I could have eaten anywhere.
I could have walked a half-mile to the birthplace of General Tso’s chicken. I could have hopped on the D train to America’s oldest pizzeria. New York City overflows with restaurants, and I had just touched down. But I left my hotel, walked to 57th and 9th, and opened the door to an old friend.
Morning Star Restaurant does little to stand out. Its white awning and blue lettering seem faded. Its pancakes require a healthy pour of syrup. But one summer, 16 years earlier, I ate there repeatedly. I popped in before, during, or after my shifts as an intern at WCBS-TV.
In college I deified New York. I lived with my parents in suburban New Jersey and itched to someday call The City my home. For three months, three days a week, I traveled 40 minutes by bus and 20 minutes on foot to reach the station. I passed the bars on Eighth Avenue and envied the adults on the other side of the glass. They drank, smiled, and percolated in perfectly tailored shirts and ties. They had “made it”.
I couldn’t enter the bars. But I could wolf a stack of pancakes at Morning Star. Sixteen years later, I felt the urge to do it again, this time in triumph.
I have “made it”, in the traditional sense. I have advanced from an internship in New York to a weekly long-form reporting segment in Atlanta. I have vacationed in every continent but Antarctica. I have made lasting friendships and married a tremendous partner who, in a few months, will give birth to our first child. I sat down at Morning Star expecting a victory lap. I ordered the pancakes, settled at my window-side table, and prepared to savor both a stack off the griddle and success in my life.
Instead, my mind pinballed between memories. I glimpsed stories I produced, first dates I attempted, and phone calls I placed daily to my parents. I revisited the dozens of times I visited home and strolled the Manhattan streets. Mostly I thought about people. I scanned the hundreds of friends who today populate my Facebook feed. I contemplated connections that fizzled after days and relationships that have sustained years.
I didn’t feel triumphant. I felt grateful. For time. For experience. For emotion. For life.
Our time on earth is an unpromised gift. Our experiences and decisions steer us in imperceptible ways. I speak often in journalism circles about the importance of thinking big. If we don’t maintain larger ambitions amid daily deadlines, we might bend to the grind without considering its impact. The same applies to life.
But it also applies to how we look back. I mostly experience the past in minute-long spurts, through Facebook Memories or a catch-up phone call. But every few months I cycle through old emails. Every few years I pull out my high school yearbook and read the messages. And on a crisp day in New York this past November, I sat down in a diner and time-machined through the events of my life, jolted by the current of connections that made them possible.
The sensation remains two months later. I recognize both how much and how little I control. I remain awed at the magnitude of the past 16 years. I steel myself for the next 16 years.
And I still feel grateful.
So I choose to begin 2018 by saying thank you. If you have graced my life in any way, I appreciate it. I may sound trite or childlike, but I would not be me – for better or worse – without whatever you have provided. I value our ability to impact each other. I value our time together.
One more time: thank you. And happy New Year.