The first time I came to New York City was 1999 – I was a 19 year old punk rocker and the first place on my list of ‘must sees’ was St. Mark’s – lined with tattoo parlors and vinyl record and clothing shops, I thought this had to be the coolest place in the world. I got to see the last Halloween parade held in the Village, a Misfits show (which remains a tad hazy) and attended some crazed, drag queen rave party in an old warehouse in some obscure corner of the city. I loved the dinginess of the subway, the rats that scurried about the tracks, the people who just didn’t seem to give a fuck and all the art, music and everything else a 19 year girl yearning for a bit of dirty-city fun could get her hands on.
The second time I came to New York City was in the summer of 2006 on a buying trip with a few friends and old colleagues from a small boutique I once worked at in Minneapolis. Most of my time was spent seeking out bizarre and trendy jewelry in China Town and bartering for knock-off Prada bags. I didn’t go to Ground Zero, or feel the least bit compelled, but I did spend a bit of time in the Polish part of Brooklyn with a Polish friend and his mother. I fell in love with walking down streets that briefly reminded me of being back in Poland, listening to Polish, eating Polish food and then stepping on to the next block, only to begin to hear Russian and see Russian shops, then Hasidic Jews, Yiddish and kosher food stands. I kept walking, giddily anticipating the next language or culture I would run into. I was fascinated and rapturous. This was nothing like the Poland I had just come from – with it’s 97% Polish Catholic population, or any other place I had ever been. I didn’t make it back to St. Mark’s, but I did find my way to the Alice in Wonderland sculpture in Central Park… and I knew I had a lot more of this city to uncover.
So when I had the opportunity to come back to New York City for six weeks – and get paid to do so – I pretty much jumped at the suggestion. Coming from the beaches of the Turkish Mediterranean, my first impression of the city was – as I had remembered it – dirty. Three hot, subway riding hours after arriving at JFK, I was at SUNY Maritime College in the Bronx, where I would spend the next five weeks of my life. Now when one thinks of the Bronx, they probably don’t envision sailboats and quaint little maritime houses, white picket fences and fuzzy dogs clad in glow-stick, wrap-around party fare, but that was mostly my experience. It’s a different world however as soon as you go a bit further south and the hour plus bus/subway trip into Manhattan every other day or so proved to me just how MANY differences are incorporated within this city. The subway line picks up in the south Bronx, leisurely clanks it way through Harlem and down into the Upper Eastside, and all the way into Brooklyn. Quite the trip I must say and the personalities it gathers along the way are eccentric enough to fill a novel with vibrant character analysis on the extraordinary dynamic which makes up this city. I know one of the first things you are ‘taught’ as a child about going into the big, bad city; is never to stare at someone, make eye contact or even glance at someone for more than a measly second – but really, I can’t help but to ‘watch’ and observe as people get on and off trains, sit and chat over a cocktail at a restaurant or simply walk down a crowded city street. The individualism is amazing and I don’t think I would be so perceptive of it if I hadn’t been abroad for so long.
So, unapologetically, I sit on the subway, watching people – and if and when they lift up their gaze to meet mine – I simply smile and turn away. And to my amazement, most everybody smiles back – wow! So it’s become my social experiment of the summer – to watch people, all people – most importantly, the toughest looking people I can find, get them to notice me, smile and gauge their response. People ligthen, soften – and will sometimes even speak to me in the most human of all tones, civility is catching.
For the most part however, people ride these trains in their armored bubble – headphones on, mobile in hand (even though most of their ride must be endured without service), so they play games, read their Kindles (no more newspapers), stare at the dirty floor, their feet and sit in silence – often trying to ignore the unignorable rantings of the occasional drunk, junkie or badass, belting out-of-tune lyrics to whatever profane song may be blasting into their ears from their headphones. People screaming lyrics about how they are going to ‘slit a motha fuckin’ nigga’s throat’, ride along with conservative Muslim families, men in pressed business suits, pregnant teenage girls, art students from Nebraska, delicate old ladies, dressed to the nines, tourists, immigrants from all across the world, and me. I love the subway for how it ‘brings people together’ – maybe not ideologically, or spiritually – but physically, these people have to tolerate one another for the length of time it takes until they are released from the moving iron tin and are free to again congregate in their respected borough of the city. Perhaps most just zone it all out – the people they normally would not dream of being anywhere near – but they still have to sit there, for a brief moment, and ‘get along’.
This time around, I’ve spent a lot more time outside of Manhattan – from Brooklyn with all its hipsters and vegan-asian-fusion restaurants, to the many different faces of the Bronx, the dirty, musical splendor of Harlem, all the way up to Dobbs Ferry where I am currently spending my last week in New York. A forty minute train ride from Grand Central, Dobbs Ferry is quietly placed on the Hudson river, in the lush greens just South of White Plains and North of Yonkers. Except for the skyscrappered skyline way off in the distance – you would never know you are such a short ways from Manhattan. This town is charming; clad with its picture-perfect main street, organic deli, Mexican, Japanese and Italian restaurants, knick-knack shops and wine stores – it’s the perfect family retreat from the dirty, hectic life of the city. And I must say, I have found myself pretty comfortable here- going on long walks at dusk, running into families of deer, fanatic squirrels and the sauntery groundhogs that seem to have quite the network going on around this campus.
Regardless, I am ready to leave New York behind for a bit. Flirted with the idea of looking for a job here, but just don’t think I am cut out to struggle relentlessly in the economic debacle America has gotten itself in. You really do have to have money here – and a good amount of it. I see how the city can eat its people, bit by bit, piece by piece. People struggle to make ends meet, to feed their families and to simply survive. In a city awash with the haves and have nots – I really don’t want to be a part of the have not crowd. So I’ll happily say my regards to Broadway, to the MOMA and the Met – to Harlem and yes, to St. Marks Place and the many fabulous Pho restaurants that have crept up there. I have still not been to Ground Zero – and doubt I ever will. Too many other things of actual interest to be seen in this remarkably complex city.I will leave that for the wide-eyed tourists and finish out my last few days exploring as much of this grandiose city as I can- and the Sex Museum is next on my list. 😉