New York State of Mind

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The opening piano chords of the song resounded through my yellow bathroom, seeming to bounce off the square tiles and resonate within me as a rush of adrenaline through my body. “But I know what I’m needin’, and I don’t wanna waste more time — I’m in a New York state of mind” I sang along with Billy Joel as I stood at my sink at 6:00 on that Saturday morning, brushing my teeth. Yes, you read that correctly. 6 o’clock am, on a weekend morning, when all my other peers (save for Kasey Borbidge) were conked out in their warm, cozy beds. And, I assure you, if it had been any other day, I would’ve been there also. Few things can rouse me from my slumber on a Saturday morning. But New York City, the Center of the Universe, the Big Apple, the City That Never Sleeps, whatever you want to call it — is one of those things.

On Saturday, December 11, 2005, most of the upperclassmen at Springfield High School were heading off to the Snow Dance, a glorious winter festivity taking place in a venue unmatched in sophistication: the SHS cafeteria. Kasey and I, however, had better plans. New York-ophiles to the core, we had heard of a cheap way to venture into the city: the $20 roundtrip bus from Chinatown, Philadelphia, to Chinatown, New York City. Her dad would take us to the bus “station” (more on that later), we would take the bus to New York, then the bus home back to Philadelphia later that night, where my Dad would pick us up. Seems simple enough, right? We thought so too. And we were all wrong. But would this story be any fun had it been otherwise?

The bus “station” consisted of a hole-in-the wall with a ticket stand next to a run-down Chinese eatery near the Gallery shopping mall. Eau de toilet perfumed the air, and the symphony of high-strung Chinese men and women arguing provided a pleasant background soundtrack to our experience. Because of the fact that none of these people spoke English well, and neither Kasey nor I speak Chinese (surprising, I know), the language barrier provided us a great deal of difficulty.

Especially considering these buses also go to Baltimore, Maryland and Washington, D.C., and none were marked with anything identifying their destination other than colorful Chinese characters. As visions of Kasey and I getting stranded and lost in a threatening section of Baltimore filled my head, I decided to ask the middle-aged, agitated woman behind the ticket counter: “Which bus goes to New York City?” “Third bus!” she answered abruptly. Kasey and I advanced out onto the street, which was littered with trash and smelled of garbage. “Does this bus go to New York?” I asked the man checking tickets in front of the third bus, just to be sure. “Washington. Next bus!” He shouted.

After verifying at the “next bus” that we were indeed en route to New York, Kasey and I settled into our seats, already annoying the patrons around us with our constant belting of show tunes and incessant chatter. From buying the tickets to waiting for our bus in the (as Kasey accurately described it) “ultra-shady” waiting room, we felt as though we had already embarked on an adventure — and we weren’t even in New York yet!

I love to travel, and have done so for as long as I can remember. But there will never be a place I feel as passionate about as New York City. There will never be a place in which I feel as alive, inspired, and hopeful about what life has in store for me. While in Paris, one of the most historic, romantic, and famous cities in the world, I appreciated all I saw there, but the tall buildings and bustling city-life made me ache for New York.

Needless to say, as the bus completed its dark trek through the depths of the Lincoln Tunnel that brisk December day and emerged into the sunshine-y brightness of New York, I felt as though I were home.

After exiting the bus, we decided to shop on Canal Street in Chinatown, which is famous for its designer knock-off handbags and haggling salespeople. As we began to traverse the maze of stands lining the street, the smell of roasted nuts sold at street side vendors wafted through the polluted city-air and permeated my nostrils with its distinctive sweet smell.

Canal Street, for all its seemingly- quaint marketplace culture, actually has a darker side: the sale of these knock-off handbags is illegal. This usually leads to a disgruntled Asian man or woman standing “shadily” (word of the day, evidently) on the street corner whispering “Louis Vuitton, Coach, twenty dollar.”

Kasey was determined to find a Louis Vuitton bag for her little sister for Christmas, so we approached one saleswoman and inquired. “Follow me,” she instructed. Without waiting for us to agree, she took off up a side street. Shrugging, we followed her for a block. And another block. And another. As the buildings grew more decrepit and the people more menacing, we stopped. “How much farther?” Kasey called out with trepidation. “Just one more, right up ahead,” the woman answered with growing annoyance, and continued walking. Another block passed, and we obviously weren’t any closer to our destination. And frankly, neither Kasey nor I were looking to be mugged. So we simply turned around and went back the way we had come as the woman continued walking up the street, presuming us to be directly behind her.

While Kasey didn’t get that Louis Vuitton, I, however, did make one purchase on Canal Street: a very useful black purse, which was quite a bargain if I do say so myself. Until, in the ultimate in absentmindedness, I promptly left it in the cab. Not such a bargain anymore.

After our adventure on Canal Street, we took a cab uptown to SoHo (South of Houston street) to do some more shopping. This was slightly more upscale, however, and neither Kasey nor I made any purchases. But we thoroughly enjoyed roaming through the boutiques and unique stores, and decided to take a cab up to, roughly, Washington Square Park. We stopped at Starbucks and felt like true New Yorkers as we roamed the Village with shopping bags and lattes in hand. For Kasey, this was the fulfillment of her ultimate New York fantasy: being Carrie from the HBO TV show Sex And The City. The text message she sent her mother while we waited for our drinks in Starbucks did nothing to mask her delight: Mom, I’m freakin Carrie in Starbucks in Greenwich Village! You’re jealous!

One of the most enjoyable parts of the day, I believe for both Kasey and myself, was the uninhibited, pointless wandering through “the Village” in the afternoon. The bright sun warmed the cold winter day and cast a soft-focus glow upon the quaint cafes and brownstones framing the streets. Something about the small-town calm and the abundance of culture and life in the midst of the busiest city in the world is ultimately charming, and my sense of peace and belonging increased with every step I took on the cobbled sidewalk.

After our brief but unforgettable excursion in the Village, we knew it was absolutely crucial that we stop at Macy’s, which is in midtown-area Herald Square. The store is practically a landmark and takes up a block of the city; it must be seen to be believed. Kasey and I were aware that the pre-Christmas season is an extremely busy one in New York, but evidently we hadn’t fully grasped the enormity of this concept until we set foot in Macy’s.

Ever see footage from a festival or concert, such as Live 8 or Live AID or even Woodstock, where the people are shoulder to shoulder, pushing, shoving, and generally riled up? Subtract the mud and outdoor locale and add some perfume counters, designer clothes, and fancy Christmas decorations, and you have an apt description of Macy’s on that Saturday. The line for the women’s bathroom took me twenty minutes to conquer, and gazing at the mass of people on the first floor from my vantage point on the escalator filled me with a sense of panic and Enochlophobia. Kasey seemed to be equally intimidated. “Do you wanna get out of here? It’s beginning to freak me out…” she started. I couldn’t have agreed more.

We breathed a sigh of relief as we burst out of Macy’s revolving door and felt the freedom and openness of the city street. We also felt extreme pangs of hunger; we had been so caught up in our shopping and sight-seeing that we had completely forgotten to eat and had subsisted only on Starbucks all afternoon.

Even though it was relatively early for dinner (4:00 pm), there was still a massive wait at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. restaurant, in Times Square. We put our names in and perused the gift shop and some of the Times Square sights while we waited the forty minutes we were informed it would take for a table to open up. As I stood in the massively overcrowded waiting area and looked out upon Times Square, I was absolutely entranced. That is the only way I can describe how I felt as I stared out upon the square, as dusk began to fall and the mass of diverse people mingled beneath the glowing lights. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted nothing, if not to live in New York City. New York is the manifestation of the American dream: people with high hopes and little else accomplishing all that they were told was impossible.

These little town blues, are melting away
I’ll make a brand-new start of it-in old New York
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere
It’s up to you
New York, New York

–Frank Sinatra

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