Thursday, July 2, 2009

New York Blog

By the time I re-boarded the train to leave Portland, I had noticed a shift in my discipline to this project. What had started as an energetic and enthusiastic study, manifested in my many wanderings and ongoing conversations throughout the train cars, had turned into a sort of lethargic and slightly apathetic study, one that kept my headphones tacked to my ears and my bag on the seat next to me (trainspeak for “keep walking”). I don’t know exactly from where this shift had stemmed: the weariness of never being alone, the poor treatment I had received from a select few in Portland (certainly not all, but far more than in Alb), the indefinable boundaries of this project, the distance from my wife, or the dissatisfaction with my writing. Whether it was from one or a combination of these things, I seemed to have halted progress in my attempt to experience the culture of the modern day train ride, and was worried that this idleness of study would carry on into the loudest and most populated city in America: New York. I actually managed to make the Portland to Chicago stretch without having a significant conversation with anybody—though I did find myself often sitting along the outside of a social circle, listening in. And when I got to Chicago, instead of going out for a meal, I opted to sit in with a close friend for a home cooked meal and a movie. During the Chicago to New York stretch, I celebrated the good fortune of having an empty seat beside me by trying to sleep as much as I could. When we arrived at Albany, however, my good fortune had ended and a new passenger had squeezed in beside me. I sat listening to music for about an hour, and then was just about to watch the “Planet Earth” documentary I had borrowed from Jen, when I finally turned to the guy and asked him, “Are you from New York City, or just visiting?” From there, a conversation. As a born and raised New Yorker, he did not quit talking about his city until we pulled into Penn Station an hour and fifteen minutes later, which he described as a horrific building, more comparable to a shopping mall than a train station.”

So, I’d like to say that this conversation was all it took to turn around, but in hindsight, I’m certain that regardless of the conversation, when I stepped foot into New York City, I did not have the option to step outside of the infinite hum of human conversation. The city demanded it, was fueled by it.

An old friend, Jacob, met me at Penn and we dropped my things of at his girlfriend’s apartment, visited his practice space, and began walking New York. We started on the Brooklyn side of the East River, at a park overlooking Manhattan. Then, after crossing the river, we walked for about four hours in and out and up and down Manhattan, weaving through all the major neighborhoods on the lower side, from the Hudson River side to the East River (hope I have my river names correct). At 2am, and after a slice of New York pizza, we finally returned to the apartment and I quickly fell asleep.

During the next day, I wandered the entire day by myself, and though I had been warned repeatedly about the rudeness and coldness of the city, instead I found a helpful, proud, and often humorous (especially from the deli and bodega attendants) attitude from the people. It was nothing at all like I had imagined it. Furthermore, where I had expected filthy streets and stench, I found personality and history in the architecture and, well, stench (without alleys, trash is stored outside, and in the 80 degree heat and thick humidity, the stench was a bit awful at times). Granted, I spent the first day in Manhattan getting the tourist agenda out of the way: Ground Zero (hidden behind a fence and tarp), St. Paul’s Church (awesome little church at Ground Zero—I was told it was the oldest building in New York, but I don’t have any sources for this), Battery Park, The Statue of Liberty (much, much smaller than I had imagined it being), Staten Island, Greenwich Village, the FlatIron Building (one of my favorite sights in the city), Time Square (brilliantly excessive, felt my head loosening) The Rockefeller Building (made me sick to my stomach looking up), Central Park, etc. So, though I was pleased with the way I was treated, I admit that Manhattan felt like walking through a wealthy, tourist haven. Primarily because it is a wealthy, tourist heaven.

So the next day I wandered deeper into Central park and explored the subway systems further, taking it into Queens to buy tickets to a Mets game. Central Park was fascinating. There is a natural wildness to the park that I loved. I mean, sure it is manicured, and many of the gardens had to be installed. But the naturalness of it is in the massive exposed rocks and trees and plants that are native to the area. Ponds filled with fish and turtles broke up the trees and grass fields as they would in most of North East Appalachia. I also began to grow fonder of with the Subway systems, though I had to be assisted several times by the locals. Not only is the subway a prime people watching locale, but it is a great place to read. And I say this being an entirely high-maintenance reader (silence and stillness). But after spending some time in the subway, I got used to the motion of the cars over the tracks, and the hum of electricity blended with mumbled phone conversations, and whispers to children created such a great white noise that I was able to tackle several pages on a 15 minute subway ride.

When I say Central Park has a natural wildness to it, I have to hesitate slightly because of the amount of people doing unnatural things throughout the park, such as holding their groomed poodles up to the drinking fountain for several minutes (with its paws resting on the fountain) to get a drink (and along with this is carrying one’s dog through the park), dressing up as the Statue of Liberty and asking for money (creepy), and indulging in amusement park rides located within the park. This is one of several reasons why my absolute favorite day in New York was when I decided to walk from the Bushwick neighborhood in Brooklyn to Prospect park. The walk itself was what made the day so incredible. The variety from neighborhood to neighborhood is unmatched in any part of the world in terms of ethnicities, markets, and shops. A primarily Trinidadian neighborhood overflows into a Hasidic Jew neighborhood, into a Hispanic neighborhood. At every street corner, and at every storefront bench a group of men or women stood together speaking a variety of languages, laughing and slapping each other’s sweat-soaked backs. Most of the people looked at me as I walked by, sometimes making eye-contact and nodding. Prospect Park was equally wild; the trails were more narrow and led through more dense woods, the tunnels were darker and revealed less about their corners and boundaries, the fields were more vast and unkempt, the trees backrested readers in more remote locations. Plus, a man lay on his side next to the trail scratching the back of his neck with a large pair of shears. As I walked throughout many of the trails, a slight drizzle began, and soon developed into a rain, and then a downpour. I continued to walk, trying to stay under roof edges, and leafy tree branches, breaking this relationship only once to buy a delicious hot dog with sauerkraut for only a buck fifty. I took a different route back and, even in the warm and drenching rain, refused the urge to jump on the available subways, making the 3-4 mile trip back to the apartment, even though this meant I wouldn’t get to the Mets game until the top of the 3rd inning.

I was a little nervous entering the Mets game, even though I successfully made all 3 transfers to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan and all the way back to Queens. The problem was a pint of rum had somehow found its way lodged into the more forward regions of my drawers, and I saw the line-waiters ahead of me getting a thorough pat-down. I tried to turn around, thinking maybe I could find a new, more comfortable and less protruding position for my rum bottle, but folks had already lined up behind me. I was stuck. As I waddled up to the gatekeeper, I lifted my arms and he patted his hands up and down my legs, missing the bottle by a mere hair’s width. I did it. Not only did I get a fifteen dollar ticket, I could avoid the 8 dollar beers for much, much cheaper Rum and Cokes. I had such a great time at the ballgame and sat among a wildly enthusiastic crowd, going nuts after all eleven of the Met’s runs (against the scoreless St. Louis Cardinals).

Later that night I went and watched Jacob’s band, Asa Ransom, at Southpaw, a Brooklyn Bar. They were great. The following night, after a day of wandering around Coney Island, which quite possibly included 3 of the following 3 things: eating a hot dog at the place where the World Hot Dog Eating Championships are held, Swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, and attending a Freak Show, I headed back to Manhattan and had a very enjoyable evening of reading at Bryant Park, with a cup of strong coffee and some Cadbury Chocolate. I then headed back to the apartment where I showered off the salty grime from my skin, and whatever other toxins one may acquire after swimming off the coast of the largest city in the USA. I met up again with Jacob—this time in Manhattan—for another of Asa Ransom’s shows and was surprised to run into Regina, another old friend, who has been living in New York for the previous year and a half. The band, again, was excellent, even though they didn’t start until after 2am. As Jacob and I finally made it back to the apartment, we stopped at the craziest intersection in Brooklyn (Broadway and Myrtle) for 4 dollar giant deli sandwiches and a beer. We carried them to his apartment as the sun rose over the buildings. Finally, on Friday, I woke one last time covered in sweat from the thick humidity, did laundry and bought a few groceries, and began making my way back to Penn Station.

New York has definitely been the highlight of this trip so far, and I really wish that I could’ve had another three weeks to enjoy it. I was thrilled by the intensity of the city and its people, the variety and character of such a historical town. In fact, even though I had a roughly 60-hour train ride ahead of me, I was re-energized about the project, and ready to spend the next four days on a train rediscovering the modern train culture and looking ahead to LA.


Elizabeth said...

Hey Jason,

Nice to hear about your travels. I enjoyed talking the other day. FYI, Central Park is human-made.

Good luck with the rest - be safe.


Amy said...

I always thought NYC would be an inspiring place to live...for a little while. I look forward to hearing your report on the microbreweries.

Safe travels...


Kevin said...

It occurs to me that while you felt a bit like a public shut-in on the train at the beginning of this post, what you really did was encounter another character.

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