I explored many options when I knew I’d be going to New York for a three-day business trip.
Food, ferries and freebies. Well, not all freebies, but the good ones.
I had to try a slice of New York Pizza. I never did.
I wanted to see Lady Liberty from the Staten Island Ferry. I did not.
Wanted to spend a few moments in silence at Ground Zero and the 9/11 memorial. Nope.
Spend a leisurely day walking through one of the great New York museums. Uh, uh.
The options are too may, the time-frame too tight.
It is at these times that I fall back on two very trusted personal convictions.
When you come to a new place, scope it out from the heights. See what it looks like from above. Very few things will give you perspective like the view from thousands of feet above it.
Second, I like to take a walk in the open spaces. A great indication of the intelligence, grace and poise of a particular place can be found in how it treats its open spaces.
So on Saturday I woke up, wrote myself a few notes, enjoyed a breakfast crepe in a small restaurant near the hotel and then jumped on the subway to Midtown.
TriBeCa may be full of nannies pushing strollers, and the Yelp reviews are pretty good about naming restaurants and coffeeshops to avoid if this isn’t your scene. But the rest of New York has its fair share of nannies with Maclarens, Bugaboos, Stokke, Baby Jogger, Balmoral Prams and Kid Kustoms, strollers that can cost more than a car in some cases.
The difference between the almost serene bustle of TriBeCa, with its downtown grownups living out their lives in an urban equivalent of suburban petrification and Midtown, with its Babel-like mix of languages, eye-assaulting advertising and live-while-the-living’s-good hustle, is more like two different cities a continent apart and not 7 or 8 subway stops.
I found Times Square and plopped myself on a concrete island between Broadway and 7th Avenue and just sat and tried to absorb it all. The police did not like that I was not actively participating in the general ebb and flow of tourists and workers. Especially when I put my GoPro camera on a light pole and just stood there watching people go by.
They edged closer to me and finally asked what I was doing.
“Just documenting what it’s like to be in the middle of Times Square.”
I left and walked down 8th Avenue to check in at the New York Times building.
There was a time when seeing this building would have meant everything to me. Its physicality was the embodiment of my dream to work for the greatest newspaper in the world.
But the building, like newspapers in general, have lost their luster in the last few years as they continue to struggle for relevance in an increasingly digital world.
I stayed a while to try and feel something under the great metal facade of the building. The lobby was bereft of life except for a very bored-looking attendant sitting at a desk watching me look in.
I marched on toward Uptown electing to walk in the canyons and valleys of Manhattan rather than ride in the bowels of the city.
It’s interesting to arrive at a new location a few blocks away and be blown away by sights and sounds. It’s something else to slowly absorb the changes as you walk block by block.
The smell of roasting chestnuts overwhelmed the smell of hotdogs and Halal foods at street vendors, sending out a holiday vibe I haven’t really smelled since I was a child growing up in Europe.
The closer I walked to New York’s vaunted shopping districts, the more moms and daughters I saw racing from Juicy Couture to Prada to Aeropostale as if the Mayans are going to be right about the apocalypse starting in a few weeks.
That New York is a destination for mothers and daughters is no surprise to me. It’s a logical place for that matrilineal relationship to develop. For a man walking along trying to soak up as much of the experience as possible in a short amount of time, their presence had a disquieting effect on me. And that is merely an observation of a feeling I had and in no way a complaint at the vast numbers of them prowling the streets just as I was.
I walked toward Rockefeller Center to see what I would see.
A $25 trip to the Top of the Rock is not anything I would normally do, but the blue skies above me compelled me to want to see the city from some great height. With no mountains nearby nor a helicopter at my disposal, I opted to take the high-speed elevator to the top with the other tourists being too cheap to do the more romantic trip to the top of the Empire State Building.
I think the reason I like to go to the top of a building and look down on a city is for the same reason I spent a good portion of my Thursday night staring at Google maps on my iPad. It offers that sense of orientation that one needs to easily navigate a place without getting hopelessly lost.
I stood there in the sunshine 850-feet above the crowded cacophony below and breathed in the view. I know that sounds funny, but when you are on a mountain and the air is rarified, lacking in oxygen, and the view takes your breath away, you slowly breathe it all back in.
At 70-stories above the city, it has somewhat the same feel as being on a mountain top overlooking a pristine valley. Only this one is complex and filled with an array of life unlike anywhere else. You can’t see it happening, but you can feel it rising up at you.
As you travel around the top of the GE building, you can see the entire city, its bridges, its confines and its combustion.
And then you see this vast strip of green in the middle of it all like an oasis. Except today it’s rusted and yellowed out giving up its life for the oncoming winter.
Still, it looks inviting.
Satisfied and aware of the lay of the land, I made my way down the tall building and out into the canyons once again. After a few blocks of orienting myself to the street signs and knowing which ones run north to south and east to west, I stumbled out onto Broadway again and inched my way west toward the park.
Feeling the pressure of time as it relates to airport checkins and hailing taxi cabs, I wanted to give myself some time to walk in the sunshine and just feel what Central Park is all about.
Unlike crowded city streets that funnel people into ever narrower confines and move people from point A to point B, open spaces done well can disperse a million people into hills and valleys behind trees and on water so that while you can feel their presence, you do not have to interact if you don’t want to.
As an observer of life, this appeals greatly to me.
Entering the park from the northeast corner, there is a picturesque pond with a rock bridge forming an arch at one end. It made people pause to take a picture to capture the way the sun played on red-leaf trees and calm waters.
Three fathers and their children stood near me and after lowering their cameras, they just stood there. I was watching them watching the scene before us.
I wandered further into the park and saw a woman just laying on the grass with her eyes closed inviting the sunshine in.
Everyone meandered. And even though runners ran and horses clopped a brisk pace pulling their buggies of tourists, the pace did not take away from the general sense of meandering around the great park.
I lost track of time in the warmth of the late-autumn sun and found myself watching a group of women playing chess outside under an arbor with withered vines.
And then haplessly following an Italian family as they gazed up into the big elm trees.
I bought, shelled and ate a half-dozen roasted chestnuts, the bag of them warming my hands in the shadowy parts of the park.
I stayed for a street performer show because it seemed so natural, then I bent down and put a few dollars in their big white bucket so I could keep meandering without feeling compelled to watch them until the end of their performance.
At the fountain near the head of The Lake, around Terrace Drive, something shook me from the spell of the park, and I glanced at my phone’s battery, which was nearly dead. I had just enough time to find a map to the nearest subway stop, and I was well over my allotted time to explore and still get back to the hotel to retrieve my bags and catch a cab to LaGuardia.
I was a little sad to go back underground again after enjoying perhaps one of the most wonderful things New York has to offer, a fine walk in Central Park on a day so beautiful you cringe at the thought of being inside.
But I had no regrets about what I did and didn’t do in New York. There is far too much to try to experience in a few days.
As I get older, I realize that to really experience and to remember something, you have to live it for a while and not just visit.
Visiting a place is like a little salt to entice you further in to the texture and the flavors within.
And so I find myself wanting to see a place from above to learn its intricate transportation structures and orientation and to explore its cultural institutions and especially the wide opens spaces to get a sense for what the people value collectively.
And as someone who always thought they would love New York. I now know that I do indeed love New York.