New York breathes. It lives. It draws you in. Despite the fact that I’ve been to the city countless times, so many and often for lengthy intervals, that I couldn’t give you a number, I’m always amazed at not only how much the city shouts authenticity and life, but how much it gives you life. It’s a force, moreso than any other American city and every visit reminds me of this as if its my first time.
Times Square. The East Village. SOHO. The Bronx. Brooklyn. Upper West. Upper East. Grenwich Village. I plough through the sweaty crowds; the tourists walking at a snails pace with their heads arched back and eyes upward bound towards the skyscrapers and the locals, who whiz past you, with purpose, their eyes saying “don’t bother me, I have ten places to go. My life is busy. Life is tough.”
And yet, they’re all interesting and want to draw you in, if you had a chance to stop them in their tracks and remind them why they live here in the first place. They want it as much as you do. The longing for even the briefest exchange, an exchange that makes you and them feel alive.
I always want to ask — “who are you? why are you here?” Each and every exchange opens the door to a new international discovery. Yes, always, in a way that London often did when I lived there, but not always.
I wander through the people-laden maze on my way back to the hotel at a time when the humidity started climbing back to its typical late June numbers. The sights feel as common to me as Vivian Gornick’s daily encounters with neighbors, shopkeepers and her mother’s connections, all of which are there to remind her that she’s part of a community, that she’s safe, that she belongs, that she is New York — all of it, everything and anything it stands for. For this, she is proud in a sarcastic, quiet and ironic way. The reader is taken through that journey again and again.
In tourist-rich areas, girls walk hand-in-hand, as do mothers and daughters, as if the linking of hands and looping of arms somehow send a signal to potential thieves and rapists – ‘we may be in your site, but we’re off limits.’
In Little Italy, restaurant owners call you in as if it is already so, “hey you – you’re eating with us tonight.” How to argue with such intensity. Many follow at the first or second calling. Others who want to play the game will walk up and down Mulberry Street challenging their calls for over an hour, eventually settling on a choice they may have made much earlier had the game not been so important.
They enjoy the game as much as they do bargaining with the guys four blocks away on the China Town/Little Italy border. Here, you can find the best fake bags in multiple colors and designs for $30-45 a pop. Some argue with you – ‘yeah lady, its real leather,’ whereas others give you the news honestly, “hell no, whaad’ ya want for $30?’ No receipt, no guarantee, no return and they only take cash, but its a thriving trade that draws in women from around the world.
Here, women can also get cheap multi-colored watches, wide-brimmed Hollywood-style sunglasses and designed perfumes and wallets for $20, not to mention the vibrant cashmere scarves for the same. It’s the land of excess and also the land of the physical, where people gawk at MySpace and FaceBook. They ask me, ‘why the fascination with a virtual digital world when you can have a real one?”
But in this land of excess, international tongues come together and cross paths every inch of the way, whether its sitting at the sushi bar, taking the subway, walking down the street, connecting on the cross-town bus or blading in central Park.
It’s all there for the ‘having’ and the ‘taking,’ and upon each taking, you are thrown into deeply rich conversations that always surprise, force you to step into a land beyond your knowing and often beyond your comfort zone.
You are reminded to engage and dive in rather than stand on the sidelines and watch from afar. New York’s theatre does this too and the same acting you just saw off-Broadway extends into New York’s real world – the streets, restaurants, cafes, elevators, yellow cabs, delis, office buildings……….everywhere. The intensity of all of it — everywhere — is what makes New York so remarkable.