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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