Driving back to Illinois from Maine in the summer of 2012, my heart tugged a little when I saw road signs marking 100 or so miles to New York City. Just one little detour and I’d be there. That’s the trouble with road trips: those markers taunt and tease. It’s only a handful of miles, minutes more in the car to the next destination. Drive a little further, further…drive a little further…
In October of that same year, I went to San Francisco, the third of my three must-visit-soon cities in the States. The time had come to create a new list of three. Should New York City finally make the list?
That summer’s East Coast camping trip was the first time I’d ever been to the state of New York, the drive home the closest I’d ever been to the city. Growing up, camping vacations with my family only brought me as far east as Washington, D.C. It was senior year of college when my ambivalence about New York City established itself. I wasn’t sure if I ever wanted to visit. A number of the students on my London program called the East Coast, and specifically New York, home. That was fine. What bothered me was their derision towards any other city. They’d turn a deaf ear as I tried to proclaim the merits of Chicago and Los Angeles, equally major cities in their own right: one in the west, one in the middle. But these East Coast inhabitants refused to listen to reason. It was New York, New York and nothing else.
I thought I might visit after graduation, just to see for myself. But after college, I never found the opportunity nor a reason to go.
Until this past summer.
Sometimes it takes your best friend and her family moving to get you to go to a place. So, fifteen years on from London, I was en route to New York City for the first time.
As the plane’s engines roared to life, my anticipation grew. Traveling alone, I was even more excited to navigate the city by myself. I relished the adventure and thrill of impending discovery. There’s never any fear, only a curiosity for the unknown. It would be me and only me exploring this city, deciding which things I should see and which things could wait for next time. For the next four days, it was me versus the Big Apple. Would I love it or hate it? At the end of the four days, I was sure I’d know the answer.
Those September days spent in New York were warm ones. It stayed in the upper 80s all weekend and I was definitely overdressed for that first day. Minutes after I landed at LaGuardia, I thought New York might kill me. Heat blasted form the vents in the cab I hailed to take me to midtown from the airport. I searched for pockets of cooler air to breathe and while the cabbie fussed with the AC dials, he nearly rear-ended the cab in front of us when traffic slowed abruptly. With the accident averted and AC sorted, I could focus my attention out the window to the traffic, the scenery and the most expensive tolls I’d ever seen – $7.50 to cross a bridge. Whoa!
Deposited in Manhattan and armed with the knowledge that for the most part, avenues run north and south and streets run east and west and a time I needed to be back, I was loosed upon the city starting at 3rd Avenue, between 54th and 55th.
As I walked and headed through the Upper East Side, the pulse and pace of the city hummed around me: the hustle, the trash on the front stoop piled higher than I’d even seen in London, the mobile metal kiosks selling sausages, hot dogs, kebabs and ice cream everywhere you turned, union workers spilling onto the sidewalk for a noon meal and just so many people speaking so many languages. Everyone comes to New York, my friend Tim said on the way home to Queens. I believed it.
Those days in the city, I wandered Central Park and St. Patrick’s Cathedral, saw Times Square, Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Plaza, Wall Street, World Trade Center Memorial and CBS Late Show studios. I rode the Roosevelt Island Tramway and the Staten Island Ferry to catch a glimpse of Lady Liberty. I saw my first Broadway show with my best friend Ali and stood steps from James Earl Jones as he excited the theatre and walked past us to get into his town car. I walked the length of the High Line. I took a spectacular two-hour walking tour of Greenwich Village. I ate some New York-style bagels and dined at Serendipity 3 where I indulged in a frozen hot chocolate confection about the size of softball that was apparently designed to be shared but I kept all to myself. Over the weekend we rented a car and headed outside of the city for a little bit of country, fresh air, shopping at one of the best outlet malls I’d been to and apple picking at $25 for a 25-lb bag. No, Dorothy, we’re not in the Midwest anymore.
Then, all too soon the trip was over. Back in Chicago on the ‘L’ ride home, I stared out the window and gazed upon the city as the train snaked its way around the Loop. I’d always been proud of this city and defended it fiercely against the East Coast naysayers. I would still defend it but I realized that my perception of it had altered. The city seemed a little smaller, but with wide streets, quiet trains, and alleys for dumpsters to contain all that trash. This city is so clean! I’m not sure I ever realized it before.
I thought about New York. There were parts I liked and other parts I liked considerably less. I’m not sure it’s the concrete jungle where my dreams can come true, but it’s one concrete jungle I’ll be visiting again soon.