Every time I come here I see a different city.
The first time I visited New York I was twelve. It was nothing to me but the place of my mother’s birth; and therefore, though my only impressions of it were vague and fluid, like a film, I had some invisible tie to it. I had heard place names. Brooklyn place names, mostly, because that was where she had lived; in a cramped apartment on Flatbush Avenue. I knew names. But I had no capacity to envisage anything.
So it was like being shaken in a bottle and then tipped out onto a map full of foreign words. We took a red-eye from LAX, stopped over in Las Vegas. I remember the glitter of lights, a garish city that looks beautiful only when viewed from above, in the haze of half-sleep. We stayed with friends of friends somewhere in Brooklyn, but I was still young enough not to pay enough attention to things. We took subways and cabs. Towards the evening we rode all the way out to Coney Island. That was another place-name I had known. Coney Island. I hadn’t known how to picture it, but maybe, in a vague sort of way, I had compared it in my head to Balboa Island, because they were both called “island”, because I had fond memories of playing arcade games at Balboa, winning prizes.
Coney Island was dying, dead. A warm, empty wind blew through the streets (this was April, and still cold, but slowly thawing out). The light was yellowish, brownish. We stood watching ferris wheels and roller-coasters decay before our very eyes; then we had a hot dog at Nathan’s and took the train back and I fell asleep listening to my mom describe the wicker subway seats of her childhood.
Later that weekend we visited the Met; I decided it wouldn’t be so bad, maybe, to live in an apartment overlooking 5th avenue, and then you could pop in and out of the museum whenever you wanted, visit each room and lavish each painting, each sculpture, with the attention it deserved. Easy. I liked the thought of luxury, then. We went and used the bathrooms in Saks Fifth Avenue; I was bowled over by the price tags on things. I remember particularly a lime-green silk woman’s suit, priced at about $700. I could wear lime-green silk suits and visit the Met; yes.
We went to the Village, to Bleecker street where I spent some time in a Tibetan shop buying prayer flags, embroidered pillowcases that smelled of incense, blue paper lanterns, and then to a shop full of wooden and knitted things; I bought a hat. At another shop, our friend tried on vintage fur coats, slipping them over her pale Burberry.
But that trip was mostly the Brooklyn Museum trip. We went on what I remember as a dewy day; bits of sunlight, droplets of water on the leaves in the botanic gardens, through which we strolled slowly and deliberately, savouring each springtime smell, feeling the hot, moist air of the greenhouses, until we arrived at the museum, and went upstairs where we looked at an exhibit of Hiroshige drawings. I remember the simplicity, the clean lines and colours. I was entranced. From the gift shop I bought a little necklace, a pink flower on a red beaded rope. I made notes in an embroidered notebook from Chinatown (I probably still have it somewhere, those notes are preserved).
I went back other times after that. I visited college campuses in a snowstorm (my enduring memory of that trip is drinking a hot chai latté from a funny little bar near NYU called the White Rabbit). I went for a spectacular run through Central Park. I sipped Sierra Nevada in a grotty Midtown hotel room with a few college friends. I spent a week on the Upper West Side, taking the subway, reading Don Delilo. Each trip was made of impressions, of highlights between exhausted nights. Each trip was to a different New York; and I’m still trying to find the general New York, the essence of it, the thing that connects those highlights and impressions.
In the meantime, we’ve had a breathless, beautiful time here.