Wednesday, August 12, 2009

New York

This post is not quite tidy. Now I know why travelers write a post per day instead of this.


My college friend Sergio hosted my girlfriend and me for five days in his nicely priced Spanish Harlem apartment that sat atop a six-flight climb on 118th Street and 1st Avenue. His mother, who left the city later that night, met us on the street and made us feel at home while Sergio was at work at the Jewish Theological Seminary of Columbia University.

"This is his bachelor pad," she explained as she looked inside a Cool Whip container and found an odorous mold. "He likes it here. I come up to see him often. The neighborhood is not as bad as I thought it would be."

The neighborhood had several late-night convenience stores and Patsy's Pizzeria for our around-the-clock needs. The subway station was a ten-minute walk away. Friends from Chapel Hill who had stayed with Sergio months earlier told us not to walk late at night, but we did anyway and survived.

We ascended the Empire State Building soon after we said our goodbye to Sergio's mom. We shared one audio tour speakerphone, which forced my girlfriend to stand on her toes and myself to angle my body into the observatory walls. In this manner we listened to an Italian guy tell us about his city with lots of "now listen" and "this is the beauty of New York" and "see over there" and "my father came across that bridge with 17 cents in his pocket."

That night we bought tickets to "The 39 Steps" with a false hope it would be good. Before the show we found a decent outdoor restaurant called Mother Burger with $2 PBRs and a tiny bathroom in which I changed into theater clothes like Superman. The play had a lot of characters, some of whom spoke little English, and only four cast members. I felt stupid, but my girlfriend thinks I am smart.


We took the subway to Union Square to have lunch with my Old East friend Victor. Victor is a born New Yorker who works for an Hispanic civil rights nonprofit that gives him big lunch breaks when his boss is not around. He and my girlfriend talked about crying when Dobby died in Harry Potter. Victor missed Chapel Hill, but I knew enough about New York after 24 hours to understand he was home.

We split with Victor and walked to Strand Book Store. I bought Don DeLillo's "Falling Man," a post-9/11 novel that actually refers to the book store in which I bought it. I am still working on this one; it is dense. I called my sister when we reached Greenwich Village because she lived there as an adolescent ballerina.

"Find where I lived," she said. I never did, but I remembered how it looked 13 years ago and how my mother cried in the Chicago airport when she left.

My girlfriend stopped in Chinatown to look at fake bags. Actually, she looked at real bags with fake names on them. I perused the bowler hats and obscene T-shirts. The merchandise vendors spoke in nouns as we walked by.

"Hats," one sharply said. "Bags. Water. Glasses." I got it, I got it. She had lots of stuff to sell.

We finally stopped at the base of the Brooklyn Bridge to visit with my high school friend Andrew. Andrew is a trader who loves New York more than Chicago but cheers for the Cubs in person when they come to town. His girlfriend finished a two-year Teach For America commitment and decided to stay at her placement school for the coming school year. Bravo.

"She did not drink the Kool-Aid," he said. Bravissimo. Andrew displayed a confident, affable discourse that I miss from my high school days among the leaders of today. We talked about some of them. Danny tries to cure cancer at Stanford and will marry his fiancee in due course. Nolan flies in an F-16. Jason is at Georgetown Law. Sophia works for Goldman, but I would see her in a couple days.

I asked Andrew if he thought New Yorkers stood outside their apartment buildings for no apparent reason. He grinned.

"Stoopin'," he explained with a half grin. In that moment he became a New Yorker to me.

Andrew walked us to Ground Zero. New York buzzed all around. It felt like a popular urban theme park next to a new ride under construction. We asked a couple workers what we could see as first-time visitors. They pointed us toward a small break in the tall fence meant to obstruct view. We saw nothing but a construction site that had not yet risen above the ground. I thought, perhaps correctly, that the city had removed all memorials and would restore them upon Freedom Tower's completion. I thought about the empty air, the New Yorkers around me and the unread book in my backpack. I thought about my friends and family.

"I was in Mrs. Gongol's second period class," Andrew said.

We remember.

Vivian, my friend's girlfriend, appeared and took us back to and across the Brooklyn Bridge for our first New York pizza at Grimaldi's. The walk on the bridge was long but nice; we turned frequently to gaze at the skyline and take pictures. Vivian, another true New Yorker, told us her father once gave her and her brother money to go to the World Trade Center observatory. They never went. She told her dad the truth years later when the towers were gone. She also told us about her work this summer as a public defender in the city. We listened to Vivian's tales of defending a flustered transvestite.

Grimaldi's had a short waiting line on the sidewalk and a surprise on the inside: no air conditioning. It did have delicious pizza and cheap wine for its pedestrian clientele. We walked to a place on the river for ice cream and saw hundreds of cop cars and boats speed toward Manhattan's southern tip. We looked on the news for the story later that night but found nothing.

We split with Vivian at a subway station and took a long ride back to Spanish Harlem. New York was fun and exhausting.


Either I promised my girlfriend we would see Harry Potter in New York or she told me we would. I probably failed to listen and declared what I thought was a generous promise but she knew was evidence of guilt. I thought the film was OK but could only understand the plot as good versus evil. The bad people did bad things, and this scared us. We were sad when the good people suffered. Yes, I cried a bit. Why the pointing of the wands?

We strolled through Times Square, which looked a lot like Vegas, looking for a couple empty chairs since the city recently cleared a certain area of traffic and delivered it to exhausted pedestrian tourists. Ripley's Believe It Or Not almost seduced us with its upside-down hallway, but the admissions charge pushed us out the door and into the "Avenue Q" lottery line, which we won.

After we won we luckily found Junior's, a delicious cheesecake place that Sergio recommended. We sat in the first row for the best musical I will ever see. "Avenue Q" starred several muppets who taught us adult lessons that Sesame Street omitted. The catchy numbers included "It Sucks To Be Me" and "I Wish I Could Go Back To College." Duh. This musical was timeless. I mean this musical is timeless.

We had a couple drinks at the Times Square Hard Rock Cafe, watched a Michael Jackson music video and went home. The next day we would finally be with Sergio.


Central Park was big. It covered about fifty city blocks on each side, so it was more of a collection of parks than a park itself. The three of us rode rented bikes around the perimeter after Sergio bargained like a Chinatown pro. We saw a chess conservatory, children's playgrounds, the reservoir, music festivals, horse-drawn carriages, bicycle-drawn carriages and only one pissed New Yorker. I was enchanted.

My girlfriend and I rode back to Sergio's apartment to prepare for a night out with the aforementioned Sophia, her sister Michelle and her boyfriend J.B. They recommended Ippudo NY, a Japanese ramen restaurant. Now listen carefully. This is my new all-time favorite restaurant. It was trendy, reasonable and delicious. I never ate ramen before, so I could not compare it to the cheap stuff. The broth tasted better than anything I had ever dreamed about.

J.B. was exceptionally kind and talkative. He works for himself as an upstart financial adviser with a few friends and one investor. We snuck young Michelle into a couple SoHo establishments and danced. Sophia and I talked about our times at Libertyville High until we realized the unusual nature of discussing a Midwestern canned food drive over $9 beers in downtown Manhattan.


We went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We could not stay for long since we promised Sergio we would meet him for a late lunch. The museum was sort of vanilla. We might not have been in the right wing for us. The American wing offered some familiar works like the female bust "America." I am not an art museum person.

After lunch with Sergio, we followed him to Central Park on his way to work. We sat on a rock next to a men's softball game for an hour. A small family gathered nearby. The mother made an octopus from balloons. She approached us, and we discovered that she was an off-duty, professional clown.

"If you ever need a clown," she hypothesized, "here is my business card." Sweet.

We walked back to the chess conservatory that we observed earlier to play a game. The supply room was closed, but a few players brought their own sets and hustled strangers. One guy, possibly named Jackass, challenged an Hispanic father of two, possibly named Protagonist.

Protagonist accepted, and his kids wandered off to play and watch from afar. Jackass unloaded a set from his backpack, and the two men agreed on a speed game. We decided to stay.

"Are you sure you know how to play," Jackass jeered after questioning his opponent's move.

"Yes," Protagonist quietly protested.

The game progressed until Protagonist pulled an unexpected sequence of moves for the beautiful upset.

"Oh!" Jackass gasped. "You got lucky!" We left with the sweet feeling of an upset victory.

We walked to Columbus Circle and rode a down escalator into Sergio's workplace, Whole Foods. This was the largest grocery store in the world, and Sergio was in charge of customer service at the bottom of the escalator. We talked for awhile and then walked through the stinky cheese aisle. The checkout lines were so long that store employees held large placards to display approximate waiting times.

We left and called Vivian for a second meeting at a Cuban restaurant. Our friends were great for the entire trip.


We had accomplished everything except for seeing the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We let those go and instead rode to Tom's Restaurant, a breakfast diner better known as Monk's Cafe in "Seinfeld." The show used only the outside of the restaurant for its scene transitions. The actual inside was cozier and more authentic than the one you know. Tom's sat a couple blocks from Columbia University, so we strolled its quad before returning to Sergio's to pack for our return flight. Columbia was tiny but beautiful. It starts with a "C," ends with an "A," has eight letters and represents with light blue and white. Go . . . Lions?

The gate attendant at the airport offered us two $400 travel vouchers to take another flight home. We accepted. I have a compelling reason to get a passport and pick a city. I will travel abroad next summer.


New York is like nowhere else. The city is the world. I could not tell you how many languages I listened to on subway rides, on the streets and in Central Park. The spirit of the city is its sense of possibility and optimism. This was the gateway of America for most of its history, and it still stands as an image of the promised American melting pot.

My high school history teacher once told me that Chicago was a great American city and New York was a great international city. I understand why he said that, but I consider New York as patently American.

They came from the four corners in search of freedom in this new world, this New York. They opened businesses, built buildings, dug tunnels and educated. They sold hot dogs and played chess on Spanish Harlem street corners. They segregated. They desegregated. They segregated again. They argued at times about issues of race and religion. They learned from their differences yet understood what they had in common and passed this knowledge through the generations for a better America from Brooklyn to Los Angeles.

The Italian guy from the audio tour spoke about a rescue worker he knew who worked at Ground Zero in the days after 9/11. He said his friend knew he would not find any survivors but was still looking for something. He said he was looking for his freedom as New Yorkers have for centuries.

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