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. 

Cycles

sit_and_watch

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.