I left home in the strangest mood on Sunday. Part lack of sleep, part confusion, part anxiety, part denial. J left at some random hour after midnight and I’d gone to sleep thinking of maps. An hour later, I was awake, zipping up the suitcase, memorising subway lines and terminals and streets in Manhattan. There’s comfort in cartography, weight in direction.
My head’s been so full lately.
It was 6 in the morning so I took a taxi. The cab driver was talkative. I was his the first sober customer all morning, he told me. He was glad for the company. There was something mystical about the way he told his stories. Somehow the people in them never seemed to have a motive to their actions. It ran like a honeyed trap - a story with a purpose that isn’t revealed until the end. A born Scheherazade, a moral in each one.
He was the first of five brothers, he said. They were sent from Afghanistan by the skin of their necks, and with a lot of invested money. There, family meant everything and everyone contributed - even cousins he’d never met. That of course, meant vice versa - he gave back to family members in need. Especially the unmet ones. Some were surgeons in the UK; one was a software programmer for Microsoft. Two of his brothers stayed with him, and the younger one (roughly younger than me) was the laziest kid I’d ever heard of.
There was some history recounted of the Afghani people. He told me of a King who took back a promise made by an ancient line, the row over sold gold palace doors stolen from India; and always, the strength of The Word.
"My people always keep the word," he said. "We have a saying: a man is not a man if he does not keep his word."
The airport was quiet for seven in the morning. Toasted sandwich and chai latte choked down, I stared into space, drank water; felt like a commuter. The plane too off. I slept. I woke up. I tried to sleep again. I watched films, I watched TV, I read the news. When the All Blacks won the world cup I clapped with the other New Zealanders. I went through so many albums, I can’t even remember which ones I picked out.
The rest of it seemed like fragments of a dream: sleeping. LAX. It was grey in LA. While the plane awaited clearance, I stared sleepily out into the tarmac. The heavy fog made it seem like a dream world, and it reminded me of that Louden Wainwright song. Will told me later that if I’d looked I would have seen a lego city - and later, on the way back, when all the lights hit it I thought it was just a jumble of things; a poverty divide between the hills and flats. Sunset over New York - the delta and rivers, gold, most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. JFK - following signs. Penn Station, and waiting. Transitions from airport to airport, from airport to train, train to train, train to subway. Thinking about J. Meeting Mandy as she gets off the bus from Washington (6th and 23rd), following her home to Queens. Sleeping, always sleeping.
Everything goes in circles.
Then I woke up…in New York City.
Part II: Why I left
36 weeks of work, straight. Promises to friends. An unsteady peace. Must there always be a reason?
Part III: Manhattan
You never know what kind of traveler you are until you go to some strange city; this isn’t even the biggest test. New Yorkers, at least, speak English. You also never know how you are with loneliness until you go to a foreign country alone - this at least, I’ve previously assessed. Moving to Melbourne was the biggest test.
I wander around with J’s camera - sometimes purposefully. The subway is my best friend. A man prays for me (out loud, in front of me) in Times Square and I don’t say it to him, but it makes me want to go to church, find God. I go to mass in St Patricks, I go to Trinity and St Thomas. Towards the end I’m just looking for deep, quiet places, like always. I long for the sea.
By day 3, I’ve come down with Bronchitis and I spend the rest of my time in America infecting everyone.
It doesn’t stop me from going places though: I find Central Park on the most gorgeous day; I take a photo of the Flatiron Building (remembering Steitchen). I eat at Shake Shack. I see Mat Kearney at Webster Hall (and touch him, briefly); I meet Diane Von Furstenberg; I see Samuel L Jackson and Angela Bassett briefly as they come out of their Broadway show. I love the flowers in Bryant Park; I love pretty fairy lights, and gold in the buildings (so much gold detailing!). I see sold out Broadway shows. I do the museums (MoMA was ruined by a fever, and a 30 min wait in a snow storm).
Natasha is there a few days, waylaid by a cousin’s wedding. Nights with her are so warm, with dinner and the yummiest tea and wine cocktails, and cheese fondue in the Village. To get there, you have to pass by some famous musical places - Blue Note; Velvet Underground. I’m in awe, and I want to go to everything, do everything. Her little party before I leave is magical - she invited a few friends, and a visiting Kiwi over and it felt like a real New York gathering, so unlike the single, solo life that Mandy lives.
In contrast, nights with Mandy seem lonely. She’s busy with work, staying in and sleeping early. The cold makes her hibernate with take-away, which I have several nights a week, and I don’t blame her for not wanting to brave a snow storm to go out with me. On weekends her boyfriend comes over or she goes to DC; they’re in love, anybody can tell.
It’s so gratifying seeing your childhood friends live out their adult lives.
By the end I feel like a local: tourists ask me for directions and I give them accurately; I help others buy Metcards, direct them on subway lines. I no longer have to check a map to see where I’m going/which lines I should take. I jaywalk like a pro. Sometimes I fall asleep on the subway and jerk awake only to find I’ve, half asleep, made the right transfers. I know the way home by heart, from station to station to station.
The entire time I’m wondering: how come the streets on the map are so far apart, when in reality they’re so close? When I get home I find out that it is the opposite - most people who went to New York here found the blocks disproportionately huge. In my mind the world is bigger than it is, I guess. I’d never thought of it like that.
Part IV: Massachusetts, and the weight of years
Dawn in Connecticut, snow in the trees, autumn leaves still hung - fog off the lakes, fog off the rivers; and the steam from the morning.
A South African man in front of me at the line to the bus that morning struck up a conversation about how they always say it’s only 10 minutes longer. Why 10 min? Short enough for people to be happy to wait; long enough to mentally prepare them to stand in the cold a little longer, fumble in their pockets for longer, smoke a cigarette in an empty lot. We made friends based on the fact that he thought my accent was English, and was completely appologietic because most New Yorkers think his accent is English and it usually infuriates him.
We had a long conversation about life overseas, his visitation down under, my home town (Auckland) and his (Johannesburg). Both cities, we agreed, were places people went only if they had a reason to go. He describes himself as one of the other types of people - people who moved to New York just to be in New York, as opposed to the ones who came for a reason. His life here was to look for purpose to justify this move.
Whatever I expected from Boston, it probably wasn’t the boredom I felt. The city was quaint, but I knew quaint from my time in Auckland. The Freedom Trail was soaked in death and graves, and old buildings that now looked renovated and modern. Even Revere’s cottage had a generic kind of feel to it - just another historic house, like anyone’s could have been.
Harvard Square, Harvard, the old bookshop, North church…
— all places that I thought would mean something to me but didn’t. It wasn’t lack of knowledge of American History either - I’d dabbled in that when I was a kid. Perhaps history needs to mean something to me for it to matter? America’s a young nation, perhaps the immaturity of its past was something I considered. No gravitas, no weight of years.
Don’t get me wrong: the place is beautiful; people are friendly. The houses are so quaint, and all the little flower boxes are to die for. Fenway Park was magnificent, even shut up in the off-season. I’d never seen so many Italian restaurants and Irish pubs. Clam chowder was delicious (so warm on a cold day). What was I expecting? A more Puritan feel?
On my last day there, I spent a considerable amount of time at the Harvard Bookshop, buying Siken (finally replacing that copy I gave away, so long ago, out of love), Northrop, Flynn and other poets that I’d years ago wanted to buy.
Harvard stood in the background, behind its gated walls. Houses of learning — I didn’t feel a thing. The campus was mostly known for its liberal Arts, which my life was so far away from. Debates and opinions about interpretable things…my academic life was nothing like that. The freshman dining hall did look like Harry Potter’s though - a considerable bonus to being snuck in. The freshmen looked so young though.
"Well of course," Mandy had said. "We’re 6 years older than them." She was in Boston on business, and I met her at the hotel that I was freeloading off her corporate perks with her. An Alumni of Harvard, she’d given me the quick once-over the night before.
"I miss my university days," she added, with great nostalgia. "They were the happiest of my life." Ironically, her business was to recruit Harvard graduates for her company.
Oh my God. Six years.
A sign on a highway read >2900 children had been killed by gunshot wounds in the States since 2010. Times that by three. Translate that into lines and wrinkles. Stick that onto a freshman’s face: the weight of half a decade, and then some.
Part V: The Windy City, and impending doom
I flew into Chicago as the sun was setting. The trip was unplanned - tickets booked a total of two days ago, and Michelle notified just a day before. The wind off Lake Michigan is the coldest I’ve felt in a while, although it’s comparable with snow in New York. I’ve never actually seen the lake and nor will I when I leave the city. On the way in I listened to all the Chicago related songs on my iPod, of which there are a remarkable many (more than there are ones about New York City).
Michelle is S.’s high school best friend, and it’s only now that I realise how unusual it is that I stayed with her. She’s at medical school now, a vastly different experience in the States than it is in Australia. The amount of stress she feels every day made me grateful for my own education.
Her appartment in downtown Chicago is a blessing. Michigan Ave is right next to us, and everything is just a small stroll away. It makes a huge difference. I fall for the deep dish pizza, the food, the wider streets. Most importantly I fall for the Architecture: I literally spend my entire two days there dashing around in a cab to Oak Park, taking the L to the Rookery — Frank Lloyd Wright tourism. I visit Hemmingway’s birth house, I take photos of private property.
At the Rookery the good looking African-American doorman with the charming accent spends a lot of time showing me the original tiling, laughing at my enthusiasm. He surprises me with the offer: next time I’m in Chicago, I have to go there first and he’ll show me around.
Michelle keeps me good company when she’s not at medical school. I love her enthusiasm for the All Blacks, and all her memorabilia. We spend a decent amount of time on looking for ways she can try and find the limited edition Bvlgari All Blacks watch while waiting for a table at The Purple Pig.
The city is drenched with an invisible threat - Michelle keeps pepper spray on her at all times, and warns me where to go and where not to go in daylight to avoid getting mugged or worse. On the last day my nose bleeds and bleeds and I ruin her jacket so we dump it down the rubbish chute like a dead body.
Deep down I pick Chicago over New York - the bigger spaces, the broader streets. It’s a dying city, or so Been says, but I still love the echo of the industrial age apparent in its fabric.
Is it possible to feel nostalgia for a city that you’ve never been to? I missed the Architecture class girls so much, and all the times we’d daydreamed about seeing Wright’s great buildings (or at least just me because I picked him for my project; but it could apply to Gaudi or anyone else).
I could travel forever to see these buildings, to dream of a house that I could one day live in that is as beautiful as some of the ones I’ve only seen in photographs.
I’ve only ever dreamed of a home.
Part IV: The return
I return to New York in early morning - a cab called by the concierge of Michelle’s building and a sly sneak into La Guardia. Mandy’s still in Washington visiting her boyfriend, so I’m lugging a heavy bag around Koreatown looking for a storage place most of the time. The storage place is the 5th floor of an extremely seedy looking building but the girl at the desk is lovely and looks up doctors clinics for me. I’m coughing up my lungs like crazy, and the New York chill isn’t helping.
A last look at Central Park, a walk around the Met, some shopping — suddenly I’m on a plane to LAX, looking at the outskirts of a great city. I could live in this city, but I think I would be less happy than I am now. It made me realise just how happy I am in my real life.
But oh, it’s New York and oh, I’d give a few years of my life to learn the lingo there :)
J meets me at the airport with flowers, a little late, having gone to the wrong terminal. How strange, I hadn’t expected him to be there because I expected him not to check airport landings like I or other people might do, or figure out that it was a domestic landing.
He always argues that he is mature and grown up, and he knows how to do things - which he does. But he doesn’t do things with detail, always approximates which in my world is not doing something at all.
We are such different people, it’s startling…
But it’s flowers and it’s sweet, and I don’t care he’s late. I’m just happy to see him because I’m home and because he’s there, and I’ve missed him :). Because I said I’d try and sometimes it’s easier than others. Because he’s happy. Because he looks so charming with flowers. Because holding him feels right.
That night we fight like we always fight and I’m tired again but there are always moments like that and it never pays to remember the worst ones at any one time.
Because things worth having are hard work, so I’m trying.