Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Why I Heart New York

In little more than 24 hours, I will be rolling out of bed and heading out to the airport for an early morning flight to New York City. It will be my first trip to New York in a few years and I can't wait.

To be honest, I did get to spend a night in New York last year before I did my transcontinental train odyssey. But that was just a taste, not even a quick fix, and it was nowhere near enough to cure my cravings. There is something about that city, the great metropolis that keeps me coming back again and again.

It's been over a decade since my first trip to New York. I flew down that time, as well, landing at JFK. I then took the free shuttle bus to the edge of the airport and boarded the subway. I figured if I was going to do this New York thing, there was no use dealing in half measures. My first taste of Manhattan was emerging from the subway at Times Square in the early evening.

You can say a lot about present day Times Square. You can talk about Disneyfication and corporatization and all kinds of other -ations. You can lament the loss of character and grit and feel but you cannot deny that even a watered down Times Square is still a thrill for a newcomer. The lights. The rush of traffic and crowds. The buskers. The sense that this place, for all its billboards and flagship megastores possesses an electricity that has nothing to do with power lines. The lights dance and the city pulses to a rhythm that emanates from this steel and concrete heart where Broadway crosses 7th Avenue.

To a young man who had grown up in Canadian suburbs and small towns, this was the Promised Land. I wandered all over. I explored the subway system, hung out in Washington Square Park and had a few pints in seedy 8th Avenue dives that had yet to be gentrified. I spent my last night in an all night jazz joint in the Village, drinking canned beer from a corner store and waiting for the early morning flight that would take me back to Toronto.

I have been back a handful of times since. I've rode the Cyclone at Coney Island, searched for Dylan bootlegs in the Village and watched a Yankees game from a bleacher seat with the subway rumbling just behind me. More than anything, I have walked and walked and walked. I've walked uptown and downtown, meandered through the Village and jostled my way through the throngs of Chinatown. I've walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and walked down to the Staten Island Ferry. I've walked the Bowery and the business district, Hell's Kitchen and Park Avenue.

New York is a great city for walking. It seems there is something on almost every corner that reminds you of something you've seen in movies or watched on TV. Or read about, of course. My original desire to see New York came mostly from my love of the Beats. For all the travelling that Kerouac romanticizes, the Beat Generation was originally a New York thing. It's in New York that the group came together in a group that gathered around Columbia University. It's also where Kerouac escaped to from New Jersey when he needed a break from writing, getting drunk amongst the mad ones that he loved so much.

So I went to New York chasing a vision that was forty years old at that point. There are far worse reasons for going, I guess. I wasn't clinging too tightly to any preconceived notions, so I was not disappointed to realize that the life I'd learned of in books was best experienced in books. In real life, time had moved on.

I never plan too much, though, as I find that the best experiences often come from chance encounters and flights of fancy. This time around, I've got just a couple of things inked into my (unwritten) itinerary. First, I am going to a Rangers game on Thursday. Second, I intend finally get to MoMA. I tend to spend so much time just wandering around that I've missed out on some of the great museums and galleries. I figure it's time to start correcting this.

That's just part of New York, though. You can never do it all - or even more than a small slice -in one trip. So you have to keep coming back, exploring new things and revisiting old favourites. You have to see the city in all the seasons. You have to take the subway. You have to walk. You have to leave the car behind because they are a hassle. You have to leave the car behind because they cut you off when you should be diving in. You have to dive in.

And that's what I will be doing tomorrow.


John Mutford said...

Have a wonderful trip. To be honest, coming from a very small town I used to have a phobia of New York. The Big Bad City. I've since gotten over that fear, but still haven't made the trip.

Dale said...

I'm with John. I'm a little nervous of NYC. Never been there, myself. Maybe one day, tho'.

Hope you're having a good time, Remi.