New York City, part 1

Two days in New York City and I’m feeling too overwhelmed to write about our experiences here. It’s like the city itself, coming at you with so many images and sounds and smells that my simple Sonora brain, so accustomed to the stillness of my porch, has to rewire itself to cope with it all.


Our flight into the city was spectacular, flying alongside the Statue of Liberty and all the towering buildings of Manhattan before looping over Brooklyn and Queens on our descent into LaGuardia. Our intention was to take the #60 bus into the city but, in the spirit of serendipity, we changed those plans on the spot when my niece’s husband Tom picked us up and drove us to his home an hour north in Rye, a leafy affluent city on the Long Island Sound.




A day later we took the train into the city and got off in Harlem on 125th and Park. This thrilled me, to hoist our packs onto our backs and walk the 20 blocks through Harlem and Central Park to Theresa and David’s apartment. Lesson #1 on the World Tour: 10-year-old boys don’t like walking like I like walking, this slow opportunity to observe the life on the streets, the women with thick arms hanging out of windows, the slight man stopping his shopping cart and reaching in for a fedora that he places on his head with a dramatic flourish.


The rain begins to fall. I look up into the light raindrops and see a young boy looking down on me through the cracked window of his apartment. My eyes rise up to the top of the apartment and marvel at the ornate brickwork, at how the surface bends in a curve that must have required great skill to create. I love all of this, especially here in Harlem on Sunday. Every block offers a new rush of images—the church across the street full of life on the sidewalk, the elegant woman in white stiletto heels waiting for a bus, the street vendor with the tired eyes pushing his cart of Mexican popsicles.




Everywhere except two steps behind me, this world fascinates me: every shop we pass, every face we pass that is of a different color and different creases of life. Two steps behind me, though, is the anti-fascination, is Liam, trudging along beneath the weight of his backpack, asking me every half block if we’re close yet. His attention is on the street signs that descend from 125 down to 105, yet he doesn’t know that we have to cross town from the east side to the west side to get to David and Theresa’s apartment. This worries me. We have 335 days ahead of us, 335 days of this type of meandering, and the truth is that my son, like most little boys, don’t care about brickwork and a homeless man’s fedora. What am I doing to him? My assumption that underlies this whole trip might be folly—the assumption that my fascination is everyone’s fascination, that my son’s worldview will be forever expanded and glittered by this trip—when in fact he just wants that pack removed and wants to play baseball with Jake.


We turn west on 105th and leave Harlem behind. We cross through Central Park, this astonishing treasure that intrigues Liam for a little while, with its lakes and paths and even a waterfall where couples are posing with hands crossed. But at the first uphill I know that I have to become a IMG_4223burro, so I take his pack and carry it on my front, me this strange animal with a bulging back and stomach. This helps. For the rest of our walk through the park all three of us are amazed that in the middle of Manhattan is this vast park that stretches for another fifty blocks south of where we were. This is New York: sirens and cement mixed in with nature, with Central Park and the lightly falling rain, with the rivers on all sides and the scent of the ocean in the air.



After leaving the park we pass through a few blocks of Spanish Harlem, with its bodegas on street corners and shrines with lit votive candles. The people dress differently, the women in tight dresses and the men in pressed pants, each gender gathered in little pods, speaking in swift animated Spanish. Let the great world spin.


At long last we arrive at the apartment. Thirty-odd years ago I walked into this same apartment when it was an abandoned building. At that time the city, in its strategy to rehabilitate these gutted-out apartments, made a deal with people: a nearly free apartment in exchange for the sweat of ripping it apart and renovating it, floorboard IMG_4225by floorboard. Thirty years later the apartment is a palace, with cupboards that close with gentle magnets, and two bathrooms with marble tiles, and a flat-screen TV. My room is still the same, the twin bed where I slept for months while I completed writing my Master’s thesis on Joyce’s Ulysses with the help of the Columbia University library. That’s right: months. Theresa and David, in their infinite spirit of generosity, invited me to stay here to complete a project that was crushing me. I also stayed here each of the three times I ran the New York City marathon, and stayed here 11 years ago when I read from my book Serendib at a Barnes and Noble on Broadway and another independent bookshop down in Greenwich Village.



But now in 2013 we drop off the burdens of our packs and hit the streets of New York. We buy our subway pass for the week and ride toward midtown to check off some of the tourist necessities, like Times Square. I love everything about the subway, even its unique smell that is a mix of oil and humanity and unfiltered air. Right away we’re met with a musician playing a IMG_4229didgeridoo and drums with castanets around his ankles. Our train arrives and we crush into the car. This is fabulous, this mix of all cultures and classes forced to press shoulder into shoulder with each sudden brake. A quick scan: over there a Hassidic Jew with his ringlets, over there an Indian man reading a paper in Hindi, over there a Korean family, over there a black woman with bright red toenails, over there a tall young woman in a gray dress that hugs her body like cellophane. This is America. This is the melting pot of America, this jumble of immigrants riding a subway to the epicenter of capitalism, Times Square.


1 Comment

  1. Dawn

    I love that you share my love of my home, and so beautifully and articulately described it for others. People so often get lost in the overwhelm of the sights/sounds/smells that they miss the individual pieces that make up that magnificent city. Thank you.

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