July 1, 2015
It was something I’ve been dreaming of for years, having read the book ‘Travels’ by Michael Crichton back in 2012, followed by countless travelogues of solo-travellers in foreign lands. Usually, when something is that long over-due or is hyped up to that level, it somehow eventually fails to live up to expectations and ends up disappointing. However, my escapades in New York City effortlessly surpassed even my wildest dreams and absolutely decimated all my craziest expectations.
Having got my F-1 visa in the afternoon of the 30th of June amidst high anxiety due to the last-minute nature of its arrival as I was scheduled to take the 4:40 am flight out of Bangalore International Airport on the 1st of July, I took a minute to consider what would have happened if that stroke of good luck hadn’t brought me my visa on the 30th, and honestly, I couldn’t fathom the repercussions. To put it simply, that would have sucked. Big time.
Anyway, I got on the Jet Airways flight to Abu Dhabi which ended up taking off at about 5 am. My adventure had begun. Looking out the window, I witnessed the retreating lights of Bangalore City as the sun rose and felt a curious mix of apprehension and excitement – a feeling I’d like to get accustomed to. I blinked and the lights of the city had disappeared and were replaced by the contrasting miles of never-ending sand dunes of the Middle East, punctuated with the occasional man-made structure.
Soon, we were flying low over Abu Dhabi, and my first of many “holy shit” moments presented itself, as I saw this…
Following those gorgeous few minutes of flying over several landmarks that I’d only seen in those cool Middle East scenes in Hollywood movies, I walked into the chaos of Abu Dhabi airport. Those pre-customs and immigration lines took forever and I just about made it in time for my Etihad Airways flight to New York. 16 hours, 3 movies and a couple of muscle cramps later, I found myself walking into the hazy sunshine and breathing the air of the United States of America for the first time. Honestly, I felt like shit, having neither slept a wink nor eaten a bite of that godforsaken plane food as I waited for my bags at JFK Airport.
It didn’t take long for all that to become irrelevant, however, as I looked out the window of my Eastern Cab enroute to 1500, Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. My first impression was that New York is ridiculously photogenic.
However, I couldn’t shake that feeling of how strange the place was. I mean, they drive on the wrong side of the road there! And everyone’s so nice! And the sun just refuses to set! And people actually follow traffic rules to the extent that no pedestrian will cross a street at any place but a zebra-crossing or even attempt to cross if the light isn’t green!
My cabbie was Hispanic. Armed with my novice, newly acquired knowledge of broken-Spanish, I attempted to make conversation. Apparently my initial “Hola! Como estas?” was very convincing, as he spoke nearly continuously for the rest of the ride, leaving me pretty much clueless, but I didn’t have the heart to break it to him that I didn’t actually understand his level of Spanish. So I stuck to my comfort zone – saying “Si, si” and “Hmmm” whenever he paused for breath.
By the time I got to the place I would be calling home for the next 3 nights, I was starving. There was this little Caribbean place called ‘Catfish’ just down the street, where I decided to try out shucked oysters for the first time. They’re considered a delicacy worldwide, but the very thought of them is kinda repulsive.
They were brilliant, I loved them. Following that, I ate a full-on 3-course meal including Caribbean chicken, Mac and Cheese and Jambalaya – the Caribbean equivalent of biryani with every kind of meat imaginable. By the time I got out of there around 9 pm, the sun had finally set! I don’t even remember climbing into bed that night, but i remember waking up the next morning more pumped than I’d ever been before. It was time…
July 2, 2015
After grabbing a quick take-out bagel breakfast, I set out with my camera bag slung over my shoulder, my phone with Google Maps open and functioning and an entire city to explore. I finally realised why the buildings in the neighborhood looked so familiar. They strongly resembled those in the TV show ‘Friends’! Hehe, that was cool!
I found my way to the Franklin Avenue subway station to catch a train into Manhattan. I took a while to figure out how the ticket machine worked, but after a little bit of fiddling I was on my way through the legendary NYC subway system. It took a moment to sink in as I looked around the compartment. The diversity of people in that little metal tube, hurtling across to Manhattan from Brooklyn, was incredible – something that would never cease to amaze me as my trip went on.
I emerged at the ‘Bowling Green’ station blinking, slightly disoriented, because of the sudden transition to sunlight from the darkness of the trains. It took a minute for my eyes to adjust to the light and another to fathom what I was looking at. Well, it took more than a minute to realise what I was seeing because I had to crane my neck to see the extent of it. Another ‘holy shit’ moment followed.
It was exactly as I’d pictured it – the New York everyone imagines in their head whenever it comes up in conversation. I walked down the street blind to everything else, gaze fixed to the tops of the skyscrapers I’d only seen in movies. Honestly, I was literally shooting vertically at one point, standing in the middle of the sidewalk. Anywhere else in the world I would have probably been judged to death by every passer-by, but the thing about New York, and this is something I realised over the course of my stay there, is that the city doesn’t judge you at all. You are accepted LITERALLY for who you are. It’s beautiful.
Without realising where I was going, I landed up at the Staten Island ferry stop. The first thing that crossed my mind was, “Holy shit! Statue of Liberty!” Now, you could either pay $50 and go straight to the Statue itself or, and this is what I did, you could take the free Staten Island ferry, climb up to the Hurricane Deck and get almost as good a view which is about a 50-minute roundtrip.
She was every bit as majestic as I’d pictured, surrounded by the waters that gently caress the Lower Manhattan shoreline. On the ride back, I was lucky to witness this glorious moment.
I got back to dry land, feeling a sense of accomplishment flooding my veins, as I’d successfully completed my first goal. It was time to move on. I walked a couple of blocks and ran into possibly the most cliched New York scene, an image that most people imagine when thinking of the great city.
By this time, I was starving. And in my head, I think I did the most “American” thing imaginable – I bought and ate a hot dog on Wall Street. Sometimes I manage to crack myself up, hehe.
That’s when I came across something interesting – a line of bikes with a board on top with a little kiosk that said CitiBike. Turns out, if you have a CitiBank card, you get to use a bike for 30 minutes completely free of cost. Feeling ever so adventurous, I thought to myself, “Why not?”
So I saddled up and cycled off in the general direction of the 9/11 memorial museum. On hindsight, I was probably a road hazard because having been brought up in Bangalore, I am NOT used to any rules. I discovered midway through that there’s a separate lane just for cyclists!
Anyway, I was kinda lost. But the thing about Manhattan is that you can never be well and truly lost. Just look up and you’ll see where you are. Quite literally.
I dismounted and walked around the area guarded by the watchful grace of ‘One World Trade Centre’. On the surface it didn’t seem any different from the bustle of the rest of the city, but there was a subtle undertone of solemnity about it, paying homage to the dark memories of September 2001.
I took a quick tour of the square because it was to head to my next destination on the day’s list, one that had a closing time, and one that I was really looking forward to: The American Museum of Natural History. I looked at the time and had a mini panic attack. It was already 2:30 pm. And the museum closed at 5: 30 pm. Also, the museum was up on 81st Street.
For those who aren’t familiar with the map of Manhattan, it’s arranged in a near-perfect grid-like pattern of streets, with Avenues (1st Avenue, 2nd Avenue, etc…) cutting through the land vertically and Streets (1st Street, 2nd Street – both West and East) crossing them horizontally, with the coolest street ever that follows no such rules called ‘Broadway’ that pretty much goes where it wants, criss-crossing its way through Manhattan.
Anyway, I had a long way to go. Frustration struck as my Maps app kept crashing and I couldn’t find the nearest subway station. When I was about to fling my phone at the nearest Starbucks – gosh, those things are everywhere – I found my saviour. The Chambers Street subway station. (Oh, apart from the simple numerical order of the streets, there are also a few exceptions like Park Avenue, Madison Avenue and Lexington Avenue; also Chambers street…you get the drift).
I took the Red Line up to 82nd Street and sprinted down to 81st, giving myself a solid 2 hours at the museum, a model of which I’d watched come to life in ‘Night at the Museum’. Oh, I had the time of my life! The exhibits are insanely realistic.
And finally, I found what I was looking for. This made my day…
At this point I realised that I was literally thinking it terms of movies and TV shows, running on the longest adrenaline rush in human history. I collapsed on the nearest bench and felt the fatigue in my legs nearly overwhelm me. But I wasn’t down yet. I glanced at my list and there was yet miles to go before I slept. Next up…
I quickly grabbed another hot dog and marched into Central Park on 81st Street. I dumped the camera in my backpack because I couldn’t bear its weight anymore. I walked through the most gorgeous park I’d ever seen – being passed by people on cycles, skateboards and roller-blades – all the way from 81st Street to 59th Street. I walked through the ‘Strawberry Fields’ – the part of the park dedicated to John Lennon and emerged at Columbus Circle where I stopped to rest, my legs threatening to give in.
What I really wanted to see next was the legendary Apple glass building. But I do get distracted pretty easily. A slight back-story to this next bit. I’ve always loved street photography, having been inspired many years earlier by Brandon Stanton’s ‘Humans of New York’ blog. I even took part in a ‘Humans of Bangalore’ Facebook page for a while. Despite having seen so much so far in the “city that never sleeps”, what I truly wanted was to run into my role-model. So far I hadn’t had any luck on that front, so I decided to do a little HoNY-ing myself.
Very close to Columbus Circle, I saw a semi-circle of people gathered around on the sidewalk. I got there and saw this…
There sat a street artist who were making these on demand, using everything but a paintbrush to paint! Literally. I watched, and in about four minutes flat, he’d made another. They were gorgeous! I hung around until the crowd had completed their applause, collected their purchases, and left.
World, meet Mahboob. A Bangladeshi artist who does this for a living. I spoke to him for a while and learned that his daughter was currently studying in Cambridge University, doing very well for herself. He also suggested that I add her on Facebook. After a decent conversation about how New York is truly the land of opportunities, he asked, “Where are you from? Your accent sounds familiar… India?”
“Yes, I’m from Bangalore”, I replied. “Wait, you’re from Bangladesh, right? Do you speak Bengali?”
He replied in Bengali and I lost it. I’d made a friend! We had a rather lengthy conversation in Bengali following which I bought one of his paintings – the one he’d done in front of my eyes. As I was saying goodbye, he quickly handed me another painting and said, “From one Bengali to another. And I’ve always loved India.”
I tried paying for it, I really did, but he insisted that I take it free of charge. Aah, New York City… I guess it brings out the best in us by celebrating our mediocrity. I mean, not all of us can be the next Steve Jobs, changing the world with a revolutionary idea, so there’s no point being upset at being average. Might as well enjoy it and make a difference to the people directly around us. That’s what actually counts.
I know it’s all deep and stuff, but all this was going through my mind as I walked away from that little canvas laid out on a street in New York City, clutching some of the best art work I’d ever seen, made by my best friend in Manhattan. I set out to find one kind of art in the form of the Apple building, but instead found another. On hindsight, I think I found the better kind.
But in the spirit of going everywhere possible, I just had to stop by…
Anyway, as I was having my Oscar acceptance speech-worthy thoughts on mediocrity, I found myself walking towards West 34th Street, down the famous 5th Avenue. I found myself in the middle of exactly where the who’s who of the world shopped, with the flagship stores of stuff like Zara and Forever 21 on either side of me.
By now, I’d lost all sensation in my feet, having reached a state beyond just pain. Also, it was getting late. You know it’s getting late when the sun begins to set in the New York summers, cuz there’s daylight forever otherwise. I quickened my pace and went all halli on the otherwise extremely sophisticated city, not bothering to wait with the rest of the pedestrians for the lights to turn green. I felt the Indian in me truly express itself as years of practise crossing West of Chord Road in the middle of traffic-packed Rajajinagar back home shone through. Before long, I had another “holy shit” moment, something I’d made a habit of. I looked up and…
There she was… The Empire State Building.
End of Part I.
Stay tuned for Part II in which I enter the world’s largest departmental store hunting for a place to take a piss, make friends with an Egyptian street-food vendor, get hopelessly lost as my phone dies …and eventually find myself watching the 4th of July fireworks.
To read Part II, click here.