Friday, October 05, 2007
New Yorker No More
Originally published in two parts in the New York Mills Herald on September 12, 2007 and September 19, 2007 and credited to my other identity, Elisa Korentayer.
I never thought there was much between the northeast and California. Southeastern Pennsylvania, where I spent my formative teen years, was at the very edge of acceptable addresses. My hometown Yardley maintained its claim to Yankee distinction because of the historical significance of the area. For example, only a few miles up the river is a town called “Washington Crossing”—so named because it was there that General George Washington crossed the Delaware River to victory on Christmas night in 1776.
I knew that there was a city called Chicago somewhere in the center of the country. In fact, I had once had a layover at O’Hare airport when there were no nonstop flights available from New York to San Francisco. But I could never understand why people would choose to live in a city so far from the coasts. Minnesota wasn’t even on my mental map. In fact, when I learned that I was coming here to be a resident artist, I couldn’t locate it on a map. (A brief statement in my defense: I spent fourth and fifth grades in New Zealand where instead of learning the geography of the United States I learned about Captain Cook and his discoveries in the South Pacific. This blip in my education has haunted me my whole life; to this day I still can’t tell you any of the state capitals.)
This is all to say that I could have never imagined—not in a million years—that I would make this part of the country my home. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when, during a visit back to New York City in August, I discovered that I no longer feel at home there.
In my experience traveling internationally, I’ve noticed that it’s the reverse culture shock, or the unexpected experience of culture shock upon your return home, that is the most overwhelming. Perhaps this is because you are generally blindsided by it. With a lifetime of travel behind me, I should have been prepared for it that weekend…but I wasn’t.
The weekend before Labor Day I returned New York City for the wedding of a dear friend. I was one of three bridesmaids. I had already purchased my dress and accessories, including a triumph of a pair of perfectly-sized gold sandals that I found at the Detroit Lakes Boys and Girls Club thrift store for $1.50. My rolling suitcase was packed with outfits for a variety of wedding events along with clothing to cover extracurricular visits with old friends. Under any normal circumstance, my four days worth of clothing would have been enough for two weeks. I had even gotten the wedding present—a wood vase by Moorhead-based wood-turning artist David Hagen—and wrapped it up fit for a wedding. I thought I was ready for the weekend. But I was not prepared for the fast pace and city sacrifices of the life I used to lead.
Admittedly, the problems started with the trip out. Northwest Airlines emailed me the night before the trip to say that the flight my fiancé and I were scheduled to take was canceled. We were rerouted to leave from Fargo at a ghastly hour of the morning, and then, once we were on the plane after waking up two hours too early, that flight was delayed two hours. We missed our connection in Minneapolis, waited three hours for a new flight, and then that flight was delayed two hours. Considering the travel frustrations, I admit I was not necessarily in the best mood once I arrived, but the New York City-specific experiences of the weekend speak for themselves.
We got to Newark airport at 6pm. In most normal cities, that should mean that we would arrive at our hotel by 7, or 8 at the latest. In New York City, all bets are off. We took a tram, waited 20 minutes, and then dragged ourselves onto the $15-per-passenger Airtrain to Penn Station in Manhattan. We still had to get to Brooklyn where I had found the least expensive hotel in the city—at $130 for one night’s stay. We chose to take the subway, rather than coughing up another $30+ which is what it would have cost to take a taxi from midtown Manhattan. Lugging our wedding-full luggage up four flights of stairs across five blocks and then down another four flights of stairs, we arrived at the platform of the R—AKA “Rarely”—train. (The N&R train line is nicknamed the “Never and the Rarely” because of how infrequently trains come.) A good wait on the platform and 20 stops later, we arrived at the Union Street stop in Brooklyn. From there, it was another two flights of stairs up to street level, where we lugged baggage six blocks north and three very sketchy looking avenues east to the hotel. Finally, at 10pm, we arrived at our lodging for the night.
The Comfort Inn was one month old and, coincidentally, about ten blocks away from my old apartment building. Such is the growth of my old Brooklyn neighborhood that the wealthy investors had decided to develop property in a no-man’s-land of project housing and old lumberyards. Suffice it to say that walking those three avenues at night—our suitcases virtually screaming “Tourist! Tourist!”—was not something I would have chosen to do when my mailing address was still in Brooklyn. But, at this point in our expedition, we didn’t have much choice.
The hotel room was surprisingly large for New York City. This means that there was enough room to squeeze between the bed and the dresser to get to the bathroom. After dropping our bags and soothing our whining leg and shoulder muscles, we walked the three dodgy avenues back to the gentrified retail strip of 5th avenue in Brooklyn. There we got ourselves a 10pm dinner of gourmet Japanese sushi and an 11pm dessert of gourmet key-lime Greek frozen yogurt with fresh mango. This was, perhaps, the highlight of the trip.
We managed to get 6 hours of exhausted sleep before we had to wake up in a hurry to meet my old friends in their swank Park Slope apartment. My friends—a feature writer for the New York Times, a CEO of a Dow Jones Internet startup, and their two year old daughter—live the ideal life in New York City. They have a great apartment, exciting jobs, and the ability to enjoy all that the city has to offer. They had generously offered us the opportunity to stay in their sensational apartment for two nights while they headed upstate to the mountains. We grabbed a short breakfast with them at the corner diner before they ran off to work, rushed back to the apartment to meet their nanny, said a hurried goodbye, and then gathered our stuff to get out of the nanny’s way.
We had six hours before we had to be at the wedding rehearsal in Greenwich Village. We had to figure in three legs of a 45-minute-each-way commute between Park Slope, Brooklyn and Manhattan: (1) to Manhattan for a morning adventure, (2) back to Brooklyn to change into formal attire, and (3) back to Manhattan for the wedding rehearsal in Greenwich Village. We also had to consider the time it would take me to get ready. I like to think that I don’t take too long in the beautification and preening department, but when it comes to weddings, I feel that a little extra time is called for. We estimated that we had about 3 and a half hours to play in the city. We decided to go to Chinatown to eat dim sum—small dishes that are wheeled around the restaurant on steamer carts that you flag down when you are ready for your next dish. We took the F train into Manhattan and wandered through the winding streets full of fishmongers and Asian boutiques. We stopped in the tourist stores where Chinese-made imports pack every crevice and spill out onto the sidewalk outside. Then we found a dim sum restaurant and tucked in to pork dumplings, shrimp shumai, sautéed eggplant and sesame balls.
By lunchtime I was so exhausted from the amount we had done in the last 36 hours that I called our tourist excursion short. We returned to Brooklyn an hour and a half early, and I managed to grab a nap. Nap done, I put on my Rehearsal Dinner togs, and we hightailed it back to Manhattan. The wedding rehearsal was held at the Jefferson Market Garden—a postage stamp-sized triangle of lush greenery in the midst of city bustle. The Rehearsal Dinner was across the street at a local Italian trattoria. We had antipasto, gazpacho, breadsticks, lamb, panecotta and tiramisu. Mmmmm… Dinner and its associated conversation finished fashionably late, and I returned to Park Slope to recover enough to be ready for the next day’s early start. At 7:30 the next morning, I was up and into my bridesmaids dress in time to meet the other bridesmaids and the bride back in Greenwich Village. We spent three hours in a mad rush preparing the bride for the nuptials, one hour in the lovely ceremony, and three hours in the well-appointed old West Village town house where the reception took place. Then ensued the appropriate amount of drinks, conversation, delicious food, and slightly embarrassing wedding toasts.
At 4:00, Chris and I had to run across town to catch the final showing of the play Antarctia, an original play featured in the New York City Fringe Festival. Written and directed by one friend and starring another one of my oldest friends, Antarctica also featured a theme song that I had written and recorded for it. As one of its performances coincided so well with my trip to New York City, I committed myself to seeing it. We thoroughly enjoyed hearing my song highlighted in the show. Then we went out to drinks with the cast and crew in an old dive bar in one of the wealthiest parts of Manhattan. After that, my friend asked if we’d like to catch another show that she was obligated to see. Looking at our watches, we hopped in a taxi and rushed across the tip of Manhattan to the East Village, where a new original musical was being shown on the New York University campus. We arrived 10 minutes after curtain-up and managed to sneak past the “No Late Admittance” signs into the large theater. Two hours later, it was 10pm, but we still hadn’t had time to catch up with my old friend alone, so we hiked over to west village again where we knew we could find some good gelato. The line for the gelato was a half a block long. We waited in it—and I breathed deeply to calm my nerves as the loud bridge-and-tunnel visitors from New Jersey and Long Island pushed and shoved to get into the air conditioning. With gelato in hand, we hiked back through the throngs of people who crowd Bleecker street on a Saturday night and found a surprisingly half-empty bench on a street corner where we talked. By midnight, it was past time for us to get back to Brooklyn. We said our goodbyes and got back into the subway.
A note on New York City subways in August: Subway cars are air-conditioned. This may sound like good news, but the heat dispelled by the air conditioning units is released into the subway tunnels, where it remains trapped. The subway stations are where air-conditioned subway cars, and the associated heat vents, linger for extended periods. Outside, the typical August temperature was in the 90’s at 90% humidity. On the subway platform, it was probably over 100 degrees with humidity nearing the dew point. This means that you can enter the subway feeling hot and sweaty, but by the time you get onto the subway, you’ll be wilting and soaked. I tried to pretend I was in a New York Mills sauna, but the noise and the crowds made it difficult. The air conditioning usually feels pretty good for the first few moments after you enter the subway car, but then you start feeling clammy and, soon after that, chilled. Summer subway rides are an exercise in temperature extremes. Even on the hottest days of summer, I never ventured out of my apartment without a warm cardigan. Some of my coldest experiences have been wearing short sleeves in August on the New York City subway.
With subway construction happening on the F line, our trip Saturday night took longer than we hoped. But that was nothing compared to the next day’s rush. Sunday morning, we learned that the bride and groom wanted to have brunch with us to squeeze in a bit of private time before they headed off on their honeymoon that evening. We had a flight out that afternoon, but it was their wedding, so we trucked into Manhattan. What should have taken us forty-five minutes by train, started out badly when the subway didn’t come for twenty minutes. It got worse when the subway paused for 10 minutes at a signal. Then we gave up, jumped out at Canal street, and grabbed a taxi to take us to meet the bride and groom on 29th street in Manhattan. We were only 15 minutes late after one hour of travel by subway, taxi and foot, and we had a lovely hour-long brunch. After brunch, we walked 30 minutes to the nearest F-train station. We had a good hour before the car was supposed to pick us up from the airport (after our lengthy and expensive trip on public transport from the airport, we decided to splurge on a car back to it). The car was scheduled to arrive at 3pm. We got on the subway at 2pm. By 2:30pm, there was still no train in sight. We were in trouble. From that part of the city, a taxi wouldn’t be much faster than the subway. The subway finally arrived. It was slow. We got back to Park Slope at 3pm to find our taxi waiting for us. We explained our predicament—we needed fifteen minutes to pack our stuff, finish the laundry, make their bed, and clean the mess we’d left. We sprinted through our preparations, jumped in the car, paid the $10 toll on the Verrazano bridge, got stuck in Staten Island traffic, and arrived at the airport just in time to earn two $300 travel vouchers for giving up our seats on the overcrowded flight. We were on the next flight out and were back in Fargo in the wee hours of Monday morning. Once back in good old Minnesota driving along the moon-soaked stretches of Highway 10, I felt an unmistakable sense of relief.
I don’t know if I’m a Minnesotan yet, but I do know that I was glad to get back to New York Mills.
I also know that we won’t be using our travel vouchers to fly back to New York City.