If there’s one thing that I’ve learned to appreciate from casing the adventures of Noisy Pilgrims and What an Amazing World!, it’s that a blog’s weight becomes measured in either lead or gold based on its ability to impart more than just observational commentary. It goes against my basic instincts as a person to try and qualify the things I see and do for people that I’ve never met—not due to some tailored misanthropy or hip-en-stein tendencies, but just because attempting it freaks me out—but neglecting that part of these stories is also counter-intuitive to what travel has done for me.
In the parlance of better people and more able tongues, it really has set me free. It’s made me a better person. It’s washed the color out of my fundamental fears and clinical compulsions, by widening my understanding of just how truly broad that horizon really is. If New York was the tipping point of a decade-long slip-n’-slide of experiences—interrupted by many false starts, setbacks and health issues—then it’s also the beginning of where I do my best to try and impart what I learned, for having been there. ..
… with a caveat, natch.
That being that much of what made that halcyon trip so special was that it took part behind the plate-glass of what our America would become, just forty-eight days later. I feel blessed for having had a chance to stand in puckered awe beneath the shadows of the World Trade Center’s towers, but I also recognize that whatever lessons I took away from my time in that version of NYC is going to be nothing but the lead that I alluded to in the beginning of this bit. It wouldn’t make sense to try and tell that story on two separate levels—one relating to the wanderings of two kids in their early twenties through Manhattan’s streets, the other constantly checking and balancing that experience with a sober amount of hindsight—so I’ll pull some sticky slight-of-hand shit for the benefit of those in the audience, instead.
What follows are five cards, drawn straight from the deck of my immediate recollection: the first in a series of location-based cheat-sheets for those who, like me, still find travel to be a game of schedules, prescriptions, points of interest and constant, forward motion. Crumbs of wisdom for—and from–the socially anxious wannabee world-beater.
1. Don’t fly into Newark.
Actually, let me qualify that: don’t fly into Newark if you’re over the age of thirty, have more than one child, or fancy yourself a traveler who tenders creature comforts over the wild-eyed excitement of “being somewhere.” The standard benefits of doing so—slightly cheaper airfare, mostly—take a hit when you weigh them against similar fares at LGA or JFK (Usually within a hundred bucks of one another, in the off-season), as well as the similar proximity to Manhattan and the boroughs. Much like SFO, the default posture that one assumes whenever connecting or departing from EWR is that your flight’s either taken off without you, or simply never arrived: this might not be much of a hassle for younger constitutions, but it’s a bitch when your Paxil’s wearing off and you realize that your twenty-minute stall-over has just turned into an eight-hour delay.
In addition to the economic and time management considerations, there’s also the fact that the airport’s C Terminal always seems to smell of slightly soured milk, and that its overall aesthetic has the charm and flow-through of a shopping mall in the Midwest, circa 1980. Of and by itself, this wouldn’t be so bad—hell, kitsch is practically a designated currency in these parts—but there’s a low, constant hum of unpleasant tension that permeates the place, similar to what it must be like to live on an irradiated salt flat or beneath a series of industrial electric pylons. Not fun.
2. Don’t sleep on New Jersey.
While it might seem completely intuitive to use the previous entry as a windup for a no-frills, point-blank, 100%-proof-caustic sucker-punch aimed straight at the breadbasket of the Garden State, I simply can’t do so in good conscience. Even with the fact that Jersey’s pop schmaltz cachet is more swoll than at any other point in its existence*, taking that swipe would contradict one simple point of order…
If I hadn’t been there, I never would have enjoyed the creepy serenity of the pine barrens at dusk, never would have hiked the somber beauty of the trails around Hemlock Falls, never would have discovered the miracle of French fries and gravy at a roadside diner at 2AM**, never would have walked the Steel Pier in the middle of the night or marveled at the spectral emptiness of a midsummer’s night at the Seaside Carnival, and I never would have happened upon this, while dallying about in the neon footlights of the Taj Mahal:
If you’ve got an extra day to spare and an inclination to diversify your NYC foray, then it’s worth it to hop into Hoboken and rent a car for a Jersey safari. As long as you stick to the coast and don’t have any serious issues with tollbooth fatigue***, the Shore’s got no shortage of cheeseball glories and natural wonderment. ****
3. Do trust in the subway system.
Before I even begin: I know. The inclusion of this point seems so fundamentally basic—so painfully obvious to anybody who’s ever even seen The Warriors or the original Taking of Pelham 1-2-3—that I don’t blame the natural inclination to just scroll right the hell on past it. That’s fair.
The reason I make mention of it is that prior to making my first trip to NYC proper, I’d never even seen a subway car. They don’t really exist in any comparable capacity on the Western seaboard; the PATH and METRO systems can provide a decent primer for the principle of such rail transit, but these aren’t public transportation systems in the sense of what you encounter on the East Coast. It’s the difference between getting there and having the ability to go anywhere and everywhere.
The New York Transit Authority allows for exactly that, and the learning curve of decoding the route maps is decidedly forgiving. For forays in the later hours of the evening, a cab might be advisable: however, I’d seriously sign off on making sense of the subway option for any other time of day*****.
4. Do make time to take in Central Park.
Another potential no-brainer, but also a fact that merits further mention: for people living in cities with great waterfront walks and primo, park-based real estate, the idea of wandering through a giant sprawl of loosely-manicured maple trees and turf might not hold any inherent appeal. However, it’d be a bit off the nose to try and qualify midtown’s natural wonders as being just another “park,” as it really fits the profile of a legit-to-life “urban oasis” better than any other example that I’ve seen.
Regardless of the season, I consider it a mandatory detour while navigating Manhattan: in the summer, it’s a hive of humid excitement and activity, while the winter months bring a more somber quality to the proceedings: branches stripped to the bone, foot traffic reduced to a spare crawl, everything caked with a thin glitter-paste of frost. Spring and fall bring similar sights, but it’s the Park’s****** standing as perhaps the primo people-watching blind******* that necessitates a visit, even if you just venture into the south end while doing a Times Square fly-by.
5. Do damn the diet for the sake of street food.
While there’s an entire sub-article to be penned in praise of the New York deli culture, it’s also true that you could spend an entire week wending through Manhattan and the boroughs without setting food into a single actual restaurant. At the time of my first visit, this was mostly facilitated by the block-to-block presence of hot dog carts, falafel stands and other off-the-cuff street-level eats: however, twelve years after the fact, NYC has embraced the food truck culture in full. And while you may still need to do a little heel-toe work in tracking down sellers whose offerings suit your palette—as damned fine as the pizza and franks are, the stomach lining of the middle-aged won’t fare well in trying to make a daily habit out of it—there’s an entire cottage industry of apps and blogs that are tuned into making that process as fun and intuitive as possible.
In the quiet of hindsight: as general as the particulars of this list might be, I also think that they’ll provide a nice counter-weight to the impending follow-up: that being the return to the Big Apple that took place roughly a decade later, in 2011. It seems somewhat ironic that the real genesis of the Hauser Export Project found both its first step and later footing in the same city, but—if you’re going to choose anywhere to start over twice—you can’t do much worse than New York City.