The thing I most want to do in this moment is make a giant list of all the wrong that occurred in the year of our Lord 2012. I want to wallow in it, highlight it, point out how unfair everything that ever happened in 2012 ever was. I want you to feel sorry for me. I want to feel sorry for myself. For not being skinnier, for not being in my 20s, for not becoming a famous blogger, for never seeming to do the things I really really really want to do. For failing to do everything perfectly, including choosing the right career and keeping an impeccable garden. I realize while writing this that my greatest sin, in my own mind, it not achieving perfection.
Because there’s the times that I do those things that I really really really want to do. And those wonderful things get covered up by clouds of self doubt, by some need to tell myself, hey you really ought to have done better. I’m always raining on my own damn parade. Truth is, the failures and unexpected twists that have made up this past year are the very things that have gotten me through it.
This year, I really really really wanted to know what it felt like to live in New York. You know, the glam, the hustle and bustle, the opportunities. So I just did that, went to New York and acted like I lived there for a few weeks. And it worked, I totally felt like I did live there. Nothing glamorous happened save for a dirty martini at sunset atop the Met. Except that everything glamorous did happen including a rained out Shakespeare in the park performance, dollar oysters around every corner, art appreciation lessons from a stranger at the Brooklyn museum, frog legs at Coney Island, matinee ballet amid fur clad seniors, and standing-room only Mets baseball. In New York, the glamour is in the grit.
After visiting Ellis Island, whose museum on American immigration is truly inspirational, I did a quick search on their website just to see if there were any relatives who’d passed through. Without much searching at all, I found a record from 1922 of my grandfather returning to the US from Turkey. The document indicated he was in Constantinople on business.
My grandfather died when my father was small, so I never knew him and neither did he. We knew next to nothing about the man. Maybe because my grandmother was too devastated to talk about him, or maybe because she didn’t know him well herself. We will never know. But staring at that computer screen in my friend’s studio apartment in Manhattan suddenly brought the man to life. Next to his name on the Ellis Island manifest document was a short description of his trip length and purpose, as well as his date of birth and an address in Brooklyn, New York. Now, we’d known he’d been born somewhere in New York, but we didn’t know anything about his childhood or young adult life. For the first time in my life I needed to know everything there was to know about this man.
I stayed up all night and spent the next few days feverishly researching documents and family trees, pouring over census records and Ancestry.com. Meanwhile, my friend helped me find a long-term rental apartment in Brooklyn, steps from Prospect Park. I lugged my possessions up seven flights of the stone, World War II era building and into my new digs on the well-heated top floor apartment with a view of the neighbor’s window across the breezeway and my very own rusted fire-escape. This was definitely the ideal New York living I’d been striving for. After settling in a bit, I took a walk to orient myself to the nearest subway stops, grocery stores and outrageously bad coffee shops I would learn to love in the weeks to come. And there it was, under shady sidewalk trees, lined on both sides with iconic brownstones behind wrought-iron fences, Greene Ave. The street my grandfather had listed as his address in 1922.
I laughed at serendipity and hung a left, admiring the homes and tiny flower gardens, looking for #1622. These brownstones are definitely pre-1922, I thought, his house is certainly still standing. As I passed #34 and #35, it occurred to me that 100 degrees was not ideal conditions for such a long walk. It was good enough in that moment to simply walk where he walked, to exist where he existed.
Turns out #1622 no longer stands. But in the weeks that followed, I found much more than an old brownstone. My obsessive family research led me to my grandfather’s siblings (who we never knew about) and their children and their children. I looked one of them up in the old-fashioned Yellow Pages and called the number. And she answered. Without much explaining at all she knew who I was and on my very last day in New York I got to meet her, at Grand Central station, amid the definition of hustle and bustle.
Just like that my father, who never had an uncle or aunt or any family at all, had a cousin. And I, who’d imagined my summer wistfully drinking cocktails at jazz bars while writing poetry on napkins, had discovered that I didn’t need to know what it was like to live in New York, I was freaking from there.
In the end I ought to have done a lot more than I did in 2012. The year, as a whole, was far from perfect. Exactly where it should be.