New York City was one of my go-to travel destinations in college—a lot of the spare money from my various on-campus jobs either went towards road trips across America or weekends and breaks in The City (and occasionally both simultaneously). My first visit, in the winter of 2002, occurred on a Campus Crusade for Christ trip while I was still wrestling with my religion in college. We stayed at a big compound together out in Queens and talked to students at one of the CUNY schools about Jesus during the days (including a great conversation with some Jewish kids about my age that made me start to re-think some of my fundamental assumptions about my own faith), I decided pretty decisively that evangelism wasn’t for me (I’d signed up for the trip largely because it was a chance to see New York with people that I liked, but I was never sold on the cheesy little pamphlets or the numeric goal of “number of people who accepted Jesus into their hearts today” by which the group leaders measured our efforts), a group of us got onto the opening segment of The Today Show by painting the name of our school on our chests using blue finger paint, one letter apiece, and standing outside in the freezing cold at 6 am…and I fell madly in love with Manhattan the first time we took the subway in from the boroughs.
The subway itself was the lens through which I first understood the world above the street. The sight of everyone crowded together on trains that were dingy and worn but also well-used and functional and egalitarian—homeless guys trying to get some sleep sitting right next to older women in fur coats carrying bags from upscale department stores—was like a revelation, and when you combined it with the secret underground world of subway lines, train schedules, and locals vs. tourists, with its own endemic rules of etiquette and style, the metro came to represent New York in microcosm for me, grown from the same DNA as everything going on up above but more contained, so that when we emerged into the night somewhere on the lower east side I already felt a certain kinship to the streetscape and pedestrians and sidewalk vendors and huge buildings…but it was still overwhelming, and I kept going back again and again, until it started to feel like one version of home, primarily because there was always more to see, more to experience, and more to process.
I’ve probably spent a couple of months of my life in New York if you add it all up, almost all before I graduated from college. After that first experience I started looking for excuses to get away, watching for the best ticket price or flying out last-minute using AirTran’s short-lived standby fares; I went even when I couldn’t really afford it, wandering the city eating from street vendors and staying at hostels (or, once, sleeping at Penn Station and staying up all night on the subway when I ran out of money mid-trip); I stayed with my college girlfriend for a week or two one summer while she was working at a music licensing company in midtown; I was sandwiched in the middle of Times Square with a bunch of friends for Y2K; when 9/11 happened I was on a study abroad trip in Asia, and a few of us from the program did a road trip up the coast when we got back as a way of processing it from an American perspective; I flew up to see the Tribute in Light the month before I graduated…and then, after I walked across the stage and decided to move out west to pay off my loans and save up for travel and create a life that was more fully my own, my focus shifted and I stopped visiting and started to forget the subway lines and the route the M60 takes into the city from LaGuardia and a lot of the other day-to-day details, but the city itself was still burned into my muscle memory, waiting patiently for me to return.
And I did plan to return—to stay for a year, in fact, so that I could absorb the feeling of living day-to-day in a world of constant overstimulation and enjoy everything that the greatest city in America has to offer and then plunge directly into the ice bath of Anchorage in the winter, a nondescript town in the middle of the last American frontier for another year of my life…but aside from a few quick in & out trips in 2005, 2006, and 2011 I hadn’t really been back to New York until this past weekend, just a week after I finally made it out to Alaska for the first time.
The reason for my trip was simple—a good friend from high school who lives there now invited me up for a last-minute trip after he saw my posts about Alaska on Facebook, and I wanted to go and couldn’t think of any logical argument against it, so I bought a ticket. I’m really glad I did; it was a fantastic visit, and while there’s a lot that I could focus on, yesterday was really the coup de grace. We christened it “America Day,” largely tongue-in-cheek, and put together an agenda to back it up: great New York bagels in the morning from Murray’s, a trip out to visit the Statue of Liberty (which neither of us had ever been to), a walk up to the Freedom Tower construction site with a quick stop by Zuccotti Park followed by reubens at Katz’s Deli, watching the Seahawks vs. 49ers NFC championship game at a Seahawks bar (The Central Bar, in case you’re curious) with a friend from Seattle who made the move recently, and, following a craving for some good old-fashioned eastern European comfort food, late-night kielbasa and goulash at Veselka.
There were a lot of high points in the weekend, and it was really wonderful to be back in New York, but the game is probably what lends itself best to a blog post, especially in light of the social media/blogosphere eruption about Richard Sherman’s 15-second post-game interview (see here for the clip, and here and here for my favorite pieces on it so far—the second one’s by Sherman himself). Let me preface this by saying that I’m about as fair-weather a fan as they come—I was really into my high school football team growing up, but I’ve lived in Seattle for a combined total of over 6 years and never had even an inkling of a desire to go to or watch a Seahawks game until this one.
I went out of my way to watch this one, though—at a bar in the East Village packed with fellow Seattleites—because it was an important moment in our shared history as a city, an event with just two possible outcomes that would either leave a scar if we lost or still be talked about 50 years from now if we won, but one way or another would be something with a character and an immediacy and an interior life and a temporary sense of shared community that I wouldn’t be able to approach through Twitter or watching highlights afterwards…and I have to say, it didn’t disappoint, as a football game or a life experience. They were showing it on a ten-foot screen on the packed second floor of the bar, and for the 3 ½ hours or so that the game lasted, everyone in that bar was joined at a basic emotional level, hanging on every play right down to the last one, the legitimately historic end-zone interception that spawned the clickbait Sherman-vs-Crabtree rivalry on which probably 90% of the post-game coverage has focused. During the commercial breaks after Seattle started turning things around in the third quarter the DJ would kill the sound and blast Macklemore and Nirvana and other hometown artists to get us even more fired up than we already were, and as soon as Sherman’s fingers touched the ball and it became clear that the Seahawks were going to the Superbowl, the entire place went crazy and didn’t go back. Outside of election nights I’ve never been on the giving or receiving end of so many bear hugs with strangers; a few of the really hardcore fans jumped up on the bar and started pouring free shots directly into people’s mouths a la one version of what my life could have been like 15 years ago, and before you knew it the whole floor transitioned seamlessly into a massive dance party. It was the kind of flashbulb moment in history that should be shared, and I was glad I’d managed to thread the needle and share it with one of my closest friends, Seattleites in the room and around the world, and New York City itself all at the same time.
Once the crowd started thinning out we headed downstairs. I hadn’t eaten since Katz’s—6 or 7 hours ago, at that point—and I got it into my head that I wanted to eat at a Hungarian diner for my last good late-night meal in New York for awhile, so I pulled out Yelp, searched for “Hungarian diner,” and was pleasantly surprised to find a great 24-hour Ukranian spot (close enough, for my unrefined eastern European palette) called Veselka a block away from the bar. As we walked over, still a little drunk both in the traditional sense and from the energy of the game, it occurred to me that our day really had encompassed everything good about New York—and America itself, even if calling it “America Day” had been intended to be ironic: we’d started out at the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, the first representative of the philosophical core of the American experiment and the second of the Americans who helped it succeed and continue to the modern day; that was followed by Katz’s Deli, home of the greatest reuben on earth (and some pretty great latkes, too); we participated in a temporary piece of performance art in the medium of community at the sports bar, a group of very different people coming together to focus on what they have in common instead of what separates them; and then we reached out into the grid and conjured up out of thin air a culinary experience that doesn’t exist in most parts of the world, the original form of just-in-time delivery.
It’s great to see that you’ve still got it, New York :) Until we meet again…