Two weeks ago I went home to New York. When we left last July, going home before the end of a year was not in the plans. But alas, real-life responsibilities were piling up and could be ignored no longer; so, I grudgingly scheduled a quick (and shockingly expensive) trip to New York.
My first day back, after roughly 40 hours of travel on six different modes of transportation, I met a friend for lunch near City Hall. I’ve never spent much time in lower Manhattan, which added to my sense of being an outsider. I felt, for a few hours, like I was seeing New York for the first time.
The first thing that struck me was the physical darkness of the city. Sure, the cliché New Yorker is always dressed in black, but I when I lived there I never thought that was actually true. But the pedestrian population at lunchtime near City Hall had a definite darkness to it. As I waited for my friend, I surveyed passersby. Dozens of people passed before I saw a single shred of color besides black, gray, brown and tan tones. All those darkly dressed people, walking on black asphalt, against gray high rises on that gloomy April day was almost comical. Suddenly the nickname “Gotham” felt just right.
The second thing that I struck me was that people are not, contrary to popular belief, rude. Not in the slightest. In fact, most of them are exceptionally polite. What they are, however – and what is, I think, mistaken by many as rudeness – is busy. So busy you almost feel sorry for them. So busy that you wish Brita would start putting Valium in their filters. Everyone is on a mission, all the time. They still make sure to hold the door for the person behind them and to say excuse me when they bump into someone. But you would be hard pressed to find someone unbusy enough to engage in a casual conversation with a stranger.
In the same vein, everyone seems to be going about daily life with an extreme sense of deliberateness and self-importance. The swag of every person on the street would have you believe that what they are doing is absolutely critical to the immediate survival of the planet. Don’t get me wrong, I still love New York, but the attitude struck me as a little much.
Despite my jam-packed schedule of responsibility, I did find some time to catch up with friends and visit some sorely missed spots, mostly to get a fix of some of my favorite foods (you may noticed that cuisine involving cheese is featured prominently – it’s not something you find a lot of in Asia). Among them: Patsy’s for a slice of New York goodness; Pequena, a contender for Brooklyn’s best Mexican fare (in my book it’s in a dead heat with Bonita, but someone told me that closed?!?); Westville in the West Village for fantastic American comfort food; Benny’s – $3 margaritas and quesadillas that can feed a family of 5 make for a refreshingly cheap night in a city of bottomless pockets; Osaka for my favorite sushi that doesn’t require a trust fund to pay the bill; Bierkraft for yummy under the radar brews you can’t find elsewhere (a delightful change from Thailand’s notorious Chang and it’s accompanying Changover); and The Strand bookstore – the ultimate cure for the garbage found on South East Asia’s mediocre book exchanges. I also visited the newly opened Stumptown Coffee for a good cup of Joe (which has been disturbingly difficult to come by in many of the places we’ve visited). I fell in love with Stumptown when I visited a friend out in Portland, OR a while back, and was SO excited when I heard they were finally coming to NYC.
I found an unexpected highlight of the week in the space between errands. I was running around to job interviews at schools all over the city, many in neighborhoods I had either spent little time or had never been to at all. Visiting places like Morningside, Bushwick, Canarsie, the Financial District, and East Harlem made the city feel fresh to me. I can’t say I visited any neighborhoods that left me with the feeling “I can’t believe I lived here for eight years and never knew about this,” but it was nice to see the place that I most closely associate with “home” from a new angle.
So it’s been decided: we will return to New York at the end of our hiatus. I was looking forward to the excitement of a fresh start someplace new, but a million little things added up to make NYC the place to go. No complaints though – it still is the greatest city in the world.