I walk towards Penn Station, after being unceremoniously dumped along with several other confused passengers at Grand Central by shuttle. While it’s hard to get a sense of how long it’ll take, the grid gives me the courage to continue on foot instead of waiting for a transferring shuttle.
I carry screenshots of a map on my phone, which I soon discover is a poor substitute for an actual map when navigating New York. The roads occasionally run in strange directions or skip numbers, and it’s enough to throw off my orientation.
Still, the city feels smaller than I thought. So many stories happen here, told in movies and novels and songs, that I’ve always expected it to be a size relative to the dreams people have. This is what F. Scott Fitzgerald must have felt when he climbed the Empire State Building1, saw the limits of the city for the first time from within, and was left “with the awful realization that New York was a city after all and not a universe”.
I passed through here many years ago when I was too young to be scared of what could go wrong, and too much in love to care anyway. That journey — on my way to Jersey by bus — was far longer than this one through Toronto by plane. I survived then, that’s how I know I’ll survive this, no matter what happens.
Friday rush hour. A melange of people walk the streets, though it seems like there are more tourists with their big coats and cameras than locals. It’s easy to spot the real New Yorkers by how far they stand off the curb when waiting at a light, always chomping at the bit to get to their next destination. Aside from the permeating smell of exhaust, the ubiquitous yellow cabs, and the occasional outlandish fashionista, it’s not particularly different from a busy day in downtown Toronto.
The skies run grey, but it’s still considerably warm. I shed layers as I continue south.
In my rolling suitcase is a change of clothes, a pair of pajamas, and some toiletries. I’ve been on autopilot for the last few days, which means I haven’t been worrying about any other details like what to do, how to get around, or where I’ll be sleeping.
My only goal is to make it to the southwest entrance of Penn Station. I know Mike will take care of the rest. After my time as his charge in the UK, I trust him like no one else.
He holds out his hand, but I let go of my luggage to give him a hug. He quickly warns me that that’s how people have their things stolen in New York, perhaps a little taken aback by my affection.
We walk the streets of Manhattan, occasionally stopping in a store to browse, catching up on the things that have happened to us in the last two years since we’ve seen each other. He tells me I look worn, that the last few months have shown in my face. Normally, that would have bothered me, and I’d be left wondering if he sees it in the lines around my eyes or the grey in my hair. Now I’m just happy to be alive, happy to see him, happy to be out of the country and out of my comfort zone, happy to have a friend who will tell me such things.
He’s surprised I still remember the secrets he’s confided, the lessons he taught, word-for-word. It’s like I’m talking to a person I’ve known all my life. 26 hours in a car together over two days will teach you a lot about someone. Of course, it’s never enough time.
For dinner, we meet Liz and Tomo at the sushi restaurant where Tomo’s girlfriend works. It’s been just as long since I saw Liz on our trip up to Ullapool, when we were stuffed into a Range Rover, Liz still pissed from the night before (which only ended about two hours prior to us leaving at six in the morning). Tomo lives in Chinatown, and Mike has been staying with Liz at the loft they found through Roomorama during their days of meetings with art buyers.
Tomo, who played second assistant photographer when Liz was first, told me a familiar story. Our paths followed parallel peaks and crests, we fought the same battles and both survived to meet here and share a sushi platter made specially for us. Sometimes we learn that we’re rarely alone in our sufferings, a fact rarely appreciated or understood until they’re behind us. If only we had the foresight to know better.
I still don’t know where I’ll be sleeping for the next two nights. Mike kindly offered to cover my costs for the trip so we could meet, and while I found it hard to accept such generosity, I wasn’t above a little help, and we agreed that he’d pay for my accommodation if I took care of the ticket. The only problem is the fact that pace of his trip up till now means he hasn’t had time to figure out this little issue.
We walk to an Apple store for internet access and a USB port to charge our phones. After checking out two potential hotels, we decide on a single for two nights at The Hudson. The diminutive size of the room makes it all the more cozy. It’s also modern, clean, comfortable, right across the street from Central Park, and next to a subway station — perfect for a short stay in new York.
Mike takes me to a local and organic restaurant he discovered in Williamsburg, curtly named Egg, where they serve breakfast every day until 6:00pm. We have another chance to talk about the things we’d rather not say in the presence of anyone else. Sometimes he finishes my sentences with the precise word I have on the tip of my tongue. He’s a very different person, but he understands.
At night, we meet an old photographer friend of his at a Saraghina, a pizza place in Bed-Stuy with charming ambience amidst the newly gentrified surroundings. He’s the more successful older brother, as Mike describes him, and I observe Mike take on a different persona as they interact.
Soon, I realize I’ve been putting Mike on a pedestal. He’s human too. Even though he’s a photographer who’s achieved success on a far larger scale than anyone I’ve ever met, he still thinks about money like the rest of us. He embellishes his stories. He bends the truth to get people to do what he wants (though it’s often for their own benefit). He’s a hypocrite. He gets uncomfortable in front of crowds, something that contradicts everything I know about this man who’s the life of the party everywhere he goes, from an awards night to a ride in an elevator. But even stripped bare and brought down a level, I still like him, and that’s all that matters when the facade is gone.
On the last day, we decide to go back to Egg, sitting on the patio again for French toast made with brioche, a delightful combination that will forever change the way I think about anything soaked in eggs. This is how Mike finds his favourite restaurants when he travels. As the leaves ruffle wildly, I notice the skies have grown dark in the late morning. It’s far colder than yesterday. The hurricane is soon approaching, and I’m scheduled to fly out in a few hours.
Throughout the day we catch conversations with people we meet. They ask us where we’re from, how long we’re staying. They all say, “You’ll never make it out”, in a flat, matter-of-fact tone. We find out batteries and radios are going out of stock in the stores. Parents send barrages of messages about rebooking plane tickets and avoiding the risk. Subtle hints everywhere that I’ll be in New York longer than I expected. No sense worrying about something that may not happen, I figure.
I hail a cab, stick my head in the window. “LaGuardia?” The cabbie slowly shakes his head to consider, then agrees and I throw my bags in the back. I’ll be his last fare for the day, then he’s going home to prepare for the storm. A man from Pakistan, who came here over 30 years ago, and hopes he doesn’t offend me with his jokes about Sino-Pak relations.
I check the flight status on the way with my phone. On time. Last updated: 1 hour ago. I’m still good.
It’s bedlam at the airport. A line snakes around disconcertingly for customer service. I try to check in on an automated terminal, but it spits out an error and request to talk to someone. I check the flight status on my phone again.
Cancelled. Last updated: 11 minutes ago.
Panic. I’m not prepared for this. I didn’t pack for a storm. I wasn’t ready to spend more time around people. The cats are out of food by now, and the only person with a spare key to my house flew to Cancun this morning.
I’m already checked out at the Hudson, and now the only place I may be able to stay is the flat. I ask a Delta rep how to make it to Penn Station to catch the L-train, and she gives me a list of buses and stops…until she’s interrupted by a maintenance man who gives me completely contradicting directions. It’s 5pm. For the past week, flyers across the subways tunnels have warned us that all trains will stop at 7pm in preparation of the hurricane. I decide to hop in a cab, and make my way to Liz who’s booked to fly out two days later.
I catch Mike before he leaves for the airport. This time, I’m the one seeing him off. I doubt he’ll make it out when his flight is scheduled an hour after mine, but he doesn’t come back.
Liz and I hunker down for the night. The trees bend beneath the wind, cables dance fervently between the buildings. We watch Manhattan, a story about people who are constantly creating these real, unnecessary, neurotic problems for themselves cause it keeps them from dealing with more unsolvable, terrifying problems about the universe, full of Woody Allen wit and classic Gershwin tunes. It seems only fitting as we sit helpless amidst the growing storm.
The next day, we towel the leaks that have formed in the ceiling, hide anything that can be damaged by water, and do our best to seal up the windows. After hearing the crash of broken glass somewhere in our building, we fear the worst, but that’s the closest the hurricane comes to touching us.
Without a means to communicate to those around us, we have no idea how lucky we are. Later, Liz will tell me the story of her mate who shelled out $800/night for a room at the Trump Tower, only to have the bar turned into a soup kitchen, with no power, and an eventual evacuation order. I watch the news to get a sense of what’s happening around me, and for any clue of when I may be able to leave.
The weekend has left me exhausted, overstimulated, and all I want to do is stay home, except that’s someone else’s home now. Thankfully, it’s a lovely little place, with all the comforts one could hope for. The two “rooms” are simply beds on raised platforms with a few feet of storage underneath and partitions (that don’t even go all the way up to the ceiling) between them, but they all have little details and decorations that speak of the care taken to make it a place to grow old in.
It’s a chance to recharge and sort out the week I had planned. I don’t leave the flat for two days.
Mike checks in on us every day, something that usually ends with me assuaging his guilt for having made it out of New York without me. I know it’s for the best cause he has coups to lead and responsibilities at home, but I can’t help selfishly wishing he missed his flight so we’d have more time together.
I hadn’t gotten along particularly well with Liz in the past. She’s very guarded with her emotions and opinions, which makes her hard to read, and in turn tends to put me at a distance. But after surviving the storm together, I learn to catch the subtleties in her demeanour. Soon, I find myself under her care, and the only reason I have a place to stay and a supply of non-perishable goods.
The airlines cancel our flights. Mine is rebooked for another five days down the road, Liz another three days after that. The airports are still closed, with damage to both lighting and navigation systems, and no word on when they’ll be open again. Trains aren’t running north cause of flooding and debris in the tunnels.
The wait is killing me. The not-knowing when I’ll be home again.
I’ve been sleeping in my sweaty clothes. Eating things to keep me full instead of healthy. Stuck in Brooklyn with no way to get to Midtown. Mike says I should start throwing money at the problem, that being home early is worth the money spent, so I book an extra ticket to fly out of JFK instead of LaGuardia. The hope is enough to buoy my morale.
Someone’s interested in renting the guest room at the loft. At first we wonder how he’ll be getting into the city when there’s no way out, when it turns out he’s staying at another room in the building already, where the conditions are much more crowded and much less tolerable. He takes a tour of our space and decides to stay, relegating me to a nook and mattress on the floor as the only non-paying guest under the circumstances.
Lorenz is from Munich, a 26-year-old trying to get out of finance and into fashion. Soon it feels like I’m living in a dorm again, with people coming and going, the sharing of meals, and where the space is so small you can’t afford to alienate one another. It’s a far cry from all time I spend alone, and now I cherish the company cause it reminds me how important compromise and consideration are in helping people grow together.
Cabin fever. I need to explore. There’s a new chill in the air, one that bites through the clothes and stings the extremities, and I’m wearing every piece of clothing I packed to fight it. I follow a path through the streets of Brooklyn.
Halloween starts by sunlight. School is out for the week, so kids run from door to door in their costumes. Every now and then, an elderly Chinese beggar will break your heart.
I hit Bedford Avenue, a district of trendy eateries and thrift shops set against industrial buildings and residential houses. Here you can tell how each part of the city evolves by itself, with the story of one often overlapping another. This is why New York is so often the setting; something remarkable happens on every corner, for better or for worse.
On my last day, Liz wakes up at 6:00am to say goodbye and cook me breakfast. I can’t explain the reason for such a thoughtful gesture, except to say that she’s starting to share the bond I feel.
I call for a livery cab to take me to the airport. Mike had curt service (that extended well into rude) all week, but I’m on hold for 15 minutes before I decide the call is no longer worth the roaming charges. Liz calls another cab company; again, no answer. The cabs must be booked to run into Manhattan for better group fares, considering mass transit is still on limited service at best. I begin to wonder if I won’t make it home just because I can’t get to the airport.
We study maps for transit routes that go to JFK, and figure out which ones are still running. I pray I’ll find my way on this new route. Liz walks me to the station, and I tell her I hope to see her in London instead of New York next. The subway takes me to an airport shuttle, then on a series of convoluted stops and transfers by bus and train through the wreckage of the transit system until I finally make it to my gate. It’s a relief to know I’ve made it this far, but I know I’m not home yet.
I don’t breathe until I land on Canadian soil.
- The tallest man-made structure in the world at the time, a record it would hold for 23 years. [↩]