Confessions of An Ex-New Yorker
Watching the blackout from afar.


CHICAGO, ILLINOIS — Last Thursday afternoon, I was hard at work. Yesirree, hard at work, industrious as always, toiling away in my office in Chicago.

I mean, I wasn’t surfing the Internet or anything.

Okay, maybe I took a tiny look at the Internet for one minute.

Fine…FINE. I was on the Internet for more than a minute. I wasn’t working. In fact, I was reading every single website in the entire galaxy of cyberspace, thinking, “Please, will it ever be 5:00?”

And that’s when I hit the Drudge Report. I saw sirens. Screaming capital letters. SUMMER NIGHTMARE: HUGE POWER BLACKOUT.

I jumped up, turned on the TV, and saw masses of New Yorkers flooding over the Brooklyn Bridge.

My heart flip-flopped.

My first thought: “It’s happening again. I’ve got to call someone.”

My second thought: “Thank goodness I don’t live there anymore.”

My third thought: “If someone were to hear these thoughts, or read them in an article or something, that would be really bad!”

And then I felt guilty. In the back of my mind, I half-expected some fully uniformed, 300-pound New York Jet to barrel out of my office supply closet, tackle me for my treachery, and keep me pinned until an unfazed Rudy Giuliani could fly to Chicago and give me a big noogie.

My husband and I left New York City in May. We lived there for four years, and left to attend graduate school in Chicago.

I loved Manhattan. Even when things got gritty — when the ceiling leaked, when the landlord wouldn’t call back, when a mouse popped out of my Frosted Flakes like a jack-in-the-box — I still loved it. I adored the media buzz, the larger-than-life city streets, the feeling of being at the center of it all.

Of course, after September 11, things changed. Thursday, when I saw those people streaming across the bridge, it brought me back to those awful days two years ago. I cringed at the thought of people stuck in dark subways who were probably imagining the worst.

I was glad I wasn’t there. I felt guilty for not being there. As I watched Fox’s breathless coverage of the blackout, I pictured myself huddling in my dark Manhattan apartment, waiting for the next shoe to drop. After all, I was one of those New Yorkers who had a full-fledged survival kit at the ready, much to the amusement of my husband. My emergency “grab-and-go” bag was stocked with water, duct tape, iodide pills, batteries, and goggles. “Goggles?” Phillip would say, snickering. “What the heck are you going to do with goggles? Scuba dive across the East River?”

But as I watched those New Yorkers on the streets — some looking worried, some on cell phones, some chatting and laughing, all of them calm and orderly — it reminded me of what I really love about New York.

On September 11, I watched people staying clam amidst chaos, stopping to help each other in smoke-filled streets, and lining up five city blocks to donate blood. I saw how tough, strong, and compassionate New Yorkers can be. New Yorkers can survive anything — and they’ll survive it in style.

Even though New York is a stressful place to be right now, I still miss it. Chicago is wonderful, but I have to admit that when I walk down Michigan Avenue, amidst all that cleanliness, friendliness, and open blue sky, I have moments where I miss that good old-fashioned Big Apple grit.

True, Chicago has some New York-style charms. The Windy City has a good dose of road rage, a few token crazy guys on the street, a couple of gruff shopkeepers. Chicago even has nutty taxi drivers who yell at innocent, confused pedestrians from Kenosha. But they’re just not the same as nutty, yelling New York taxi drivers. They just don’t seem as sincere.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy in Chicago. But I’m also proud and honored that I could be a New Yorker for four years. I’m proud to be a new Chicagoan, too, even if they are a little…well, soft.

I guess I’ll have to teach some local cabbies how to yell with sincerity.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Chicago.


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