“So what makes New York City so great?” I asked, face pressed against the backseat window as I looked across the Hudson at the skyline of Wonder City, completely in awe of the view from the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Even at 50 mph, the fading scene was one I’ve always loved more than any photograph plastered on ridiculously over-priced posters sold to tourists. Of course, I was not one of them but just visiting for the weekend. I had every right to take in the skyline with the sunset, a free post card until next time.
Silence from the two men–my father and brother–who have conquered the concrete jungle themselves for years now, was finally broken by a laugh, “What do you mean?”
“I mean, what makes it so great compared to other cities? Besides the hugeness of it all.” I asked this question as if I had never been to New York before and knew nothing about its boroughs and subways and neighborhoods and Wicked and the High Line and the Yankees decline ever since the over-paid and under-performing A-Rod joined the Bronx Bombers. And don’t get me started on the Mets, who take 20 innings just to lose a game. Instead, I asked out of a curiosity for cities themselves, still contemplating my recent decision to stay in the suburbs of Maryland for at least another year. In a matter of two weeks, I had decided the next two years of my life–splitting time between two of America’s other cities: Baltimore and Philadelphia. Not to mention, I am also a stone’s throw away from D.C. I was deliberately fracturing my life, throwing purpose and meaning against these places like the salt and pepper shakers you throw against the wall during an argument. I wasn’t arguing with God, but I was looking for a little more flavor.
“Well, you ask that question as if you’re not impressed by New York,” my brother said.
“I’m not. I mean I am. I love New York, but I just have a hard time imagining myself here,” I said. “So I’m asking you guys, since you live and work here, what makes it so great.”
Before either of them could answer, I was struck with perplexity at the soon-to-be-done One World Trade Center. “Didn’t that used to be called the Freedom Tower? How come they changed the name?”
“We used to have Freedom Fries too but that never caught on either,” my brother said.
“Yeah, well that was silly. But you can’t just change the names of buildings like that. Look at the Sears Tower in Chicago. After all those years, they go and change it to the Willis Tower. Who the heck is Willis?”
And all my brother heard was, “Whatchu talkin’ bout, Willis?!” and we rolled with our self-induced laughter for a few minutes. Finally, with tears in my eyes, I demanded an answer to my Greatness question.
“On what you’re doing and the people you’re with and if you’re mentally and emotionally ready for a city of this magnitude at whatever given stage of the game you’re at.”
“It also depends on money,” said my dad, the nicest businessman who will rip your throat out and step on your dog’s head with a smile. Figuratively speaking, of course.
“But–you can find ways to make it work.”
I realized I was asking this question with no real concern for their answers. I had no plans for New York in my immediate future, except as a visiting
tourist wanderer homegrown down the shore, and now trying to put down roots of my own elsewhere. I was surprised, however, to hear that the city itself really doesn’t have much to do with the experience you have it in. It has everything to do with what you’re looking for.
As we drove through the Brooklyn neighborhood of Williamsburg, the Hipster capital of the world, I couldn’t help but appreciate the diversity with a sense of relief for not having to live there. All style and no substance, with a side of indifference, walked lazily in the streets and on the sidewalks. Packs of people were eating the most eclectic foods served at the most undiscovered bistros and modern day speakeasies, I’m sure. Fedoras and scarves everywhere. Girls with misery written all over their lipstick. I forgot my tight jeans and ballet flats at home, and frowned haphazardly at the missed opportunity to be cool. Truth is, I was beaming that Baltimore didn’t have this.
In that moment, I had unknowingly declared Baltimore my home, one in which I would not actually live but leap frog to often enough. It was the one place where I didn’t mind if it rained, and when it did, I would go running along the Harbor. Unlike New York, Baltimore didn’t have any particular attitude associated with. You could stay or go and it wouldn’t care one way or another. I got the feeling it just didn’t give two shakes what you thought of it as a city, and on principle alone, embraced you out of kindness for all your insecurities and misconceptions. It wasn’t trying to prove anything, and because of this, it allowed you do the same, to simply be. It was a fail safe where all the wrong combinations for whatever it was you were looking for didn’t matter. Locksmiths didn’t exist here. You carved your own key and carried all the secrets of tomorrow on a ring hooked to your belt loop. The uneven cobblestone beneath your feet serve as a reminder that the road ahead is just as imperfect as the road behind. And the spaces in between the two, have become a work of art you’d rather not fill, smooth over or make even.
Philadelphia has cobblestone too. It’s near the U.S. Passport shop on the corner of some number and Chestnut or Walnut or Market. Though I am familiar with its streets and landmarks, I will withhold my sentiments until set down a second lilly pad in August when I start school again. Until then, I look forward to the bumpy ride. I’m sure by then I’ll be less concerned with cityscapes and building names. I’ll be more concerned with map making, certain that I have a key to help me thumbtack monumental learning curves to particular points in time and space. Whatever it is that I am looking for, all the logic in the world would end up scrunching its face and squinting its eyes and say, “Whatchu talkin’ bout?!”
And that is exactly the point. It’s not suppose to make any sense. It should just leave you in awe.