I was not aware that I harbored the notion that the New York City I’d seen a million times on TV and in movies was not entirely real until I was standing in the middle of it myself, thinking, “Oh my god…it IS real.” New York City really IS all it’s cracked up to be–its scale is hard to comprehend, given that the land it occupies is 2.5 miles at its widest. But it’s loud and bustling and…well, it’s New York. Sure, it’s noisy, and dirty, and Times Square, and 42nd Street for that matter, are spectacles unto themselves that rival the strip in Vegas. But Vegas is all about artifice and glitz; New York is real, however overwhelming. There is an energy there that pulsates.
Then again, that could just be the hip-hop club across the street from our hotel room that was open ALL night. When our alarm went off at 4:15 a.m. Monday morning, they were still going strong.
In any case, we found ourselves there as the result of a plan we’d had for some time to celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary with a trip there, because we’d never been, and it seemed an elephant we ought to see before we croaked. In March we got a wild hair and, in a fit of productivity and progress, decided to plan that trip for the weekend immediately after our anniversary. Truth be told, I was both excited and nervous, because I really didn’t know what to expect of New York, one of the biggest cities on the planet. Previously, the biggest city I’d been to was Los Angeles, where the population of the LA metro is 12 million, and I still shudder to remember driving on I-5. NY metro is just shy of 20 million. (For scale, the population of the Tucson metro area, the biggest city I’ve ever lived in, is 1 million.)
We planned a short trip, realizing that we were never going to see it all, even if we stayed a month, and we didn’t want to get worn out and overwhelmed. We had two items on our agenda: to take the Sopranos tour, and to go to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. We managed both, which meant that we spent a large part of Saturday actually in New Jersey.
We saw where Chris Moltisanti was shot, where Tony supposedly worked, where Fr. Phil said mass, and we sat in the booth the Soprano family sat in during the infamous final episode, and followed it up with a lively discussion on the motorcoach as to who hated the ending, and who liked it. Opinions were split on the bus, as well as in my marriage; I was pleased that the cute tour guide and I agreed that the ending sucked, though.
I was surprised to find that the Statue of Liberty, like the Mona Lisa, is considerably smaller than I expected. I kind of expected her to loom over the harbor, but she was actually quite demure. We were a little disappointed, too, at Ellis Island, because many of the exhibits and artifacts had decamped to Maryland as the result of significant damage after Hurricane Sandy, and the continuing lack of climate control in the museum. But I got goosebumps as I stood in front of a section of graffiti that had been hidden under plaster, written in pencil by people who had waited to be let into our country, some of them for weeks on end.
Honestly, my favorite part of that excursion was being on the boat with tourists from all over the world. As we pulled into view of Liberty, and later Ellis Island, I heard Castilian Spanish, Russian, Italian, German, and other languages I didn’t recognize around me, and it touched me profoundly. Granted, we had all spent, at best, 15 minutes on the ferry instead of days in steerage. But nonetheless, people from all over the world still thrill to see the Statue of Liberty. We were, and remain, a nation of immigrants, despite some folks’ wish otherwise.
My favorite part of being in Manhattan was riding atop the double-decker tour bus, and just taking in the New Yorkness of it all, my eyes wandering down long streets filled with cabs, sidewalks filled with locals, tourists, and vendors’ carts. If you’re not an architecture geek when you arrive, New York will make you one. Indeed most of my photos were of beautiful old buildings, and sleek new ones, jumbled together to create a city that is always on the cutting edge towards the future, yet never forgets its past. I ate shepherd’s pie and the most delicious bread I think I’ve ever had in a beautiful Irish pub, the Landmark Tavern on 11th Avenue, that had been open, doing the same business, since 1868. (It’s my mission in life to learn how to make that Irish soda bread now.)
New Yorkers walk. A lot. My legs and feet hurt for 2 days after hiking a fair ways on Saturday, and then Sunday we walked from Central Park to the Financial District, then down 42nd Street back to Hell’s Kitchen. But it really is easier to walk, if you accept the fact that the people still driving consider the lane markers more of a suggestion than any kind of strict rule. The trick to surviving a street crossing in Manhattan seems to be a reasonable amount of caution combined with steely resolve and a hard stare that says, “I’m walkin’ here!” at any driver considering mowing you down. And you have to walk briskly, not like a looky-lou tourist. That’s key.
Being from the Midwest myself, and now from the Old West, I come from places where there’s land aplenty, and we all expect to have a fair expanse of it. I didn’t see a single-family dwelling anywhere until we were well through Queens and almost to the airport. I don’t even know what it would be like to share walls, floors, and ceilings, with people for your entire life.
I find it pretty much impossible to try to pull together any cohesive travelogue, or character sketch, of New York, because New York is made up of colorful moments and unexpected vignettes. The best thing you can do is just pay attention.
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