a new york story

Posted: August 8, 2016 in Observations and Commentary, Photography
Tags: , , , , ,

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Late morning I arrived on the northbound train at Penn Station. The goal was to wander wherever and take photos. I walked the Highline to from 30th St. to 14th St., then meandered (cause that what I was doing, serious meandering) through the gentrified old meat packing district and West Village. Here and there I took some lackluster shots. But the day was gorgeous, temps in the low 80’s with reasonable humidity. The crowds were manageable and people looked happy. Of course they looked happy. It was a beautiful summer Friday and they were in New York City and not at work.

I slipped into Washington Square Park with its famous arch. I sat on a bench, nursed a bottle of water, and let the world roll by. Occasionally, I raised my camera and took a photo. I saw a flock of pigeons zip from the pavement to the trees and back again. I watched mothers push strollers with well-shaded babies, tourists check maps and excitedly point, police officers on patrol kibitz with folks, and friends animatedly gossip. Young women stretched out on the grass in search of a tan line, chalk artists drew elaborate designs on the sidewalk, and buskers strummed guitars in hope of a few dollars. Children laughed as they splashed in the park’s fountain. This, I thought, this is what the tourist board dreams people will experience so they too can loudly proclaim “I love New York!”

Years ago, for a time, I loved New York, specifically Manhattan. I wanted to immerse myself in its raw energy and endless potential. I wanted to see everything, hear everything, and experience everything the city offered. I wanted to walk the streets at night and learn their dark secrets. I wanted to be completely free in the most exciting city on earth. Practicalities or feasibility were irrelevant. I was 15 and in love the way only a naïve teenager can be. My dream Manhattan held little resemblance to the real Manhattan.

The shape of this affection changed over the next decade. My eyes and ears became more refined. For all the excitement and beauty, they also saw and heard unpleasant, horrible things. Sure, the night streets still held excitement, but also harbored unseen dangers.  And the city was expensive, certainly too expensive to actually live there in the way I was accustomed, modest as that was. Still, a measure of love stuck, but progressively grew more fragile and tenuous.

Eventually, I worked in Manhattan. During those 14 years any strands of love I felt for the city were bludgeoned by the sheer magnitude of everything – the crowds, the buildings, the noise, the traffic, the never-ending urgency. The fastest walkers in Manhattan are commuters. I was no different. At night I literally raced to the bus station to escape as quickly as possible. I worked in a nice midtown skyscraper with colleagues I liked. Despite this by day’s end I had had enough. I could not fathom how civil servants, cabbies and folks in retail coped with the relentless public every minute of every day. I became immune to the city’s charms. I became apathetic.

So as I sat in Washington Square Park and watched the swirl of activity around me I was wholly uninspired, like I had seen this movie a thousand times too many. Something had to shift. I hopped aboard the 6 train to the Upper East Side and Yorkville.

I walked down 86th Street towards the East River. It had been years since I was in this neighborhood, but knew a park overlooked the river. I made it my destination. Crosstown streets are notoriously longer and more rigorous and the five blocks felt very much like fifty. I was tired and my feet hurt, but determined to find something that stirred something other than indifference inside me.

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Carl Schurz Park is one of the city’s best kept secrets, as much as any place that contains the Mayor’s residence can be. It is very much a small neighborhood park, well-tended with two dog runs and curvy, swooping paths. A wide promenade straddles the riverbank overlooking Queens. It is quiet, breezy, and not terribly crowded. It is lovely.

I watched a tug boat chug up the river, then strolled a bit. Dogs chased balls and sniffed each other, joggers jogged, readers read. A couple picnicked on one of the green spaces. I felt a bit lifted, my apathy slightly nudged to the side. Maybe it was just hunger. By now it was closing in on 5:00 and the need to feed gripped me.

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I stopped in a small corner restaurant, really more of a diner/restaurant, and took a booth near a window. While I waited for my food, I looked out on York Ave. and again let the world roll by. Only now, thanks to the restaurant, the city was accompanied by a soundtrack. Sinatra, Armstrong, Ellington. A woman sat on a bench in front of the restaurant. She wore large sunglasses and a bright smile. She chatted with an elderly man while Sinatra crooned about April in Paris. Soon another person joined their conversation. Their laughs came naturally. I could not hear their words, but their faces said plenty. Jack Jones sang about the start of something big. Another man entered the tableau, leaned down, kissed the woman lightly on the cheek, and took the spot next to her. In the background Ella Fitzgerald wanted someone to watch over her and suddenly, Bam!, there it was. In that instant, as I watched people simply enjoy each other’s company through a restaurant window on a late Friday afternoon, I fell back in love with Manhattan, if only for a moment.

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Comments
  1. rangewriter says:

    That was quite a journey! My mother spent her youth living in and despising Manhattan. I have been there only twice, as a tourist. I’ve always said there are 2 cities I’d love to live in for about 6 months…if only I had a guaranteed escape. New York & San Francisco. Both are alive with food, culture, people, history, art, music, dance, noise, nasty, dirty, beautiful, soaring, intrigue. I was totally suckered by the aimless wandering you described in your opening paragraphs. Just the way I like to absorb a city. Sorry you didn’t enjoy it. My mother wouldn’t have either.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Lee says:

    Delightful, refreshing words and photos. Thanks, John.

    Liked by 1 person

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