Walking New York City

A man walking under a scaffolding in Midtown, New York City.

The first thing I do whenever I go back to New York City is take a walk.

It’s one of the city’s greatest features, the walkability of the place. From end to end, it’s only 13.4 miles and less than three miles across at it’s broadest. This means you can go from one densely exuberant neighborhood to the next on foot in just minutes, particularly downtown. On foot, you can sample the myriad atmospheres and textures of the variegated urban environment at human speed, stopping to take in the wabi-sabi of a rusted old grating, or lingering to sniff the sweet air outside a bakery window.

Not only is it easily perused on foot, but NYC is also inhospitable to the most common American mode of transit, the personal automobile: traffic is terrible, parking worse, and insurance fees astronomical. Unless you need a vehicle to transport large objects or to make very specific sorts of commute, the city renders cars inefficient. Unlike most American cities, it’s often faster to take the train or ride a bike than drive a car. I took an Uber ride (I Ubered?) from the airport to midtown and ended up walking the last 10 blocks, so thick was cross-town traffic. The driver seemed surprised, but I quickly left him behind in the gridlock, enjoying the breeze and the exercise.

Once, in college, a friend visited me, trying to decide if he wanted to attend New York University. We went out for an evening perambulation and ended up going down to Houston and back up past 110th street before returning to my dorm on 3rd ave and 11th street. It took hours but it was an odyssey in miniature, yielding adventures sublime and bizarre, and leaving us somehow subtly transformed upon our return.

If you want to understand where we came from as a species, take a trek in the wilderness; if you want to understand what we are now, there are few places better than New York City. And, as mentioned, the best way to take it all in is with a stroll. (Or a run could work, too, especially if you have a very full itinerary, like my friends Brendan and Forest did on their 4,000-calorie New York 4K.)

This weekend I returned to the city, once my home of eight years, for a family gathering. I dropped my bag at the hotel and quickly headed back out for a walk. I wanted to see what had changed (and what had not) in this place that, despite a decade and thousands of miles of remove, has remained deeply woven into my personal narrative.

It was unusually warm, even after sundown. Strolling along with my jacket open, weaving through people of all shapes and sizes speaking a half dozen languages, I entered a sort of reverie of nostalgia. I smiled and nodded as I passed a grizzled old man leaning on a wall wearing a security guard’s jacket (that he was actually a security guard is not certain). He stared back at me, unamused. Just as he passed out of my field of view, I heard him say something barely audible over the rush and bustle of the busy street. What was it? Ah, yes, “What the fuck are you smiling at?” Perfect. Just like I remembered.

In the morning I walked from Madison and 30th down to the Lower East Side, to Russ & Daughters, a 100-year-old “appetizing” store specializing in smoked fish and now immensely popular for their bagel sandwiches. The guy behind the coffee counter—gaunt cheeked, thin white hair, creaky voice—looked like he might belong working at a mortuary; instead he was slinging rugelach, halva, and barbs of classic New York wit. The long, narrow room felt like a car on the L train at rush hour, if the car had fish coolers along one wall. The woman in front of me ordered a coffee, entering into the following conversation:

Counter attendant: You want cream and sugar with that?
Lady: Cream. Not too much.
Counter attendant: No one wants too much cream.
Lady [to me]: What’d he say?
Me: He said, ‘No one wants too much cream.’
Lady [to attendant]: Isn’t that the point of half and half, you don’t need too much?
Counter attendant: For me the point is, someone asks for cream, I give them cream. Otherwise, I think it’s pointless.
Lady: Good point.

Then, while eating my bagel and lox on the bench out front of Russ & Daughters, an old man with a thick white beard rolled up with a two-wheeled wire cart of groceries and looked in at the crowd.

Old man: Ah, shit.
Me: Busy, eh?
Old man: It didn’t use to be, until it got on the tourist circuit. [He looks me over.] You’re a tourist, aren’t you?
Me: I guess I am now.

The walk continues…


This was written at a spot in the East Village called Coffee Project. It’s a friendly place to stop if you’re on a walk and in need of a “deconstructed latte” and a quiet place to work on a blog post. 



This weekend, I stopped by an old New York City jazz spot I used to love when I was in college. Appropriately named, the tiny basement venue known as Smalls is located on 10th Street near 7th Avenue, in Greenwich Village. Back then, Smalls was a BYOB establishment. You paid your $10 cover and could hang out and watch musicians play till all hours, sipping your wine or whiskey or what have you among meandering clouds of pot smoke. Sometimes the jam sessions were world-class and sometimes not so much, but the experience was always special. The place was full of diehard jazz lovers and musicians. It felt spontaneous and alive…

At least, that’s how I remember it.

When I returned to the club a decade after my last visit, the same cat was working the door, but he seemed more downtrodden and was now equipped with a credit card machine. The cover charge had doubled and they’d added a full-service bar, with a woman running drinks in and out of the tightly packed patrons. People were chatting, the bar back kept making ice runs across the middle of the room, and the couple next to me was actually making out. During one trumpet solo, a guy wearing a bluetooth earpiece fired up the Shazam app and started waving his phone in the air, trying unsuccessfully to ID the song the quintet was playing. 

Walking around Chelsea on Saturday night, I noticed shiny new night clubs had begun to take over the area. Women in hot pants or micro-skirts and high heels careened through intersections screaming and laughing boozy laughs as taxi cabs blared past. Rents here, as everywhere, had gone from high to unreasonable to stratospheric, and the whole the city felt like it was becoming one big playground for well-heeled tourists, the super wealthy, and the kids of the super-wealthy who were now attending NYU, Columbia, or just hanging around Williamsburg and living a vaguely Bohemian urban lifestyle involving mustaches and arm-sleeve tattoos. My parents used to rent a loft on Bowery for $45 a month  — “Big enough to ride a bike in,” as my dad described it. Today, that rent could easily be 100 times more. Even Cooper Union, the famous art school with free tuition since its inception in 1859, is now starting to charge.

A sense of disillusion started to creep in. Was the city losing its edge? How long before the soaring costs and gentrification would force out entirely the very creative energies that made it desirable in the first place? I started to feel like one of those cynical old farts who thinks everything was better “back in the day.”

The day after my trip to Smalls, I was standing on a subway platform in Brooklyn when a busker started playing his saxophone. The sound was immediately arresting. He blew in rhythmic Philip Glass-like pulses. You could see his cheeks inflating as he drew air through his nose, breathing cyclically to keep the tones rolling in an unbroken chain. The repetitive nature of the music was mesmerizing, and people stood and stared in a way jaded New Yorkers seldom do. As a train rolled in, he started to taper his playing, ending with a flourish of notes just as the doors opened. As he pulled the reed from his pursed lips, he seemed startled by the round of applause that followed. He had been so deep into his own world that he hadn’t noticed the small crowd building around him or the dollar bills that had been raining into his battered horn case. 

I dropped in a bill and hopped the train, reassured that just because things change doesn’t mean the life has gone out of them. You’ll see it if you open your eyes and look — the fun part is, it will rarely be who, where, or how you’d expect.


Things Change

Family panaorama

December 15, 2012 – My aunt Carol sits next to my grandpa Frank at the long, burnished wood dining table in the private dining room of the assisted living center in Fountain Hills, Arizona. Carafes of water and iced tea are arranged up and down the table. Out the picture window on the far wall, the town’s eponymous geyser-like fountain erupts to mark the hour, a 560-foot-tall, wind-blown feather pluming in the arid winter air.

“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” My grandpa, 92, turns his head a few degrees, an indication that his attention has shifted from inner space to his youngest daughter, now grown with three kids of her own. He looks ready to say something. The room — containing my grandparents, my mother, my aunt and two of her children, and my wife and I — pauses to listen.

My grandpa, a decorated WWII fighter pilot, for as long as I can remember has been a quiet man, pleasantly reserved, slim, straight-backed, clean-shaven, early to rise — his military training even now remains tightly woven into the nooks of his personality. He often wears a paper boy cap, harkening maybe to his Scottish roots, and a wool cardigan over a collared shirt. Were he 70 years younger, his wardrobe would let him blend easily with a certain type of hipster crowd.

When I was growing up, almost every time I called my grandparents, my grandpa and I played out the same, brief conversation:

“Hi Justin! How’s Justin?” he’d say. I’d tell him a little bit about my life, and because I lived in Manhattan through most of my twenties, he’d remind me that he once worked there. He used to get up early and take the train in from New Jersey, riding an elevator up to some high floor with a view of the city. I could tell that feeling really stuck with him, of being up above the dozing metropolis at first light, like having a whole world to himself. After about two minutes, there’d be a pause, then he’d say, “Well that’s fine! You’re fine and we’re fine; we’re all fine!” Short and sweet.

He didn’t talk so much, and I, on the other hand, talked too much. Still, as I grow older, I start to look at myself and at my grandpa and think about the role his genes play in me. I also love the city in the early morning. I also love to be up above the world, looking down.

I remember a story my grandpa told me once about landing his P-47 Thunderbolt speckled with bullet holes. I don’t even know what country he was over at the time, but the cool required to fly straight into a dogfight two miles above the earth is something I can hardly imagine. Then again, maybe it’s similar to the way people see the climber — a human speck on the face of a huge cliff, suspended by gossamer thread. Maybe it’s a similar arrangement of neurons and blend of bio-chemicals that lets a person find strange peace and fulfillment at great heights, while skirting the margins between life and death.

Frank King

*   *   *

“Those are nice pants, dad,” Carol says. “I haven’t seen those before.” And my grandpa’s gaze shifts, as if he had been looking down on us all from great a height. He’s here again, on the ground with us, or almost. He processes my aunt’s comment and makes a simple statement so Zen that the three generations of family in the room can’t help but laugh.

“Well,” he replies with a light smile, “things change.” Then he returns to his grilled cheese and tater tots.

That’s all he’ll say for the remainder of the meal. After lunch, I help wheel my grandmother back to their apartment down the hall. My grandfather follows behind with his walker. The family stands around and chats in the apartment for a while, my grandmother lively despite having weathered several strokes that make it difficult for her to express herself through language.

Grandpa looks a little tired, so my mom goes over and says, “It’s OK, dad, you can take a nap.” He shifts his attention towards her and says, “Oh, OK. Thank you,” and then leans to one side on the sofa and quickly drifts to sleep, a smile on his face. It could be a symptom of his particular brand of dementia, but I’d swear he’s made some sort of peace with the changes that are slowly but surely whelming over him and his wife and everything he’s known in his long life on this tiny blue speck.

I was raised without any particular religious belief. Around the winter holiday season when I was young, we read Bible stories and Zen stories alike. We had a Christmas tree and also a menorah. More than anything, my parents and I used the time as an excuse to just be together, to take a break from the chronic business that afflicts most working people in the modern world and remember the more profound pillars of a human life — love, honesty, sharing, togetherness, thankfulness … the simple, if not a little sappy, stuff at the heart of most Christmas movies. My wife and I are partaking in this fine holiday tradition as I write this.

Our visit to see my grandparents, though not on Christmas proper, was in keeping with this theme. Just a sharing of time and place, a simple show of love and appreciation that’s all too easy to put off when schedules are full and family scattered across time zones. Regardless of how many words are exchanged, this is the most valuable thing any of us can give each other. All the more because things change.

Photo Friday: City Life

I lived in New York City for four years, Brooklyn another four. Though I was in school for much of that time, the city itself was an education. I snapped a lot of photos of the urban experience, but most of them are on film and exist only in that frustratingly difficult to share analog format. (If you’re ever in the neighborhood, stop by and we can leaf through the pages of my many albums.) Following are just a scanty few of the interesting scenes I managed to capture with a digital camera.