30 Hours in New York.
A Portentous Beginning
It’s only 7:45 in the morning and I’m already sitting at a bar. If this isn’t a sign that I might end up drinking too much today, I don’t know what is.
Next to me are my grandparents. We aren’t drinking now, of course. This is just the only place in the Richmond airport that serves breakfast. Our plane to New York doesn’t leave until 9:45, but my grandmother has insisted that we arrive two hours early for security screening. I protested a little when my grandfather informed me of this the night before, knowing that security lines at RIC are rarely more than 5 minutes long, but he just said:
“Well, she’s got it in her head. I don’t bother arguing with her any more, because I never win.”
We’re flying to New York for the opening celebration of my uncle’s restaurant, the Tri Tip, in Rockefeller Center. As my Christmas gift last year, I promised him that I would take photos of the event, and my grandparents have decided that they want to come too.
After a big, greasy breakfast, I settle into a seat at the gate and the 700-page novel I’ve been working on and enjoying quite a bit. By the time we arrive at JFK, I’m more than 500 pages in.
We arrive at the hotel where my grandparents will be staying and I almost immediately walk out the door to meet up with Heidi, one of my best friends who has come into the city to see me (and New York) today. She’s brought one of her close friends that I’ve never met, Brent. The plan is to catch a cab to the row of Chelsea art galleries where they’ll be browsing for the next couple of hours, have lunch and maybe a few drinks. Good times.
It’s difficult to really have a concrete conception of just how big New York City is, but a taxi ride across Manhattan is a good start. Looking down the center of one of its wider streets at those rows of high rises stretching toward the horizon gives you some hint at its immensity. If you made each of the five boroughs – of which Manhattan is only one – into their own city, 4 out of those 5 would still rank in the 10 most populous cities in the U.S.
It’s absolutely overwhelming. I could never live there.
The sense of insignificance that falls over me amidst that nearly inconceivable number of people is unsettling. How can you ever really get to know and take part in a community of that size? It has taken me several years to feel as though I’m beginning to understand how Richmond works. The nooks and crannies, the subcultures, the organizations and major players, the power structures, the businesses. And after years of living here, I’m just recently beginning to see people I know every time I go out, regardless of what part of the city I’m in. How often can you really bump into someone you know in New York? The sheer volume of people passing you by at every moment almost requires you to tune out their faces, their identities. If you passed by someone you knew, would you even be aware of it?
I do understand how this sense of anonymity could be comforting, in another way. There is some measure of safety in invisibility. When people don’t really see each other, none of them have to worry about the social pressures surrounding appearance, for instance. No one cares. You could walk down a Manhattan street in a diaper and barely gather second glances. (People would probably just assume it was some advertising/marketing/TV stunt.) This, however, is not incentive enough for me to stay longer than a few days at a time.
These were my thoughts as I made my best effort to tune out the clamor of car horns that constantly reverberate off the buildings. They’re all quite useless of course; their incessant, ubiquitous presence causes people to just ignore them altogether in much the same way as they ignore other people. In some sense, New York City is a vast region of selective perception.
My cab pulls up to the Chelsea galleries. I pay, jump out and reach for my cell phone to let Heidi know I’ve made it. The cab is halfway to the next traffic signal before I realize that the phone has slipped out of my pocket onto the seat. I jog down the street after it, waving my hand in the air, but I know the driver won’t look back. Not the way he’s been tearing through the city. I run toward it anyway, until it makes a left turn, out of sight and impossible to catch. Great.
I’ve been avoiding getting a belt clip for my cell phone for years, primarily because I’ve never seen anyone under 40 wearing one. (I feel old enough without having the accoutrements to prove it.) Being incommunicado in the middle of New York now has me thinking that I might sacrifice image in favor of practicality. “Damn,” I think, “That’s a sign of aging too.”
It was gone for sure. I decide that since I don’t know exactly what gallery Heidi and Brent are in, all I can do is wait outside the galleries and hope that I soon catch them walking out of one.
Heidi, Brent and I spend an hour or two walking through some of the galleries, stopping briefly to smoke a bowl at some point. My relatively limited knowledge of the art world prevents me from having very meaningful conversation about what I’m seeing, but not from enjoying most of it.
One surprise was an exhibit curated by – I’m totally serious here – Shaquille O’Neal. The collection was called Size Matters, and it contained representational works, mostly sculpture, that played with size and dimension. For instance, there was a room completely filled with an 8-foot tall wooden table and chairs of equal scale. It was like stepping into Wonderland. “I feel like I should look for little cookies marked ‘Eat Me’,” Heidi remarked. There were other sculptures that stretched life-size human models in strange dimensions in such a way that the human brain has a hard time processing their image.
As we’re exiting another gallery, we find a pile of paper covered in hand-scripted Japanese characters that appears to have been haphazardly tossed in the corner to be thrown away. Heidi wants to take some with her, but now faces a dilemma. Is this pile of paper in fact garbage, or is it one of the works of art? You sometimes really can’t tell. Could she grab some of it and walk away? She decides to risk it. No one comes after us.
During lunch I wolf down some eggplant Parmesan and get to know Heidi’s friend, Brent. Conversation centers around each others’ daily lives and interests, and we seem to hit it off okay.
At some point, Heidi notices that she’s missed a call on her phone. It was from me. Or, more precisely, from my phone, which had been found by the cabbie. I don’t know why I assumed that he wouldn’t bother trying to get it back to me. Maybe it was because I could tell he was quite frantically busy. It happened all the time, I figured, and he couldn’t go traipsing about the city every time one of his fares didn’t know how to hold on to their belongings.
But against all my reasoning, he pulls right up to a nearby corner. When I see him this time, he isn’t wearing the expression of grim concentration that I’d seen in the rear view mirror as he tensely maneuvered through traffic. He is smiling. “Oh, it was you!” he says, and laughs heartily. I thank him and try to hand him another tip, but Heidi beats me to it. She’s always doing things like that.
I soon take my leave of them and head back toward Rockefeller Center for the opening.
The Tri Tip
Rockefeller Center is a huge complex of about 20 buildings, with the 70-floor GE building right in the middle. It was in this building that my uncle was opening the Tri Tip restaurant. I arrive about a half hour before the party starts, and things are quiet. I greet my uncle and began taking a few photos of the place before it’s overrun with people.
Soon, guests begin trickling in. Technically, Trip Tip has already been open for about a week, but tonight’s celebration is by and for the people who have played some part in founding and funding it. This, of course, means that most of them are relatively wealthy. The owner of Pittsburgh’s hockey team is present, along with a few other upper class types. Thankfully, the event is very casual, the atmosphere not too stuffy. I can’t help but feel a little out of place though.
While taking a break to taste some dessert, the girl next to me glances at my dish and says, “That looks delish!” The ditzy valley/sorority-girl inflection and flagrant abuse of the English language make me grit my teeth for a moment, but I recover quickly and assure her that it is quite delicious. Time to step out for a few minutes.
The world, as I see it, is mostly comprised of people who I have very little, if anything, in common with. Sure, we all want many of the same things: physical security, social acceptance, sex. And I fit into some people’s conception of mainstream/majority America: white, hetero, male. But I am also an anarchist, atheist and proponent of polyamory, any of which would fit me soundly into a tiny minority on their own. (Sex/gender makes me a minority too, actually, since there are more self-identified women than men in the U.S. By 2050, people of color will make up more than 50% of the population as well, but I digress.)
This feeling of disconnection with most of society has had a few effects on my social behaviors, one of the most notable being an unwillingness to chase after lots of women. Statistically, if you want to date an American woman who is not a supernaturalist, a capitalist or a monogamist, and who you find physically attractive, there’s no point in even trying. I still notice all the women I find physically attractive because my physiology requires me to, and I’ve been trying to spend time really getting to know acquaintances (female, male and other), but it is a rare woman that I actively pursue romantically.
Consequently, to me, New York is just another place full of good looking women who I have nothing in common with. But damn were they good looking. And flirtatious, I think, though I’m no longer a very good judge of that sort of thing.
I walk toward the exit of the building to escape the claustrophobia of the restaurant and the likes of the sorority girl, people-watching along the way.
“You know why?” a girl is asking her friend as they walk the opposite direction, arm-in-arm. “Because I have class.” I watch her and she returns my gaze. “Class,” she repeats, still talking to her friend, but turning her head to look me in the eyes as she passes. And then, fitting the statement into both her conversation and our stares, “You can take me anywhere.”
Outside, in front of the Rockefeller ice skating rink, a young rickshaw driver of eastern European descent loans me a lighter for my cigarette, chatting me up about photography for a couple of minutes. I snap a shot of the rink, then head back inside.
Bourgeois Fun on the Lower East Side
The Tri Tip party was over relatively early, and by 8:15 I was in another taxi headed for the Lower East Side. Heidi and Brent have dinner reservations in that area at a popular, expensive restaurant, but could only manage to secure a table at 11:00pm. I find them in a cozy wine bar, drinking reds and eating bread and cheese. We strike up conversation on the topic of human happiness.
Studies have shown that our later memories of happiness at certain points in our lives are different that our actual levels of happiness at those times, Brent notes. Should we therefore strive to make ourselves happy in the moment, or in the future when we will remember those moments? Why? These are the questions we’re tossing around the table as another beautiful New York woman walks by the windowed front wall of the restaurant, maintaining eye contact the entire time. She gives a little smile as she passes out of sight.
I suddenly start to question my theory of people not actually seeing each in New York while chuckling out loud to Heidi and Brent at the unusual attention I’m receiving. “We wouldn’t have had anything in common anyway,” I tell them.
“I’m thirsty for a beer,” I add, and we head out the door to find another bar.
And another bar, and another.
One is dimly lit and has a giant bat hanging from the ceiling. Heidi buys me a shot of Jameson and a $7 beer there. Another is made to resemble an underground cave and smells of hookah smoke. More beer. Before we know it, it’s almost 11:00, and we head toward WD~50.
This world-renowned restaurant’s claim to fame is its chef, Wylie Dufresne. He’s probably best know for his semi-regular appearance on Iron Chef. Dufresne is a fan of “molecular gastronomy”, which studies the chemical processes that occur while food is being cooked. The portions are small. The combinations of ingredients are unusual to say the least.
And did I mention that it’s expensive? After noting a $495 bottle of wine, I decide to stick with an appetizer and order a tomatillo-pine gazpacho, soybean falafel and octopus confit for $17. When the food arrives, we share our dishes with each other and discuss whether our palates are developed enough to fully appreciate food of this kind.
I excuse myself to the bathroom, which customers have to locate by pushing on completely blank wooden wall panels. Never before have I had reason to think of Nancy Drew while urinating.
We eventually leave and the night becomes more a blur from there. There’s me talking shit about some douche who is standing in the middle of the street yelling strangely about his belt buckle. I’m offering someone a cigarette after hearing her wishing she had one out loud. More marijuana. There’s a bar called KGB, walls covered in communist propaganda and imagery. At some point my Richmond friend Carly texts me about meeting up. She’s in NYC over the same weekend by chance, and we eventually decide to meet for breakfast in Brooklyn. I think how cool it will be to hang with her in New York before she moves back to Paris in a few weeks.
Before I know it, I’m walking into Brent and Heidi’s hotel room, soon falling asleep cuddling with Heidi in one of the two double beds.
I wake at 8:45 with a hangover. Headache, nausea, the works. No big deal, I think. Some water, food and a little caffeine will set me straight in no time. I’m hurting though, and the deadline for leaving to meet Carly is looming. The idea of subway train transfers and restaurant hunting is not exactly appealing, but I’m determined to make it.
Heidi picks up coffee for everyone and I take a couple of sips. The acid hits my stomach hard. Within five minutes I’m in the bathroom, puking up the glasses of water I’ve recently consumed. Why the hell is body reacting like this? I had a few drinks, but not that many. On the way back from the bathroom I notice that my phone has an alert. Due to a late night out, Carly isn’t going to make it for breakfast. I feel partial relief, partial disappointment.
I say my goodbyes to Heidi and Brent and hail another cab back to the hotel where my grandparents are staying. We’re to leave for the airport from there at noon, on the dot. The light is painful, and I’m glad I recently stole a pair of dark sunglasses from a large chain store. Every swerve of the vehicle borders on making me ask the driver to pull over so I can vomit again.
I finally arrive, shower, and head into the drug store on the corner to fix myself up. I decide on ginger ale to settle the stomach, yogurt to renew the bacterial cultures and BC headache power for when my body can handle it.
Once outside I take two sips of the ginger ale… in less than 45 seconds I’m sitting on the curb throwing them up. What the hell is going on?
It isn’t until much later that I’ll remember the two glasses of wine I had at the Tri Tip party. The old wine/beer/liquor combo has done me in.
Before the day is done, I’ve hailed two taxis, flown down the east coast, taken a parking shuttle to my family’s vehicle, been driven to Chesterfield to retrieve my car then driven back up into Richmond for an evening meeting. All with a stomach that has prevented me from eating or drinking anything to repair my hangover.
What have we learned today, kids?
1) New York isn’t so impersonal as it seems. People seem to be trapped in their own little worlds, rushing about ignoring those around them, but there are moments of real connection. Celebrations of success with family. A cabbie willing to put his day on hold to help out some tourist. A beautiful woman who throws a genuine smile your way.
2) Basketball stars show up in the most unexpected places. Even the oldest player in the NBA, even one who makes terrible music may some day curate an interesting art show.
3) When going out drinking, pick your poison and stick with it. As a native shaman once said, “We do not mix our medicines!”
4) Look to see how long my posts are before you start reading them.