‘Remember, we’re only a few blocks away from Times Square. Times Square isn’t simply the center of the city; it’s the center of the world.’
Though he meant well, my uncle’s explanation did little to assuage my sister’s discomfort with the chaos around her. The five of us had landed in LaGuardia that morning with varying degrees of glee, checked into our hotel, which was rather lackluster in comparison to its neighbor, Carnegie Hall, and were marching down 7th Avenue in search of breakfast. It was the first time we children had ever visited New York City.
My sister, who places great value on structure and process, was a little overwhelmed by the leviathan of chaos and commerce that is Manhattan. I, a creature of impulse and disorder, was already slipping through the arterial streets with deliriously euphoric ease.
With each breath, I inhaled the city. Candied nuts and cigarette smoke, the crisp density of cold cuts and the earthy musk of innumerable pigeons mingled to form an unsettling aroma, an aroma inextricable from that single blazing island. I felt like a stranger to the towering hulks of glass and steel that form the canyons of Manhattan and yet an ineffable familiarity with them. I experienced New York in possibly the best way one can. I was old enough to be on my own, but young enough that I was supplied with money.
I spent my four days drifting rapidly through museums and the subway, Central Park and Grand Central Station. Each night I walked to that crux of humanity, where 7th Avenue meets Broadway and is swallowed by Times Square. I’ve never felt more energy, literally and figuratively, than in Times Square at 11:00 p.m.
Though the sky hangs black above, the manufactured lighting that wraps every available surface bathes the streets with illumination more powerful than daylight. The sound of hundreds of people conversing in dozens of languages coalesces into a dull roar of jubilation, peppered by the violently cheerful shouting of street vendors and nightclub advertisers. I would slide through this ocean of sound, color, and life until finally ducking into the lobby of some crowded theatre, ticket clutched firmly in hand, to eventually be seated for a show. Les Miserables brought me to tears; The Lion King brought me to my feet; I sauntered down 42nd Street like some slicker-than-oil lawyer after Chicago.
After the symphonic spectacle of Broadway, one forgets that the avenues are strewn with litter and that only a few streets away, thousands of people are scrabbling to eke out a meager existence. After Broadway, one only thinks about how the sidewalks really do sparkle like diamonds, and how nice it would be to have Japanese for dinner. Of course, one could replace ‘Japanese’ with any other genre of dining imaginable. There are few places in midtown Manhattan from where you cannot see at least one restaurant.
The questionably benevolent invasion of literally dozens of Starbucks and the frequency and variety of eateries in New York is nothing short of astounding. From the myriad of mobile gelato, hotdog, ice cream, candied nuts, coffee and bakery stands on the streets to authentic delicatessens to guiltily gaudy dim sum joints to ridiculously priced Cuban-Peruvian, reservation-only, unadvertised specialty dining establishments, if you’ve got the money, New York has the eats. And therein lies the rub. While there are countless things to do in New York for free — simply walking through the city was an unforgettable experience — when charges come, they come fast and hard.
Even the most basic accommodations run north of $300 per night and bells and whistles add up quickly. Two pre-ordered tickets to Broadway, three simple meals out, a few subway rides and a short shopping spree later, a couple can expect to have paid over $1000 for one day and night in the Big Apple — before travel expenses, that is. My observation tells me that poverty in New York is only romantic when it’s accompanied by songs and a well air-conditioned theatre. Extortion aside, four days in Manhattan changed my life.
As a boy who’s never seen a city larger than San Francisco, it forever altered my perspective on what makes a ‘big city.’ I experienced strange and wonderful things, and some part of me wants nothing more than to return to experience them again. I expect, sooner or later, I shall.
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