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                                       politics + culture

Thursday, July 13, 2006

a visit to new york city

I went to visit Columbia U. when I was already 18 years old in the spring of 1987. I'd never been on a plane or taken a subway. I travelled alone.

Now, I had taken the Amtrak to Chicago by myself that winter to visit the University of Chicago. And before that, I'd taken the train to Winona Minnesota...just to get away from my home town of St. Paul. (I remember now that I made a bunch of black and white photocopies of Marc Chagall etchings at the Winona public library...an incident...some high school kid from St. Paul making b&w photocopies of art while visiting by train on a day trip...unlikely to have been repeated since.) Since I'd had Guillain-Barré syndrome at an age when most kids learn to drive, I didn't yet have a driver's license. So, those two trips were the total travel "experience" I took with me to New York.

My dad, out of the sheer goodness of his heart, had got me a last minute "red eye" flight to NYC when the financial aid package had come through. (Thanks, Mrs. Astor.) I flew to Chicago at midnight. Connected at 2AM. I flew to Newark at dawn.

So, spring of '87 I arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 7AM from Newark with one phone number in my pocket. First, I used the restroom. Anybody who knows New York in the 80's, and, in particular, the Port Authority terminal rest room...knows that that was an act of utterly idiotic naiveté. I mean, my first act in New York was about the stupidest, least recommended thing I could have done. I used the public john at the Port Authority wearing a back pack.

There seemed to be about fifteen guys in the restroom. All sorts of drugs, smoke, crack and and drink being used. I took my piss in an open stall and left. Like so many later moments, for better or worse, it just didn't phase me. "Sorry," I said to a guy who approached me, "I'm in a hurry."

I called my cousin Dan from the lobby. Dan is a nice guy. Maybe my Dad had called my Uncle to warn him that I'd be calling Dan at 7AM. When he answered, he seemed to know I'd be calling.

Dan was pleasant. (I have 28 first cousins, by the way...so, in the grand scheme of things while we are all pleasant to each other, it's not as if we have to move heaven and earth to help each other out. That's not expected, and couldn't be.) I asked Dan if there were some sights I could see while I had time to kill. He told me to buy a token for the subway and stroll up 8th Avenue or Broadway. Either way I'd hit the "1 line" to Columbia. I chose 8th Avenue.

I love New York. Even if that New York is gone. The porno parlours. The gay strip bars still open at 8AM. The omnipresent smell of urine and constant flow of early morning traffic. You see, that was what going to Columbia University meant to me. Taxi Driver. Herbert Huncke. Times Square. Jack Keruoac. One big disheveled mess of a city. It was a nice, bright, spring day. There was not a tree in sight.

I walked through Hell's Kitchen.

Guys with Hot Dog carts were wheeling them out for the day. (There was a famous "Hot Dog Cart repository" somewhere in a warehouse on that side of mid-town. Only later did I learn from a Romanian immigrant who'd worked there that most of the hot dogs left over from the day before were simply boiled again to clear off the slime of sitting overnight.) The New Yorker building loomed above the decrepitude. Wow.

I remember thinking. This is an otherwise very crappy stroll that I am finding quite pleasant.

I liked the feeling of walking on my own two legs up 8th Avenue. (Less than 9 months earlier I'd couldn't have done that with or without a cane. Too true.) I liked the vibe of the city. The black buildings. The gates and grates. The solidity of it. New York didn't give a fuck about me. I liked that.

I tried to enter the subway at 59th Street at Columbus Circle. I hit one of those full length "can't go through" turnstiles that must have, sometime in the past, have accepted tokens. I couldn't get through.

I walked back up to the street. Looked at the monumental sculptures and the "grand thoroughfare" of Columbus Circle. I liked New York. Some of these buildings, especially the view of Central Park South, looked really familiar. I felt like, while I hadn't ever lived there, that I'd spent some good part of my "mental life" in the city already. I walked back down Broadway. Figured out how to catch an uptown train at 48th Street. (Not obvious, either, at that time.) And made my way up to 116th and Broadway and my student visit.

That was my first couple hours in New York City. Everything I'd ever done up to that point in my life had been "prep" for that moment. It didn't phase me. I liked it.

Yeah, I did the requisite visiting student activities for the first part of my day. But, in truth, I didn't waste much time at the school before I took another subway token and headed straight back downtown.

New York was big. Bigger that that even. And I didn't have much time.

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