Leaving Boston early in the morning on month four of an open-ended road trip across America, we blew through New Jersey and stopped for lunch in Mystic, CT. No, we did not have pizza but we did have a nice walk around this cute little port town and an early lunch before pushing on. As another day of travel began to set heavy, we decided to camp for the night and landed at Hammonasset Beach on Long Island Sound.
Not much in the way of fond memories made here outside of a lovely walk to the shoreline and “bathrooms most closely resembling those in a hotel” I’ve ever seen in all my days of car camping across the country. Other than that, it was like camping in a parking lot outside an all day concert event in the 1970s. In short, not our scene really at our particular age – full of loud, drunk people reveling into the wee hours, music blasting, torch lights, cars, cars and more cars. But there was one redeeming feature, a lovely bike/walk path directly from our campsite to a long stretch of a nearly empty beach to escape the chaos.
The next morning, though, we couldn’t get out of there soon enough. Besides, we were heading to New York City that morning and that couldn’t wait, um, another New York minute to get things rolling in that direction. Stopping for a hearty breakfast at “The Coffee Break” in the nearby village of Clinton to soothe a sleepless night, and thinking ahead to our next destination, we booked a last minute deal on a hotel in midtown Manhattan between bites of pancakes and real maple syrup served in its own little bottle reminiscent of an airplane size Jim Beam. Then off we went.
“I happen to like New York, I happen to love this town. I like the city air,
I like to drink of it
The more I see New York, the more I think of it
I like the sight and the sound and even the stink of it
I happen to like New York.”
~ Cole Porter
Some people hate New York City or any city for that matter. I am not one of those people. I’ve been to this stewpot of culture and clamor, desperation and glamour numerous times and I never get tired of it. It’s different every visit and different every second. This visit was probably one of the best yet.
The first time I went to New York was in 1986, fresh out of art school to visit a friend who had just left Berlin to find his life in the Big Apple. Groggy from a redeye, I stumbled out of an early morning taxi to arrive in the Lower East Side to wake up the place. Ringing the bell several times, my sleepy friend finally opened the door and ushered me quietly up the stairs through an odd layout of courtyards and rooms shared with a group of Italians spread across three floors. Making strong coffee, we caught up. An hour later, vodka came out. It was still morning but who was looking?
The Italians were looking, that’s who, by then too curious about the latest visitor, they stirred from their sleep one by one, filtering in and out of the shared kitchen to make espresso and a connection. From that day, I knew I would be back to visit New York again and again. And I have. To visit family. To practice yoga. To see art and theater, to dance and hear music, to eat and eat, to walk and walk and walk. To ride the subway, the buses and speeding taxis. To feel the non-stop vibration of this place.
“If we listen, the air is heavy with poems, ripe for plucking”
~ Yahia Lababidi, contemporary poet
A first visit to New York City must be the most indelible for most people, a sensory mash-up hardly containable or definable. Landing there in my early twenties during the fiery spark of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and mere months before Andy Warhol’s departure from this earth, was candy for a just-graduated art student.
1986 in New York was once described as the last flowering of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s New York, the last act of 1960s New York. But, alas, all things must change and they do.
Weird synchronicity happens here. I didn’t know it but my boyfriend (now my husband Tommy) who had been in Mexico for six months, flew to Amsterdam for a wedding then landed in New York at the same time I was there ambling the streets and villages of Manhattan. He discovered that I was there when he tried calling my Berkeley apartment and a strange voice answered and told him she was subletting my room for 2 months and no, she didn’t have a phone number for me where I was staying in New York. Alas, the days before cell phones made us immediately accessible, his knowledge was his own, and while frustrating for him, I was completely oblivious.
Yet, it’s a mystery that we didn’t just run into each other on the street. No, really. I say that because every time I have been to this city, I have by chance run into someone I know from somewhere else. People walk. They’re out in it. You run into each other. So, alas, our city adventures were our own to share once we were reunited in California at the end of that summer. In the following years, however, we would spend lots of time in New York together, especially after his mother moved to Brooklyn in the early 1990s.
During that first visit to the Big Apple, I was invited to move into my friend’s apartment and become another roommate but I returned to California saying I’d think about it, gather up my things, tie up loose ends there, etc. But once Tommy and I were together again after 9 month separation, life just picked up where it left off. Not seizing that opportunity is maybe my only regret about choices made along the way but one never knows what a different life would have been like. So I return to visit, see new sights, taste new tastes, feel the different air there. And this visit, the first with Tommy when it was just the two of us with no agendas or family ties or plans of any kind – was a unique one. Pure spontaneity and fun!
Back to the moment – we got into New York around noon and headed for our Midtown hotel check-in. Somehow we ended up in the parking garage of the hotel next door and had to maneuver a very tight and tricky space to get out and redirect to our proper entry. Upon arrival at the garage to our hotel, we were told we had to remove our bikes and put them inside the vehicle and get anything we needed out because there was limited access once the car was parked. That was fun. Ask yourself, how easy is it to figure out – and find! – everything you might want or need while in New York for 4 days after you’ve been camping and living on the road for several months?
After having my whole life in Homer, our Honda Odyssey van, readily at my fingertips, I had to think fast. And where to put two big mountain bikes inside the chaos of Homer was a task only an adept like Tommy could handle superbly, efficiently and at record speed! At that moment, we were reminded that on only one other visit in the past did we have a car in New York, always flying in and using public transit – the only way to be in that city. But that was literally the biggest hassle of this whirlwind visit, so no big deal.
Still exhausted from the previous 24 hours, we took some time settling into our small but wonderful room on the 21st floor, Room 2108. If you know Tommy, you’ve likely heard about his “thing” with the number 108, so he was chuckling as he scanned the room key. We got unpacked and headed out for a late Saturday afternoon stroll in our new neighborhood. First, we ducked into a hole in the wall for a slice of pizza or two and landed in Bryant Park for a solid sit down and primo people watching. Logistics finally settled, we were free to roam about this fabulous city.
The weather was perfect and there was nothing else we needed to do. With two bars on either edge of the park, gourmet coffee, stunning views of the Empire State Building and a laid back vibe, though astir with all manner of people, we were quite content.
“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
~ Emma Lazarus, poet/playwright, 1849-1887
Starting fresh the next morning we had breakfast in the hotel and headed out for more stimulation, New York style. The best thing to do here, in my opinion, is to just walk with a loose agenda, letting the day unfold. But knowing we were just there for a brief visit, we tried to pack in a few known things, too. On a whim we wandered into the Hudson Theater on West 44th Street – a theater that bears the distinction of being both Broadway’s oldest and newest theater. You get to figure that one out. We happened to notice that Jake Gyllenhaal was performing in Sea Wall / A Life, a two-act show, for two more weeks and bought tickets for the Sunday matinee for the following day.
Lots of wandering ensued. And before you know it, the day is gone and dissolved into another balmy soiree in Bryant Park relaxing and taking in the emerging nightscape backdrop against the open scenery of locals and tourists sprawled across the grass, doing yoga, picnicking, enjoying life. There is an incessant background hum in the air, like a collective urban Om that just never stops repeating itself.
Meandering the two blocks back to the hotel and the obligatory stop into a bodega or two, we sprawled out for an hour to unwind and refresh. After a bit, we went out in search of a rooftop bar in our locale. Ducking into the lobby of a nearby posh hotel, we waited in line until the elevator attendant allowed us on for the journey upward to the Refinery Rooftop Bar. Riding the elevator to the top with a group of twenty-somethings, we spilled out into a loud and crowded scene with nary a seat nor standing space to be had. Great views kept us interested for a bit before we went looking for yet another spot. The urge to keep moving floats around you in an aura of unrest in this town.
By the end of the night, we seemed to always gravitate back to Bryant Park for the mellow urban vibe and action and close proximity to “home”. Strolling over to one corner of the park, we watched a very competitive bocce ball match among a mix and match group that were quite serious and skilled with their pastime. A beautiful night eventually enticed us into the opposite corner of the park, where we had a late al fresco dinner at one of the outdoor cafes.
“And to think that I saw it on Mulberry Street” ~ Dr. Seuss
Sunday morning we ventured out and rode the subway to Canal Street and wandered around SoHo and the East Village, taking things in spontaneously. There’s always something interesting around the next corner in New York, and turning the corner onto Mulberry Street in Little Italy, we happened upon an Italian street festival – the Feast of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Napoli – with several streets blocked off teeming with colorful booths, music and street performers, accordions and endless food stands with loads of meatballs, fried pickles, pasta, sausages, clams, wine and cheese, cigars, contorni, calzone and cannoli, pignoli, biscotti and gelato.
“Too much of a good thing is never enough” – Bob Payne
Tommy tires easily of mobs of people and though I could have spent the day here, there was more to explore in a short window of time. So, we ambled on down the road, exploring quieter back streets, ducking into a gallery opening of colorful abstract portraits, briefly chatting with the artist, then wandered into a couple of funky boutiques. After a while, the heat was rising so we sought respite on a shady bench in Washington Square Park where some further people watching ensued. Nearly losing track of our time to get to the theater, we walked a few blocks just to be out in the mix, then jumped back on the subway to Times Square.
We arrived just in time to join the queue at the Hudson, switching gears into yet another sensory feast. The production was very engaging in this beautiful theater with each actor performing a solo monologue in a storytelling of life’s tragic yet tender moments. Both Tom Sturridge and Jake Gyllenhaal delivered tales of love and loss, how life can change in an instant, in sets that were separate yet overlapping. After the show, we followed the crowd to the stage door to catch a glimpse of these modest stars.
Another great surprise: It just so happened that we were in town during the Biennial at the Whitney, a museum I hadn’t been to in many years. And never have I taken in the Biennial so I was excited about that. With a later rendezvous planned to meet an old friend, we headed over to the West Village to take in the exhibit.
After an arduous task of finding a parking spot for Homer, we walked a few blocks across the village to the museum, traversing lovely and charming, tree lined back streets with classic brownstones. We happened upon a filming of something on a side street with several onlooker but we were on a mission to get to the Biennial.
The exhibit boasted three floors, including outdoor decks, of art by 75 American artists who are purported to be the best of the best of contemporary American art at the moment. Painting, sculpture, film/video, installation, photography and sound, exploring topics of race, gender, and equity. Some of it was amazing, some puzzling, and some downright ridiculous. Just what I expected!
After the visual feast and then some, we walked through Greenwich Village and the West Village and landed at an outdoor cafe with Italian food to wait for Charles, an old friend from Berkeley who moved to New York in 2000 to work as a photographer. A resident of the nearby Chelsea neighborhood, he walked over to meet us for a late lunch at Wild. We aimed to catch up on the past years as best we could before heading out on the road again while the bittersweet ticking of time oozed out of our hearts and souls. So good to see Charles, hear his wonderful voice, share stories, connect, however brief. Then, sadly, it was time to push on.
Though our time in New York was so brief, we packed in a lot in true city fashion. My hope is that it won’t be long before another visit.
*Looking back now on that active time from the encased solitude of Covid Spring 2020, my reminiscence of our time in New York last September feels particularly poignant as I realize how different this city is at the moment. The pulse stifled, the energy subdued, the flow of life gone underground like a river stream diverging from it robust mainline gush. May the vibrancy and vigor of this grand urban playground be restored soon!
(This essay, and others like it, can be found on Where in the World are Tom and Mary, a website dedicated a yearlong road trip across America in 2019.)