New York state of mind

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

Brooklyn Bridge

I’ve recently returned from a trip to New York – my fourth.  Four trips to New York in a lifetime (so far) might not seem like a lot for someone in my line of work, but within this highly unscientific sample I think I can make a fair observation – New York has a way of magnifying one’s emotions or general state of mind as few other cities can.

The first time I ever set eyes on New York, I was nineteen and visiting my friend S (not the same one who got married in Rome recently), who was taking a summer course at NYU and who, since she was studying at Sarah Lawrence College anyway, was already a cool city sophisticate. (I went to college in St Louis. I was definitely not a cool city sophisticate. At least, not back then.) At this point New York was something unattainable and near-mythical – I knew it from films and books and from the fact that my parents hadn’t allowed me to apply to any colleges there. (Forbidden New York, I went them one better and ended up in London. Parents, take that as a cautionary tale.) But suddenly I found myself stumbling off the subway in Washington Square and it was loud and hot and bright and real. Everything dazzled me. It was as I had imagined but so much better, so much more immediate, so much more… exhausting. I found myself falling into bed feeling like a wrung-out tea towel every night at midnight. (That might not seem like an early hour, but in those days staying up until 3 am was a normal occurrence for me.)

S was a more than able cicerone. We didn’t do any of the standard touristy things – no Empire State Building, no Statue of Liberty – but she took me to MoMA and the Whitney and the Guggenheim and on the unofficial ‘Holden Caulfield’ tour of Central Park. We saw an outdoor performance of Macbeth with no scenery and the actors moving to a different spot in the park – compelling the audience to follow them – to indicate a scene change. I tried Burmese food for the first time, ditto Chinese ice cream. I managed to miss the Met because I saved it for my last day… my last day being a Monday. (Something I would spend the next eleven years repenting.) But by the time I landed back in St Louis, I was a wreck. A happy wreck, but a wreck nonetheless. New York was just too much for me.

(There was an upside to this. When I arrived in London six months later, it seemed downright manageable by comparison.)

Brooklyn Bridge

My second trip to New York came after a gap of eleven years, which can be explained mostly by the fact that when you live in London, and are faced with the choice between a long, expensive flight plus an expensive hotel, versus a much shorter and cheaper train journey and a choice of friendly floors and couches to sleep on, Paris is by far the more attractive option. (Even if it means you’re forced to admit on a regular basis in the meantime that, despite doing a PhD in art history, you’ve never been to the Met.) This time, after all those years in Europe, I was more than equal to the challenge – in fact it didn’t feel like a challenge at all. This time I was going there to meet my boyfriend – I was living in LA at the time, he was still in London, and New York was more or less halfway between. We spent our days trawling the museums – the Morgan, the Frick, the Neue Galerie, and finally, finally the Met (three times for good measure) – and our evenings exploring lower Manhattan in always-successful search of a good meal. Our last evening together we belatedly celebrated Valentine’s Day (it was early March) with dinner at the Gramercy Tavern, walking past the glowing Flatiron on the way to and from our hotel. It was, without a doubt, one of the most romantic evenings I’ve ever experienced.

And then the next morning I was saying goodbye to him in the dingy surroundings of the Port Authority Bus Terminal, desperately willing myself not to cry (too much, anyway). Our time together had passed in the blink of an eye and I didn’t know how long it would be until we saw each other again. I still had two days left in the city, time enough to discover just what people mean when they say that New York can be an incredibly lonely city. I remember drifting around Little Italy and SoHo, trying half-heartedly to take anything in, feeling utterly bereft. Returning to LA was a relief. Being alone in the midst of ten million people had been too much.

Brooklyn Bridge

The third time I visited New York was to give a paper at a massive art history conference. This time my mood was one of desperation. I was living in a small town in California where I felt like a fish out of water (bad enough) and was working for the curator who, among other things, thought that prints weren’t actually works of art (worse). I was desperate to feel like part of a community of art historians again and to be back in a big, cosmopolitan city, in that order (or not, depending on when you asked me). Despite spending most of my time at the conference (which was held in a huge hotel in Midtown), I still managed to see a fair bit of the city – the Met (naturally), a swathe of the Upper East Side (I was staying with a friend who lives there), the Village and Chinatown (because there’s a dearth of good places to eat on the Upper East Side). I caught up with old friends and made a few new ones. I enjoyed walking down streets with buildings that were more than fifty years old and more than two stories tall, hearing languages other than English and eating a proper pizza. When it came time to leave, I was feeling more relaxed than I’d felt in ages. What? Isn’t New York supposed to stress you out? Take it as an indication of what my day-to-day life was like that New York made me feel calm.

The fourth and most recent (two weeks ago) trip was for work. This time I felt zen. Not a feeling normally associated with New York, I know. But this time I was both happy to be there and equally glad to be going home at the end of it. I enjoyed everything the city had to offer but I didn’t feel desperate to experience it all in one go. I missed my boyfriend keenly, but given the choice between being with him for a few days in New York and then going months without, and being away from him for a week but knowing that I’ll see him when I get home – well, that’s an easy choice.

One of the best bits of this trip is that I was in New York long enough to guiltlessly allow myself a museum-free day. (I had already hit the Met, thank you very much.) How did I spend it?

Brooklyn Bridge

I took a walk.

I took the subway down to the Brooklyn Bridge and walked across – a first for me. I stopped countless times to enjoy the view. I saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, albeit from the back and far away.

The bit of Brooklyn around the bridge didn’t look terribly enticing, so I walked back to Manhattan. And then took a nice, easy amble up to Chinatown, then along Canal Street – chaotic even on a Sunday morning – and up Hudson through the West Village. I don’t suppose it really counts as proper flânerie as I had a goal in mind: the High Line. It didn’t exist the first time I went to New York. My previous two trips had been in winter. This was the first time I could properly enjoy it, this green vein snaking through the heart of Chelsea.

Sculpture on the High Line

It was full of people but I was surprised by how peaceful it was, even as boxed in by buildings as it is. I took my time walking all the way to the end, enjoying being in New York and yet above it. I can’t help but wonder if the High Line might answer Baudelaire’s plea to be taken ‘anywhere out of the world’. (Especially as I can’t imagine Baudelaire actually being happy far away from a big city.)

View from the High Line

My fifth trip to New York is already on the horizon (early next year). I wonder what it holds… or what I’ll bring with me.


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