Even in my depression — perhaps because it’s mild-ish — I am not immune to the various charms of New York City. And perhaps my lack of immunity stems from the fact that I live in Austin. I remember being frequently exhausted by and pissed off at New York when I lived here, so knowing both places allows me to relish their different charms. I always want to share the wonderful things about both places so my friends in both places get to know each place, because both are important to me, part of me. So, to wit:
New York: Walking, oh the walking. Sure, you could go down the stairs into the stinky subway, stand on the crowded platform, get in the even more crowded train (sometimes boiling hot, sometimes freezing, sometimes reeking of the homeless guy or vomit or unexplainable liquids), and traverse the city with relative ease. The price of a trip has gone up, but it’s relatively cheap and easy, especially after you learn the different lines. Sometimes you have to do that. But when you can, it’s a walker’s paradise. Sunday night I walked from the area around Columbia University all the way down to Chelsea, about 1.5 hours, more or less, 88 blocks. I walked past Lincoln Center, Columbus Circle, Times Square (ugh), Madison Square Garden, and into Chelsea. There was always something to see, and I rarely had to stop except for the crowds in Times Square. I could’ve walked along Central Park West for a good portion, another fine walk. Last night I walked home from Columbus Circle, 55 blocks. Every day I take at least one walk in gorgeous Riverside Park, usually 2-3 miles. You can’t help but walk in New York, even if you take a subway. There are great places to walk in Austin — your own neighborhood, the hike and bike trail, various greenbelts, but mostly you have to drive to them (and often it’s sweltering). It’s an effort. The NYC down side: You have to do this no matter the weather. In the summer the place reeks of pee and trash and homeless people, the subway platforms are dank and hot, and you still have blocks to walk to your destination when you leave the subway. The streets and buildings hold and radiate the heat. In the winter, you do this in ice and snow and bleak and whistling crosstown winds. Brrr.
Shopping: Of course you can get anything here. There are districts for things. Need a button? Go to the BUTTON DISTRICT. Yes, there is a button district. Want some fabric, some flowers, some meat, whatever? There is a district just for that thing. Want to do the most fancy shopping? Fifth Avenue, there you go. But even better, oh so much better, the daily shopping is just wonderful. Walking down Broadway you’ll pass table after table stacked high with used books. And usually small tables in between with people playing chess. Or table after table of handmade jewelry. Small stands selling clothing, hats, stockings, hats, scarves. In the winter they shift to warm gloves and scarves and hats. When it’s rainy, out come the umbrellas. One stand after another. Just need a fresh avocado, some bananas, lettuce, potatoes, cherries, ginger, garlic, tomatoes, anything? Walk over to the corner, this one or that one, competing fruit and vegetable stands. Pick your produce, the guy weighs it, you give him cash, he puts it in a little bag, and you walk home. Done. If you need regular groceries, walk to the other corner to the market. Sometimes you go to big markets, like Westside or Fairway or Trader Joe’s, giant places with everything. And “everything” (especially at Fairway) means everything, every kind of ethnic ingredient or food you could want. Or, of course, you could go to Chinatown, or little India, or any of the multitude of ethnic neighborhoods for anything under the sun. The NYC downside: Sometimes you just need a mall! You don’t know what kind of outfit you want but you’ll know it when you see it, so you wander the mall and go in and out of all the stores until you find it. Here you have to walk around in the weather, and maybe you’ll find it in the shops in one neighborhood but maybe you’ll have to keep moving to other neighborhoods.
Eating. Anything. ‘Nuff said. The most amazing restaurants in the world, neighborhood restaurants, any kind of ethnic food you might ever want (except Tex-Mex! Come up here, Chuy’s!). Flor de Mayo, a Cuban/Chinese restaurant, all kinds of fusions, little holes in the wall, neighborhood stalwarts. Just within a couple of blocks of my apartment there are a few Ethiopian restaurants, Korean, Thai, Chinese, Greek, Italian, Turkish, diners, Japanese, fried chicken, Lebanese, Cuban, Mexican (interior!), health food, those just off the top of my head. Within a couple-of-blocks radius, and my street butts up against Riverside Park so it’s not even a full circle. And then there are the little trucks; I prefer to get my Lebanese food from the truck on the corner than the restaurant. My old neighborhood Greek restaurant is pretty shady (we prefer to go to one in Astoria Queens), but Marc has been going to it since he went to Sarah Lawrence in the very early 1970s. The downside: Can’t think of one.
People. People in New York are generally warm and friendly — it just might not look, on the surface, like it looks in other places. But if you’re on the street and lost, you can ask anyone and they’ll direct you. If you’re on the train, you can just ask generally and all kinds of people will chime in and give you great directions. Sometimes the New Yorkers will start debating various options to give you the best advice. Once, before I moved here, I was on a train and lost, and a woman overheard me. She got off the train with me, walked me to the right place, and told me where to go. Then she went back to her own train, I guess. Yesterday Marc and I were walking in Riverside Park and I saw a key hanging by a ribbon from a fence; we guessed that someone must have dropped their key, someone else found it, and hung it on the fence post in case the owner came back looking for it, so they’d spot it easily. It touched me a lot. We all live in each other’s faces, in a way, and while we know how to erect a bubble around ourselves when we need to, we’re all kind of the same in some way. Women put on their make-up in the mornings on the train. In late winter, people sleep, heads back and mouths open, in their now-tired winter clothes, and it’s so easy to see the children they used to be. People talk and laugh, sing, sometimes cry, they read, they close their eyes, they look exhausted or happy or bored. I really love that. The NYC downside: Sorry, but New Yorkers are pretty parochial. Texans, you’ll get this: they think the world drops off at the Manhattan borders, and no place else matters. (I know. Texans think the same thing.) I actually love that about both groups, but Texans are more often open to New York than New Yorkers are open to Texas. In both places, when I mention the other place the response is “you must be glad to be out of there,” but in Texas they first say, “Welcome back!” But I love you both, and find people in both places to be real and warm and open and longing to connect.
Everything else. You have to learn how to tune your eyes, but it’s all there. That 7-11 is just part of the block, as are McDonald’s and Burger Kings and Dunkin Donuts, but they’re very easy to miss because the place is big and tall and dazzling. There are SO many churches here — synagogues and dazzlingly huge Catholic churches and Baptist churches and Korean Baptist churches and Methodist churches and Lutheran churches and mosques. It’s all here, but they’re kind of blended into the surroundings until you learn how to see them.
And in my very near old neighborhood is the glory of St John the Divine, a glorious Gothic cathedral. For a couple of years I went to the Winter Solstice concert that I’d listened to for years on NPR — a thrill to be in the audience — and one year I went to the Summer Solstice concert. One year I went to Christmas Eve services to hear the choir. The gardens around it are amazing, as are the various sculptures. I’ll take pictures sometime.
The deal is that everything is here, but you have to learn how to see it. It’s much easier to see in Austin, spread out as it is.
This morning I’m heading over to the Museum of Natural History to see the sperm whale/Moby Dick exhibit, and I cannot wait. Pictures to follow! I write this post so my Austin friends will learn why I love New York City so much (and know that many of you love it too, and may even come here when I’m here, which would be amazing!), just as I write about Austin so my New York friends learn about it (though they are almost all unwilling to venture into Texas, even to see me, which frankly annoys me a lot).
Happy Wednesday, everyone. I love you all. xo