It is late at night as I walk home via Times Square. The street is heaving with people and cars and lights and I have to push my way through the crowds. I glance back to locate my city-hating husband, and to my astonishment, he’s snapping photos left and right, a goofy grin and ogling eyes plastered onto his face. We’ve been in New York City for four days now, and Bruno somehow seems to be enjoying himself. This is unexpected. Has Bruno fallen for New York?
It’s neither of our first times in the Big Apple. Because of friends and family that live here (and because New York is a great international transit hub), I’ve had the fortune of visiting countless times. Bruno came twice in the 90s, as a bookend to his cross-country Viarail trip. During those visits, Bruno – already no lover of cities but young and curious enough to explore anyway – checked out Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, Soho, and of course, Times Square. If it weren’t for our desire to have him meet my aunt Louise, Bruno would have happily taken a pass on this trip to the supposed City of Dreams.
After taking a quick flight from Toronto (our first flight together ever, surprisingly!), Bruno and I emerged at Grand Central Station, a mere ten minute walk from Louise’s. The building has the perfect name, for it is certainly grand in every sense of the term. As soon as we stepped outside, we experienced that onslaught of senses that only cities can offer – horns honking, traffic whizzing by, the buzz of millions of voices, the faint scent of garbage and sewers. The electric vibe sent an excited quiver through my own body, but Bruno already looked totally lost.
Thankfully, things looked up once we stepped into Louise’s apartment – literally up. My aunt lives on the 44th floor of a Manhattan condo and has an absolutely priceless view of the city. Bruno was immediately mesmerized with the vista before him, and spent much of that first day trying to identify important buildings (you can see the Chrysler Building, Empire State building, and the new One World Trade Center from Louise’s 180 degree windows), observing the tiny vehicles and people below, and capturing the scene in photographs.
I didn’t expect Bruno to be so taken with this cityscape, but I was happy he appreciated the privileged staging ground from which we would explore the city. City-hater or not, our home base was one most people can only dream of.
Indeed, we maximized our use of this magnificent space throughout our visit. In the mornings, the three of us breakfasted with the view, sharing the New York Times newspaper amongst ourselves. We night-capped our evenings with a glass of red wine gazing sleepily down at the lights of the City That Never Sleeps. And in between, we ventured all over Manhattan from Louise’s centrally-located home.
The first morning, Bruno and I headed south to Union Square. Bruno hungrily snapped photos of all the eccentric people he spotted in the park – old white men working on their tans, vagabonds dry-shaving their legs, and homemade race car drivers. It wasn’t with malice that he photographed these people, but rather with awe that no one around so much as lifted an eyebrow. In New York, unordinary people are extraordinarily ordinary.
In nearby Washington Square, Bruno and I listened to street musicians before wandering past a movie set on the streets of Soho. We dined on thin-crust New York pizza-by-the-slice with the busy lunch rush, checked out a few Soho art galleries, and shopped for exotic in fruit in Chinatown. Bruno laughed that Chinatown could be a shock to his senses when we’d already been wandering around Manhattan all day; he speculated as to how people accessed their vehicles in the makeshift multi-tiered parking lots on every corner; and he popped into every sporting store he came across. He seemed to be having fun.
The next morning, we headed north with Louise. We stumbled upon a little street market, and, after Louise noted that she happens upon unexpected things in New York all the time, we feasted on street food. Then we headed up to Museum Mile, where Louise showed us the incredible view of Central Park and the city skyline from the roof of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The sunny fall day was beckoning, so after getting a taste of all that the museum has to offer (which is a lot, by the way – too much, really, for a tourist on a tight schedule to grasp), Bruno asked to visit Central Park.
The park, too, was too massive to comprehend, so we contended ourselves with a stroll past a large grass field (perfect for napping on, which Bruno did), a duck pond, and castle, until we reached the John Lennon memorial in Strawberry Fields, which Bruno especially wanted to see. I wasn’t used to Bruno guiding our city visits.
We emerged back onto the city streets near Times Square, and Bruno, my new city tour guide, decided we would walk through it. Though we would occasionally take a bus, taxi, or subway in New York (which always makes for fascinating people-watching in the city where anything-goes), we generally preferred to walk. Cities reveal themselves on foot, and New York is no exception – for, more than a list of sights to see, New York is about its people, its rhythm, its sheer sensory overload. Times Square, with its giant television screens, beaming lights, bizarre buskers, and chaotic crowds, represents perhaps the epitome of all this, and I was surprised Bruno willingly placed himself in the belly of the beast. What was happening to my silence-loving husband?
Did my globe-trotting Bruno perhaps find himself somehow at home in New York City? I mean, in a way, the entire world is contained within the city. Take, for example, the dinners we shared with Louise each night (all of which were fantastic and massively appreciated, by the way). One night we stepped through a pointed door into a dimly-lit room decorated with Berber carpets and Arab flourishes and dined on tagines and spiced couscous. We were immediately back in Morocco, where we’d spent three months last winter. The following evening, we were treated to a six-course tasting menu at a fine Indian Restaurant (called Amma); with each course, we were transported back to our respective times in India. The third evening, we tucked chopsticks into several family-style dishes of Chinese food, and we recalled our experiences learning to use these tools in Korea, Singapore, Thailand, and Japan.
Or, take our afternoon spent at the Nepali festival of Dashain in Queens with my friends Muna and Aya. After taking a quick ride on the 7, reputedly the most multicultural of New York’s subway lines, we emerged on Bliss Street (great name!) and walked to a primary school in Woodside. Women dressed in dazzlingly-coloured saris danced to tinny Nepali music. We were given a welcome blessing, complete with red-rice tikka, by the leader of the festivity, and then we gorged ourselves on Nepali daal bhaat and perfumed chai while speeches were given in Hindi, Tibetan, and Nepali. It was as though Bruno and I were physically in Nepal, together.
And if it wasn’t the multicultural aspect of New York that Bruno loved, perhaps, then, was he falling for the city because it afforded him new experiences, something that is difficult to come by for a man who has seemingly done it all? Bruno may have climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, trekked through the jungles of Borneo, and sailed across the Atlantic, but he’s never been to a jazz club or to a Broadway musical! Thanks to New York City – a truly, thanks to Louise – Bruno experienced both.
After our Moroccan dinner, Louise walked us to a nearby Jazz Club to watch a jazz vocalist and his trio reinterpret old standards in a style reminiscent of Frank Sinatra. And after our Chinese food meal, Louise walked us along Broadway toward the Neil Simon Theater, home of the new production of Cats. Not only was this Bruno’s first musical ever, but it had been my own first musical sixteen years prior, when I visited New York City for the first time. That visit – which occurred exactly half my lifetime ago – was the only time I truly visited New York as a tourist. Now, thanks to Bruno’s enthusiasm, I was getting to be a tourist in New York City again at last.
It is late at night and I am walking home via Times Square with Louise and Bruno. We’ve just gotten out of the Neil Simon Theater, images of cats and colours and dances moves still on our minds. Times Square is heaving with people and cars and lights and I have to push my way through the crowds. Normally, in this situation I would worry about Bruno – the headache he surely must have, his longing for silence and tranquility and nature.
But tonight, I’m not that worried. Bruno’s busy staring at dudes drumming on buckets and women painting their nipples the colours of the American flag. He’s enjoying the brisk evening walk home, which offers us a different city perspective that we usually don’t experience. He’s about as happy as he can be in a city.
Our final day in New York City, Louise takes us along the Hudson River by boat to the Financial District, where we catch one final view of Manhattan, and even a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty. The three of us wander past Wall Street, where my Uncle Gary had worked many years ago, and to Ground Zero. Louise insists that we not leave New York without seeing what has come of the gaping holes the Twin Towers left when they tumbled, fifteen years ago. Now, in their place are tasteful water fountains enclosed by the names of all those that were lost that day.
Nearby, the new One World Trade Tower reflects clouds on its glass windows, and the newer dove-shaped World Trade Center shopping mall sends a message of peace to New Yorkers. We visit the 9/11 Memorial Museum and spend three hours reliving that day through the eyes of its victims and onlookers. It’s a powerful and emotional experience, and one I wouldn’t likely have experienced had it not been for Louise’s encouragement, and Bruno’s uncharacteristic enthusiasm.
That’s when it hits me, the reason Bruno sort of fell (in his own way) for New York City. It was because of Louise. My aunt had been a wonderful host – offering us apt insider tips on what to see and where to go; devising thoughtful plans for our afternoons and evenings; graciously offering us the rare comfort of her Manhattan condo; and displaying an even rarer generosity throughout our time in New York.
Later that night, when we boarded our flight to Paris, Bruno exhibited the typical headache and fatigue that comes with his city trips. He was, indeed, ready to leave New York City.
But what I found surprising was that, as the airplane took off, he seemed genuinely saddened to go. Of all the gifts Louise gave us during our time in New York, this was surely the most precious.