The Third City
E.B. White, in his 1949 essay “Here Is New York,” wrote that New York City was actually three cities: first, a city of born-and-bred New Yorkers; second, the city of the commuters, in by day and out by night; and third, he wrote, “There is the New York of the person who was born somewhere else and came to New York in quest of something.”
White believed the third New York, which has embraced countless questing Southerners over the years, was the best.
“Of these three trembling cities the greatest is the last — the city of final destination, the city that is a goal,” he wrote. “It is this third city that accounts for New York's high-strung disposition, its poetical deportment, its dedication to the arts and its incomparable achievements. Commuters give the city its tidal restlessness; natives give it solidity and continuity; but the settlers give it passion.”
Twice over the course of my 54 years, I was a citizen of White’s third New York. The last of those two stints left me with a little post-traumatic stress disorder. It pops up every year about this time when the commemorations take me back to Sept. 11, the day those buildings came down.
My apartment in Greenwich Village was nine blocks north of the evacuation zone — but a mile deep in the “Frozen Zone” established by the National Guard: no vehicle traffic, no non-residents allowed. For three days, my neighborhood was strangely silent. The only traffic noise came from two blocks west — the trucks moving up and down the West Side Highway to haul away the wreckage. Out on the streets, we watched as people plastered fences, lampposts and walls with homemade posters showing pictures of loved ones who had not been heard from since the towers fell.
Toward the end of that first week, I saw another little flyer, this one near the elevators on the eighth floor, where I lived. It began, “Dear Neighbors....” I can’t remember its exact wording, but I remember its message well: We had been through a lot that week, and it might be a good idea for folks who lived on our floor to get to know each other a bit, instead of passing wordlessly in the hallway. It was an open invitation to join someone who lived down the hall on Saturday afternoon for tea and cookies.
Eight or nine folks showed up. Everyone chatted for a couple of hours. We got to know each other. We were neighborly. When I got up to leave, I thanked our host and asked her where she was from originally.
“Georgia,” she replied.
“Makes sense that you did this, then,” I said.
We laughed. It was the first time I’d laughed in five days.
This year, as the commemorations began, I went back to White’s essay. It made me remember that Saturday 14 years ago when a fellow resident of the third New York, a fellow Southerner, gave me and the rest of the eighth floor of 666 Greenwich St. a gift: not just the passion and poetical deportment White attributed to residents of the third city, but also a little healing.
I wish I remembered her name. I wish I could find her. I’d hug her neck and thank her. Her simple gesture of hospitality comforts me still.
~ Chuck Reece