A Chinese philosopher once said, “no one realizes how beautiful it is to travel until he comes home and rests his head on his old, familiar pillow.” While I’m sifting through what clothes to pack and what to leave behind on a mini break from New York, I’m recalling the moment when I moved to New York. Utter shock of joy.
Were a genie to grant me a wish, I’d request to relive the thrill that rushes in when stepping onto new land. That moment when you roll your suitcase on fresh pavement, and you look up at the sun rays reflecting on this new skyline and the days that lay out before you with immeasurable possibilities. Life sparkles again like a freshly minted penny; newness, difference, change. I think this is the best feeling in the world, second only to finding out you’re loved in return. A change of scenery for me is my lifeline, the only problem is I’ll eventually run out of places.
I moved to New York City on a Monday morning on the first day of June. Flying during a pandemic has its perks, when I find them I’ll tell you. It was only less traumatic than my last flight because I’d managed to control my anxiety and realized that looking out the window helped distract me from the unnerving sight of interiors shuddering in the turbulence. When the airplane turned eastward though, I caught a glimpse of the Manhattan bridge, and from there it was only blue skies.
I took the NJ train to Penn Station that was empty but for a soul (mine). Nobody (except for me) was in a hurry to play tourist in the coronavirus epicenter of the world. I crawled out of the subway cave, and entered none other than 5th Avenue. The giant skyscrapers towering over me, I was an ant at a mere 5’1”. In my daze, a homeless man entered my line of vision and mumbled something, but I shook my head confused — I didn’t have any cash, or any attention left to give save to the wondrous spacious streets, the yellow taxicabs, the sun beaming onto the cupola of the Chrysler building. I could almost hear Sinatra belting, “What a world! What a life! I’m in love!”
And really at that moment, I had the world on a string, and I was sitting on a rainbow. And then as if it couldn’t get anymore momentous, the powerful image of the entire Manhattan skyline sweeping by the window of the M train to Brooklyn made me feel like I finally understood what Albert Camus had said in his Journaux de Voyage. I hated New York City the first time I visited. [Translated: At first sight, hideous inhumane town. But I know that our opinions change.] How radiant it looked to me now. I was to live in Woody Allen’s favorite backdrop. (Please don’t cancel me at the mention of his name. Despite your thoughts of him, his movies have served for me as a respite from despair.)
People I’ve met in New York have expressed their sympathies for my having to move in such a weird and strange time. To have to see this phantom town compared to what the city once was – a vivacious arena where every square mile was humming and bustling with people,stories, and ideas and new drugs to try. I don’t mind it, and I didn’t mind it. This sleepy New York is a circus compared to the unimaginative bore that is my hometown (Miami, if the reader is unfamiliar).
The first night in Brooklyn, I unpacked, went to the grocery store, and slept at 8pm. This is my general rule whenever I move to a new place: Stay in the first day to restore my energy and keep my immune system strong because tomorrow and the days leading there would be no rest. The first few days of sightseeing are treated as if I were on a 5-day European leg tour. I see it all.
It was like this when I first moved to Paris. By the end of the first month I knew Paris better than the Parisians that were born there, I could recite every neighborhood’s hotspots and the histories behind the icons that the streets were named for. New York was now my town. Except for of course, there was nothing to actually do during a stay-at-home order. Governor Andrew Cuomo had closed everything, and you had only two options: stay home or go to the park. So my plans to explore the city were on hold for the month of June, and all I did was go to the park and drink coffee to-go.
I found a sweet spot uptown adjunct to the New York Public Library — Bryant Park. Sprawling with freshly manicured lawns, rows of hydrangeas, magnolia trees, and bistro tables, it was a Monet painting where I spent most of my afternoons. I hadn’t seen such immaculate beauty in so long my eyes watered with resentment. How sad to have lived so many days being denied this glorious summer’s day at Bryant Park. But I was here, and everything I’d suffered up until now was laid to bed and tucked in clean white sheets and laid to sleep. I would enjoy comfort.
People ask you every now and then if you’re happy, and what I usually come up with is a general lukewarm response. A so-so. A “well, I’m not in pain if that’s what you mean”. Or, ‘I mean I guess I’m fine’. ‘Today was just as unremarkable as yesterday.’ But that first afternoon amongst the June blooms in Bryant Park, happiness was unequivocal. It felt light and feathery. I was a soft cloud drifting with the current. I was a bird. I watched the little birds flap their wings to pick at a new grain on the ground. I watched the girls sunbathing on the lawn, stress-free, at ease. I watched an old man biting into his turkey sandwich, slowly chewing, washing it down with a cold lemonade, enjoying his lunch break. I was a spectator in this rare new world, and I would participate in some way unbeknownst to me. It was a vault with all of the colors and all of the sounds that go unnoticed to you in the 9-to-5 march. I was in the belly of the NOW, I could listen, I could understand, yet I knew nothing, and there was so much to explore. It is a baby’s first grasp of air. Hi, hello! Is this thing life? Wonderful! I didn’t want for anything. I was healthy, I was young, I was beautiful, I was in New York City.
Again, I wish I could perpetuate this feeling in a box, and open it up again when I need a refresher. The tragedy of life is that the longer you experience a feeling, the more desensitized you become. Much like romantic love, time peels the thrill away. Rekindle it as you might, it’s never like the first time. The beginning, what I would do to hold on to the thrill and shock of that turn of view. Some judge this insatiable thirst for joy as instability. I say, it’s both a blessing and a curse to want to be constantly carried by the wind.
I relocated from Bushwick to Bedstuy, and I think that was the best decision I’d made. Cuomo gave the state the greenlight, and slowly restaurants opened their terraces, and the frightened people slowly crept to occupy them. I found a new bakery on Halsey Street called Saraghina, just two blocks away offering the best little Italian pastries and cookies. They only allow two people into the bakery at once so a line quickly tails around the corner outside. One gloomy day, I waited for fifteen minutes in the rain, unbothered, for my patience would be rewarded with a hot almond croissant. But I drew the sympathies of strangers and a pair of wrinkly hands offered me an umbrella which I used while the signora scavenged for delicacies inside the coveted shop. When I finally got hold of my goodies and stepped back out into the rain, another woman approached me and said, “Please have my extra umbrella. Anyway I have so many at home. I sanitized the handle for you.” I can’t tell you how pleased I am to learn that all the myths of the tough New Yorker are incomplete. The New Yorker is tough, but kind. I was overwhelmed with gratitude, the type that, upon experiencing such wonderful and unexpected kindness, you sigh to release that guilty lump in your throat at the realization that, fuck, despite the ruthless monsters angels exist. Good humans live here.
These random acts of kindness have befallen on me multiple times. When the busdriver helped me, when the clerk let me print my resume for free because I didn’t have cash, when a new friend offered to go with me to the hospital. Feeling gratitude is like fluently speaking the language of the Earth. Everything feels as it should be. It’s in perfect harmony. Gratitude is a kind of joy that reciprocates, because now that you felt it, you pay the kindness forward to someone else. If we all kept passing it on — well you can imagine.
At last, one Monday morning, the city of 8 million residents reported only 557 cases and zero deaths, and the great prophet Cuomo said goodbye to his daily press briefings. I was walking down Times Square that day, and I thought, how brilliantly responsible do these residents have to be for such a miracle to happen. I would contribute something in some form to this land and these people. They are worthy of my best….
I still haven’t seen the city lights at night from the Brooklyn Bridge like I’d watched in all those films. Just like I still haven’t been to an opera at the Palais Garnier in Paris. Somethings are keepsakes for the future in order to have a thrill to look forward to.