This is a long overdue story about my trip to New York a couple of years ago. I’d been to LA as a child, and SF and Chicago in my twenties, but this was my first time in the Big Apple. I arrived late at night and had no problems getting from JFK to my friends’ place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. It was an apartment above a deli on what I think was a Puerto Rican block of the eclectic neighborhood.
If you fly from NZ to London and then two days later fly to NYC you’ll find you wake up at about 4am and might only manage to drift back to sleep till 5. I was staying on a couch in the lounge; another girl was also crashing there for a week and I didn’t want to wake her so I crept out in my pyjamas, starving, and wandered back up to where the El train had dropped me the night before. In an archway I found a Mexican kinda joint and the food was good except the cutlery was plastic.
It was now breaking dawn and I crept back into the house to get changed. Still I didn’t want to disturb anyone by showering and finding a decent outfit so my debut on Manhattan island would have to be unwashed and underdressed. I had no map and I found my phone, which had worked in London, didn’t work in the US. It wasn’t a smart phone anyway so wouldn’t have been much help. Instead, I remembered seeing a road sign that said Manhattan so I headed back in that direction.
…and eventually found myself on a bridge. There she was! In the distance, through a fence, but still.
I landed, I believe, in the Lower East Side but there was nothing to indicate this was a hip district. The buildings were not very interesting or even very tall. In fact, the tallest was what looked like a housing project tower. I stopped into Starbucks for a cup of tea but declined to use the toilet, which I needed, because the bum before me took an inordinately long time and I could only conjure ugly things that might have been going on.
So then I headed up a medium-sized street, aiming generally for Central Park, and eventually realized I was on the famous Bowery – the old Dutch road that used to lead through farmland. I still hadn’t seen anything particularly noteworthy but as I went further along, the buildings became taller and denser, a few more people started traipsing around, and a few more cars took to the streets – I’d so far been sharing the city with the odd garbage truck or power walker. I still needed the loo and I also felt a strong urge to email home and let them know I’d arrived because it seemed like forever ago that I’d been in London.
Burger King was the only place I could find to use the internet as nicer places had wireless but no hardware. It was a dive in an airless basement, deliciously American, with ordinary people gorging on fried food before they started their regular days. The computers were from like 1993 and had a coin slot. But it did the trick. Having sent an email home to friends (in fact, a fresh version of this story) I felt a huge sense of relief. I existed. I belonged somewhere to someone. I could now enjoy my day.
It was a recurring feature of my trips over the bridge from Brooklyn to Manhattan, that as soon as I touched down I felt this heightened energy and tension in the air, and I felt slightly vulnerable. It must have only been a few miles to my friends’ place but it seemed like the years of extreme events that had taken place on those city blocks, and the countless brave and stupid and powerful people that had inhabited them, had created some kind of permanent bubble around the island and I felt genuinely disconnected from others who were outside the bubble and thought that if I was lost or killed inside it, I would never be found.
This was probably in large part because I was alone, without a mobile, although in the same circumstances in Williamsburg, or in London, or later in Berlin, I felt absolutely fine – so perhaps it really was something about Manhattan. Anyway, later that day I rang my host friend from a payphone in case he was worried that I was lost (it was only 1pm!) and he said I sounded like I was on Mars.
Another day, I ventured to the tip of the Bronx to visit Woodlawns Cemetery and when I had to register at the office to get permission to take pictures, I realized I hadn’t brought any ID or anything at all except a $100 bill and a Metro card. I thought, if I’m hit by a car, what will happen to my body? In some ways I recommend this way of travel, particularly in a megalopolis. Nature lends itself to disconnecting from your devices and proofs of identity, but in the city it’s a juxtaposition.
On a Saturday I decided to go to Prospect Park in the middle of Brooklyn. I’ve always liked subways and the fact you know exactly where they’ll take you, compared to buses that have incomprehensible routes and numbers and have a tendency to turn down a major street or jump on a motorway and cart you somewhere you hadn’t planned on going. So I caught the subway but it was broken. There were delays and changeovers and clusters of bored people sighing heavily in the stale summer air. Yet eventually I got to the park and had a lovely time wandering around watching Americans enjoying a bbq, or ball game, and relaxing on the green lawns under the big old trees.
When it came time to leave I decided against the broken route I’d taken that morning and thought it was stupid to get a train over to Manhattan only to get another one back to a different part of Brooklyn (though I later learned this is an accepted way to get from one part of the massive borough to another). So I got off at Brooklyn Heights and regaled in walking around the gorgeous neighborhood, fantasizing about what it would be like to be a local. I found a sweet record store and somewhere along the way picked up a little culture guide that had maps of the various cool parts of Brooklyn – but not a map connecting them together.
Thus began my next phone-less, map-less walking adventure. At one point I found myself in the middle of a six-lane highway and a policewoman beckoned to me because I must have looked out of place; though it was a pedestrian crossing, perhaps it was seldom used. I walked through apartment complexes (possibly projects but I think not), past languid people sauntering around. I saw cool guys shooting hoops on a basketball court. I walked past an intriguing, barricaded, overgrown industrial building that said US Government on the outside. I walked past huge disused old factories on the riverside. I did not take photos as I didn’t want to declare myself a tourist in this particular patch of my journey.
My separate maps suggested I might soon jump from one to the other and thus Williamsburg was getting closer, but I had already walked miles and miles and the blocks just wouldn’t gel. NYC is big! I seemed to be in no man’s land. Finally the streets got smaller and more hospitable to someone on foot and then Hasidic jews started appearing. Popping out of doorways. Walking purposefully across roads. I’d never seen any before but there they were in all their black, formal-clothed glory, with their long curls of hair and stiff hats. Twisted buildings had Hebrew signs. Plaintive music drifted down from an apartment block. And still I walked.
Finally, finally, the streets and people felt familiar. My days had been starting so early that I was dog-tired by mid afternoon, plus it grew hot hot hot, so I would retire on my couch and catch my breath till evening, listening to the noises outside.
The next day was raining and so I ventured back across the river (on a train) but then walked downtown instead of up. Again I was surprised by how long it took to cover those boring sort of commercial blocks before you hit Little Italy and China Town and other places with character. I think an issue might have been the streets I was selecting to walk down – perhaps a cute, quirky one was just a block to my left or right – but I was ignorant. When I swung too far east I found myself dwarfed by double-storied highways and felt totally out of sync with the locals, speeding along to a fixed destination, while I meandered down the least picturesque part of Manhattan.
The eventual highlight was finding I had Wall Street almost to myself. It was a wet Sunday in the middle of summer, afterall, and those epic blocks with their huge stone buildings looked excellent under the gray sky. There were a couple of drunks still out from the night before but didn’t seem to be any other tourists. I especially loved the centuries-old church that sat comfortably on its little patch of turf, and I hoped the nefarious types who work nearby sometimes see it and shudder, though I think it’s more likely they consider themselves good God-fearing people. I didn’t have my camera that sacred day alone with the City, but this is a pic I went back and took on a sunny day.