on the challenge of new york city: thoughts + photos from the first leg of our trip

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"In the absence of love, I found myself clinging hopelessly to the city itself: the repeating tapestry of psychics and bodegas, the bump and grind of traffic, the live lobsters on the corner of Ninth Avenue, the stream drifting up from beneath the -streets." Olivia Liang, The Lonely City

In my teenage-hood, I planned to live, someday, in New York City. I studied street maps and photographs of the city, choose books written by writers who lived there, and tried to write my own stories about the life I imagined must exist there. All week, I thought about that verve, that determination. What had I expected, at fourteen, to find in New York City? And if I had moved, would I have found it?

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We arrived in New York City at noon on Wednesday, and immediately, the city felt like an onslaught. We tried to keep our suitcases out of the way, and around us, people moved with such velocity I felt like it was the beginning of a bad movie. Midwest girl comes to New York, retreats to the corner, because the cornfields never moved like this.

This intimidation dissipated, thank god, once we found the correct subway station and dropped luggage at the apartment we were staying in, but what remained was the feeling of being challenged.

For much of the week, my experience in New York resisted any narrative or structure. I tried, several times, to journal (a habit I’m bribing myself into building with pretty stationary), but I couldn't reconcile. There was the extraordinary beauty of a city designed to live up to its reputation, the layers of neighborhood and street that peeled back as we walked, and the sense I couldn't shake of not being able to see the city for all the towering buildings. There was the activity of tourists (like us, I won't pretend we were anything but)—Fifth Avenue a melee of money and cameras, but I kept thinking of all the people who live here. Cynthia Nixon once said that eleven or twelve (I can't find the quote) is the golden age for a kid in New York, because they're finally old enough to ride the subway alone. The foreignness of that experience—at twenty-five, I felt barely capable on the subway system, having hailed from the land of freeways and multi-car families.

I'm reading Olivia Liang's excellent memoir/meditation on loneliness, which colored my view of the city. Never have I been in a place where I've seen so little personal space, and yet, such a collective preservation of what does exist. In Minneapolis and St. Paul, I’ve learned to avoid eye contact when I don't want a conversation on the street or in a cafe, but in New York, I was liberated to realize that proximity wouldn't necessitate small talk. By that same token though, Liang wrote of New York as a "city of glass, of roving eyes," and I quickly saw how atomizing this city can be, how lonely it could become.

Then there's the size of the city itself. The bewildering depth of history, culture, experience. That we walked above the footprint of the original Dutch colony just blocks from the site of the World Trade Towers attack on our way to board a ferry to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the entry point for 30-40% of people living in America. That hours later, we passed the Stonewall Inn and a townhouse James Baldwin once lived in and the fictionalized site of a TV show was too much to hold. I'm not sure how anyone, let alone a tourist passing through here and there, can ever try to hold the breadth or depth of what New York is or has been.

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Our few days in New York righted itself as the plane lifted off from JFK. We flew at dusk, and when I looked out during takeoff, I saw the city. A gray line of skyscrapers cut out from the pearl grays and pinks of dust. So fine and so flat a sight it looked like a page from an illustrated book.

This is how the city positioned itself for me—there’s the city itself, and then the shadow of it. Our experience being the shadow. What is New York? What makes it special, makes it unique, defines it? I have no idea. We saw Central Park and Fifth Avenue, bought books from Three Lives & Company, ate brunch at Sarabeth’s. Walked fifty miles across this narrow island.

I’ve loved this city from afar for long enough to know what’s said of it: that you don’t understand this city unless you’re born there, that you don’t get to call yourself a New Yorker until you’ve lived there ten years, twenty years, unless your parents too lived there, unless you’ve cried on the subway. Any version of New York that a tourist seems is a slice, a pale version of its totality.

I don’t say this begrudgingly. I’m not sure New York is meant to be an easy city. The friend I visited said our first night “this city is gritty and harsh; it’s not meant to be pretty.” To visitors, it poses a challenge: what did you come for?

We came to do nothing more than see the city, but even that was dizzyingly broad. No, we came to see slices of New York: Bleeker Street and the High Line. Fifth Avenue (the busy stretch) and Madison Avenue (the quiet stretch). The Statue of Liberty, and the eastern edge of the island from the back of a retreating ferry. My friend took us to a sports bar so busy on a Wednesday night it had a bouncer, and to one of her favorite bakeries (Levain—the cookie so rich I couldn’t finish it in two sittings). I met her eight years ago, and she moved to New York two years ago. I watched in awe as this Midwest girl I met in the dorms navigated the subway, the intersecting streets.

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The city that seemed so inaccessible yielded slowly. The green of Bryant Park after the crush of Fifth Avenue. The café we went for coffee, baseball on the TV and Childish Gambino on the stereo. The surprises of Central Park, and the Upper East Side’s empty streets on Saturday morning. The two bottles of wine we split on Thursday, and the ways we talked—old friends—about leaving, returning, growing.

New York came to us in pieces. There was no way we were going to experience it as a whole, but even though I knew this, I still felt a pang of sadness. It reminds me of the limits of travel. For as much as it expands you, there’s only so much a tourist can receive. There will always be the hidden city, the one that operates outside the reach of the visitor, exists between buildings, behind streets, out among the crush of bodies. There’s always going to be the inaccessible experience, the totality of what it means to live somewhere like this, not just visit.

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