Always, always, always, Sir Duke.
During my childhood in Maryland, my family would often visit my grandparents in Washington Heights. My brothers and I would sit in the back seat of our AMC Matador, seatbelt-less, and endure the 250 mile ride to New York City. And though I can’t prove this to you, I swear that every time we approached the George Washington Bridge and caught our first look of Manhattan, the car’s AM radio would emit that trumpet line.
Sir Duke. Every time, as if the Port Authority had been waiting for us to arrive. Seeing the city skyline from the back seat, looking up at the grand parabola of cables and wires that spanned the bridge. They can feel it all over, they can feel it all over people.
The bridge, the song, riding the giant elevator at the 181st Street subway station, trips to Liebmann’s Deli in Riverdale: from these bits I fell in love with New York City. Even after my grandparents died while I was in high school, I continued to return to the city, to THE city. Weekend road trips, New Year’s Eve rampages, whatever and whenever.
In June 1994, I was living in Washington D.C. and studying for the New York bar exam when I got a call from my friend Mike, offering me a ticket to Game 3 of the NBA Finals that night. I slammed my test prep book shut, ran out the door, and got on the next train to New York. It was at least 95 degrees that day and the train’s air conditioning was broken. I sweated through my shirt just sitting on the train. When we arrived at Penn Station I remember feeling hotter and thirstier than I could ever remember. I was late to meet Mike but desperately dehydrated.
I exited Penn Station at 32nd and 8th and sitting right there, in the shimmering heat, was a refrigerated truck. From the back of the truck they were giving out ice cold cans of Schweppes grape-flavored ginger ale. New product promotion. I grabbed a can, guzzled it and asked for another, guzzled that one too. It was incredible - maybe not the soda itself, but the moment. New York City knew what I needed and somehow it provided for me. I couldn’t imagine finding that truck, at that moment, in any other city.
That summer I moved here without a job, an apartment, or any real sense of what I wanted to do other than knowing I wanted to live here. I moved around a lot the first couple of years. I lived in Manhattan, Queens, The Bronx, and Brooklyn (but never Staten Island). Then back to Manhattan, uptown and then downtown and then uptown again but always the West Side, like my grandparents. I have now lived in New York City longer than I lived in Maryland.
The town I grew up in was known mainly as “the Washington D.C. area,” a swath of Maryland and Virginia as ill-defined as what it meant to be a Washingtonian. People identified themselves as transplants. Their origins lay elsewhere. That lack of place was only magnified for me by the dichotomies in my own upbringing. I was raised in a small rural town among rednecks, where the biggest local attraction was 7-Eleven. Yet we were the only kids in our neighborhood who went to private school, and a Jewish day school at that. We attended an orthodox synagogue, but didn’t observe Shabbat or eat only at kosher restaurants. Always I felt my place was neither here nor there.
Then there is New York City and its cemented, relentless sense of place, the pride people take in calling themselves New Yorkers. In New York City there is always a “there” there. And the promise of belonging, the manifest self-identification - more than the culture, more than the diversity, more than the bagels - is why I never seriously considered living anywhere else.
After a long search, we recently have moved into a house in Brooklyn. Forty years after I first fell in love with New York, and twenty years after I moved here, I have finally put down roots. And on the very last night before we moved into our Brooklyn home, I spent the evening seeing Stevie Wonder at Madison Square Garden. He played Songs in the Key of Life from start to finish. Duke Ellington started in Washington D.C. and ended up in New York City. Stevie played Sir Duke for me. And I got to feel it all over.
Even now, however, I know this feeling of arrival is a chimera. The ball moves. The ground shifts.
A couple of years ago I thought about writing a paean to the annual traditions I had established each December: A dinner at Carmine’s with some of my college roommates; the Yo La Tengo Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s; and the Holidelic concerts fronted by Everett Bradley. I loved my personal New York at the end of the year.
But then Maxwell’s closed down, so YLT doesn’t do the eight night run anymore. My friend is no longer a musician, so Holidelic doesn’t have the same hold on me that it once did. Only Carmine’s remains on my schedule, and even then we don’t all live in the area anymore, and each year it becomes more difficult to keep things going.
There are more reminders. Layla’s friend lost her mother to cancer last month. My friend’s father died yesterday. Here today, gone tomorrow. Nothing lasts forever. Even the big moments are momentary.
The city I fell in love with has largely gone extinct too. I still can’t live anywhere else, but it’s no longer because of the place. It’s because of the people. I like our friends here. So many of them chose to move to Brooklyn and make sacrifices to stay here. There’s a kinship in that.
Stevie isn’t from New York City. Sir Duke isn’t about coming to New York. It’s about music and Stevie’s musical heroes. I can’t imagine Sir Duke evokes the George Washington Bridge for many other people. A few years ago, however, I heard a new song that more literally captured my feelings:
Load the car and write the note.
Grab your bag and grab your coat.
Tell the ones that need to know.
We are headed north.
One foot in and one foot back.
But it don't pay to live like that.
So I cut the ties and I jumped the tracks.
For never to return.
Ah Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.
Are you aware the shape I'm in?
My hands they shake, my head it spins.
Ah Brooklyn, Brooklyn take me in.
- Avett Brothers, “I And Love And You”
What do you want, Beastie Boys?
Happy New Year 2016….