Visible Cities

Before the break sent us back to our families, M & I took a last-minute, cheap-ticket trip to NYC (and sorry NYC friends–it was such a quick trip we kind of flew below the radar). We’d been walking the dogs about four miles a day since I finished my exams. This turned out to be accidental training for a weekend that basically consisted of walking all over Manhattan and Brooklyn and looking at buildings. Buildings! When I lived there, I didn’t always notice them. They tend to hunker down at you. It becomes a city survival strategy to focus on the sky and the sun and the birds and trees when they can be found. Plus there are 8 million people to navigate. The architectural wonders of the place kind of gray out. I hadn’t been back for five years, which turns out to have been enough time to reset my eyes and brain. Everything looked beautiful and new and I felt like a tourist, which is to say I absolutely loved being back. I gawked and pointed and photographed and really saw the city, maybe for the first time since I moved there in 1999.

When you live in New York and environs, you sometimes love it and sometimes you want to kill yourself. But this visit was not ambiguous in the least. I’d meant to pack Lorazepam because I was a little worried about anxiety and overstimulation–just being in the midst of all those people again, and me grown so soft over the years–but apparently I wasn’t worried enough because I forgot to pack it. It was fine though–it felt like coming home, but without all the baggage that goes along with actually living there.

[My first apartment, on 5th between A & B]

The first day was nostalgia day: we walked all over downtown and found our old haunts which were, by-and-large, all still there. Maybe what surprised me the most about this trip is how little Manhattan has changed.

[Fresh Montauk little necks at the Old Town Bar]

The most pressing question before this adventure began was whether or not my shoes would hold up and if my shoes held up, whether or not my feet would. I own only two pairs of shoes actually comfortable enough to walk around all day in: my cowboy boots and my brown Dansko clogs, neither of which are especially fashionable. In fact, when I bought those clogs, after I’d moved to Iowa just before grad school, it felt a little like giving up. But the clog as a general shape has come back into style since then. There was no time or money to buy new shoes, so I chose to wear the clogs, figuring I could style them with wooly socks and tights and hope for a kind of hoofy Scandinavian vibe. They really held up and so did my flat, car-spoiled feet.

[St. Ignatius Loyola on Park Ave]

I was also a bit nervous about returning as a non-smoker. Smoking and New York are like cheese and olives in that they enhance each other and they’re both kind of smelly. But it was really okay. In fact, compared to the old days, hardly anyone seemed to smoke anymore. A bartender in Brooklyn told us packs were going for $12 in the city. Everyone seems to have given up and decided to have children instead. In the morning, on our way to the subway, we passed a comical number of high-end baby strollers pushed by middle-aged nannies of varying ethnicities. They were all on their way to a fake-turf park where dozens of little white children in tiny pageboy caps and baby-sized converse orbited around each other and their caretakers like hip little atoms.

[Matt, Met]

We went to the Met. I love the Met. Compared to the MoMA and the Guggenheim I suppose it’s a bit stodgy, but its spaces are vast and beautiful and its permanent collection has a little of everything and the park is right there for a stroll after.

Lilith is always my favorite.

It’s her glass eyes.

We wandered around Chelsea, looking at storefronts…

And stumbled across the High Line, which neither of us had ever seen in person. It’s my new favorite thing.

That feeling that the city is hunkering down over you–the High Line takes that away. You get up there and you have views, which is a revelation in New York.

It was also good for casual peeping, another true city delight.

We couldn’t afford to stay in Manhattan–apparently room prices have continued to rise right along with rents–but we found an inn in Brooklyn that was reasonably priced and decided to book it, even though we weren’t too familiar with Brooklyn, except for that one semester I taught a class at 826NYC and I knew how to get from the subway to the storefront and a few bars and restaurants in between. But that’s just a tiny slice of Brooklyn, which is intimidatingly large and on not one but several different and confusing grid systems (at one point, we were walking north, but the street numbers were going down?). But luck! Turns out the inn was half a block from 826. The only and tiny area of Brooklyn I knew is where we stayed. This gave us just enough courage to do some exploring in Brooklyn as well and the newness of Brooklyn balanced out the nostalgia and familiarity of Manhattan.

[The Brooklyn Public Library]

[Library door detail]

[Richard Meier’s On Prospect Park]

I’m especially susceptible to the siren song of nostalgia. I’m writing a novel about it–how it empties and flattens the present and the past; how it’s a stand in for other, more difficult emotions; how it tricks. I was worried this trip would show me something difficult or sad or then-muddled-but-now-clear about my past, when I lived in New York. It scared me a little–I feel like I’ve changed so much and those were often difficult times. But ultimately the things I loved the most on this trip were new to me. Any time my brain wanted to follow a shadow around a corner, my eyes found something new to drop anchor on. The shadow city would slink away and this shining new thing would be forever emerging, greeting, as if to say again and again “I’m here!”

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