On my first day in New York City, the thermometers hit 36 degrees Celsius – or, to be precise to the location, 96.8 Fahrenheit. I’m someone who can only indulge in such high temperatures when I’m at the beach with the possibility of running into the water every thirty minutes. Yet, there I was, in the concrete jungle that New York City is, awaking to an incredible view of the rectangular high-rise buildings – no beach or water in sight.
I had arrived at the hotel the previous evening (Pod 39 in Murray Hill, a great budget option to stay in Midtown!). I was sweaty, overwhelmed, and tired – after all, back in London was already past 2am, and I hadn’t slept well due to my travel jitters. These jitters hadn’t fully dispersed because in the space of one hour, coming from the airport to the hotel I had been a witness to a few negative things NY is known for – a drug addict completely out of her mind on the floor in Jamaica Station, a sad display of mental illness from a couple of people, and when I got off in Lexington Avenue, there was a fetid smell in the air. It was a Monday night, and the roads were not as busy as I expected. So, the city that never sleeps, right? It seemed to me people were sleeping. Especially on the streets. Homelessness.
And don’t take me wrong – these are all problems of big cities, London included. Yet, in the space of about an hour, I had seen it all – the drug problem, the mental illness, the homelessness, and the stench. A stench I couldn’t even identify – sometimes of urine, sometimes weed, sometimes of something else. The word death kept coming to my mind. It smelled of decomposing.
I told myself this was part of it. You have to see the good and the bad. That’s how you can really experience one place. Yet, I felt unease.
So, I was still nervous the next morning. I was afraid of disappointment. Let me give you some context.
This trip had a special meaning for me. It was to mark the celebration of my thirtieth birthday – and I wanted to go back to where I was born. Yes, thirty years ago, I was born in Long Island, NY. Not so far from that buzzing and electrifying place that Manhattan is. Growing up, all I wanted was to live in the US. NYC was where I wanted to be one day. Walking those busy streets, full of people, visiting some of the most renowned museums, feeding the ducks in Central Park and observing the squirrels, arriving from places at Grand Central Station. Shop on Fifth Avenue while drinking my Americano, stylishly held by my hand, and live in a nice flat on the Upper East Side (as you can see I was highly influenced by the movie Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the series Gossip Girl, thinking I would be able to afford such thing!).
When I was seventeen, my parents took us to the US. But I could only be in the city (Manhattan) one day, only to see the main spots – Times Square, Grand Central Station, we did get into the lobby of the Empire State Building. We took the ferry to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. But I had been planning my trip to NYC from a young age, and for budget and conflict of interest reasons, I could not do most of it. I was only seventeen and had no money of my own. But I hoped to go back one day.
And, apologies for the repetition, I was only seventeen. I hadn’t seen ANYTHING of the wide world out there. I was quite literally a small-town girl with a cliched hunger for the big city. The US was my first real trip abroad – being from Portugal, the only other place I had been to was Spain. So my very easily impressed self was aghast with NYC. I remembered thinking how it was all so damn big. So many people. So much noise. And I loved it. But I am no longer that girl anymore. I am a grown-up woman who has been privileged enough to have been achieving two of that girl’s dreams – living in a big city (London) and exploring the world. I was curious, and somehow very, very nervous about the impact NYC would have on me now. I definitely didn’t want to be disappointed. I felt I had something to prove to my younger self.
Highly caffeinated, I stepped outside of the hotel. It wasn’t yet 9am, but it was already hot. Just as I started walking following the itinerary I had prepared for that day, things just fell into place. My nervousness disappeared. The numbered street system is amazing and I barely had to look into Google Maps. And the morning rush was somehow comforting, probably because it is so familiar to me. It’s not that different from London – but the memory of the seventeen-year-old me was holding on to that feeling of overwhelmedness.
This was the city that never sleeps I was expecting to have encountered the night before… The yellow cabs, loud and fast. The locals in fast-paced walks, holding on to their coffee cups. The joggers, fit and equipped with big headphones. All of this energy was like a shot of adrenaline in my body. I was so excited, that I ended up walking 18 kilometres on this day and covering so much ground – I walked from Midtown to Lower Manhattan, covering Union Square, SoHo, Chinatown, Little Italy, and The Financial District. I don’t quite know how my tired body managed to walk this much under that heat. It was the city. As Alicia Keys and Jaz-Z immortalised in the lyrics of their song Empire State of Mind,
Now you’re in New York
These streets will make you feel brand-new
Big lights will inspire you
Let’s hear it for New York
I am a witness to this phenomenon. I felt brand new. I felt inspired. I could hear New York. It is loud. Incredibly loud. Much louder than London, much louder than anywhere else I had been before. It’s not just the honking, the cars, the ambulances, the police sirens. People are also loud. They walk fast, but talk incessantly on the phone, in loud voices, hard for me not to eavesdrop. During my time in NYC, I heard so many stories these people were telling to each other, oblivious to my foreign ear. So much drama.
But as I made my first stop that day in Tompkins Square Park, taking some time to rest my legs (I was trying to make more breaks than I usually do), these two girls sitting close to me were having the most interesting conversation.
We need more people taking care of each other and getting more involved in politics. College is too academic. Too elitist. We need to speak the language of the oppressed, one of them was saying. And I could not agree more. How can the leaders of tomorrow understand those who could not afford such education, how they can speak for their people and lead it if all they know is so far out of the reality of the majority of the population?
Consequently, the topic changed to poverty. In the corner of my eye, I could see she had brown skin, when she started comparing US poverty with third world countries’ poverty, such as India, the place she was about to go to visit her family – The difference is that over there you are never alone in poverty, but here you are alone in poverty.
I had never seen things through this light. Is it possible that aloneness can make poverty even worse? I thought about the homeless people I had seen just the night before. All of them alone. People passing by them ignore their presence, even when the stench is impossible to ignore. Myself included. Where are their families? Where are their communities?
I suppose that’s it – in New York, you’re not just someone living on the streets, without a house. You literally don’t have a home.
What is the point of being a part of New York – a city with so much wealth, so many people – and yet being so poor and alone, the only roofs you can trust to have over your head are those from bridges, stations, door fronts. The only bed is the floor, a bench in a park, and a lawn if you’re lucky with the weather.
With this very interesting reflection, I started my week in NYC.
Stay tuned for more to come!