Sunday Rumpus Essay: A Tale of Two Cities


From the department of blurring boundaries: Last summer, in the neighborhood formerly known as Hell’s Kitchen, I was brought face-to-face with the difference between my son Noah’s New York and mine. Noah was sixteen, living with his grandparents in the city and working at New World Stages, as a lighting intern on the off-Broadway revival of RENT. Brought up in Los Angeles, where my wife and I moved before he was born, he’d long considered himself a New Yorker in exile, counting down the minutes until he could escape the sprawl of Southern California for Manhattan’s concrete corridors. Throughout his life, we’ve visited New York a few times each year — for my work, to see family, while passing through on our way to someplace else. He knows the city, in other words, or at least an aspect of the city — but it’s an aspect circumscribed by having had to rely on me as a tour guide: a vision of New York through my eyes.

All that changed over the summer, with Noah working in Manhattan, commuting between my parents’ apartment and the theater, running errands, going out. He told me about this when we talked or texted, but it wasn’t until I came to town in mid-July that I realized the extent to which he had carved out a New York of his own. By then, Noah had been east for nearly a month, and RENT was in production, running eight previews a week. The night I arrived, a Saturday, he returned from the theatre at 11:30: tired, a little frazzled, with the look of someone who’d been working too hard. We talked for a bit, but he soon slipped off to his room to iChat with his friends. The more things change, I thought with a measure of satisfaction, even relief. I want my kids to grow up, but I also want them to grow up slowly, and my only trepidation at having sent Noah to New York was the understanding that it would help to pull him out of our orbit, by offering a taste of independence, of experience, in a city twenty-four hundred miles from home.

And yet, of course, this is precisely what happened — how could it not? — as I recognized the following afternoon. Noah had gotten me a ticket to the Sunday matinee of RENT, and so around noon, we left my parents’ place together, taking the subway from the Upper East Side. My first inkling that things had shifted came as Noah led me station-to-station, from the Lexington Avenue line to the E train, following the signs for transfer, deep below the streets. I knew where we were going, but I hung back, letting him direct me, until we were back above the ground. My second inkling came moments after we emerged from the subway and were standing at the corner of 49th and 8th. “We should get some lunch,” Noah said, but as I started for a Sabrett’s stand, he lit out across the avenue for the Food Emporium, where, he assured me with the equanimity of a long-time resident, the sushi was both cheap and fresh. Wait, I almost said, leaning towards the vendor, so close I could smell the hot dogs boil. But Noah wasn’t waiting; he was showing me his version of the city, the way he lived when I wasn’t around.

After lunch, we went to the theatre; Noah introduced me around and gave me a quick tour, before heading off to work. From my seat in the orchestra, I kept glancing at him, sitting behind the audience with the rest of the lighting team, going over the grid on a computer, making adjustments, taking notes. In the dim glow of the console, he appeared cocooned, encased in shadows, somehow a part of and yet outside the experience, as the techies often seem to be. This is Noah’s territory — that of the theatre and, more specifically, the light crew — and it’s one I’ve had to learn to navigate as I try to understand what he’s doing and who he is.

It’s both strange and oddly moving to watch your child work, especially when he’s doing something so distinct from your abilities, leaving you nothing else to offer but support. When it first seemed that Noah might get this internship, I tried to frame it through my point-of-reference; “It’s as if,” I explained to my father, “I had spent the summer after tenth grade working for Kurt Vonnegut.” That, of course, is equally true and untrue, since one conundrum of the parent-child dynamic is how little each side predicts the other, how, despite my desire to draw comparisons, equivalencies, Noah’s experience is unique to him. To watch him in that theatre was to glimpse the adult he is trying to become, one with his own skills and affinities. That’s part of the point here also, to let him see from the inside what it means to work on a professional production, even as this, too, can’t help but draw him away from us, by immersing him in the contours of a broader world.

When the matinee was over, I went with Noah to pick up some replacement fixtures, then took him to a quick dinner at Joe Allen before dropping him back at New World Stages for the evening show. Afterwards, I wandered slowly up 8th Avenue and into Central Park, past the pond where Holden Caulfield, another sixteen-year-old in the city, had wondered where the ducks went for winter, up the Park Drive with its bicyclists and skaters, and across to the Upper East Side. This was my New York, the New York where I’d been raised, although tonight, as dusk thickened into bruised plum twilight, I felt as if I were seeing it through a different set of eyes. It’s been twenty years since I lived in the city, a generation of intense change and turmoil — from the rise of Rudy Giuliani to the aftermath of the towers’ fall. Yes, a generation, in which I’ve long since given up the notion that I have any purchase on the place, that this New York is the one I left behind. And yet, my afternoon with Noah had shown me something unexpected: that as much as the city might not be mine anymore, it was, in some important sense, becoming his. Living on your own in a place, even for a summer, will do that, but even more, it is a matter of blurring boundaries, of how our kids, as they grow up, can’t help but grow away from us, even in a place we know.


David L. Ulin is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author, most recently, of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time. More from this author →