Monday, December 15, 2014

"This is How You Know You've Arrived Somewhere"


I'm not sure where to begin or if it's even a story worth telling. How do you write about or photograph a place that has been documented and portrayed so many times? How do you find a unique angle, an original look at a city that countless other individuals have expressed time and time again. If you decline the attempt, how do you present the images you've made in a way that doesn't sound like: "sit right here and have some cashews while I show you slides from my vacation?"

The simple fact of the matter is I haven't figured out an answer to these questions, simply because I haven't really found a true way to articulate my experience of New York, there's not just one simple way to describe it. One of the best ways I've heard it explained is that the experience of New York is different for everyone. So this is what it was to me, the first time I went there and so far the only time I've been there.

Like so many of my stories these days, this one starts at a Waffle House.

I had the idea since my cousin announced her engagement and the plans for her wedding in New Jersey became clear. I was going to forego flying, I wanted to drive. I'd stay a few days after the wedding and visit New York City for the first time then meander my way back to Cincinnati, a road trip inspired by "Blue Highways," the book I was reading at the time.

October came and despite having plenty of time to prepare, I stayed up late hastily doing laundry and packing. I pulled a ten hour shift at work and then went to the Waffle House for dinner and copious amounts of coffee. I left Northern Cincinnati and headed to Washington, PA by way of Columbus and West Virginia. I stopped at a Motel Six, slept a few hours, and re-learned the lesson that although they "leave the light on for you," the discount lodging chain doesn't give you free shampoo. I took my greasy hair and headed for the PA turnpike for a long, rainy boring drive across the state. Half the Chili Peppers discography and several episodes of "This American Life" later, I fought traffic in Harrisburg and Allentown to arrive in New Jersey for a real shower and the rehearsal dinner.

- Suburban New Jersey is God's country.

The next day was the wedding. A traditional Catholic Mass in a beautiful cathedral became a party like I had never seen before. Appetizers modeled after the selections of Yankee stadium, a full band, an unlimited supply of Jack and Coke, rack of lamb for dinner and an outdoor fireworks display the likes of watch would rival the Fourth of July budget for most suburban towns. At some point, while juggling a cigar, dessert and the umpteenth alcoholic beverage - my grandfather approached me and asked me to take his photograph. We walked over to the venue's lobby, made a portrait and talked about how I would be visiting New York. While everyone else I had talked to in the days leading up to this trip had offered up suggestions, ideas and things to go see, "Papa" just stoically nodded and listened in the way that he does. He seemed to understand my desire to just "walk around" and "go see it." His advice came without suggestions of sights or things to do, just the notion to "be careful."

- "Papa."

I woke up the next day still in my suit feeling the first inklings of what would be the worst hangover I've ever had. My family headed to the airport and I went off in search of something to cure the headache that was now going on eight hours. I ate pizza, hot dogs and french fries before assuming a near vegetative state on the bed in front of the hotel television.

I thought about going to New York the next day: do I drive, take a train or take the ferry? Is traffic going to be awful? Are train tickets expensive? The question that really kept eating at me though was: "should I even go?"

I debated just heading back for Cincinnati the next morning. It wasn't born out of homesickness or a desire to get back to "normal" life, it was something indescribable. A few days ago, I couldn't wait to go see this supposedly incredible city for the first time, but at that moment I just wanted to be somewhere else. Even if that was going to be where I had just came from.

That next morning, the indecisiveness remained. While an attendant presented the foreign custom of pumping my gas for me, I convinced myself that I'd ultimately regret it if I didn't go. I hit the road, awkwardly wrote personal checks for toll booths that I had assumed were cheaper, grabbed my cameras and stepped into the Staten Island Ferry Terminal.

Inside there was this constant buzzing, a cacophony of languages, tourists and commuters. The sky was gray, drizzling rain and the Port Authority Police dogs seemed more interested in being pet than searching for potential terrorists. The boat pulled up, I boarded with a huge crowd and stood near the front and for the first time I saw the skyline of New York City.

- Approaching New York on the Staten Island ferry.

For me, New York had always been the stuff of movies, television and computer screens. As a kid, I saw it as the backdrop to Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles. Then it was where my Long Island raised father's favorite sports teams played. Then it became 9/11 on cable news and eventually the place Facebook friends would post from on vacation. Now it was real, physically in front of me for the first time.

The Statue of Liberty was on the port side of the boat. The couple in front of me aimed their cameras and phones towards it, excitedly pointing out the landmark to each other. In the distance, Liberty Island paled in comparison to the massive skyline ahead. Admittedly, seeing it felt disappointing. There it was, the symbol of America and all it stands for; but it seemed small, grey and insignificant. Quickly it passed out of view and the ferry docked. I would've thought about the statue more, but there was no time. As soon as I stepped off the boat the crowd continued from the terminal into the streets and carried me with it. It was like a current, you couldn't stop and stand there, you just kept moving.

The large boat I had just come from now seemed incredibly small in the scope of the surroundings. There was this energy in the air and people everywhere.


I felt a sense of awe, finally being there in the nation's largest city. It sounds hokey, maybe stereotypical to describe the overwhelming sense of being in this busy place for the first time. I'm not the first to feel it this way, definitely not the last, but truly when you arrive in New York it's unlike anything. I just started walking, following the flow of people past the seemingly unending rows of stalls hawking t-shirts and souvenirs.

I had a few things in mind to see, but no real itinerary or plan. What little ideas I had went out the window as soon as I arrived. I couldn't stop walking and just looking around. Even the other big cities I had been to, places like Chicago and Atlanta, paled in comparison to where I was and what I was experiencing at the moment. I walked through Zuccotti Park, wanting to see where they Occupy Wall Street protests had happened and then started following signs for the World Trade Center. I followed the chain link fence adorned with its security cameras around the block to the memorial, the glass face of the Freedom Tower above.


The skyline of New York City is a curious thing. It almost seems endless and cluttered, mirroring the city it presides over. Whereas places such as Cincinnati, Chicago and Pittsburgh have easily distinguishable landmarks, New York always seemed to be a random mix. The most iconic structures, destroyed in the terrorist attacks thirteen years ago had been the stand outs, postcard symbol's that screamed: "This is New York." In their place, the new One World Trade Center or "Freedom Tower" now stands. The tallest skyscraper in the Western Hemisphere, it's been criticized more often than it's praised. I'm not an architect, nor a student of architecture, but to me the building is the new symbol of the city. It is what it is and it's here to stay. It seemingly exists and now defines the visual recognition of New York, whether it's of a beautiful design or not.


I wasn't sure what to expect from the nearby memorial. With it honoring those who died in the worst attack on American soil, a very recent and pivotal historic event, and such a large loss of life - I guess I assumed it would be very stoic. The first impression: it's loud. The reflecting pools, marking the former site of each tower do quite a bit to drown out the noise of the crowds, but are noisy themselves. People lined up for tours, took group photos and talked at regular volumes. A group of FDNY trainees stood next to me while I was looking into the North pool. Their leader, pointed out a name along the wall lining the fountain - a member of his company who had died there. Then he asked me to hold the camera while they took a photographer together.


The memorial site as a whole presents an odd feeling. I kept thinking back to the images I had seen on television that day, the President's speech, the Pulitzer Prize photos, the first year anniversary, the tenth year anniversary and everything that had transpired since.


When you stare into the depth of the fountain or walk along the grove of trees, the weight of history and the significance of what happened there starts to take hold. It's fleeting though. Just like that, the crowds of people and their noise bring you back to reality. It makes you wonder who came just to see it and which few people in those crowds are actually experiencing it.


I kept walking though and left the memorial site. I wandered for awhile, moving along with the flow of the human current on the sidewalk past the ones standing still: workers outside their offices taking a cigarette break from their cubicles. I tried to think of places to go see, the endless list of recommendations from so many people. I settled on what I really wanted to do: ride the subway, ride the roller coaster.

- F train at Coney Island.

I awkwardly wrote down directions form the subway map into a pocket notebook of what train to take and when to transfer. A short ride on the C train transitioned into a 45 minute jaunt on the F train. The subway is where I felt I was breaking away from the droves of tourists for the first time. There, on the plastic benches sat "normal" people. Those headed to work, on errands and going about their daily lives.

Manhattan faded in the distance, the subway transitioned from below to above ground. I got off at the stop for Coney Island. I crossed the street and there it was: The Brooklyn Cyclone. An iconic piece of Americana, built into the framework of a city block in the way row houses or an office building would be.

- The Coney Island Cyclone.

I stood with others on the sidewalk, watching the trains fly by. I bought a ticket and became the typical tourist that I never wanted to be, but was at peace with myself as I anxiously stood in line.


Since I stopped working for one a few years ago, I've had absolutely zero desire to visit any type of amusement park. Coney Island and this ride warranted an exception though. The train departed, rounding the curve, up the lift hill and then there was that sudden feeling of euphoria and excitement that comes with riding a roller coaster...

...right before you feel like you've been punched in the crotch at the bottom of the Cyclone's hill.


The rest of the ride was better, more comfortable and like flying through a piece of history. I walked the rest of the boardwalk amongst the throngs of field trip schoolchildren and hassidic families enjoying the day. It was then I decided to sample some iconic New York food. Once again embracing the role of the stereotypical tourist I didn't want to be, I bought a Nathan's hot dog.

- Luna Park at Coney Island.

However, coming from a place where the most talked about hot dogs are at Costco, I have to say it was a damn good hot dog.

- Coney Island Boardwalk.

I hopped the subway to head back to Manhattan. This time though I stopped to see something I had viewed from the tracks on my way in: the blocks of urban cemeteries. This area of the city was quieter than the places I had been so far, the plots and burials seeming to take place nearly on top of one another.


When I got back to Manhattan, I sought out an Apple store to charge my nearly dead iPhone. If Cincinnati and New York share any direct similarities, it's how crowded their respective Apple retail locations seem to be.

I had plans to meet up with my friend David. A Cincinnati native by birth, David had made his way to New York City in his own travels, education and now a career. We made our way to the subway at the Chambers Street station - taking in the peeling paint and leaking ceiling.

This, this place, this was the New York City of Ghostbusters and Ninja Turtles, the New York I saw as a kid.

I loved it:

- Chambers St. Station.

After some subway maneuvers, we ended up on a 6 train. At one point, the train stopped, the doors opened and another rider looked at us bluntly stating: "Last stop."

"We know," David replied, but we didn't get up. Nor did a few other people who seemed unphased.

The doors closed, the train began moving and we passed through the "ghost station" at City Hall:

Closed since 1945, New York City's City Hall Station is now only used as a turnaround for the 6 train before it heads back in the other direction. Too small to accommodate modern rolling stock, the platform is ornate, unique and elegantly designed - originally envisioned as the crown jewel of the city's transit service. 
Eventually we made our way to Grand Central Station off the subway, down some hallways and into an iconic city structure. Looking up at the massive ceiling supported by the impressive architecture above the shuffle of crowds, David said: "This is how you know you've arrived somewhere." 
He was right, not just about the train station, but New York in general. The city is a place of arrivals, grand entrances into an entirely different world. Whether it's the peeling paint and screeching echo of the subway, the skyscraper canyons or the ornate architecture of iconic buildings, you know you've arrived somewhere every time you take a step or turn in a different direction.

- Grand Central Station.

We left Grand Central as David explained the station's history from its construction to its salvation by Jackie Kennedy Onassis and its restoration to glory. We headed up to the street, into the rain and walked towards the the light ahead:

- Times Square.

"Everyone has to see it at least once," said David. We stood in Times Square, shrugging off the throngs of people dressed as Disney and Sesame Street characters trying glean a few bucks from photo opportunities with passersbys.

While I initially had no desire to see it, David was right. Times Square is unlike anything I had ever seen before. It was bright as day, the camera hardly needing any ISO boost to take a sharp photograph. We headed back to the subway, this time in search of a contrast. We rode the train as David pointed out how he enjoyed watching the expressions of tourists who realize that they've mistakingly boarded an express train that bypasses the Museum of Natural History and becomes a "rocket to Harlem."

We departed the train again, up an elevator and into David's home neighborhood of Hudson Heights. For the first time that whole day, it was quiet. The noise was 45 minutes behind us, beyond the bridge and in the distance with the other commotion of Manhattan.


I said goodbye to David and had a subway car to myself for most of the ride back. I walked past the New York Stock Exchange and block after block, taking in New York City one last time. I made my way back to the ferry, waited and boarded the boat.

I saw the Statue of Liberty again on the way out. This time though, it was different from when I arrived. Lit up, it was much more clear. Maybe it was because I had finally had some small semblance and understanding of New York City, maybe it was because it reminded me of my grandfather - the one who understood the way I wanted to see the city. The one who immigrated from Italy to the same city via Pier 59 in 1946. The one who describes his first time seeing the statue simply as: "Awesome."

In that moment, I couldn't have agreed with him more.

I got back to Staten Island, found my car and headed back to New Jersey. My wonderful Aunt Janice was kind enough to let me stay at her place despite hosting a wedding and having already put up with family all weekend. As I went to sleep that night, I could still feel the motion of the subway cars rocking, in the same way you feel the ocean after swimming at the beach. Laying on that couch was the first time I had stopped moving all day.


I woke up the next day, said my goodbyes and punched "Leonardo, New Jersey" into the GPS. I wanted to see the "Quick Stop." The setting of one of my favorite movie's, "Clerks." I pulled up, walked in and looked around the store. Twenty years later, the store still looks like how it did in the film with the exception of some newspaper clippings about Director Kevin Smith and his sequel "Clerks 2." I walked up to the counter and bought the only souvenir I'd purchase on this entire trip, uttering the film's iconic line to the clerk:

"Pack of cigarettes."


I ended up on a beach down the street from the Quick Stop walking through the sand and its collection of empty liquor bottles, dead crabs and a hard hat. In the distance for the last time, until next time, I could make out New York's skyline:


1 comment:

  1. I can still remember my first glimpse of New York. I had arrived at JFK and took a cab. The cabbie alerted me that we would have a great view the city before we entered the Long Island tunnel. What I saw was something I could not fully encompass all at once. A line of towers against the waterline of the East River for as far as my eyes could see. It was more breathtaking than anything I can remember seeing even to this day.