Tuesday, October 16, 2012

On Being in New York

Anticipating the opportunity to travel in the next couple of years I was prompted to recall the first time I traveled to New York City, and the times since then that I was lucky enough to go back.  New York City feels like such an elusive target.  It's a place that people get excited about visiting, or being in, or living in, or being from, or anything.  It has its own mythology that lives beyond its reality and yet is really alive and around you as you walk the streets.  You don't have to say you are going to New York City.  You can just say New York, because anywhere else requires the qualification, not the city itself.  There is a bit of time travel to it, as if you are somewhere not just far from home, but somewhere separate from the planet that we walk when we are not there.  There are other places like this...places that should probably make the bucket list and be a part of the fabric of a life richly lived.

I was twenty the first time I went as an adult.  I know I had been there before...we lived in southern New Jersey and so going through or stopping in New York was a part of living in that part of the country.  My parents tell the story of my father being on Jeopardy, but they didn't have the money for parking so my mother drove around the block, presumably with me in the car seat (one of the first of these now ubiquitous devices) until he was done.  I don't remember this, but I can blame that lack of memory on the fact that I was not yet three rather than on my more frequent confession that my memory is horrid.  During grade school I remember being in the museums and the various tourist stops.  As a teenager, on an occasion or two I visited the city, though not Manhattan, with my father and step-mother to visit her Italian family, which has its own New York mythology.

So, it's 1982 and I had dropped out of college, quit my jobs, packed up my Honda Prelude with all my belongings and headed off for adventure.  Sounds familiar, doesn't it?  Apparently a lifelong yearning, but when I tried it at twenty there was so much baggage and insanity swirling around my life...and fear...that I hadn't the capacity to sustain the journey.  After a couple of months I came home.  It was, of course, the middle of the deepest recession of my adult life (until the most recent one, of course) so there was no work.  But those are other stories for another time.

So I get in my Prelude and head for Philadelphia to land with my dad and do temp work and whatever else I can figure out.  Kevin Carr followed me out there (or led...I don't recall except that I had a reason to be there...family...and I don't recall Kevin's reason to be there).  He may have stayed with my dad's family for a bit, but he had his own place shortly and he managed to land a job with a restaurant, which I could not.  I think I was gushing dysfunctional vibes at the time, so I wasn't very employable even if there wasn't a recession.  The whole visit to Philadelphia only lasted a few months and included  some interesting odd jobs, a girl, and some really bad poetry.


Kevin's father had a conference to attend in New York during this period and Kevin was going to go up to New York and visit him, so we went to New York for the weekend.  He was staying in some fancy hotel, but of course hotel rooms in NY are teeny, but it didn't matter to us and he let us just crash on the floor.  We took the train to NY from Philly, which is the only way to go there.  Of course, since then I have visited by plane and also driven in and parked (ouch) but the best thing to do is to go in by train. 

I love traveling by train.  It is slower than most other ways of getting places, and in the US it doesn't often go where you want to go.  But it is in every way superior to other methods of travel.  There is an opportunity to connect socially that is unique and mostly I love the rhythm of it.  When it's working right and you catch the right mood to do it you can just flow along.

So we emerge from Grand Central a bit wide-eyed but no doubt doing what we can to look like we know where we are...which we don't.  NY in the late 70s and 80s had a tough reputation.  Crime was pretty much the principal influence on the tone of the place and there was a gritty and dirty flavor to it all that you can see in a lot of the films from that period that are set there.  There was nothing transcendent about it that I ever saw.  Instead, it was all raw and edged and harsh and somehow violent.  A bit like a flesh eating plant.  A really large flesh eating plant.  Like big enough to devour you, and your friends, and your friends' friends.  Beautiful, but completely dangerous. 

From there was a wonderful couple of days of wandering and discovering.  Like all visits to New York, it was too short.  We were pretty much broke so little of what we did involved getting off the streets.  Except for one moment, and this is the moment that stands out from this visit as the most sparkling.  The hotel was in mid-town and Kevin's father is very cool and one of the nights we were there, after his conference events ended he led us uptown a couple of blocks and we went down to a basement level bar to listen to some jazz.  Great jazz.  Smooth and dark and blue and we were taken to a completely new place. 

And then after NY, we went to Vermont, where Kevin had family and we skiied at Stowe and I lost a contact so I drove back to Philly from Vermont with one eye. 

And that's the first layer of New York, but there are more layers to uncover.  There are places in our lives that have these layers.  Like we know the place in different ways depending on who we were or who we were with when we were there.  Or are there.  A place can change, but more essentially the way we view places changes.

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