Our trip to New York was something of an impulse decision (although you should probably understand that for me, “impulse decision” means “booked two weeks in advance”.) It was also something I hadn’t thought about a lot – I knew I wanted to go visit New York sometime, but I hadn’t planned anything. Which meant that the night before we left, I realised that I had no idea where anything in New York was.
I mean, I knew the basics. There’s an island. There’s lots of more-tourist-unfriendly bits. There’s dozens of world-famous attractions and landmarks and so forth. I’d just never bothered to figure out where any of them were in relation to each other. I’ve seen New York depicted in the media often enough, but I grew up in a city where you oriented yourself by the hills and the sea, and moved to another where you used the hills and the river; a mental map using skyscrapers didn’t gel. (The Bay Area, in contrast, I found extremely easy to remember, because I could operate on the same hills/sea pattern.)
We were also extremely time-limited – arriving one afternoon and leaving the next, and since neither of us is a night-on-the-town type and I was down with a pernicious cold (and the temperature was persistently below -10 Celsius) I figured we weren’t going to be bar-hopping in the evening, either. So I gamely picked a couple of landmarks that looked close enough to each other to be doable in the morning before our brunch appointment, and off we went.
The bus ride down was actually pretty nice – comfy seats and WiFi made it a much better deal than driving and having to park. I never investigated the details, but I saw Park-and-Ride signs well outside of White Plains, so I’m figuring it would have taken just as long to get there and been far more hassle. Also, we managed to get the front seats on the double-decker bus, so there were some pretty good views. I have to admit I got pretty excited when I saw the Empire State Building in the skyline.
New York was immediately larger-than-life – we really did feel like we were on a movie set, probably because we’d seen it so often in films and TV. The real city, though, looks like a place people live; there are shops in odd places, cracks in the sidewalk, and people, people, people everywhere. It’s always weird to see somewhere you’ve seen in media as a real city. It’s happened more than once since coming to America – e.g., the first time I saw a Walmart – but it was stronger with New York.
The other thing that I noticed particularly were the apartment buildings. The sheer scale of the number of people crammed into such a tiny space of land is just incredible. Buildings larger than anything in New Zealand, and they’re just apartments. I’ve been to London, but London is a lot more spread out; New York just goes up, and up, and up. A greater contrast to our current flat couldn’t be imagined; sort of two extremes from the places I’ve lived all my life, suburban houses (in the Kiwi fifteen-minutes-from-the-CBD sense) with modest-to-sizeable gardens.
We made our first meeting with Mike’s thesis supervisor, and I had a bagel. Can anyone tell me why cream cheese with smoked samon is called “lox”? I keep thinking “liquid oxygen” and I’m pretty sure that’s not it.
We barreled back on foot to our hostel – not because I wanted to barrel, mind you, seeing as it was extremely cold and I had a cough, but because it turns out that there are two speeds on the sidewalks of New York, which are stopped and out of the way or full speed ahead. A friend linked me to this advice on how not to look like a tourist in New York: the bit about not stopping for anything is entirely accurate. We did try stopping for no-walk signs on a couple of roads, and pretty much got shoved out into the middle and had to run for it anyway. (Sort of like the general American approach to yellow lights, but…accelerated.)
The next morning we set out to walk past the World Trade Center site and see the Statue of Liberty. We took the subway, having to change trains because of work on the lines (which engendered a moment of terrible confusion, because I’d also failed to thoroughly research the subway system before we left, but we figured it out) and got out near the WTC site. There wasn’t a lot to see, because it’s all a building site, but you can see the new towers going up. It was the first time I really understood the scale of the destruction there, and how low the casualties were, compared to what they could have been. I kept every newspaper from the two weeks after September 11 – my parents still have them in the attic somewhere – and I remember that on the day, they were estimating tens of thousands of deaths, perhaps one of the few disasters when casualty numbers consistently dropped as more news came in. Looking at the other skyscrapers, it’s easy to believe.
There was a graveyard just across from the building site, attached to one of the funny little stone churches that are everywhere across New York, remnants of an older city, generating the same odd mix of old and new that I saw in Boston. It made me think. I have a not-very-secret love of silly disaster movies; I’ve seen New York destroyed on screen a hundred times. It’s easy, sometimes, to let the attacks on September 11 slide into that territory; they have been so politicised and mythologised, a decade on, that it’s hard to remember, when you live halfway around the world, that it happened to normal people, going about their lives, going to work, getting breakfast, across the road from a little old stone church. That it happened somewhere real.
That church was real.
One of the things I had realised the night before we left is that, due to all those disaster movies, I pretty much expected the Statue of Liberty to ambush visitors to New York like an enormous blue-green stalker, rather in the way that movies lead one to believe the Eiffel Tower is visible from every hotel window in Paris. (Having been to Paris, I can assure you this is not the case.) It suddenly occurred to me that due to all those skyscrapers, the Statue of Liberty was unlikely to be visible unless we made a concerted effort to go somewhere it was visible from, so I pointed at the bit of green on the map that said “Battery Park” and told Mike we were going to go see it from there. I don’t think he realised I was basically crossing my fingers that would work, since I couldn’t see any obvious footpaths or actually know anything about where we were going except that there appeared to be a clear line of sight to Liberty Island.
And there was.
The park also held a memorial to Korean War veterans; I’d heard it described as the “forgotten war”, but I hadn’t realised quite how much until I looked at the numbers on the memorial. (Or that Ethiopia had been involved. Then again, it was a UN mission; there were New Zealanders there, too, and people from a lot of other countries.)
We hurried back uptown by foot and subway to the cafe by Central Park where we were meeting friends for brunch (if anyone is looking for brunch in that area, I definitely recommend the AQ Kafe) and then walked back through Times Square to our bus stop. Times Square is another one of those places in New York I knew about, but had never placed geographically; I was almost surprised when we got there, not realising quite how large it was.
And then we were on the bus back home, driving out through New Jersey to another lot of very nice views of the skyline. On the way we also got a look at another example of the American love for highly elaborate Post Office buildings.
I don’t know what it is, but half of them are like that. (Not quite as big, but in general style.) It makes me a little nervous to go to them, honestly.
As you can see, we barely skimmed the surface of the city, but I’m hoping we can make it back for a ew days later this year, dependent on work and university schedules. I don’t think I’d ever want to live in New York, but I definitely want to visit again – there’s so much to see and do, and now I’ve realised how close it really is, I’m not putting off going back.
In four weeks, though, I’m off to another great American city, for my mid-year Fulbright meeting: New Orleans. At the beginning of Mardi Gras. That, I think, is going to be something else.