My daughter and I have just returned from another planet.
To be clear, NASA didn’t recruit a weary Clown Mother and her teenage Clown Daughter to see how long they could survive on a space station without killing each other.
But, we have recently spent nearly a week together in New York City, and coming from a sweet California beach town, where the noises of the night are coyotes and the wind, not sirens and folks shouting outside our windows, it really is another universe.
Here, in the place where jeans are called dungarees; frosting is icing, and purses are pocketbooks, we walked at least 50 blocks every day. We also climbed many flights of stairs and ate astonishingly good food. And we bought Metrocards, which allowed us to ride buses and subways to pretty much wherever we wanted to go. We also found out that nothing is ever north or south, but uptown, downtown and crosstown.
We got really good at crossing streets in spite of red lights, too, and silently ducking into restaurants when we were desperate for a bathroom. At one point, after yet another amazing dinner, this one in Chinatown, a double decker bus full of out-of-towners flew by. One of my friends waved and said, “Hello tourists! Look at the real New Yorkers down here!"
In fact, I have lived and worked in The Big Apple.
I was in my early 20s, and I’d finally snagged my journalism degree. I knew what I wanted to do, which was write for a national magazine (I’d already sold my first piece to Seventeen). There was, of course, no Internet, and since all of the publications I wanted to be a part of were in Manhattan, I simply left California and relocated there.
I stayed for nearly four years, working first as a secretary, but eventually landed writing and editing positions with a couple of small magazines, including the now defunct, in-house publication for CBS.
But because I had nothing to compare the experience to, I didn’t know until much later that those were some of New York City’s toughest times.
Streets were dirty; bag ladies were everywhere, and subway cars often broke down. No one smiled or looked each other in the eye for fear of being followed. I also remember the huge cockroaches in the first place I lived, a tiny studio in the East Village, at the edge of Alphabet City. And I recall, too, going to a neighborhood bodega and right there at the cash register, seeing rat traps for sale.
In short, New York City was a super hard and mostly lonely place to live in, and I survived not because I was particularly brave, but because I was very young and very naïve.
Things seemed different now.
Yes, it’s still a tough place to make one’s way, but one thing that made this visit so enjoyable was how friendly
Whether that’s because of a different mayor (Ed Koch was in charge then; now it’s Bill de Blasio), or different priorities (keep the streets clean, find beds for the homeless), I don’t know. However, I absolutely believe that the extraordinary group trauma of 9/11 also left New Yorkers with a new sense of vulnerability, and consequently, has made it a kinder place.
We found this, in little ways, everywhere.
There was our first morning in Manhattan, when the bus was the best way to reach our destination.
When it pulled up, we offered our Metrocards to the driver, who gruffly—although not unkindly—told us that “you have to pay outside.” Huh? Exiting apologetically, we saw a machine in which to insert our cards for bus fare. We asked a bystander to show us what to do, and—something that never would have happened years before—she looked directly at us, then demonstrated what needed to be done.
Then there was the night we washed our clothes.
The friend whose apartment we were lucky enough to stay at doesn’t have a washer and dryer, and there’s no laundry room either (these amenities are not common, especially in older buildings). So, we did what our friend does: walked four blocks to Baby Girl’s Bubbles & Cleaners (www.babygirlsbubbles.com).
Once inside, we discovered that coins wouldn’t work.
Instead, the attendant on duty (a job that simply isn’t seen here) asked us how much wash we had. We showed her our small bag, and she explained that “that’s about five dollars.” She patiently led us over to a machine, which, after we put in our money, spit out what looked like a credit card. We then used the card to do both our wash (28 minutes) and drying (24 minutes).
Shopping for groceries was an adventure as well.
Half a block downtown from Baby Girl’s is Best Market—a lot like Whole Foods, but a whole lot better (http://bestmarket.com/stores/harlem/#.VyDwmPkrLIU). We saw all kinds of bagels prepared in all sorts of ways; several varieties of pizzas, wraps and sandwiches, and even a counter for hot barbecue and traditional sides. That’s just the street level. Downstairs, the place was packed to the gills with produce, dairy and baking needs. (Because it doesn’t take much to amuse me, I was especially fascinated by a miniature escalator made expressly for grocery carts to travel upstairs to the cash registers.) Oh, and here, too, folks were friendly.
And of course, there’s the eating out.
I didn’t worry about gaining weight because of all of the walking. (In fact, unlike my town, it’s rare to see morbidly obese people here.) So I indulged in taro and egg custard ice cream from the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory (www.chinatownicecreamfactory.com); inhaled dim sum at the oldest New York restaurant of its kind in the same neighborhood (http://nomwah.com/), and near Columbia University, gobbled up one of the best bagels ever at Absolute Bagel (http://www.yelp.com/biz/absolute-bagels-new-york).
There was also wonderful chicken pot pie from Serendipity (www.serendipity3.com); heavenly matzo ball soup and monstrous pastrami sandwiches at the Carnegie Deli (http://carnegiedeli.com), and The Best Blueberry Cheesecake Ever from Junior’s in Brooklyn (www.juniorscheesecake.com).
I mustn’t forget the cupcakes at the original Magnolia Bakery on Bleeker Street (www.magnoliabakery.com), or my stroll through the Grand Central Market, which can only be described as the ultimate destination for foodies lucky enough to be on a champagne budget (www.thekitchn.com/a-tour-of-grand-central-market-77027). Our final meal was an exquisite spread at a Mediterranean restaurant in the heart of Greenwich Village (http://memeonhudson.com).
Looking back on our visit, I came away with two big things.
One, living in Manhattan is ridiculously expensive.
Rents are ludicrous ($3,500 per month for a small one-bedroom apartment is the norm; I paid $350 for my huge place that had a view of the Statue of Liberty), as is entertainment and just about every other living expense. But for those who are young, and especially for those who are young with money to burn, it’s a virtual playground for the senses.
Two, I keep thinking of that famous song about New York City, appropriately titled New York, New York.
Everything about this tune is spot on. But for me, the best part is the lyric that goes, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere. It’s up to you, New York, New York!”
I know that’s true, because once upon a time, this California girl clown had a pretty good run in The City That Never Sleeps. I’m also of the mindset that every just-out-of-school person with the will and moxie should try and do the same.
That being said, I’m very happy to be back in our little town, and especially happy that my washing machine is a few steps from my kitchen.
But I also think this was a journey my daughter won’t soon forget.
Just a few hours into our flight home, she turned to me and said, “Mom? Mom? I have something to tell you.
“I am missing New York right now.”
Have you lived and/or visited New York City? I look forward to hearing your stories about The Big Apple!