Escape from New York, part 2

Check out my short film about being Trapped in NYC.

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”.

New York apartment

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.

Continental Army Plaza

Washington would be proud of your pop-shove it, lad.

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.

stripped bike

Like bones of car­rion, picked clean.

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.

broken fire alarm box

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.

sushi platter

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.

Hudson Hotel

Aside from a show­er stall that dou­bles as a bath­room, this is pret­ty much the whole room.

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.

Wonder Lee

Here I meet Wonder Lee, a New York-based artist, sell­ing upscaled bow ties she crafts from recy­cled mate­ri­als and Lego.

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.

livery cab

This black cab was idling in the cor­ner of an oth­er­wise emp­ty park­ing lot in the Bronx. I don’t know about you, but the only time I do this is when some­thing unsavoury is involved.

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.

McKibbon Street Lofts

The leg­endary McKibbon Street lofts.

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.

255 McKibbon Lofts

I love how so many peo­ple keep their blinds open.

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.

form single lane

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.

home base

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.

catching up with Mike

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.

checking candy

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.

meeting Lorenz

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.

Halloween superheroes

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.

Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn

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.

  1. The tallest man-made struc­ture in the world at the time, a record it would hold for 23 years. []

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