Jenny Diski, whose work I started reading after raves from Dorothy, has this great passage in Stranger on a Train describing her experience of observing American landscape from a train:
Was that image, that memory, from the train journey or a movie you once saw? American landscape is known, like famous speeches in Shakespeare’s plays or phrases in the King James Bible are known…as you actually pass through the boundless grasslands of Montana, or deserts with their wide-open background scores rush to clog the mind…there’s a stored image for every inch of the landscape passing by…each image comes complete with its own landscape. Every landscape comes with its own set of meaningful images, seen already in darkened cinemas and on TV. We know the landscape of America, even if we have never been there. We’ve been a part of it, even if we’ve never been further west than the movie house at the local mall in a New England suburb, or if we spend our days shopping till we drop on Fifth Avenue.
As I read that passage last night, I rested my book on my chest, realizing that is exactly how I felt the entire time I was in New York City last week. Even though I’d never been there before, I knew New York, from the hundreds of books I’ve read, movies I had watched, television shows I’d seen. I actually think it was V.C. Andrews who once said by the time she actually began traveling, no city, not Paris, not Athens, not Chicago, were really new to her, because she’d been to them all a dozen times before, in the books she read.
I have friends who practically give themselves aneurysms when they are reminded I’ve never been to New York City. New York City is the best city in the world…how can you not have visited, yet? It’s always been my dream to live in New York City, you absolutely have to go there, they exclaim. You haven’t lived until you’ve been to New York.
There came a point in my life several years back where I sort of serenely accepted that I was never going to be, as one dreams of when one is little, absurdly rich, and my life would not be a web of ski trips to Aspen, museum hopping in Paris and shopping on Madison Avenue. This was relatively easy to accept because I also realized I would probably, generally, touch wood, have the kind of life that would take me all sorts of interesting places as the journey progressed, and I would have enough financial security for a good vacation here and there, and be able to pursue an interesting career. As it turns out, that’s pretty much enough for me. So I never really made it a POINT to go to New York City because I assumed I’d end up there incidentally and, as far as I’m concerned, visiting places incidentally at first is much preferred to heaping the loaded expectation vacation time carries with it onto a place.
And so I ended up in New York City last week, and I came away with the following impressions:
(a.) Oh holy God. How does anyone, ANYONE, afford to live here? Seriously, how? I get a decent per diem from work but it took more math than I am used to in a day to feed myself on it and, to be quite honest, I gave up trying by the time dinner rolled around each day.
(b.) Times Square sucks.
(c.) New York City is just like the movies and television shows I’ve seen, but nothing like the books I’ve read.
(d.) The people are just so much nicer in NYC than they are given credit for, seriously, so nice, except at Penn Station, where the battle I engaged in to get a proper seat on the Acela to D.C. can be described as nothing less than epic. In my mind. But maybe the people riding that train at five on a Friday aren’t New Yorkers, generally?
It’s not that I didn’t like NYC. I did. I thought it was fun. But the whole time I was there I carried with me the sneaking suspicion I wasn’t seeing the real NYC, the parts of the city that hum and buzz and wiggle and shake with the writers, actors and artists who tend to give cities their heart. I don’t believe I really saw Chicago until I began spending time there visiting my college roommate, J., and her husband, and instead of the Field Museum and the Magnificent Mile and Navy Pier I began spending long, langorous mornings drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes in their apartment in Ukrainian Village, finally struggling into clothing sometime in the afternoon to take a walk around Wicker Park before finding a pub in which to while away several more hours.
What I want whenever I visit a place, I realized, is to spend time with people who actually live there, or at least with people who’ve been there before. By far the best part of my visit was the evening I had dinner plans with an old high school friend and, when he found out my hotel was in the heart of Times Square, said “Oh, God. I’ve got to get you out of there as soon as possible,” and proceeded to give me directions far outside the reaches of where I’d been so far. My co-worker, on the other hand, who had only been outside of Pennsylvania for her annual visits to the Chesapeake Bay, fell utterly in love with the New York we see on television, and wanted only to spend her free time searching for Louis Vuitton bags and Jimmy Choo shoes.
“I want to move here immediately,” she exclaimed as we moved through the crush of people in front of the Times Square Toys R Us.
“Really?” I asked. “Because I sort of want to kill myself right now.”
I can be a real bitch when I think I’m missing out on authentic experiences.
New York, New York, New York…do you know how I imagined it back in high school and college, when moving there seemed like an actual alternative in my life? I imagined neighborhoods vibrating with artists, late evenings in funky bars and late Sunday morning brunches recapping the weekend’s events, feeding myself cheaply while on the run, hopping the subway to this place or that, a “New Yorker” or a copy of the Times tucked beneath the arms of every person I saw. I dreamed of plays beyond Broadway and small art openings featuring the work of my imaginary friends and living in a tiny room inside a large brownstone. I imagined lots of trees. I imagined the kind of life, really, I’ve been determined to live regardless of actual locale, and the kind of life I began creating in Detroit and continue to pursue in Pittsburgh. That’s just me…when friends return from fabulous trips and share their pictures, it’s never the fact they saw the Vatican or the Empire State Building that I envy, it’s the lives they had the opportunity to slip into, however briefly, that I covet – the quiet moments sipping an espresso near the Siene or enjoying a glass of wine in a Spanish restaurant Zagat has never heard of – those are the moments I want to make up my time in places other than where I live.
I definitely want to go back to New York City. I am utterly convinced I missed out on the heart of it. But if I go for vacation, I will reach out to friends, those that live there and those that have visited, and take their direction and guidance, and revamp my search for the New York City I haven’t been to via television and movies, and try and find the heart of it, the one that comes through, like all things inevitably do for me, in the books I have read.