New York Icon

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“And whether it is a farmer arriving from Italy to set up a small grocery store in a slum, or a young girl arriving from a small town in Mississippi to escape the indignity of being observed by her neighbors, or a boy arriving from the Corn Belt with a manuscript in his suitcase and a pain in his heart, it makes no difference: each embraces New York with the intense excitement of first love, each absorbs New York with the fresh eyes of an adventurer, each generates heat and light to dwarf the Consolidated Edison Company.”

– E.B. White

The quintessential icon of New York, for me, was never the Empire State Building, or the Statue of Liberty, but rather the blue Greek deli coffee cups. Maybe they’re sold in other places, but I’ve only seen them here. Watch any movie or television show filmed in New York and the actors (Woody Allen, Christopher Meloni) will be clutching them as they talk excitedly on street corners. Perhaps it was this mixture of specificity and glamor that got to me, but I would see those little blue cups on the big screen and burn with quiet longing; a desire that I knew I’d eventually realize, if it didn’t kill me first. And now I’m here. And for the first month I’d catch sight of them, in a woman’s hand on the subway, laying near the top of a garbage can, and the sight would fill me with deep satisfaction. I wanted one for my apartment, so I could look at it everyday and remind myself of my accomplishment; if nothing else, I’d at least tried my luck in the greatest city on earth. I knew right where I’d put it, on top of my fridge, next to my mother’s photo, a flash of blue warmth as I reached for the milk.

It took me forever, though, to find one. Despite their ubiquity I hadn’t come across one in my sojourns till one early day in October, following the advice of two readers, I’d ventured to a barbershop down near Tompkins Square Park. Early for my appointment I ducked into a coffee shop on the corner of 9th St. and Avenue A, and there they were. A stack of them next to the espresso machine. I forsook my usual large coffee and ordered the small, just so that finally, six weeks after my arrival, I’d own the little icon.

They still catch my eye everyday. They still make me smile.

E.B. White, in his 1948 essay, “Here is New York”, displays disturbing powers of foresight when he mentions the dangers of living here:

“The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition.”

That day in September, three years ago, when four planes crashed within our boundaries. Two in New York. One in D.C. And one in a barren Pennsylvania field. Is it just sarcasm that draws the connection? Not one of those states voted red.

The black headlines shadow us as the week passes and their grim news settles over the island. If there exists a cocoon of left-wing liberal intelligentsia, I’ve found it at Columbia. It’s comforting if ineffectual. Perhaps the business students voted Republican, but the School of the Arts is another, if predictable, story. As Bush promises to pursue his Constitutional amendment against gay marriage, and as the decimated ranks of U.S troops invade Fallujah, I search for some cool salve of explanation, some reason, small and bitter it may be, to have the same faith in my country as I do in my new city. And I come up empty-handed, save for my eternal optimism and resolve to keep writing till the people I love are no longer second-class citizens. I distract myself with blue icons and essays. We hunker down along the sea-swept edges, blotting ineffectually at bleeding wounds, busying ourselves with projects which may be destroyed but without which we cannot endure.

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