During a recent visit to New York City, I planned to go to Central Park, to walk The Highline, to photograph the Plaza Hotel. Following six weeks in Europe, I was looking forward to speaking English, to ordering a “big salad”, to getting “dollar pizza”, to visiting the stadium, to running into Casey? Or better yet, Joe? But I ended up spending half my time in Chinatown, and it wasn’t wasted.
I was staying with a friend of a friend. We’d never met. I’d only exchanged a few messages with her, and it’d been over a week. I’d looked at Airbnbs and hostels, but they were outrageous. “Fifty dollars a night for a place to sleep!?” I thought to myself from my 13-euro bottom bunk in Granada Spain. I reached out to an extended family member to no avail. I was out of options, “she did tell me to let her know if I ever visit the city…”.
Without reluctance, she agreed to host me. Severely jetlagged from a cross Atlantic flight, and wasted off a lack of sleep, I stumbled out of the cold, confusing streets of Brooklyn, around 2am, which was nearly ten where I’d started the day, in Malaga.
Without consideration, I threw myself into the vacant bed. Her roommate let me in, she was out partying. Still completely dressed, I finally went to sleep. About an hour later, the light burst on, and she stumbled in. Her eyes were wide, and she wanted to talk. It was the natural thing to do, given that we’d never met before. But all I wanted to do was close mine.
Her alarm rang before the sun came up. It was barely 7am when we boarded the "E". Across the Hudson, it rattled, and shook. “This area is cool, or you can ride all the way up town with me.” She said. I took her offer to leave.
Out of the station, there wasn’t much to see. I bought a new deodorant, mine had been confiscated, and began wandering the streets. A Sunday morning, at the crack of dawn. The city was silent, the cafes were vacant. But then, the signs began to change. From “Vegan friendly”, and posh boutiques, the windows now displayed hanging geese, and a strange language. Unbeknownst, I had entered Chinatown.
Suddenly, I didn’t care about sleep depravity. I entered a market. Every item was strange. Mine was the only western face. “Have I traveled through time!? No, this is different.” I left the place and entered a bakery across the street.
“Coffee” I said, making a sipping motion. I pointed at a pastry. It turned out to be filled with chicken. Interesting…
With the rest of my coffee, I again returned to the streets, making just one right at the corner, and disappearing from that strange alternate reality. Now past signs for “Luige’s”, and “Spaghetti”, I strolled through a much quitter, Little Italy, and progressed toward the Empire State Building on the horizon.
The air was crisp, and the sky was spotless. It was a beautiful day to walk through the city. I stopped at a little café in Greenwich Village. Ate a pastry, drank more coffee. I needed energy. I was crashing.
The chill had warmed, as I approached the parade. “Oh yeah, it’s Veteran’s day.” It occurred too late. But it was okay. The streets were filled, and the flags flapped in the breeze. The towers, new and old stood still, and the colorful trees in the parks swayed.
I found “Koreatown” around two in the afternoon. A few buildings with Hangul writing. Familiar food, but I wasn’t quite in the mood.
I grabbed a slice of dollar pizza at the next corner. Then, two more, at a place one block over. At a standing table, I engaged in conversation. The tall Jewish man who towered in front of me wore a striped sweater. “I like your sweater, very American.” I said. He was from Israel. Said he’d lived here nine years. That he loves it. That I need more time to experience the whole thing.
“I’ve just spent six weeks traveling Europe, and this city is the most overwhelming piece of my journey.” I said.
The younger guy, about my age, joined in out of my periphery. “I’m from London, and this city is just massive comparatively. It’s overwhelming!” He agreed. I took one last bite from the folded piece of pie and tossed the paper plate.
I met the girl I was staying with for a mid-day drink. On the train, we returned to Brooklyn. I’d had an amazing day, but it was time to sleep.
“I’m going to a show on Broadway, you should go explore Times Square” she suggested. Although, it sounded mandatory in every way. The sun set as we reentered the city.
I wandered around Times Square for a few minutes. Total chaos, fine to see, but not a place I wanted to hang around in. My condition was deteriorating. What began as just fatigue, was now spiraling toward full on illness, as symptoms multiplied rapidly. At a place just off the square, I stopped to sit and eat. The Pho was fine, but the clientele were predictable. A couple dates, a few families. Mostly people visiting the city. I left the place craving warmth and energy. The kind I’d felt earlier in those Chinatown streets.
By the time she headed home, I was, again, soberly wasted, and undoubtedly sick. Another sleepless night, this time from the couch (my suggestion), I searched for a hostel to rest at instead.
After dropping my bag at an industrial hostel in Bushwick, I again boarded the L line.
In that bakery window, I sat, up against the cold glass, eating a fresh red bean bun, and sipping ginger tea. After six weeks of travel, my immune system had finally begun to fail me. I watched the foreign faces in fascination. The clothes they wore, their expressions. I returned to the cold air, and finished my tea on a park bench, across the street.
Numerous pick-up games. Some of the kids looked ready for the NBA. In a pile of rusted leaves, an old man squatted in the corner, reading a paper. The symbols on the page matched those of the storefront in front of me.
Through the market, I wandered, in search of a pharmacy. The sunlight illuminated the produce in a flattering way. I bought a large carton of strawberries for $2. Felt like I needed the vitamins. Seemed ridiculously cheap. Through large crowds of men and women, young and old, all Chinese, I weaved my way through the streets.
The comforts of the tea were long gone, and again, the cold began to bite at me. I descended into a basement noodle house, that was my guess anyway, again, there was no sign of English in the writing.
Toward a table, the man gestured. I sat. Next to the strange characters on the main menu, a few things were translated, roughly.
The man returned from the kitchen, “noodles?” I said. He shook his head. Two conversations took place, quietly. A couple of teens, with interesting looking phones to my right, probably students. Two middle aged men sat in front of me. Until that sharply dressed American joined us, I was undoubtedly the only person in the room unable to speak Cantonese.
“Where am I?” I thought, peering into the cooler behind me at the foreign refreshments. A metal bowl of piping hot noodles slid onto the table, delighting my senses, with its steam.
I took my time and enjoyed every bite. Then paid at the front. The man seemed surprised when I tipped him. “$6 total, not bad at all”. I walked a few blocks and suddenly found myself in a different country.
A visit to the new tower, and the magnificent mall beneath. Then, the The National Museum of The American Indian. Again, I craved frangranced steam.
Down the street next to Wall, buzzed a lengthy open-air market with various cuisines. From Venezuelan, to barbeque, all authentic. Every option looked delicious. I stopped at a tent serving arepas. Under the famous bull statue, I inhaled the corn pocket with avocado, plantain, and black beans.
It was cold and dark as I walked through Battery Park, past The Statue of liberty. At a bench, on the Hudson, I watched hordes of commuters pile onto the ferries. Brooklyn glittered across the water. A whole different city.
The next morning, before heading to the airport, I visited a Bushwick area café.
Tuesday, November 13th, ‘18
Headed home. The trip ends. 45 days. The artisanal bulbs emanate just enough bronze light to make visible the steam, which drifts up from the cups of coffee. Two walls are an aged, red brick, which clearly used to be free to the outside. The other two are a historic crème tone. Gentle tunes play from a small vintage box, accompanied by the sound of wet tires which pass by through the open windows, and the rain. Rather than generic “hello’s”, it seems everyone here is a regular, they’re all addressed by name.
It’s a cash only café, with a simple menu. 6.50 for a large coffee, and an everything bagel with cream cheese. If I ever come back, I’ll try the Kombucha on tap. Or maybe the CBD latte.
I’ve been sick and jetlagged since I got to this city two days ago. I’ve been traveling for over six weeks. My body aches, and before coming here, I was feeling burnt out. But, there’s an unexplainable energy to these streets. There’s the people, the cultures, the diversity. And they’ve been friendly!
Of all the cities and places I’ve visited in the past 6 weeks, no individual one towers quite as high as NYC. This city is alive, it’s an entity.