My parents and I board a plane from Atlanta to New York City on an overcast day in late February. As soon as we enter the long terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson International, I feel the eerie liminality of air travel seal us into artificial limbo. Time and space pause at the beginning of a journey. The plane lurches from the asphalt of the runway and I close my eyes.
On the turbulent flight northward, I can barely breathe. Throughout the course of the two weeks I spend in New York I experience several stretches like this, in subway tunnels or careening taxis, glancing down from a 43rd floor window in Brooklyn, in the rattling elevator of an apartment building in the Lower East Side. Pain, catastrophe, death rattle in my ribcage with a grotesque and imminent familiarity. When the fear passes a rush of gratitude swells within.
Here I collect accents. The soft Russian of the beautician who gives me a facial at a 50% discount. The clipped West African of the street vendor who says, “cash, give me cash” when I buy a pair of cheap faux-designer sunglasses. The unidentifiable lilt of a dark-haired man in Chinatown who mutters, “Louie, Louie, Louie, Chanel, follow me. Louie Vuitton, Chanel, follow me.” The Ecuadorian Spanish of the woman who pours bitter coffee into my mug at a diner I only enter to escape the numbing cold. The sensuous French of the couple behind us at a Broadway play, whispered during the dark of scene changes. The murmured intonations of the taxi drivers who speak low and quick into cell phones with the cadence of prayer as we wend through the dark of our individual lives. Like coins forged in many distant lands, these voices clink and ring together, heavy in my pocket with the weight of the things for which none of our languages have words.
Friday night I go to a recital at Carnegie Hall. The Japanese pianist wears a black velvet suit and purple bow tie. His straight hair is overgrown and flat against his forehead, his skin pockmarked and pale. He plays Bach, Schubert, Chopin. After each impossible rendering he stands and bows. He does not smile. His furrowed brow is solemn acknowledgement of the genius he channels, the utter seriousness of beauty.
The train to the Bronx bounces out of the subway tunnel and into the thin February sunlight. Brick apartment buildings hunch behind a row of trees, their wintery branches adorned with plastic bags that fill and collapse with the breeze. They seem to have gathered there like white sea birds blown inland by some errant wind; when they take off all at once the sound of their wings would beat like the flap of a single giant sail.
In the Bronx Zoo a young gorilla approaches the glass wall between us. He sits on his haunches and peers through. For minutes, none of us moves. Then he lifts one hand and places it tenderly against the glass before turning and slouching decisively away.
I spend the days trekking the long avenues in search brief meetings with friends who call this city home. At the edge of Chinatown, I meet with Steve. The last time I saw him we were in Dar es Salaam and he was in his last month of a two-year stint in East Africa. We slip into a Chinese dumpling joint, get four for a dollar, and find a bench nearby to watch stringy, uncoordinated middle-schoolers play soccer on a concrete court. For reasons I can’t explain, we find very few fond memories from Africa with which to wax nostalgic. Instead we talk books and movies, future plans, our vague discontent with lives still blessed with youth and uncertainty. On the way to a bar for some early-afternoon beers, Steve detours into a ground-level Buddhist temple, a space that was probably converted from a grocery store or laundromat. A young monk in grey robes sits near the front door, patient with our intrusion. Gold-painted Buddhas line the walls, offerings of oranges and vegetable oils cluttering the shrines below them. On one wall, a few dozen black-and-white photos of solemn-faced Asians watch over scribbled prayers pinned neatly to a board. Steve offers pithy observations that I hardly acknowledge as I breathe in air heavy with smoky incense. One block down, we try to enter a Jewish synagogue but it’s under renovation, according to the Hispanic man who answers the door in paint-splattered cover-alls.
In the Metropolitan my friend Claire and I wander through the vast wing of antiquities. We have no map. The statues of gods, and the pots, and knives, and caskets for the dead remind me that the mortal business of living and dying is itself eternal. I pause before a display of ancient Egyptian jewelry. That I would wear it, without irony, is tantalizing. Standing over a mummy encased in glass, I notice she seems so small. I feel alone at the precipice of the long arc of human history. She seems so very very small.
A sliver of light along the edge of a windowsill in a painting by Vermeer holds me captive for nearly twenty minutes. Twenty more lost in the blue of a single fold in the woman’s dress.
The kiss of a former lover leaves something to be desired: another.
There are so many things to taste, to touch, to try in this city. In the theatre district alone at night I stroll around a corner and Times Square blossoms into a bouquet of light before me. The bright muchness of it all leaves me breathless and dizzy. Do I remember being here before, or has my mind joined the quantum consciousness of a city as organism? I feel a part of something large and waking.
This trip marked the first anniversary of my motorbike accident in Tanzania. One year ago I nearly died but what else can I say about that? Now there is only this–living and wanting and watching and walking every street with wonder.