Welcome to New York!
Watch your step now, the concrete can get quite hot! It’s summertime, after all! Which means the college kids are basking on the mezzanines of their overpriced, overpacked two-bedroom apartment buildings in the East Village and the drunkards are wet with sweat from the fountain in the park and a hammock is being hung by a woman with a bird on her shoulder and someone’s brand new Doc Martens are being scuffed by a man not paying attention to the children screaming in the courts and the taxis laying on their horns - they just like to holler, to feel their own voices reverberating off the open rafters of the new parking lot on 11th and Broadway, the plastic wrap enclosing a new loft just near the Hudson, the pine, the sawdust, the warbling of jackhammers against the pavement, the old shoe warehouse with the logo still burnt into its bricks, and the spotless glass windows of an ID Bank that replaced the old pilgrims’ church.
There are girls who just moved in with dyed hair and high black socks taking photos by the spaceship on 14th and 5th; their parents' Midwestern voices ripe with concern muddle through the static of their smartphones and up up up to the swaying backs of the pigeons who waver in the breeze over the hot dog carts. The air is sticky; everyone is mad, or trying to get home, or dreaming of the vacation they will not be taking this year, or talking to someone they would rather not. Their voices are raspy, tired - and it’s only 9am! What a sight! What a world!
An overworked, overzealous office worker with rose-colored cat-eye glasses gathers her hair in a bun and secures it behind her ears, but it will not stay ~ no ~ it will burst free at the exact moment that the new intern steps off the elevator carrying too many coffees and a box of donuts and a birthday cake for Aamina and a pink balloon for good measure, hoping for a raise perhaps - or any compensation at all, perhaps. Here the two look at each other over their desks - open, shared - and recognize themselves in the other. The hair. The cake. The wide open eyes fraught with youthful panic. And it will be friendly and impatient in that oh-so gloriously complex and fast-paced New York City way.
But that’s not all! That’s only a moment, only in the middle south!
Farther south still lie the hot lanes of Houston (don’t mispronounce it!) where the gays buy their ice cream and the working theatre professionals sip their turmeric-infused coffee and hold their heads high, absorbing the yellow sun, taking it slow, warming their expensive voices. They hold open the doors to the Juice Press for the rich mothers pushing rich babies in dark blue Mockingbird strollers.
An organic grocery store - five actually! - stand all in a row. Ready-made falafel! Drug stores with their freezer doors open! Twenty shades of gray with pops of red and green from the trees lining the streets overcrowded with old cars with the windows rolled down.
The food carts sizzle with steam and while the smoke and the smell reel in customers, it also makes it hotter. An industrial fan connected to an outlet five orange extension cords away huffs warm air into the metal box, keeping its sole occupant alive long enough to flip, assemble, push, collect, and wrap continuously into the midafternoon. Women with bobs say ‘thanks’ and tip just enough before crossing the street, talking loudly with their hands, angry at something. Construction workers - this being their only day off - standing awkwardly in the shade of the Chase Bank hold open their shirts so the onions and the bread and the sweat collide together until the chef chases them off with a greasy spatula. You must protect what is yours.
Unknown languages are batted back and forth like a ball against the schoolyard's brick-wall and then vanish in the human mass, squirming and unsteady. People buzz like horse flies. First dates, second dates, a beautiful girl in a beautiful dress walks with a man who looks oddly familiar. (Maybe you know him - the city is large, but it isn’t very big!). Untied shoelaces and mustard stains and water spurting from hydrants and cooling units shoved precariously in half-open windows drip drip drip to the city-wise kindergarteners below, who stomp in the puddles despite their tired mother's wishes.
In the north - about midway up the island now- lie Chelsea and the Garment District and the High-Line. These places sound like heavy footsteps, feel like train whirs, and look like attractive couples eating dollar pizza on shaded stoops. It’s sweeter up here, if you can believe it: pink, shaded, safe, well-built. The sun doesn’t reach as far; the tourists are in pleasant moods, here on purpose, led by a curious nineteen-year-old who’s always wanted to try Porteño and now she has an excuse!
Chelsea herself is a wide businesswoman, wealthy and divine, passive, with fine auburn hair draped over shoulder like a curtain. You can see how lovely she is, in all her purple mid-afternoon beauty, how her streets stretch forever and open with calculating, mathematical precision, lined with trees like witch’s fingers clutching at the moon. Subtle sideways glances pierce the sweat-pit-check you do outside the Muleh boutique next to the rainbow flag bookending the periwinkle coffee bar sign next to Ample Hills Creamery and the subway entrance where you can clack your way down the dirty stairs. Clack farther north still and there is the park.
Green, rambling, full of modern love. The New York Times seeks inspiration here. It’s true! Every week, the news changes, but how journalists feel about Central Park does not: it is a godsend. It’s a Saturday, so you may not fit - don’t take offense, it’s the place the city likes to escape itself, just smoosh yourself in next to the hippies and the newlyweds and the 1 year AA celebrations. Nine million working people seeking refuge all at the same time in the same place; what else, tell me, is more human?
Central Park. It’s that scene from every movie, the caption under every cheesy Instagram proposal, every postcard scrawled sloppily with "wish you were here" by a distant family friend. The giggles, the carefully coordinated couples’ outfits, the poses on the Love Bridge where, if you look down, you can see the twenty-something year old men proving to themselves that they are, indeed, good partners, and know, indeed, how to make a move. They wipe their foreheads slyly in anticipation as their women look down at the water, debating whether or not they should touch it (they should not).
Red-heads sleep in the grass like battle victims; children stay close to their mothers, somewhat suspicious of the seemingly uninhibited wild so foreign to their little eyes, their hands grasp for concrete and instead find grass. How strange, they must think!
Sheep Meadow is dotted with white linen starting in May and will be until late August when even the paganists find themselves zapped of gratefulness, scarlet with the scars of a long summer. Frisbees get thrown and lost, picnics get held and abandoned, their blankets laid out over low-hanging branches groaning at the ground. The ponds, should you choose to look deeply - careful! - is murky and green and mossy and full of nuclear fish you can smell from yards away.
How invigorating! To have people and animals and blue and grey and wild and structure altogether at once! In one direction: the world, heavily manicured. In the other: civilization, always improving, churning, gears always turning! The machinery of it all simply cannot be beat!
The Ramble is less romantic, more adulterated by the pounding hearts of the city’s young people, its crazy people, its lonely, confused, sad, introspective people. There are artists sketching its shady brooks and maniacs screwing in the bushes - proven by the scattered condom wrappers and cigarette butts and imprints left in the mud. Someone forgot their backpack, another their sandals. Oh well. A month from now, both will be shrouded in the Bluestar bush, home of the dancing chickadees; the city claims what you lose, so hold tight!
The mighty rocks, a great delight to visiting boys, stand like lions over their pride, overlooking the city in all its glimmering glory. The sun glints in the teal windows of the One World Tower, casting an emerald glow over its onlookers, drifting them off into fantastical sleep where - contrary to your Mother’s stone-hard belief - their wallets and bags of food will not, really, be pilfered. Everyone is here to turn off. And they do. And then when they wake, perhaps disturbed by the otherworldly silence, they pack quickly, suddenly anxious to get home. They look out to the city and see the sun just starting to show itself out: “It’s alright, I’ll light your way to the train.”
Dark now, the park is different. The performance - the dog-and-pony show of the out-of-towners and the online influencers - mostly evaporates as they make their sleepy way to the A, B, C, D, or 1. Their minds are on breakfast, an upcoming flight, or their roommate’s tub of cream cheese they meant to throw out this morning. They sit with sweaty thighs on the subway seats, grip the poles, and nod off once more, waking just in time to slither out the doors as they close. Those with needs more internal, to some more shameful, descend upon the park only then.
They stand in the tunnels, out of the path of rain (should it come, which it always may). They roll out their beds, light Newports, and speak in low voices. They trade cards, stories, advice. Newspaper makes good insulation. It’s a calm atmosphere; it isn’t what you think. This is how people stay alive. The city’s opulence is dazzling, yes, indeed, inarguably, but the underbelly of all that glitter is always the same: people out of the hospital, no shoes, it's those who had a bad landlord (beware) or one too many kids and too low a wage; it’s men with bad knees and botched surgeries and sly tongues who understand, yes, but they cannot conform. “In a city so large” - my God, the seams themselves bursting - “can’t they make a little room for me?” These are humans on the brink, always teetering on the edge: counting their change in open palms, clasped together a moment later for prayer. “Oh Lord there’s a whole lotta luck here - send some my way.” Their silent silhouettes will watch the sky turn, flipping pennies from knuckle to knuckle, skeptical, smoke curling from their lips for a taste of something in their hungry mouths, listening to the trickle of the leaking concrete walls.
They don’t sleep often; time is their last possession, after all.
The park’s famous parentheses - the Upper Sides - showcase their fraternal nature best at night. The East is alive with the clanking of beer jars and clamor of live amateur music. The West is turning in, pressing the elevator door closed, holding a paper bag of groceries. Up above Lincoln Center is a dark-haired boy playing piano, swaying to his own music, lit by the blue glow of a nearby television. The light goes out by nine.
Above that - stretching well out into suburban outer New York where the commute becomes toxic and the air becomes clear - the lines - well, they blur. You have East Harlem and its hospitals, Morningside and Columbia, Harlem and its jazz clubs. Almost an entire city of its own, Harlem parties well into the night: leather jackets, empanadas, flashing neon signs: “GO! GO! Playing Live NOW: Listen to the BLUES (for real!)”. Stage-lights beat down on a girl who just learned to play guitar; she nervously adjusts her collar and begins to sing - she's good! - while the bar itself is manned by tall black women, their eyes shifting from the door - to the full chairs - to the stage - and back - always keeping time and counting tips: “We Shut Down at Three and I Mean It!” Tapestries hand-made by the owner’s wife to “enhance the intimacy” hang on the back wall, green, yellow, unbelievably soft with the scent of home. The buzz of conversation like the howl of a saxophone; a cat curled on a fire escape watches it all with lazy green eyes: this is New York. Welcome.
You can fly into LaGuardia and stay for a few days; you can go to JFK, decide a destination at the entrance - pick anywhere! We’ll take you there - or if you’re bold, you can take the bus to Newark. The secret is always to return. Yes, yes, the city is ripe: it’s got slime and it will drain your wallet and your mind; it will age you, it will commit you, it will settle into the lines on your face like an undefeated head cold; it will feel indifferent to you always - there is no “warming up”, no wing to crawl under, nope! New Yorkers watch out for their own, stopping only if there’s blood - and even then, you're best fending for yourself. Years will go by and you will not remember where you put them. “That used to be a Papa’s, didn’t it? I can show you how to get there, but I don’t know why you’d wanna go, of all the places in the city to get a slice, I mean...” When did this happen? I’m from [another American town]; I'm not really like this. Except that you are. New York has been sitting on your chest twiddling its thumbs waiting for you to remember that, once, you chose it. It gave you something everything else could not.
And you’ll need that again, whatever it is. You left once, maybe twice, and that’s alright: no hard feelings, the world spins madly on, but the need will come. Isn’t it strange? The breathing space, the extra bedroom and the pocket change, it sure is nice. It’s good to have a car. But you’ll need the tenement halls, its unending lists of things to do, the plants lining the painted-shut windows, the holler of a neighbor whenever she stubs her toe, the blast of cold air from a recently cleaned subway car. The complete lack of emptiness even in the night, the rush, the madness: it feeds you. Did you even know you were hungry until now?
You’ll be back. Your mother is still your mother after all, and she lives in Manhattan. So you can pack your things if you feel like you should, huff an insult or seven, leave a pile of broken furniture on the curb, secure the hatch, turn up the radio, and you can make the drive back to Flagstaff or Dallas or wherever, but you’ll be back. She knows it before you do.
Isn’t she something?