As I watched the coverage of Hurricane Sandy bearing down on the Northeast early this week, reports of New Yorkers hunkering down made me nostalgic for the grit and determination that I found in the city as a young adult. Six days after my graduation in Chapel Hill, I sped up Interstate 95 with my friends Nicole and Andrew in a U-Haul. We were glory-bound for New York, eager to put North Carolina in our rearview mirror. It was 1989, long before Skype or FaceTime. North Carolina didn't just fade from view; it evaporated.
During my first week in Manhattan, I saw Debbie Harry at the A&P on Eighth Avenue in Chelsea. I trailed after her for a few minutes, studying what the Blondie leader loaded into her cart and feeling reassured about my brilliant decision to strike out for New York. "So long, North Carolina, and your deficit of rock icons in the supermarket," I told myself.
But New York City in the summer is brutal. My morning walk (three avenue blocks) to the subway left me wilted. Nicole saw a guy firing a pistol across the train platform. Still, how could we help but love the city, its pace and its possibilities? I had my first Cuban food, saw the pyramid in the Metropolitan Museum and learned that the admission fee is only a suggested donation.
I also answered a lot of questions about North Carolina: I got asked what crops my father grew (none), why I didn't have an accent (no idea) and whether I could explain the appeal of Jesse Helms (I couldn't). The world looked vastly different at age 21 than it does to me today, but the process of navigating through my new independence while answering questions about "back home" put that evaporated place back into focus. I learned what it meant to be from somewhere, my story rooted in the community that raised me.
I left the city in a haze of illness and wanderlust, casting about for adventure and for a place to land. All these years later, my New York friends inevitably ask, "Don't you miss the city?" I do, but not for the museums or the dizzying variety of takeout food. I miss it for the perspective, for what it taught me about home.
When I settled back in North Carolina and put down grown-up roots in Durham, I did it by choice and by knowing some of what I was sacrificing to do so. I still don't have an accent and can't fully explain the Jesse Helms phenomenon, but I'm a proud North Carolinian. We weathered Fran and Floyd and the figurative storms inherent in an explosive population growth. Some of the stately pin oaks on Duke's East Campus are gone, but from the place they once stood you can catch the Bull City Connector to a downtown that's beginning to rival those of other great urban centers.
I can't think of a better place than New York to feed the unique hunger of young-adult ambition. It fed me well enough to come back satiated and grateful for my first home, again.