Sunday, August 1, 2010

State of Mind

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I’d never been to New York before our trip this summer. My personal experience with the city was limited to a view of the Manhattan skyline from the Newark terminal and a wait in an endless line at JFK. (I was also passed a counterfeit $10 bill and the most rubbery chicken sandwich of my life at a Burger King at JFK, but since I have almost forgiven New York in general for the incident, it only bears noting in parentheses.) Other than airport vendors hawking “I [heart] NY” t-shirts, I really could have been anywhere.

This unintentional avoidance of New York was becoming a source of shame for two people who consider themselves travelers and, for that matter, writers. We’ve stood at the base of the Jungfrau in Grindelwald, Switzerland; we’ve taken a boat up the Bosphorus in Istanbul, where Europe meets Asia; last summer, I got a healthy sunburn on Great Blasket Island, which is considered so remote that Ireland no longer lets its residents live there. Not visiting New York City was just plain silly.

But even though it was my first official visit, New York felt instantly familiar to me, from the moment we stepped off the train at Penn Station. I’ve seen, after all, a few thousand episodes of Seinfeld and Law and Order, not to mention dozens of movies with New York as a backdrop. A glance at my bookshelves reveals my recent mental journeys to the city: Motherless Brooklyn, Netherland, Lowboy. And of course, during the fall of 2001, Manhattan was an ever-present fixture on my TV screen.

So in a way I’d grasped the essence of New York without ever physically being there – the swarms of people of every race, religion, nationality, social class; the crowded, clacking subways; the overwhelming glitz of Times Square; the stately museums with stern-faced docents…

What this west-coast, dry-heat-loving girl had failed to envision, however, was what it would be like to experience the city under oppressive humidity and crushing heat. I saw New York through the sweat that had dripped into my eyes: Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, the almost airless subway tunnels. I sweated through every shirt in my bulging suitcase; I sought refuge in front of the dinky air conditioner in our hotel room, blasting away at a constant 68 degrees. I watched, with a growing sense of despair, as recording rising temperatures, with record highs predicted. For Saturday, July 24, the local news warned of 97 degree heat. “Stay inside if you possibly can,” the weatherman advised. It didn’t sound like a bad idea to me.

Oddly enough, no one else in New York seemed to be sweating. While twin semi-circles of sweat sprouted under my breasts, everyone else walked happily – if purposefully – down the streets of the Upper West Side. I checked carefully for beads of sweat on foreheads, for swamp pits lurking in underarms and at the backs of knees. While I fanned myself with a pizza menu on the subway platform, wishing I could stand over a grate Marilyn Monroe-style, New Yorkers calmly read from their Kindles. Even Will (who had showered three times a day when we were in Wisconsin, cursing the humidity all the while) didn’t appear to be bothered.

“I’m dying,” I croaked, when we were exactly halfway across the Brooklyn Bridge. Moving another step was impossible; I was going to have to stay there forever, suspended between boroughs, watching bodies float by in the East River. I flicked sweat from my face, noting that my bangs were completely plastered to my forehead. I felt for my water bottle – only a few, precious swigs left. “I can’t go on,” I gasped.

Will didn’t hear; he was ten yards ahead of me and presumably nestled in a pocket of clean, cool air. He turned around, grinning. “Isn’t this fantastic?” he said. “I could see us living here, couldn’t you?”

I didn’t answer. I was thinking of how I would love to visit New York again – maybe in the fall, when the leaves in Central Park were changing red and gold, maybe in the winter, when I could schlep through the snow and slip on the ice and see a glorious cloud of white air emerge from my lips with each breath. While sweat slid over my eyeballs, I stood perfectly still, with visions of mittens and snow boots dancing through my head.

Now that’s my idea of New York.

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