My Dream of Manhattan

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Gary and me at my graduation from Columbia – May 1982

I always loved Manhattan. I loved the excitement of it, the different neighborhoods, and the energy. While I was in college, at SUNY-Binghamton where I felt exiled in a gray, isolated city that barely deserved that designation, I dreamed of coming to Manhattan to live and work. I got my chance to live the dream when I went to graduate school at Columbia University.

I finished the first of a two year Master’s program at Columbia in May of 1981. I lived in a Columbia-owned apartment building on 80th and Columbus Avenue and I had an internship in New York City’s Mayor’s Office (Ed Koch was the mayor at the time) for the summer.

Each day that summer I descended into the subway station at 79th and Central Park West. The same panhandler that I saw on a daily basis was at the bottom of the stairs. I knew him by his tattered denim jacket and black knit cap. His long legs extended, back propped against the wall, his hand outstretched, jiggling a dirty Styrofoam cup, begging for spare change. Judging by the sound of it, the cup wasn’t very full. I made my way around him. I looked at him briefly, didn’t make eye contact, and continued through the turnstile.

I stood on the platform waiting for the C train. The stagnant, humid air was already warm, despite the early hour. Perspiration started to roll down my back. I hated starting my day with my clothes already damp. I had a desk in a small office that I shared with a full-time staff person and I didn’t want to come in smelling of sweat and the subway. The one window in the office, which contained an air conditioner, looked out at a brick wall inches away. It wasn’t optimal for fresh air, but at least it was cool.

Work was interesting. I was in the Community Assistance Unit (CAU). New York City was divided into community boards. Those boards met with representatives of city agencies (Police, Fire, Sanitation, etc.) to discuss local issues. CAU was the liaison between those boards and the mayor’s office. Staff from CAU attended those meetings and filled out a report. They had files filled with these reports, but nothing had been done with them. That’s where my internship came in. I was to review the reports and look for commonalities or systemic problems and present what I found to the director of the unit.

After finishing my day, if I didn’t have plans after work, I got back on the subway to go uptown. Again, I’d wait for the train to roll into the station. It was always a bad sign if a subway car was empty – that meant one of two things: either the air conditioning wasn’t working or a homeless person was living there and the smell was too overpowering (or both). Sometimes I stepped on to the empty car anyway.

One particular day that summer I got back to my apartment and started dinner. I put a pot of water up to boil. When it came time to add the pasta, I opened the box of spaghetti and a roach fell into the pot along with the dry noodles. I shrieked. I was done. I already had an exterminator on retainer. The building, and many around it, were in the midst of being rehabbed. It didn’t matter how many times the exterminator came, more roaches infiltrated. I lost the war and retreated.

My dream of Manhattan was over. I called my parents and said I was coming home to Canarsie. I knew the commute to Columbia would be a bear, but I would save a lot of money and I just couldn’t deal anymore with life in Manhattan. Between the homeless, the drug addicts, the need for constant vigilance about my personal safety and, finally, the roaches, I gave up. The reality in 1980-81 was a rude awakening.

All these years later, it might surprise you to know that Gary and I agreed that our plan would be to retire to Manhattan. Despite that awful year, I still loved going to the city for shows, ballets, museums and restaurants. Over time, as the 1980s progressed and the city recovered from the fiscal crisis of the late ‘70s, things changed. By the time my children were old enough to take to the city, in the 1990s, I felt comfortable there. I still had to be watchful, keeping my purse wedged between my arm and my body, and be aware of my surroundings, but I felt free to show my children all the city had to offer. My dream of Manhattan reawakened.

Ode to Central Park

Views of Central Park in mid-October (photos by me!)

Oh, how do I love thee?

 

I love the juxtaposition

Nature and civilization

Bird calls and sirens

Steel and glass skyscrapers and majestic ancient trees

 

Ducks and turtles paddling the reservoir

Birds swoop

Stately pre-war apartment buildings stand guard to the west

Museum mile beckons to the east

Commerce to the south

Harlem to the north

 

Flora, fauna and culture abound

Beauty in all its forms

For the taking

 

People of every age and size

Of every skin color

Of every socio-economic level

 

Running, walking

Laying in the grass

Cycling, rowing

Reclining on a park bench

 

Riding in a pedi-cab

Or a horse-drawn carriage

Planking on a pedestrian bridge

Graceful moves of tai chi on the meadow

 

Children’s laughter

So many languages

The wind in the trees

Honking horns

The rotors of a helicopter slicing the air

 

Let me count the ways.

 

 

New York City Wanderings

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Sculpture at Astor Place. I loved and still love coming upon sculptures in public spaces in New York City. This one is near the subway station exit at Astor Place.

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).

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.