A few brief notes on a long-delayed trip back to New York City, after over a year away:
— Good lord am I out of practice with east coast summer heat and humidity. I hope I haven’t become equally wimpy about winter, but I probably hope in vain.
— On the other hand, apparently I still walk fast even for a New Yorker, and still know how to melt through crowds while I’m doing it. (The trick is to be a droplet of water, and let gravity pull you horizontally through the gaps. I can’t describe it any better than that.)
— I could have kissed the first subway I took. (Unfortunately I know all too well where the 1 train has been, so I refrained.) After a year and a half of trying to pretend that MUNI + BART + SamTrans + CalTrain + VTA + GGTransit + Partridge + Pear Tree somehow adds up to a functional public transit system for an area with 1/5th of NYC’s population (hint: IT DOES NOT), being back in the arms of my beloved MTA was a revelation. Yes, it’s dirty and loud and stiflingly hot and often smells kinda funny, but the trains go everywhere and go there often. Not a single time in nearly a week in the city did we wait for more than 10 minutes to get a train. Usually, they pulled in a few moments after we walked onto the platform. (Yes, I do remember that it doesn’t always work that way. Trust me, I have banked more subway karma than you can imagine over the last 18 months.) This is how it’s supposed to work, people.
— It’s amazing how certain habits are linked so completely to a place, a time and a state of mind. A year ago, for reasons that are not particularly interesting, I gave up coffee. Minus the initial few days of headaches and unconsciousness, this was a completely easy transition to make: I simply stopped drinking the stuff, and never had any problems with craving or backsliding. But that first morning in Manhattan, when I walked out onto the streets? Right then and there, I would have killed my own mother for a cup of coffee. Now I know how ex-smokers feel when they go into a bar.
— You forget how loud New York is. San Francisco is, technically, a city, and has all of the sources of noise pollution that come with that designation: car alarms, honking horns, reversing trucks, jackhammers, construction… but SF’s volume knob is limited by law to “5”, while Manhattan Goes To Eleven. By the second or third day I’d adjusted, but standing at the corner of 30th and 7th on my first day there, I really wanted to be able to hit the mute button.
— And speaking of jackhammers… there is nothing quite like being woken up at 7am by the sound of not one but two of these babies digging out a 3-story basement into the solid schist bedrock of the Upper West Side. This is technically a complaint, but I’ll give it this: I got over my eastbound jetlag really fast.
— It’s very, very strange being in New York without a home or a job to go to. On Wednesday afternoon, M and I were sitting on a bench in Washington Square Park, resting our feet and watching the cute NYU students go by, when I was overwhelmed by the sensation that I must have forgotten something. After all, it was 3pm on a weekday: surely there was a meeting that I was late to, or a deadline that was looming? The feeling never really went away.
— Holy crap I’ve missed good pastrami. And decent apples.
— Moving to California has made me a worse Jew than ever before, which is saying something. On Thursday afternoon, M and I went downtown to perform a serious attack on the famed Century 21 discount store (imagine Filene’s Basement but with better merchandise and more fistfights), only to find that it was closed. Because it was Rosh Hashanah . I am off the map and off the calendar: two years ago, I wouldn’t have even needed to think about it to realize that they (and J&R, and B&H, and indeed half the city) would be closed.
— Speaking of my New York friends, I have a message for all of you: SPEND MORE TIME IN RIVERSIDE PARK. Seriously. M and I walked down the west side from the 79th Street boat basin to 14th street. They’ve almost finished all of the renovations, and it’s fucking gorgeous. But apparently they haven’t mentioned this to anybody, because it’s also empty. Go get some quality time in now before people figure this out and it becomes as crowded as the Sheep’s Meadow.
— We were there just as the season turned. It can happen overnight: one day it’s hot and muggy, the next day there’s a chill and a snap and a clarity that wasn’t there the day before. I didn’t realize until it happened how much I missed it.
— More than any other place in this country, New York goes on without you and never looks back. The death toll of the things and places that made up “my” New York was small but strongly felt. My favorite ninja date cheap sushi restaurant: gone, sold to new owners who kept the furniture but jacked the prices and dropped the quality and the interesting rolls. The nerdgasm store on St. Marks Place that sold nothing but vintage video game equipment: gone, replaced by a crappy porn/lingerie store that I predict will itself be gone by the next time I visit. The tiny community garden across the street from our apartment: turned into a monstrously ugly 6-story condo. The 2nd Avenue Deli: gone, maybe coming back, maybe not. The Eagle, the Batcave, Korova Milk Bar, and the bar at 2nd Ave and 6th that
— San Francisco is cute. Manhattan is…stately and severe. Its beauty is all ochre and orange and brown: stained concrete and rusted steel. You know just looking at her that she’ll break your heart and you’ll keep coming back for more.
Hm, that all sounds kind of negative and bittersweet, which is mostly not how it was at all: I had a blast, and wish I could have stayed longer. But for better or worse, this was the first time that I’d been back when I was really there as a visitor, without any other task at hand than to hang out with people I hadn’t seen in a while, and it’s a strange transition to manage. Next time will be easier.