I on LA by Erika Schickel

Erika Schickel

Biased reporting from Los Angeles

Sister Cities: A Letter to New York


Dear New York,

When you Google “Sister Cities of Los Angeles” there is a list of foreign cities that include Athens, Beirut, Berlin and Mumbai. Those are lovely cities, I’m sure, but c'mon, they are all step-sisters at best, related to us by a civil ceremony that we didn’t attend. We all know that you, New York, are our real sister city.

New York and Los Angeles are made of the same genetic material, and like all siblings, we could not be more different, or more alike. You may have Dad’s chin and we have mom’s nose, but it’s the way we gesture, laugh at the same things, or sigh in unison that is the tell—we come from the same strange, brainy, artsy, independent, iconoclastic, self-absorbed, stubborn, salty soup.

Like all families, we have been known to treat each other shabbily. We take each other for granted, are passive-aggressive with each other, we flip each other a ton of shit, and make regular, stressful visits to each other’s homes where we quickly wear out our welcome. But in times of crisis, we should know we are there for each other, because, in the end, we are family, and we can’t imagine life without each other.

I was born and raised in Manhattan, but at twenty-four I left home and fled west for reasons both personal and professional. But the real truth is I had to get away from you, New York, in order to grow up and figure out who I was. There was not a street corner in Manhattan that didn’t hold a specific memory for me, many of which were painful and confusing.

Once here, I joined millions of other prodigal sons and daughters and got to work building a life that made New York feel further and farther away. Part of the "reinvention" contract that Los Angelenos are so famous for signing is the sub-clause of forgetting who we once were. It is that psychological distance, and not the 3,000 physical miles that separate us, that has caused tension in our relationship.

Now, many of those familiar, beloved street corners are underwater, and neighborhoods in which I once lived, loved and worked have been plunged into darkness or erased. I ache for the sidewalks and subways, for the friends, family and neighbors I left behind. But did I call anyone? No, and not just because I heard the phones were out, but because it seemed too far away and surreal to be real.

My friend Ellen lives in a high rise in lower Manhattan, across the street from the Hudson River. We worked together at the Odeon in the 1980’s, and over the years we have tried to keep our long-distance friendship alive, which hasn’t always been easy. It has probably been two years since we last spoke on the phone. A couple of nights ago she flamed my Facebook wall, where I was nattering away, like a stereotypical Angeleno, about (oh, forgive me, this is so embarrassing) a cleanse I had recently done. “Thanks for reaching out,” she sarcastically commented, apropos of nothing, and I realized, with utter horror, that I had been so far up my own ass, I had forgotten to check in with her.

So I did, and this is what she told me: “We just bought a house on the jersey shore, 59 days before sandy hit. it represented everything and cost everything we have... erika... i want to die at this point. i know that is a lot to tell someone in an email but you cannot imagine how bad it is for some of us. i re-activated my facebook account yesterday hoping people were reaching out to me... instead i got well, nothing.... “

And in that moment, I understood. I understood that I didn’t understand. I wasn’t fully comprehending the seriousness of what was going on back home. I still don't understand how cold, frightened and exhausted you are. As the images of devastation filtered in on TV and through the firewall of my own self-absorption and denial, I began reaching out to my New York family, most of whom are physically fine, but deeply stressed and bitter.

My mother lives alone in the East 70’s. She reports the constant sound of sirens, empty market shelves, and “depression, bad dreams and despair, hour by hour.”

My ex-boyfriend Jim had this to say: “Just drove downtown. Lights out below 35th street. Eerie. Like The Road with cell phones. Reminds [sic] of the feeling of NY after 9/11. On our knees. Buzz is that the nation doesn’t care. LA is at the tanning booth. While the straw that stirs the drink is crimped.”

The misspellings and screwy syntax in a couple of these messages tells me as much about the New York state of mind as the words themselves. This trauma refreshes the PTSD of 9/11. Things that have always been there are now gone, snatched away in a violent instant. Staten Island? Breezy Point? Coney Island? Gone. The Jersey shoreline? Gone. If New York is L.A.'s sister, New Jersey is our cousin. It bends the minds of those who are standing in the middle of it, and for those of us who are far away? Forgive us, for we cannot comprehend it.

I don’t have to read between the lines of my friends' emails to hear the anger and implication that us Angelenos, with our endless summers and valet parking, our Cobb salads and three-picture deals, just don’t get it. Of course, tanning booth clichés only trigger us. That is not us! We are real people with real problems, too! See, you've never understood us! Just when I was trying to build the rainbow bridge, you had to go and pick a fight. This is sibling rivalry. We keep score, we resent and lash out. Our wildfires and windstorms must seem so paltry compared to 9/11 and Sandy. It feels like only The Big One will make us even.

But I want to try to make amends. I love you, New York, and I don't want to us to fuss now, of all times. So, I want to say I am so sorry, New York, if we seem oblivious. Our news feeds are full of grey, churning water, sodden basements, endless fuel lines and the unspeakable horror of babies being swept from their mother’s arms, but we still don't get the picture. Your fear and helplessness make us feel frightened and helpless. All we can offer you is our celebrities for telethons and our utility trucks to help get the lights back on, but we honestly don't know what to do to fix something that is so unbearably broken.

Of course, the news we're getting isn't all bad. It is full of stories of you guys coming together, charging up each other’s phones, delivering free pizzas, and holding impromptu parades. That is the New York I know and love, and that is the New York that will prevail yet again.

I wish there was more I could do personally, other than donate what I can to The Red Cross. I want to get on a plane and come muck out Staten Island with you, but I can’t, for reasons too prosaic to list, and it hurts my heart.

I feel that by not being there, I am missing a family reunion, with all the pain, squabbling and stalwart love those insane events inspire in the human heart. I wish I could ship you my earthquake box with its extra batteries, baby wipes and Fig Newtons. I want you to know how proud I am to be part of such a bighearted, pugnacious family. You will survive and rebuild, because you are New Yorkers, goddammit! It's who you...who we are.


More by Erika Schickel:
The Sisterhood is Powerful
Sister Cities: A Letter to New York
Dear Sugar, teach me how to be you
Baby's first bust: guerilla postering with Robbie Conal
Chalk it up to troubled times

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