent the kids falling down manholes. I wanted that carefree sense of adventure to kick in again. What if I had lost it a long time ago? What if America had long since swallowed me up in its anality? Or perhaps there comes a time when we all turn into our parents.
Half an hour later in Times Square, I looked up at the iconic facade of the New York Times, The square was as overrated and commercial as I remembered but there was energy, yellow taxes honking angrily and people diverging from all directions. I picked up a map and herded the kids east. Finally, I felt that old joy of adventure washing over me again.