I want to see the real New York

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.

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15 Responses to I want to see the real New York

  1. Dorothy W. says:

    I’m no NYC expert, but I’ve learned a thing or two — next time you’re there, let Hobgoblin and I know, and we’ll join you!

  2. ZoesMom says:

    I’m not a NYC expert anymore, but I used to live there and still love it. Let me know when you’re coming back and I’ll be happy to show you some of my “real” NYC.

  3. I only started to really like New York the second time I was there. I don’t know why, probably because I was more relaxed the second time and I didn’t feel I had to run from one sight to the next. New York has to grow on you I guess.

  4. Cam says:

    Times Square gives me an instant migrane. Worst week of my life: a nasty hotel I’ve ever been in, located in Times Square area, all my NYC friends out of town or busy, way too much work, and having to walk to the farthest subway entrance because that was the one that was the one with the elevator (and used apparently by every vagrant as a latrine). I was using an aluminum cane at the time — and it stormed every single day. No way to carry a laptop, a briefcase & use a cane for 4 blocks — even short NYC blocks — and use an umbrella, never mind that I was a lightening rod.

    Time Square is not the REAL NYC. It really is much as you expected, but not what you’ll see on a business trip staying in Times Sq and shopping for Jimmie Choos. I hope that the next time you are there you get to see more of the real city. And, maybe, if Emily organizes another blogger meetup in NYC, you can be there.

  5. Emily Barton says:

    Me too, me too: I always want to “live” somewhere, not just visit. Or, if I am visiting, I want to stay with those who DO live there. You need to meet up with all us bloggers next time you’re in NY. Among all of us, we can cobble together a much better experience than Times Square (a place to be avoided, unless you’re buying cheap tickets for the theater).

  6. bluebluesoup says:

    I agree that when you visit a place with friends that live there, or used to live there, is when you really get a feel for it. Also, Times Square does suck.

  7. Courtney says:

    All right, folks. We’ve struck a deal. The next time I am in New York I will contact the bloggers I know for tips, thoughts and general hanging-out fun! I KNEW there was a New York I just wasn’t seeing – I just don’t know where it lurks!

  8. litlove says:

    I’ve actually been to New York, which is amazing when I’ve been to so few places. I did like it, although I wasn’t gripped by the urge to live there; I like calmer places.

  9. Amanda says:

    Oh this is a great post. I just found your blog. I too think NYC is odd. When people come visit it’s always a whirlwind and it’s exhausting. Actually, just normally living here is pretty exhausting. Sometimes I wonder why. But then I meet the girls out for brunch for our book club, or meet my husband and a friend out for sushi, or take the dogs for a walk in our park and hear bag pipes playing somewhere….and I remember why I love it. And yeah, stay away from where the tourists go. 🙂

  10. musingsfromthesofa says:

    I’m in for the NY meet up! Not that I know my way round at all, and anyway am only a commuter so I’d like to explore more too.

  11. Smithereens says:

    I won’t make it to the US this year at least, but I really want to go to NY, I mean the one people live in every day. I totally relate to your post. Whenever we go in vacation we usually don’t go to a hotel and try to rent a small flat or go to private b&bs so we have a better understanding of the way people live there. It’s even better when you get to meet friendly bloggers!

  12. Pingback: Miss Marple’s Cottage, and other Literary Geography for Holidays « Smithereens

  13. LK says:

    Loved reading this post – you expressed what I’ve felt about NYC (and other places I’ve visited). I hope for an update on the “real” NYC after your next trip.

  14. I booked a holiday to New York 2 years ago flying via Detroit – but when i landed in detroit i kinda just decided i didn’t want to see New York 9a city is a city right..) so i ducked out of Detroit airport and drove around Ohio instead – loved it. Anyways, I’m going back to New York for 4 weeks in August 2012 and while looking forward to it – am dreading it as well. Can’t stand shopping, hate traffic – but love meeting real local people – the ‘workers’ of a place that give a place it’s soul – so if anyone has any recommendations of unknown places to see/visit and socialise in NY please let me know as desshiels at h0tmail.com. Thanks all

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