New. York. City.
It’s a legend, a Shangri-La, somehow both magical and tangible, a trembling mass of concrete and flesh laying on the horizon of the mind. My wanderlust was a ship often captained by Jack London with sights set towards snowcapped mountains and deeply rich wastelands, but one of my first real vagabond trips was on a greyhound bus aimed at the center of the universe heading East, not West.
Back then, I wore a black hoodie and pink sunglasses, and I made the n00b mistake of sitting in the back next to the reeking toilet. I was cramped into the too small seat, and it seemed that we were stopped more often than we were moving. But none of that mattered as I first saw the city skyline erupt in the distance — The Chrysler building, the World Trade Towers, and the Empire State Building. I’d never seen them before, but I recognized them instantly, as though their blueprints had been seared into my DNA.
New fucking York. Holy shit!
On the bus, I’d been reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It seemed an appropriate way to pass the time and honor the experience. I’d already devoured a litany of Beat literature and poetry. In fact, on a later trip, I saw the manuscript of Kerouac’s On the Road at Christie’s Auction House—unrolled for the first time ever on display, it was like a religious pilgrimage.
Since my first trip I’ve stayed in Manhattan. I’ve stayed in Brooklyn. I’ve stayed in Queens. I’ve spent days in museums and art galleries. I’ve gotten drunk in the oldest bar on the island. I’ve gotten lap dances in a strip club in Times Square. I’ve walked and walked and walked the streets. I’ve eaten everything newly discovered and recently revealed. I’ve touched on the tourist experience, albeit on a shoestring budget, and I’ve partied on rooftops. I’ve hobnobbed with the elite, and I’ve thrown back shots with proles. I’ve made connections with folks from all over the world.
One time, in the Village, I met a stunning woman from the Czech Republic. When I told her my Grandma was from Czech, she asked me the name.
“Fusek,” I told her.
“Fusek?” She said. “Fusek … Fusek… How do you spell?”
I told her.
“Oh,” she lit up, “‘Fooseyka!’ Yes, this is very famous name in Czech Republic. The Fuseks were authors and anarchists, one of them was burnt at the stake.”
To me, New York has always represented opportunity, possibility, and potential. Where L.A. is more the illusion of the American Dream where anyone can go and get famous, NYC is the place you go and work your ass off, and maybe all you get out of it is that you get to live in New York, and that’s enough.
It really is the city that never sleeps. It’s the city that never stops working. It’s the city that never stops partying. New York has an almost desperate need, screaming at the heavens that it exists, refusing anything less than ejaculatory ecstasy at every given moment.
There is no death in New York. On a trip to Queens I saw the police pull a dead body out of the back of a cab. The corpse paid his fare before walking into the morgue to put on his own toe tag.
New York won’t coddle you. You make your own way, or you make no way at all.
In New York, “Fuck you!” means both “Hello.” and “Goodbye.” It can be said with a smile, a grimace, or through clenched teeth, and the proper response is “Fuck you!”
It’s a grimy cesspool of rotting trash fed upon by hefty rats covered in inches of tar-like filth, and still the brilliance shines blindingly through.
If you’ve got the chutzpah you can fly to the highest building, get into the most exclusive parties, cut the longest line. Bravado gets you in the door. Now back that shit up or you’re out on your ass. The citizens of New York live in a meritocracy. You can find your own way, but you have to find a way.
When my plane recently touched down on a Thursday in La Guardia, I felt like I was coming home. I didn’t expect this. It’s been many, many years since my soles last touched the concrete and blacktop of the Big Apple. As I purchased my Metro card I felt the city envelop me. I felt it engulf me. And I thanked it.
I spent my first day riding the train, walking the streets of cold and rainy Brooklyn, meeting up with an old friend, and meeting a new. The night contained pho and beer and Uber and whiskey and more Uber.
I awoke in a strange apartment with two ibuprofens, a glass of cold water, and completely enveloped by the city. Mid-morning by then, it was still a brisk day as I hoofed it to the nearest train stop marveling at how easy smartphones made getting around the city. Taking the train back over to Manhattan, I met another friend for lunch—sushi, because you know, it’s New York, and you just get sushi for lunch like it ain’t no thang.
That night we rode the 6 train past the old City Hall stop hit up the Shake Shack for my first taste of that phenomenon, Otto’s Shrunken Head for delicious tiki drinks that warmed the soul, Reunion Surf Bar in Hell’s Kitchen for rum, and Rudy’s Bar and Grill for cheap beer and free hot dogs.
Saturday it was the New York Library, Berlin Wall, and deep back into Brooklyn for drinks at Pearl’s Social and Billy Club [http://pearlssocial.com/] and an amazing dinner at Faro. Seriously, the food at Faro was so good I felt both like I was high and like I was going to cry. I gushed all over the Head Chef and Owner, Kevin Adey, and probably came across like some sort of drunk madman, but hey, sometimes the emotions just get all up inside you and you gotta’ let them out!
After dinner, six good friends shared amazing conversation and drinks in a backyard garden. This night could not have been more perfect.
The first time I stayed in Brooklyn was fourteen years ago. My friend and I stayed out drinking in Manhattan too late and almost missed the last train back. We couldn’t find anywhere to use the bathroom and she dropped trow in the middle of the street to pee. The neighborhood has changed since then. I guess you could say it’s been gentrified. It’s definitely got more shops, bars, and places to be. The streets seem a little cleaner. It may not be the Beastie Boys Brooklyn, but it’s still Brooklyn, no matter what my Manhattan-based friend said about needing a passport to cross the bridge. It’s still got the working-class pathos, even if it is significantly more hip today than in yesteryear.
Sunday, we hit Chinatown and Little Italy. Walked past the Chelsea hotel, and I finally got my falafel. I’ve never had good falafel outside of New York City, and although to the residents is seems like the most trivial thing ever, I was very excited to eat some. It wasn’t at the little dive I remembered from Washington Square, but it was still damn good, and I appreciated it. We walked past the Flat Iron Building, saw the Empire State, etc. etc. etc. You can’t take a step in New York without seeing something amazing or without treading on someone’s grave. It’s no mistake the Ghostbusters got their start in Manhattan.
That night we got delicious authentic Mexican food and I had a tequila old-fashioned.
Monday, I walked through Central Park and down 6th Avenue—the Avenue of the Americas—all the way to the World Trade Center. It was Halloween. Kids were everywhere on a sugar rush and in costume. I stopped in Greenwich Village for Chinese and sat happy listening to the old Jewish man planned a Halloween party too loudly on his phone while the owners argued in Chinese and inspirational versions of popular music played overheard. I sat and watched the street and the kids coming in to the restaurant to trick or treat.
New York is the city. It’s quintessentially American in the truest sense. And the truest sense of America is the world. Within two blocks you’re exposed to people and cultures from across the globe. All these different people living, basically, in harmony. When they say, “Fuck you!” they don’t usually mean it like the rest of us do. Those of us in the kitchen understand. We use “fuck” like a comma, it doesn’t necessarily mean anything except that we like the way it feels diving off our lips.
New York is the one place where America truly is a melting pot. I love feeling the world’s cultures wash over me—being submerged in so much I don’t understand—it’s liberating and exciting. Missed connections bounce off one another, realigning in new and revelatory ways.
By the end of the day on Monday, though, I was completely inundated. I’d had enough. As much as I love the city, the hardest part of traveling for me is the lack of personal space. That coupled with the energy that goes into navigating the less familiar, and I wear down. Not to mention, I was working on opening the new restaurant and things were coming up that needed more personal attention. Tuesday, I laid low until it was time to get to the Newark airport and fly home.
The plane took off into the night with the sparkling city sprawled just outside the window. I said a silent good-bye and thank you, and promised to get back as soon as I reasonably could.
I came away from New York imbued with the fervor of the city, the determination, the frenzy. I felt more alive than I had in a long while. The fire inside had dimmed somewhat, and New York stoked it back to wild life!
That’s the beauty of travel. I always go to see other things, and I always find myself.