New York is a State of Mind
Those were the words uttered when I reconnected with over a dozen friends in New York City on a long weekend visit. It was the first time I had returned since I left seven years ago after living there for four years. But for so many reasons, those words could not have been more inaccurate. I can’t place my finger exactly on the reason why it doesn’t feel like home, particularly since the largest concentration of truly good friends in my life reside in New York City.
Maybe it was because the first night, about 20 minutes after I arrived, when I decided to take a walk and grab a bite to eat, I came upon a young woman in her early twenties, most likely a Columbia University co-ed, crumpled into a small pile on the sidewalk, all by herself, traces of vomit plastered down the front of her tank top and slender leopard print skirt and heels. “My boyfriend is having a baby!” she utters in between vomiting. She had been abandoned by a cab driver, and then three police cars who slowed down just long enough to spot the vomit everywhere before driving on by, right in front of me. Eventually an ambulance took her to the hospital, only after a dismissive laugh and a roll of the eyes by the EMT.
But, just as for anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in the City, for me, this place is as easy to love as it is to hate. The next day I did as I used to seven years ago when I was a perennially broke student. Taking heed of the “suggested donation” in fine print below the Admissions sign, I gave my dollar donation to the ticket desk at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wandered through massive halls filled with some the world’s greatest works of art humans have ever created. I visit my old mummy friends in the Egyptian wing, and their gold jewelry and treasuries of ancient times; I admire the curvaceous marbled busts of French sculptors, the gripping and sometimes horrific statues of the Greek, ornate furniture of the wealthy early Americans, and the roofs of ritual meeting halls of Micronesians. It is a lovely way to spend an afternoon.
I then enjoyed another amazing New York phenomenon; I then I met a friend for lunch at a small, charming and unimposing restaurant in Harlem, where we each spent spent over $20.00 on a small bowl of meatless pasta and a bottled beer. My friend, a public school teacher, doesn’t bat an eye.
In the evening, I resorted to another favorite thrill; dancing at a gay men’s club, with Henry, one of my gay friends I’ve known since college. In the brief period of my life in which I enjoyed going to dance clubs, I always found it reassuring to be on the dance floor flanked with gay men, confident that in no way would my dancing to Cher or some other big-haired female vocalist be perceived as a sexual gesture or come-on.
But in the thick of evening, a strapping Brazilian beelines towards me and it becomes quickly apparent that he is not, in fact, gay.
“You’re straight, aren’t you.” I declare with suspicion.
He answers in the affirmative.
“Oh yeah,” Henry explains when I tell him. “That’s the new thing now for straight guys. Go to a gay club and hit on the only girl there.”
Is nothing sacred?
Mercifully, the next night’s amusement is more straightforward. I meet up with friends who have just left the office at 10pm on a Friday. We drink at the Park, a multi-level parking garage converted into a bar in the post-industrial block on the West side. Impressive hanging gardens, inventive lighting, hardwood floors, and an elegant bar graced each floor. It was as if Shangri-la took over a parking garage.
Later in the evening I meet up with a friend formerly living in New Orleans. He took me to the Freedom Party at LPR in the Village. Packed tightly with an impressive array of attractive thirty-somethings, mostly African-Americans, it is clear that most of the patrons were either artists, musicians or yuppies. A DJ is playing awesome soul and R&B, a handful of Asian guys are painting on a canvas on a stage, and footage from old favorites like Good Times is being projected on a movie-theatre-sized screen. Possibly one of the top ten coolest parties I’ve ever been to.
But in New York, my safe haven is in the borough of Queens, designated by the U.S. Census as one of the most ethnically diverse segments of the country. In Flushing Chinatown, a friend and I watch a vendor hand-stretch freshly-made noodles and ladle out a white pepper broth into a bowl sprinkled with fresh cilantro and pieces of roasted lamb. If I could I would tell you the name of the place, or even the nondescript strip mall in which it is tucked, but I do not speak or read Chinese.
We hop over to the Czech section of Astoria and grab a couple of pitchers of Staropronnen beer at the Czech beer garden, a facility which doubles as a community center for the local Slovakian and Czech community.
We also stop by the Egyptian section of Steinway Street, where we idle the time away at my favorite hookah cafe, playing go fish and backgammon, smoking mango-flavored hashish and sipping mint tea.
New York is a place you can fall in love with. And a place where life can disappoint just as hard.
I end the night by meeting up with more friends, and after hours of great conversation, an old friend decides to break my heart by relentlessly making passes at me while his girlfriend of over a decade sleeps peacefully in their shared apartment a few blocks away. I end the night by rushing out of the bar by myself and into cold, torrential rain, taxis being snatched from under me one after another by a few different groups of men. I eventually make it to my bed at 6:00am via subway, cold and shivering.
There’s just not much chivalry in this town.
On my last day, I am content to meet with more friends, two of whom I met on a glacier in Alaska, and one of whom I’ve known since I was a baby in California. We hunker down in a newly-opened, shoebox-sized, cavern-like wine bar at Vin sur Vingt in the Village, sipping French wines served by a French waiter who speaks no English and tucks his silk lavender tie into his shirt. My friends and I chat about everything from traveling, to professions, to my grandma and her incense.
New York is a state of mind. I once called it home, but looking back, it never really was. At any given time in those four years I was either anxious, stimulated, or entertained, but never relaxed. And so still is this the case. My visit was like meeting up with an old boyfriend in the best-case scenario; glad to see you again, but no regrets that it didn’t work out. There were good, solid reasons it didn’t.
As I sit on the plane waiting to return down South, I am sad to leave so many friends from all walks of life, but I am content to know that New York is one of those special places in which I will always be able to see the most amazing and the most horrible things on this planet. Millions of people, yet it so easy to feel lonely, overworked, or confused in this town.
Best of all about New York, like many places, a visit here has reminded me how lucky I am to be able to go home elsewhere.