Whatever New York City lacks in warmth, it makes up for in personality. It’s a busy, screaming, never-ending city, a crash of language, culture, dirt and lights.
The grit on the streets and in the gutters and the subway is enough to turn cleanly personalities into nervous wrecks. The bright, glowing, swirling lights take you in, spit you out and draw in the next crowd of first-time onlookers.
It takes a lot of pain and time and torture – a real masochist – to understand the city – and just maybe, someday, to love it.
But I had no idea of that process Fall Break when I stepped off the Chinatown Bus and into Times Square. I thought I knew the city based on my last visit. It was friendly, fun, comfortable, busy. I thought I grasped New York and held it close, just like everyone who had ever lived there for as long as Manhattan had ever existed.
But this trip was different. This trip brought me to tears. It hit me hard, from my friend’s apartment in Spanish Harlem all the way down to the detour subway stops at Canal Street.
I landed in Times Square, taking in the sights while my friends were at work and school. I stretched my legs after the uncomfortable 5-hour-long bus ride, carrying around my giant bags of luggage, not caring about the bustle of hundreds of people that walked the same streets as me. The motion was in the air. I breathed in the smell of the city, a constant reminder that I was hundreds of miles away from UMW and sleepy little Fredericksburg, Va.
But the magic soon wore off as I walked through dirty, graffitied East Harlem to get to my friend. I was frightened, alone and out of place. Eyes followed me for hours while I dragged my oversized red duffel bag in and out of subway stations, up and down the avenues that students are told to avoid if they want to stay safe.
A day later, I was lost on the subway trying to get to a friend on the opposite side of Manhattan. Go up to go down and cut through Central Park. Common knowledge, they all said. Take the 4 train uptown, take the B down.
But taking the wrong train up and winding up lost in The Bronx was not in my plans. Nor was feeling just as out of place as I looked to everyone there. Nor was mistakenly taking the soonest train back to my East-Harlem-friend’s stop. No, Bible Salesman, I’m only lost in the literal sense.
Hours later, I was right back where I started and just as confused and lost as I had been in the Bronx.
Exhausted and bewildered, I found my friend too late for our outing and with barely any time left to spend together.
Later, after being followed around in a convenience store, I was accosted and accused of shoplifting by an overzealous and retired undercover N.Y.P.D. officer. Breaking down, I tore down the steps to the subway station on the corner, fleeing back to Times Square for comfort and familiarity.
But the contact with oncoming foot traffic only hurt me further. I felt like I was the only living, caring person on the street and I hated it. I hated the city for being so cold and unnerving. I felt like I was broken and I did not belong. This was not the New York I remembered.
Not knowing where to run, I dropped my bag on the sidewalk and called my aunt, who had lived in the city nearly 20 years ago.
“I’m so sorry, Steph,” she said. “I can’t give you much advice, but what I can tell you is don’t let the rhythm of the city become your own.”
Her words slammed into me with the full weight of the bodies that bumped and brushed against me. How could it be so simple?
I didn’t fully understand it at first but I tried. I took a deep breath and made plans for the night. I wouldn’t let it break me. Not again. But I soon realized that whatever plans I made had to be formed loosely. And I realized that was OK.
The weekend subway routes weren’t clearly posted and I had no idea where I would end up? I’d take another stop and explore. The R train was twisting and winding off its course because of underground construction? That was fine by me.
I let the shaking and bumping of the trains relax me. I visited Strawberry Fields. I sketched at The Dakota. I tried to sneak into the Rolling Stone building via service elevator. I said hello to the tourists and smiled at the hardened residents who were shocked to see someone smile at them for absolutely no reason at all.
I was molding the city to my own and traveling wherever the confusion took me.
This wasn’t the New York I remembered. It was harder, more brutal. But it was intriguing, more intricate. It was beautiful and it offered me more than any other city had before.
As I watched the streaming traffic and traveling pedestrians from my bus as I left, I knew I had understood my aunt’s words. I had made the rhythm my own.