I grew up across the Hudson, about 13 miles west in a town called Montclair. Our home stood on a hill on the western side of town, with my bedroom resting on the top, eastern side of our three floor Victorian. My eyes could skip over Anderson Park, past downtown Upper Montclair and over the thin tree tops in neighboring towns, catching the very tips of The City skyline.
As a young boy that daily exercise both excited and enticed, as my minds eye continued on, landing me deep into the midst of Manhattan, my perceived gateway to the world.
My parents are both artists and educators who met at Columbia University in the 60’s. As a child in the late 70’s, they’d take me and my brother to gallery openings in old Soho and to the West Village to experience off and on Broadway shows. Our days in The City were fun, provocative and inspiring. When family or friends came to town, we’d enter tourist mode and scale the Empire State Building for a die-cast statue and snapshots of the view down or dine at Windows on the World.
The City was as big as the world; they were one and the same to me.
From an early age, my parents gave me the freedom to explore my surroundings in our neighborhood and around my suburban town with only a few lessons in tow before letting me out the door—to always look left and right before crossing the street and to call home collect if I needed a ride.
America, circa the late 70’s / early 80’s—times in the suburbs were much simpler back then.
The streets of The City had many different lessons in tow.
The City schooled me that a world filled of vertical cities lived above street level while below the streets, the world was connected, full of roaming individuals whom I couldn’t engage with by sight or by conversation. In those pre-Giuliani times—the Bernard Getz and Guardian Angels era of NYC, only a few years removed from the Son of Sam and the craziness of the blackout—you’d be pegged a tourist for simply looking 45 degrees higher than your line of sight and that transgression could open yourself up to a con or a mugging. A similar lesson applied to those in the subway; don’t catch eyes, don’t speak loudly, don’t flash your goods and for God’s sake, don’t take prolonged glances at the transit map, even if it were to take 20 sly glances to find your next stop.
Sounds rough, but I trusted The City, as it was everything I dreamed of becoming; creative, mysterious, successful, exciting. I learned to glance and frame the moment of people, places, and things—take in all around me, but mind my business was the underlying lesson I took away. Now at 34, schooled by many more life experiences of much greater complications, I still think, dream, plan, and move about my life with these early lessons in tow.
Because The City also gave me Don Quixote and Starlight Express and George Segal pedestrians and giant, 5-foot pencils and toothbrushes on West Broadway. It gave me the Bronx Bombers, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and hot dogs on the sidewalk. It even gave me Yellow Cabs with mini, fold-up seats facing away from the driver, which perfectly fit my smaller frame.
The City bought my complete trust with the allure of growing up to possess a soul similar to the Great Grid and all that lay in-between, so I walked between the buildings and never looked up; I glanced at the people and never saw a face.
In 1996 I commuted into my first gig in Manhattan from Jersey City—an undervalued coastal city on the New Jersey side of the Hudson only a few miles away, but a solid 45 minute commute. I worked just below Canal Street in a multimedia shop set above a Futon outlet; one of the twenty some-odd Futon stores on the block. My daily trek began as a nice contrast to my previous reverse commute, where I drove deep into the Western expanses of New Jersey each day fighting traffic and avoiding the plethora of StateTroopers trying to fill their quotas.
Once I landed in Manhattan at the WTC PATH station, I’d ride the packed escalators to ground level and walk the twelve blocks to my job, breathing in the fresh air of downtown Manhattan—mixed with the smell of roasted peanuts and my fellow commuter’s secondary smoke. I’d stop at the same street vendor to pick up my banana, buttered roll and coffee before settling into our studio, getting comfortable at a window desk that overlooked the ancient rooftop water towers sprinkled across the Soho skyline.
As my long day of animating cartoon characters and holding lunch meetings at classic spots such as Fanelli’s and Bar 89 came to a close, I looked forward to the walk back to the WTC. The fading sun would create new angles of building shadows and breezes as the day came to a close. I’d meander through it all to claim my ride under the river’s surface to my affordable existence on the other shore.
This wasn’t quite what I had imagined growing up, but I was living within the gateway, and it was enough… or so I thought.
In no time flat I started to loathe my commute with the crowd of business people on the PATH, squashed together like sardines from the platform to the train up into the heart of the WTC. It wasn’t just the claustrophobic spaces; even the innocuous moments began eating away at me, such as passing through the mall twice a day, reminding me that WTC was a hub for capitalism.
What happened to the romance of The City?
As an architectural marvel I once cherished for its utilitarian presence in the skyline, the towers now felt reduced to a pair of thousand foot-tall roofs filled with suits and a food court. In my 25-year old mind, the towers now represented home to corporate yes men. Watching three-quarters of my fellow travelers disappear each morning like worker ants into these towers, this mecca of commerce, as tourists perused the mall for useless commodities, my artistic temperament shook.
It was during my rush hour commute home one day that I was struck that I was breaking a principle rule that I had learned from The City as a child—I was gawking at the vertical city.
For months on end I had been staring into its belly, observing its machinations, deconstructing its inhabitants; had my career driven proclivities begun to match its particular DNA? Might this have influenced why I was participating in office politics, fighting for titles rather than just enjoying making video games within the artist’s culture of SoHo? As I pondered this epiphany, wondering if I was changing (and not for the better), The City responded in it’s best Don Pardo voice to quell my new found sensibilities in the only way it knew how:
“Forget why you thought you loved me, Sean. Classic Yellow Cabs are gone, Soho is an outdoor mall, the eighties are done; it’s time to get paid, so try on these duds for size!”
A valiant effort, but this time I wasn’t buying.
My eyes were open, as prolonged glances into the souls of the people who surrounded me showed pangs of exhaustion; the real-life scheming of men and women desperate to keep up with the Jones’. Now as I passed through the grid of The City, each of the vertical cities above ground took on a different representation—hierarchy, wealth and leverage looming over the masses of citizens who were also tacitly schooled to not look upwards, nor at one another.
I respected both the need and hustle to survive, but I came to the conclusion that by not looking all these years—at my fellow New Yorkers and up to the tips of these towers—I was complicit in giving power to this culture of captains at the helm, armed with dangled carrots and the unattainable conclusions of never ending pursuits.
I had the tortured soul of an artist who couldn’t find comfort within his own vision.
To Move On
I needed to shift gears, so in 1999, I left The City for the rural expanses of the Berkshires and the promise of Silicon Village.
Once clear of a physical connection to these networks of sky scrapers, the remaining matrix of interlocking human beings moved to the foreground. When I romanced the Great Grid as an adolescent, it wasn’t the office towers with their white collar whips, rather the unknown personalities, the diverse cultures, and the creativity of the people of New York City themselves.
The soul of The City.
I left for only a respite before heading back to Brooklyn to reconnect in 2000. And then just as I began to fall in love with The City once again came 9/11—a close call for me, a disaster for many and a tragedy for all New Yorkers, in particular. I doubled down on my affinity, but the trauma took its toll, and eventually, the mental cost of thriving in The City became too much for me to cover, even as The City was ripe to provide opportunities.
Today marks the fourth day of the second week of my new life in Greensboro, North Carolina. Today is also the anniversary of 9/11, and the air is fraught with the ills of four years gone by and the present day occupation our government holds in the Middle East as a response. While the energy in this land locked college town is far less electric and eclectic than The City, the air seems more breathable somehow.
Maybe I’ve come to realize that seeing my passions to fruition can’t occur within a representation of the confrontational juxtaposition itself.
Maybe I’m better off planning, expressing, and implementing from a room on the eastern side of an old wooden home, with a window overlooking the thin, slumbering Oaks and Elms of a quaint town, while the far off tips of a different skyline glistens in the early morning sky.
Maybe I now feel comfortable looking directly into the eyes of my fellow travelers, exploring relationships with people both underground and above—walking proudly as one of the many roaming souls seeking connection and redemption.