These vagabond shoes,
They are longing to stray
Right through the very heart of it:
New York, New York.
—"New York, New York," Frank Sinatra
For a long time, my only context for the song "New York, New York" was a Get Fuzzy comic strip. In the strip, the beleaguered human Rob, the cruel and self-centered cat Bucky, and the nice but clueless dog Satchel are riding in the car, when "Somewhere, Over the Rainbow" comes on over the radio. Satchel tries to sing along, but he gets the song wrong and blurts "I wanna be a part of it, New York! New York! Wait...is that right? That's not right." Bucky calls him a nerd, Rob tells Bucky to be nice, and—scene: a classic three-panel comic strip.
I read this strip in high school, and without knowing what "New York, New York" actually sounded like, I was free to imagine it as I would. My mind created a sort of classic rock song with an uptempo guitar riff and a lead singer belting out "I wanna be a part of it!" with some back-up singers quickly chirping "New York! New York!" behind him. Needless to say, this is nothing like the original downbeat, groovy big-band lounge act that Frank Sinatra actually put on when he famously sang the song, and my mind was slightly blown when I heard it for the first time and discovered how wrong I was.
New York itself was the same for me. The city is depicted frequently in movies, TV, and other media that I frequently consumed as a child, so growing up I had a vague idea of what it was probably like: tall shiny buildings and bustling streets full of taxis and wise guys and cops and movie stars. Seeing it in person was radically different. Here's how it happened.
In college, my friend Daniel planned a trip to New York. I'm unsure what originally gave him the idea to do this; perhaps it was simply the new freedom of semi-adulthood combined with the realization that he'd never explored the nation's most well-known metropolis. At all events, he planned the trip and invited some relatively new friends of his: myself and our mutual acquaintance, Maxwell, as well as someone neither Maxwell or I knew, a fellow undergrad I'll call Allen. More about Allen in a moment.
The cool thing about this trip for me was that it was put together by someone else. I have never excelled at figuring out what I want in life, and trips to faraway places are no exception. Before going to New York, my biggest trip had been a family vacation to Mexico City and Puerto Vallarta. If my folks had come to me for advice, we all would have spent it inside with the blessed air conditioning and a good book. Thankfully, just as on our trip to Mexico my family and friends planned excursions to pyramids and restaurants and markets, on the New York trip, Daniel had put together an itinerary that included visits to The Museum of the Moving Image, Strand Book Store, MoMA, and a variety of other places I'd never heard of, as well as a plan to hit Broadway and meet a friend who lived in the city.
We got to New York, and I found that the key difference between my mental image of the city and the real thing is the utter, utter vastness of the real thing. I live in Chicago and work downtown; Chicago is the City that Works, and its downtown is busy, large, and full of people and big buildings. New York, though, is larger than Chicago in terms of both population and size by what must be at least an order of magnitude, right? It's excessive. If you head to the busier parts of the Loop in Chicago during rush hour, you can get a little uncomfortable walking because of the crowds; you might, say, brush past someone or even bump into them if you're not careful. In New York, there are parts of downtown where there are so many people on the sidewalk that breathing, not bumping, is the issue of concern. Put it another way: just compare the CTA rail map and the MTA rail map. The former is extensive but comprehensible; the latter is mind-shatteringly huge and complex:
In addition to all this, I had this notion that the city was full of crudity and rudeness in contrast to the more polite and refined Midwest of my youth. But while I occasionally saw such rudeness, there was nothing out of the way of what I would see in a given day in downtown Chicago; on the contrary, I noticed that people held doors for each other, chatted up strangers at the bus stop, and generally seemed human and normal.
But I digress; what, you ask, actually happened when we got there?
To start, we traveled as cheaply as we could, which meant staying in a hostel rather than a hotel. The main difference, we discovered, is that in a hotel, your main problems are things like nothing good being on TV, broken ice machines, and tiny hotel soap, but in a hostel, your main problem is that you are suddenly roommates with other people who can also only afford to stay in a hostel, and that may literally be the only thing you have in common.
Our first night, we arrived and set up camp in our room together. It was getting late, and we didn't necessarily feel like exploring, so we started a card game on the floor of our room. When another occupant arrived, Maxwell greeted him and invited him to join our game. Instead of responding in any way whatsoever, the man ignored Maxwell and the rest of us in favor of hanging his sheets around his bottom-bunk bed to create a little fort and then blasting Latin music through his headphones, in an apparent effort to keep both the sight and sound of our quiet game of cards from intruding on whatever it was he had going on that night. Needless to say, we were surprised.
Worse, perhaps, was the roommate we met the next night, an older man who chatted us up before we went to bed in a relatively friendly, if slightly off-putting, fashion. I don't remember much about him anymore, except that he claimed to be a professional movie extra and to have just returned from a shoot in Cameroon, which I suppose is enough to give you a sense of what he might have been like. At all events, he surprised us the next morning by waking up at the crack of dawn, putting a his credit card company on speakerphone, reading off his credit card and social security [sic] numbers aloud to the helpdesk employee, and then proceeding to curse the poor fellow out repeatedly for not telling him exactly what he wanted to hear. Again: imagine our surprise! We had never contemplated the existence of such a person, much less the possibility that he would keep us from sleeping one day in far-off New York.
|Daniel, posing with a Magritte and referencing one of his works|
When we actually got out and about in the city, things were better. We did see some truly incredible and fascinating stuff, thanks to Daniel's creative itinerary. I still occasionally long for the grand sea of used books that is Strand Book Store, and to once again plumb the depths of entertainment history at The Museum of the Moving Image. There was a remaining obstacle in all this sightseeing and exploring, it turned out, which was our companion, Allen.
Allen was from New York, or at least from much nearer to it than Daniel, who is a Californian, and me and Maxwell, who are Chicagoans. As such, he seemed to feel license to dictate the terms of the trip to us, in particular letting us know what he did and did not deem worthy of a visit as an expert New Yorker. Presented in a certain way, I can see how this would be acceptable, and even helpful: after all, it doesn't feel great to be an obvious tourist, and it could be nice to know what the locals deem interesting and valuable and what they leave for folks from out of town. Allen pushed it a bit far, alas; the breaking point came when planning a visit to Katz's Deli, a famous kosher-style delicatessen that specializes in sandwiches that are friggin' huge and delicious. If its reputation for great food isn't enough to attract interest, it can be noted that the deli is famous enough to have appeared in movies like When Harry Met Sally and Across the Universe, among others. These details were enough to convince the rest of us, but Allen insisted that it was just a deli like any other in the city, and that it was practically a crime to go out of our way to get there, when we could "just walk five feet" and find one just like it anywhere in the city. We were stymied.
Thankfully, Allen left our group for home soon after, leaving Maxwell, Daniel, and I to our own devices, including repeated jokes about how you could "just walk five feet" to find any number of things in the city, an inside joke which still serves us to this day when we want to lampoon someone with an inflated sense of self-worth or a general propensity for grating obnoxiousness.
With Allen gone, we felt freer to explore and enjoy, partaking of such delights as the American Museum of Natural History, where we looked at tons of fossils and got a couple amusing photos, getting some cheap same-day tickets for Avenue Q and Spamalot, and even heading to a comedy club on a whim for some late-night comedy in front of an actual brick wall, just like in Seinfeld or Louie. It was quite cool.
|That skeleton is attacking Maxwell kind of! My photography skills are still this bad.|
We had a great time, in other words. I like to think that our small troubles along the way helped bring me, Maxwell, and Daniel together and enjoy ourselves more. Certainly, these troubles are what we remember to each other when reminiscing about the experience. At all events, after the trip, we remained friends and grew to be better ones, eventually all ending up as roommates. Maxwell and I still room together, actually, and Daniel visits from time to time. So not only did we "get to be a part of it" for a little while in New York, New York: we also got a lasting friendship out of it to boot.
Photo 1: http://www.flickr.com/photos/imjustsayin/4080984817/
Photo 2: http://www.flickr.com/photos/pahudson/2069182494/
Photo 3: http://www.flickr.com/photos/fuzzcat/99674745/
Photo 4: http://www.transitchicago.com/maps/
Photo 5: www.mta.info/maps/submap.html
Photos 6 & 7: me