I open my eyes and orient myself to the room. I have been going back and forth so often between Albany and the city, I forget where I am. That’s right, I’m on the sleeper couch in the living room in Manhattan. Fortunately it has a good mattress.
I reach for my phone to make sure I haven’t missed any calls or messages. I briefly scroll my Facebook feed.
I turn to look out the large picture window. I notice in the corner that the sun is casting a perfect shadow through the lead glass vase that sits on a small table in the corner. I look closely at the shadow – the rope that wraps the top of the vase is projected in detail onto the wall. The imperfections in the surface of the glass are illuminated, as well. I imagine Andrew Wyeth could paint this and capture the beauty of the vase, the light and the shadow. I wish I could paint it, but since I can’t, I roll out of bed taking my phone. I take two pictures before the light changes. I want to share this image, this lovely moment.
I consider posting it on Facebook, but think better of that – what would be the point? Really, does the world need another pseudo-artistic photograph? Instead, I text the picture to my two kids and my husband. Leah is in Seattle, so it is just after 4 a.m. there. I know she puts her phone on silent when she sleeps so it won’t wake her. Dan and his wife are on an early morning flight to New Orleans for a long weekend so he will get the text and photo when he lands. Gary is already at work in Albany. I am in our apartment in Manhattan, looking after my 82 year old mother, asleep in the bedroom, recovering from lung surgery.
I text: I don’t know if this photo does it justice, but woke up to see this beautiful shadow on the wall. Wanted to share it.
Gary responds with: Very nice but how about a photo [if] your smiling face.
Where is autocorrect when you need it?
I text back: 🙂
I am a lucky woman. Gary often responds with sweet comments.
A while later my phone dings. Dan’s text reads: On the ground in Atlanta. Transfer in an hour or so. Very nice picture, Ma.
Two hours after that, Leah texts: Really cool shadow, Ma!
And so it goes. Many days the four of us are in conversation in this way; brief moments of sharing. Sometimes one of us doesn’t chime in, but we know that we will all have seen the exchange at some point. It helps me to feel connected to them despite the miles between us.
Growing up in Brooklyn I was always excited to go “into the city,” which meant going to Manhattan. Technically all five boroughs comprise New York City, but we knew Manhattan was really The City. Not everyone shared my excitement. There were many people in the outer boroughs who were as unfamiliar with The City and its attractions as people from say Oshkosh. My father fell into that category. He wasn’t unfamiliar with it, after all his two sisters lived there, but, somehow he failed to see the charms of the traffic, grime, and general hassle of getting around Manhattan. My Mom, on the other hand, focused on the museums, theater, and creative energy. I inherited my mother’s perspective.
Over the years I relished wandering around the different neighborhoods within Manhattan. I remember my first trip without adult supervision. My next door neighbor and friend, Deborah, and I were 12 years old when we plotted our adventure. Our plan was to explore Greenwich Village, stopping at the many bookstores that were there at the time. We studied the map of the subway system and reviewed our plan with my mom. We took the bus to the LL, the LL to Union Square and then switched trains to the 6 and got off at Astor Place. We were careful to read the signs so we got on the subway headed in the right direction. We were proud when we made it to Astor Place without any detours.
We started up the stairs to exit the subway station and we heard chanting from the street. We couldn’t make out the words, but it didn’t sound like the Hare Krishnas (a religious group – cult? – that would sometimes dance and sing on city streets). Deborah and I looked at each other and wondered what we were going to see when we got outside. When we emerged into the daylight we saw a demonstration going on across the street. People were carrying signs and marching around in a circle. In keeping with our instructions for visiting The City, we didn’t get involved – we didn’t stop long enough to really look at what the protest was about. We were delighted by it, though. Our first trip into the city unaccompanied and we arrived at a protest! In that day and age (1972) protesting was a daily occurrence. It could have been women’s lib, civil rights, the Vietnam War or a labor dispute. It didn’t matter much to us – it was exciting, but we were also a little nervous. So, we got our bearings and kept walking.
Much of what I liked best about going to the city was walking aimlessly, taking in the scenery, looking for interesting shops, and people watching. Of course some neighborhoods in the city weren’t what they are today. SoHo wasn’t filled with art galleries, trendy shops and expensive restaurants. In fact it was unlikely that we would have ventured south of Houston Street, since the Village was filled with coffee houses, head shops and other interesting stores. It wasn’t expensive to walk and window-shop, there was lots to see.
In the early 1970s the MTA (the city transit authority) ran bus routes called culture loops. It was like the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ buses that many cities offer today, but it was the cost of a single fare. I took full advantage of the service and rode the different loops many times, sometimes alone, sometimes with a friend.
When I was in college I worked summers and breaks for a perfume company that was located on 57th and 5th Avenue. I did secretarial work and some bookkeeping. I was also a messenger of sorts. The owner of the company did quite a lot of business in the Middle East and he traveled to Dubai and Kuwait pretty frequently. There was paperwork that needed to be delivered to the applicable country’s consulate, located near the United Nations, which is as far east in Manhattan as you can go. The perfume company gave me cab fare, which I would pocket and walk instead. I took a different route each time – walking as quickly as possible. I covered probably every street between the office and the different consulates – usually about 1.5 miles each way.
I still love walking in the city. My most recent visit took me on a trek from the Flat Iron district to and along the Hi Line.
The Hi Line is an elevated walkway on the site of old railway tracks that were reclaimed as public parkland. It winds its way on the west side of Manhattan from around 12th to 34th Street. I have walked the path a couple of times before, always delighted to find sculptures and other art installations throughout the walk (see pictures below from my recent walk).
Walking north on the Hi Line
A mural seen along the Hi Line
After 30th street the path of the Hi Line swings out toward the Hudson River, looping around the Hudson Yards, where trains pause or sit before entering or leaving Penn Station. A few trains rumble slowly into position, most sit silently waiting.
It was desolate on that December day. Very few people were on this part of the path. The somber clouds, the gray water, the browns and grays of the buildings created a bleak but beautiful landscape. The cold air stung my eyes. I heard the slow screech of train wheels. I heard sea gulls crying. I heard other sounds, too. Was it music?
Plaintive, elongated notes from stringed instruments wove through the ambient noise. I looked around. Was I imagining it? I finally noticed loudspeakers affixed to poles. I was not having an auditory hallucination! Notes harmonized with the trains and the gulls and the traffic of the West Side Highway. It was a powerful soundscape. Eventually I found a small plaque that identified the music (Lachrimae by Susan Philipsz) as part of an art installation. It perfectly captured the sound of loneliness amidst civilization.
You never know what you will see or hear when wandering around New York City.