12 June 2012

Dreams of Empire

Thoughts from a recent trip to New York City, transcribed in a daze:

June 10th, 2012. Late morning in Newark Airport.

I bit of the Big Apple; I can't be sure it was not biting me.

New York is more than a city of landmarks and visitor's notions. It is everything like you thought it would be, and more than you could imagine. It is a city of heartbreaking brutality and breathtaking beauty. New York City will exhaust you, break you, lift you up and make you grateful to be alive.

You must be careful with this city. It will not be careful with you. This is not from inherent insensitivity. It is that the city has bigger things to think of, in its dreams of consumption and commerce. New York City exists as an ideal, within space-time and outside of it. If we are shrimp, the city is a whale. When it thrashes or dives, we can be swept aside by the power and awed by the majesty. As I said, you must be careful.

Ha. I laugh at myself for feeling this way. Fatigue and anxiety, ecstasy and exhilaration, I felt after experiencing only a fraction of the whole. I walked as much as possible, covering miles and territory mostly and heretofore unknown to me except primarily through media and the filters of others' experiences. I ate myself silly, chewing my way through the cuisine of the city and nowhere.

I had a long solitary walk, taking pictures. I became dizzy and disoriented by the noise and hustle of the city. I think my camera became my filter and shield, allowing me to keep New York at bay so I could breathe and make sense of it all. The austerity of the plaza in front of the Seagram Building was a tonic after a long day. Fountains burbled at each end, and the luxury of the open area before Park Avenue was surprisingly effective at pushing back the street. I was able to gather my thoughts and my breath, getting a second wind to go see more. Because the city always wants you to see more. It demands it, it coerces and flatters, it offers temptations to satisfy any curiosity.

Me, I simply wanted to understand the bones and the flesh of the place, and why anyone would choose to live inside the leviathan.

I did not do this entirely alone. Good company makes for good travel, and my companion excelled at assisting me in sanding down the rough edges of Gotham. We walked, the best way to understand a place, and we walked as much as we could take. The serenity of Central Park and the buzz of the street scene by the Flatiron Building were truly energizing. The Empire State Building was all that I thought it would be; an experience that lived up to the myths. The High Line Park is a world-class urban amenity, and a great example of turning what could have been dross into a ribbon of gold. If an oasis is needed, look no further than the sculpture garden at the Museum of Modern Art.

The unceasing activity and the churn of the city continued to wear me out. So I turned to that which endlessly fascinates me: food.

New York is a city of astonishing food. It is the cuisine of everywhere and nowhere (to borrow a phrase from Gary Nabhan's "Coming Home to Eat"). It may not always, and usually isn't, cheap to eat in New York, but with consideration one can eat exceedingly well. You can eat America, and the world. And we tried.

From hot dogs to haute cuisine we ate some of the best food we have ever had. Gumbo. Fried oysters. Sublime pizza. Salumi, formaggia and a delicious glass of white wine in a frenetic Italian marketplace. Southeast Asian-French fusion cuisine, a medley of seafood that had me reeling and almost begging for more. Kati rolls from a biryani cart, the taste of which left me wanting eat twice again. And of course, the hot dogs. One of the most delightful eating experiences for me was chowing down on a hot dog from Papaya King, on East 86th Street not too far away from Central Park. Standing at the counter, looking out the window at the seethe and hiss of life out on the street, something came together for me. The food we ate was a reflection of what makes the city itself. We tasted the food of money and muscle, of thought and labor. We ate of the food that the city wants to be and of the food from the homes of those who make up the city. I had an inkling of what gives New York City its gravity.

The is brutality there, and ugliness, this is true. But there is beauty, there is sustenance, there is life. One has to choose carefully as to what sees as the true heart of the city. As for myself, I cannot say for sure that I could live there (at least, not yet); the noise and the closeness of so many other souls still drains me in ways I find unsettling. But I do know that I want to go back someday. I only touched the surface of its heart, and I need to know truly what lies at its core. I suspect it has something to do with a pleasant summer day, a hot dog at the counter and someone lovely to help me rule this empire of the heart.


  1. "We walked, the best way to understand a place..."

    I understand this. Perhaps it is why I prefer a combination of the tube + walking to get where I need to in London rather than the quicker, more direct and much more expensive taxis.

  2. You drew a picture of a place I would avoid at all costs! An overload to the senses, that's how large cities appear to me - I'll take a quiet backwater, any day, thanks. :)

  3. Wow. :-) "...the city has bigger things to think of..."

    I think I need to go to NYC.


  4. As soon as the apartment is sold, we are on our way back there. My husband will love reading this. He will nod his head throughout.
    I ... I just want to see familiar sights and hear ( and understand) all the people talking about everything under the sun and enjoy some good food.
    Pretty much exactly what you did. We have been gone so long, there was no Highline when we lived there .. and the MOMA was not new .. I can't wait !

  5. Oh, you brought back some memories...and captured the exhaustion and exhilaration that I remember. And the food!! My mouth was watering as I read your post.

    There's a strange counter-balance effect about NYC: getting sucked dry and being filled up at the same time. Like that old saying goes: If you can live there, you can live anywhere.

    Glad you had such a great time!

  6. Hope you don't mind this cheeky point...

    You writing always has a personal / emotional underlay with some little journey outlined. It usually refers to a little sustenance too. When I read this piece I thought your writing found it's home. It has to be Travel & food; architecture, food, culture, observations, interactions and a little charming humour.

    Looking forward to your next journey :) I'm with ya like.

  7. I agree with Marnie exactly. This may be one of the best pieces you've written. And I don't say that lightly.

  8. Being from Boston, I have had some experience with city life, albeit far smaller than NY. I have to say, I do not enjoy it. I don't like noise or crowds, or driving. That pretty much sums up my thoughts on city life. Gimmie a cottage in the wooded mountainous regions.


"Let your laws come undone
Don't suffer your crimes
Let the love in your heart take control..."

-'The Hair Song', by Black Mountain

Tell me what is in your heart...