'Cause everyone's my friend in New York City
And everything looks beautiful when you're young and pretty
The streets are paved with diamonds and there's just so much to see...
I made a vow when I was young: I would not go to New York City until I had seen at least one of the great capitals of Europe. London, Berlin, Paris, Rome - I wasn't picky. It's just that going up in America I was inundated since the day I was born with television and movies telling me if you're not in New York, you're nothing. (And southern California is almost as bad, but I always just saw that as laughable.) To me, the Greatest City on Earth should at least have been around for a thousand years or so.
When I grew up and went to college this became even more pronounced. I met people from all over the world, and had wonderful conversations with them about how where they were from compared to what they saw in Columbus. But ask someone from NYC where they were from, and there was this pause after they answered. It was a few years, and many occurrences of this later, that it was pointed out to me that they were waiting for the asker to in some way express envy. They were taken aback if none was forthcoming. In what was obviously a case of my own reverse-snobbism I felt bad for them for being unable to appreciate all the wonderful things the rest of the world had to offer. Like trees, and fresh air. Or the relative lack of armed robberies.
Over the years I've been through New York state several times, and all around the area. Of course a few years ago I moved just hours south. Manhattan was now a day trip. One I had no intention of making anytime soon.
A few months ago I heard from my friend Cindy in Switzerland, wondering if I was going to be visiting my parents in April. She's an interpreter, and was going to be assigned to the UN Headquarters in New York for a week. We had met the last time she was in the US at the wedding of a mutual friend in Michigan. Our friend was now expecting her first child, and Cindy's trip would be close to the expected delivery date. So she planned to spend a few days at the end of her trip visiting Michigan, and also really wanted to see me, if it was possible. A trip back to the Midwest was easy enough, but I also figured her grasp of American geography was a little weak and pointed out that I was a few hours from New York if she couldn't make it to Michigan.
So, lots of schedule changes and altered plans later, and I'm breaking my vow and driving across the Lincoln Tunnel.
The last message I had from Cindy before I left Baltimore that afternoon predicted a quiet day as her conference wound down, then an evening with her mom visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art. My hotel was across the street from the United Nations, so I planned on walking around and taking some photographs if the weather was nice, or just getting some rest in my room.
It was sunny when I arrived, but with signs of rain gathering on the horizon. I reached Manhattan at 5 o' clock and expected a traffic nightmare, but it wasn't bad at all. And my first, surprising, impression was a strange feeling of openness. The streets of large cities always seem to me to be eternally in shadow. But there, even with buildings taller than anything I had ever seen before, there was still sunlight. It may be due to wider sidewalks, or just the result of a very good layout.
My room was another pleasant surprise. I was paying less than I had in most places I've traveled to, so I was expecting something the size of a closet. Instead I got one of the largest hotel rooms I can recall staying in, with a spacious bathroom and my own kitchen! It also had a gorgeous view overlooking the East River.
While I unpacked the evening news was covering the opening game that night at the new stadium for the Yankees, and the Mets' signing of former Tiger Gary Sheffield. Rain looked increasingly likely, so after a quick shower I decided to change and go to the exercise room, then maybe watch a movie when I got back to my room.
I picked up my cellphone to call and leave a message for Cindy letting her know that I made it, and to call me when her and her mom got back if it wasn't too late when my room phone rang. It was a very stressed out sounding Cindy. It turns out her mom had decided she was too tired to go to the museum and was just going to stay in for the night. And her quiet conference ending had turned into bedlam when the Western European countries nominated Israel as the next conference chair, and all the Arab nations, of course, had to rise up in protest. And I was in trackpants and a t-shirt praying that she wasn't calling from my lobby!
Luckily she wasn't, and we decided to meet in front of my hotel after I had changed. That took me less time than I thought, so I spent awhile talking to teenagers and their parents in the lobby from the Dominican Republic who were visiting to attend a Model UN program.
Cindy was shocked that I had never been to New York before, and seemed very amused when I explained my slightly-childish reason. Still, being there for a week made her the expert in my eyes, so she played tour guide and showed me around Midtown. It rained off and on, and of course I left my umbrella in my car, but it was never heavy. It was only a little cooler than in Baltimore, and probably because of the rain there weren't any large crowds out.
She took me to Grand Central Station, and I pointed out the inverted constellations on the ceiling. Elsewhere we just wandered the streets, and I was able to point out things learned from a lifetime of American movies and TV. The Public Library, where all I could think of was Bill Murray in Ghost Busters. Looking up in the middle of a conversation to see the "Late Show with David Letterman" marquee above my head, and remembering nights in front of the television laughing with friends. An obligatory stop so we could both load up on tacky souvenirs, then Broadway and Times Square.
We finally came to a rest in a diner on Broadway. Cindy saw cheesecake in a window display as we entered, and we made a note to order some for dessert. I had a mental list of things I had to try while in New York, based on recommendations from friends who grew up there. Cheesecake, surprisingly, wasn't on the list, but hot dogs and pizza both were. So I got a hot dog. Cindy ordered matzah ball soup (which she dubbed "mazal tov soup", having no idea of what matzah was, but remembering that the waiter and I said it was Jewish) and a salad. My hot dog was huge, and I thought, at first, it was covered in onions. Oh no- sauerkraut. I used to flee the house when my dad would cook the stuff, but I had to ask for an authentic New York City hot dog. So I sucked it up and poured on some spicy mustard. It wasn't bad, as long as I didn't actually smell it. Eventually that did me in.
Cindy got her cheesecake. Now, anywhere else in the world where I've had cheesecake it's been a pretty standard size. Essentially a small slice of pie. Now picture a typical triple-layer cake. Cut that into quarters. One of those would be the size of the piece of cheesecake they brought her, covered in strawberries. I tried to help her eat it, but even the two of us could only manage a little over half. It was delicious, but just way too large. She took the rest back (still larger than a regular slice) for her mom.
Eventually we realized we had sat talking in that diner for hours, and it was now well after midnight. When I got back to my room I got my tripod out of my suitcase, opened the window and took some fantastic pictures of the bridges over the river at night, and shimmering buildings reflected off of the hotel's tower next to mine.
I spent awhile reading through my email, then I decided to be proactive, and download all of the photographs from the day to my laptop so I'd have plenty of room on my memory card the next day. The program to read the memory card crashed, which had never happened before, and without thinking I unplugged the camera to see if reconnecting it would help. Immediately my camera's display flashed an error that the memory card wasn't initialized. When I unplugged the camera it was still mounted, and it had gotten erased. All of my pictures from that first evening were gone.
I got my tripod back out, attached my camera, and just as turned the lights out and turned my camera back on the young lady in the room across from me, also with her curtains open, decided to take her top off. At least she was facing away from me, and walked into her bathroom. Then, just as I overcame the initial shock, she walked back out talking on her phone, now completely nude.
Welcome to New York.