Anything Can Happen in New York
New York City is more than the sum of its parts and reveals itself in bits and pieces
“Could you live in New York forever?” I asked Mridu, my wife’s twin sister, a few minutes after she picked me up at Penn Station. It was my first time in New York City, and it felt unconquerable. With its exasperating crowds, shiny neon lights, improbable high-rises, and ubiquitous chaos, it overwhelmed me.
“Yes, now I think I can,” Mridu said in a slow, deliberate manner. It was a yes one fraught with uncertainties.
We changed two trains to get to my 18th-floor Airbnb in Jersey City. From the balcony, I could see the famed NYC skyline over the Hudson River, where ferries cruised on unruffled waters, and in the distance, I could make out the faint outline of the Statue of Liberty. Later that night, my wife Priya joined me. This trip to NYC was her birthday gift to me.
The next morning, we woke up late enough to miss out on the famed Cronut at Chef Dominique Ansel’s eponymous bakery. People start to queue up outside the bakery as early as 6.30 a.m. to get their share of a maximum of two pastries per person. I am not a foodie, but these croissant-doughnut hybrids are so hyped that I was tempted. Putting off Ansel’s pastries for another day, we sipped on turmeric lattes for breakfast in a coffee shop and planned the day ahead.
"Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city," writes Iain Sinclair about New York in Lights Out for the Territory. We couldn’t possibly have walked across all of New York in five days, but by partially substituting walks with subway rides, we could cover quite a lot. It’s hard to express New York as a coherent, linear story; it is—a patchwork of experiences stitched into a mosaic. The scale and Babel-like hubris of big cities often allow them to be evasive, revealing themselves only in parts. There is no single story that can be told of New York, only short tales of what becomes visible to the unseasoned traveller.
Our first stop each day was usually the Oculus train station. The structure was conceptualized as a bird flying out of a child’s hand. This controversial station had recently opened, and was two billion dollars over budget, seven years delayed, and had undergone several design compromises that finally made it look more like a giant fish than a bird. By most measures, this transportation hub, constructed to replace the subway station that had been demolished during 9/11, would be considered a fiasco of an Olympian scale.
But as I stood inside surrounded by the calming whiteness, and stared up into the rib-like structure vaulting over 160 feet over my head, I didn’t really care for what it took to construct this station. I wanted to remain here, in this central hallway two stories below street level, watching the comings and goings around me. The vastness of this space swept over me, and although it dwarfed me, the structure inspired me. Santiago Calatrava, the architect of the Oculus, may have angered his clients, but he did achieve a meaningful purpose with this structure. The Oculus is merely train station, but to the 250,000 or so commuters who use it every day on their way to their often drab, uninspiring workplaces, what an uplifting few minutes it must be to walk through this wholly unique and compelling artwork.
Only a short walk away is the World Trade Centre memorial. I wasn’t keen to go, for I wanted to avoid anything that could cause sadness. But I did on the insistence of my wife and as I approached the memorial, I couldn’t help reliving the day.
I was a student in Delhi when the planes crashed into the twin towers. I walked into the television room in the hostel, still sleepy after my evening nap to see everyone crowding in front of the television. Surreal images of devastation flashed on the screen. I first thought my leftover sleep had penetrated reality. But it was no nightmare. It was New York being mercilessly battered. Since that day, everyone—American or otherwise—has been unwittingly tied to this city by the invisible cord that is 9/11.
Sixteen years later, I finally stood at the same spot. The newly built One World Trade Centre, its angular form looming imposingly over the memorial site, was a few metres away. The periphery of the memorial is etched with the names of the people who died in the attack. In this open square surrounded by oak trees, the chaos and celebration that is NYC quietens into a sombre stillness and gently muttered prayers and melancholic reflection. . “It’s difficult to not get emotional here,” Priya whispered softly in my ear.
The normally spirited tourists snaked quietly around the voids of the towers' foundations, now reborn as cubic waterfalls, before queuing up to enter the 9/11 museum. It occurred to me that New York is phoenix of a city. Every city is birthed and wrought by its people, but a great city moulds its people in return. People may have made New York, but the city has made its people brave and resilient.
Over the subsequent days, we spent as much time under the streets of the city as on them. The subways of New York delineate another underground city, as colourful as the one above. Roughly 1.7 billion passengers commute on the subway annually, making it an attractive stage for performance artists. Singers strumming their guitars, dancers bending their bodies on poles inside the subway cars, and drummers beating empty barrels in rare, vacant lots on train stations—they are all citizens of this lively subsurface world.During my week-long stay, I looked forward to my subway rides just to watch these artistes. It was on the subway that I discovered the works of Chuck Close, an American artist who paints massive, abstract portraits of himself and people from his life. Twelve large mosaics, including a self-portrait, deck the 86th Street subway station.
A week is too little time to absorb New York. The city has so much to offer that giving up on a few sights is more necessity than an option. We forewent Broadway shows and the sunset ferry ride to Liberty Island and instead, stolled the elevated High Line park, a linear park created on a , discarded section of a New York Central Railroad line. We sawWall Street—a surprisingly stretch for a place housingsuch big-name banks; strolled through Zuccotti Park, the epicentre of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests; walked to the Flatiron building, which in 1902 was the world’s tallest; and had tea at the Starbucks in Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue. We also couldn’t miss meandering through the forested expanse that is Central Park. The park has a lot to offer, including a boat ride (rowed, not pedalled), Venetian gondola tours, and a zoo.
Evenings were invariably spent at Times Square, which is perpetually overrun with tourists. Bathed in unblushingly bright neon lights and pasted over with boastfully large LCD screens, it is a blur of images and sounds: incessant honking, people in Elmo and Disney character costumes,skimpily clad women posing for pictures, NYPD cops playing chess with the homeless. The place is maddeningly chaotic, and despite being an open square, has a claustrophobia-inducing quality to it. Physical contact is inescapable in Times Square, but despite the deluge of people, this endlessly Instagrammed spot can offer a a sense of solitude. One could wander around for hours and never be noticed, such is the invisibility bestowed by the crowd.
On the long flight back home to Sweden, sleep eluded me as I of the week that had slipped by in a flash.
New York, I realised, is not one city but many, depending on where you are and who you interact with. It’s an idea that transmogrifies at every turn of its streets and with each one of its inhabitants. They seem to come from all over and want to escape from the reigning confusion, but still end up living here. I could only enjoy New York for a short break, not live there forever. But then, as John Steinbeck once said: “Its [New York] climate is a scandal, its politics are used to frighten children, its traffic is madness, its competition is murderous. But there is one thing about it—once you have lived in New York and it has become your home, no place else is good enough”.
A version of this story was published in National Geographic Traveller