The silver subway turnstiles awaited me with a gleeful stillness. I paused to straighten the handle of my suitcase and drag down the hem of my skirt before I attempted to escape their tangled clutches. A woman, tall and slim, with long, sharp black hair and red-soled stilettos stomped past me, running up the dirty steps to the city outside as easily as if she had been wearing tattered sneakers. I felt the stirrings of longing, the bright flash of hope that soon, I would be as graceful in as she.
I put on my best smile and stumbled into the humid air, the rain drenched pavement of West 4th Street on that June afternoon some two years ago. The city surrounded me, in its vastness, its string of small shops and newsstands, mysterious numbered streets and apartment buildings. I watched a pair of nearly naked men, arms hooked together and dancing with slick bodies, twisting with sweat beneath the flutter of their rainbow flag. I looked to the nonstop procession of faces, thick eyebrows, thin pursed lips, freckled shoulders, the dazzling mess of colors and fabrics clinging to each distinctive body. I peeled open my creased map and looked for my destination.
I went through the three days of NYU orientation in Greenwich Village with a delirious bliss, a mind easily dazzled by a large squirrel perched with a nut on a bench in the park, or the delight of late night pizza on a street crawling with glamorous strangers (who I’d later learn were tourists, to be avoided). I was convinced that the laced oxfords and American Apparel of my newfound friends were the Misshapes-influenced future I’d been waiting for. Every small moment carried a profound significance — playing Frisbee in Washington Square marked the beginnings of a glorious college experience even on a far from traditional campus. I sat cross legged in a dusty dorm room and drew with Sharpie on a piece of removable board from a closet, with already intimate friends to leave reminders for the future reunions sure to come.
New York was a crisp white poster then, awaiting footprints and tear stains, the gestures from strangers, carved experiences, this corner etched with the witness of an absurd interaction, that avenue forever set with a film roll of conversations and memories.
By the time September came and 55 East 10th Street became an address I possessed, by the time the park began to glow with the dipping golden leaves and the cool fall air made waking up every morning an utter delight, my vivid dreams of New York life began to shape into a wonder-tinted reality. Every day carried the possibility of discovery, and created an endless string of frenzied journaling. It was glorious that a quick trip through the still-mysterious subway could bring me from the comforts of the park to Times Square, and marvelous that it was effortless to journey to the legendary hipster land of Williamsburg. Getting lost began to diminish in importance and frequency. Some days I even dared to venture out without scribbling HopStop directions in a little notebook.
By the end of freshman year I had learned the disappointments and fears the city imparted. I remember the route down West 10th Street, a street I dubbed a favorite, and a fantasy future residence, enchanted by the brownstones, the St. Bernard outside the barber shop, the Lillian Vernon’s Creative Writer’s House and its gorgeous white façade, through the mass of swarming black and gay culture, to the comforting quiet of the Hudson or down Bleecker, and writing a furious cry of fear, of needing validation on the stoop of a small boutique.
With another year came more etchings on my memory. French Roast on Sixth Ave carried the weight of my first foray into a debauched realm of Craigslist encounters with older men, and later, the scene of a surreal dinner of tears and laughter. Union Square became tangled with the strange man I met and befriended, with his New Age advice and bold street life, and the awkward run-ins we had after. Stepping out of the First Ave subway station first meant the walk down to the public elementary school where I was astonished at the hardness of New York kids, then the traumatizing walk in the stifling heat to a 34th Street hospital where I visited the boy I loved. A corner of Washington Square became the background to a drawn out love affair gone wrong, a shop in the East Village sang of a morbid beauty I desperately admired. Far uptown were my summer day trips to reading in the grass fields of Columbia, wondering about a parallel existence had I attended a different university, and in the busy yellow cabs and business suits of Bryant Park I breathed the fear of living an ordinary, corporate existence, saved by these lunch breaks in the park.
The blank canvas of the city became spoiled by scribbles of a thousand tiny dramas that unfolded at each marked building, neighborhoods tinted by moods and routines. My favorite walk to the Hudson has been replaced by the more practical journey across the Williamsburg Bridge, where the Manhattan skyline never fails to remind me why I suffer the high rent and long nights. Wandering through the narrow streets of the city is still a favorite pastime. Now, every trip carries a shadow of nostalgia, history. I wonder how many more are still to be written, and if I can stay long enough to paint the whole city.
A few nights ago, an old friend and I walked through the East Village, catching up and enjoying the warm summer night. She told me that she had become the girl she would have wanted to be, that her casual walk through the neighborhood might have been imagined as a glamorous journey to an extraordinary party by her of years past. But being that girl wasn’t about the drugs taken or the parties attended, not marked by photographs on Last Night’s Party or the outfit with all the edgy trends. It’s the happiness from coffee and a walk on a Friday night, the familiar dance with the streets and strangers, the easy comfort of not having a destination and letting the city do its work.
I think of the girl I saw in the subway, with her status symbol of the red-soled Louboutins and perfect confidence, and I wonder where she had been running to. I wonder if I’ve become the girl I would have wanted to be. I think of the parties, the concerts, the strange performances in Brooklyn warehouses or costumed affairs in antique mansions. I think of the days wrapped in the covers of my bed, weekend nights spent reading by a soft lamplight. I think of the countless people I’ve met, personalities I never expected. I think of the places I’d worked and the things I encountered, and the adventures I’ve yet to write. I think of how, still, when the city does its worst and failures dance on tense strings in my mind, I can step outside for a walk, and the silky blue green of the water, the orange sunset cast against the rafters of the Williamsburg bridge will remind me of the beauty that is worth all the sacrifice.
And I think, yes, but better. For though I came to New York in part for that elusive inspiration, and that mystical love of the city, I found something far more complex. Bleak in a way, hopeless in a way, but beautiful. And this, as with all love affairs, is endlessly complicated, heavy, wrought with conflicts and dangers at every turn. But as with all affairs worth keeping, when it does go right, it’s the same delirious ecstasy I found on my first day in New York alone. Only this hardly requires elaborate occasions, forced effort. This is a love affair that carries on whether I ask for its attention or want it to slide by. Anyway, when that skyline calls, who am I to resist its summons? I throw on a dress and Ferragamo flats, swing the purse strap over an shoulder, and walk, waiting for New York to answer the prayers I’ve yet to speak.