“New York City will eat you alive!” a friend and co-worker told me when she learned we were leaving Wilmington, North Carolina two years ago. She had grown up in New York. She knew me. I’m quiet, calm and low-key. She knew the city, which is none of those things. She was sort of right. New York City has had me in its jaws and has been chewing me absently for some time like some large distracted mastiff that really has no true malice in its heart. It just has to eat. Everything.
But even as the city has slowly chomped me, I’ve tasted all the good stuff here. And I’ve learned something. The “good stuff” when you live here is mostly not the same as the good stuff when you don’t live here. It’s pretty much a whole different set of stuff.
My good stuff is not The Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building or Times Square. I can see the statue every day from where I live. I went to the Statue of Liberty once when I was about ten years old on a visit to the city. The torch was closed that day, but we were plenty high enough on top of the pedestal. I inched around the pedestal worried that a stiff wind would blow me off. There was a railing, but it didn’t feel particularly sturdy. The wind in New York City can be brutal, and I felt light as a leaf that day. So, I simply hugged the base of the statue until I could get back in to begin the long trek down. I’ve felt no great urge to go back to the statue since I’ve lived here.
It cost $25 to wait in a huge line and go up an elevator to the top of the Empire State Building. That seems like a lot of money to wait in a long line to me.
As for Times Square, it’s littered with an overabundance of costumed characters and tourists walking way too slow trying to take pictures of tall buildings. If pedestrians were allowed to carry horns in New York City, New Yorkers would use them all the time to hurry the gawking tourists walking three abreast on a narrow sidewalk along so we could get to where we are going in a more timely fashion. And once you’ve seen the Naked Cowboy and the Naked Cowgirl and read a few stories about the various small crimes and misdemeanors of the slew of costumed Spidermen and Elmos, their charms tend to fade as well.
My good stuff is not the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. I took Avery there because it seemed like something we had to do. We were crushed in among millions of other people along the city streets and nearly froze to death. No big name performers sang or danced in front of us. I learned that they only do that in front of the Macy’s store for the television cameras. We saw some huge balloons. But on balance, it was a pretty crappy experience.
And Robyn assures me that friends who’ve done the New Year’s Day Countdown in Times Square are hemmed inside barricades pressed up against unruly strangers for ten hours without access to a bathroom. Many go wearing adult diapers, she says. So, that’s a no go.
The good stuff I’ve been tasting in New York City is much more low key than that. It’s walking around Roosevelt Island, which was once the site of a smallpox hospital. You take the tram over the East River from Manhattan and get a little slice of quiet in the urban chaos. There’s a lighthouse on one end of the island and on the other is the scenic President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Four Freedom’s Park.
The good stuff is a trip to Governor’s Island, which was once a military barracks.They recently installed 50 hammocks on Governor’s Island, which has a great view of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan, but none of the noise of Manhattan. You can never have enough hammocks, no matter how many are installed. And when Avery and I went there one sunny summer day, we pounced on a hammock quickly before it could be occupied.
The good stuff is the Great Lawn at Battery Park is simply a big wide patch of lush green grass with a few shady trees set along the side of the Hudson River Esplanade. When we moved to New York City I was certain I’d be walking around Central Park every morning. Central Park is amazing. I’ve been there less than ten times. It’s about a forty minute subway ride away. And on some days when the weather is just perfect, I’ll think about going there. But then something usually comes up. And I just don’t. But I can walk to The Lawn in less than ten minutes. Toddlers throw balls there with their moms and dads. Teens toss footballs and Frisbees. People stretch out on blankets to tan. Meditate. Contemplate. I saw woman in a bright red costume run through a series of exercises with a sword there that reminded me of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. I got my 16-year-old son to join a Teen Drum Circle on the fringe of the Lawn once. He was not into it. But I wanted to slough off the decades and join in their rhythmic pounding.
We had a large grassy back yard on the outskirts of Salisbury, North Carolina where I was raised. I could roll around in grass any time I liked. Anybody growing up like I did would take for granted a swath of lush grass. But in Manhattan, a big patch of green grass is cherished, nurtured and guarded like a newborn baby. In the winter, patches of grass are fenced and barricaded like a crime scene with signs explaining that the grass is recovering from heavy use and even covered with tarp. Grassy lawns are a bit like an oasis in a dessert here. Nature in a cement jungle soothes the soul.
Our apartment building looks out on an small, fenced urban garden. It’s thick with plants and flowers. People get in there and pluck out weeds, harvest vegetables and dig in the dirt, tending the specific little plots they’ve signed up to nurture. I’ve never bothered to learn the names of all the plants I see. My grandmother on my mother’s side of the family knew them, but I wasn’t interested or patient enough to learn the names from her before she shuffled off her mortal coil. She also knew the names of all the exotic insects that crawled, the things that slithered and twisted in the rich dirt. Contrary to all good sense, she routinely fed an alligator who lived in a river behind her home in the unincorporated community of Aripeka, Florida. I miss her, and all the things she knew that feel like things I can never know quite so well or love quite so much since she’s not around to teach them to me and show me how to love them the way they should be loved.
The tiny urban garden is full of leafy, green and pretty things. That’s all I know about it. Not the names of all the plants or what fruit they bear. But that’s enough to know. It’s a good thing. When the tall buildings crowd in so much it feels as if the city is about to swallow me, the Great Lawn and tiny urban garden keep me grounded.
We’ve seen Broadway shows and plays here that blow me away. We crossed the river to New Jersey to see a choreographed fireworks display on the Fourth of July over the Hudson River that lit up the sky for hours. I love those things. But the flash and glitz and splash of New York City don’t fill my soul nearly as much as the quiet moments on the fringes of the city.