An hour--my first--spent in New York City
| I’d never seen so many people. So many people, all marching past while I was uneasy on cramped legs. There, right there, milling about on that street, streaming in all directions, my whole school could have easily fit--was that my whole town undulating in measured city footsteps? No, it couldn’t be. People in my town wore boots, chatted at the two country stores, were suspicious of foreigners and flatlanders. These people didn’t wear the common, anonymous work boot, no, they wore every kind of footwear imaginable. Chattering loudly on their cell phones--the halved conversations I heard in snatches as I passed!--they accepted what I considered unusual in people and places and things.
In front of me spread Rockefeller Center, narrower than I thought it would be, shadowed by the tall buildings walling it in. I craned my neck and counted twenty, thirty floors in awe. A four-story building was tall as it got in my town. The steeples of the five churches barely jutted out of the treetops.
There were trees here, and flowers, all caught up in blossom a month earlier than Massachusetts. Carefully trimmed, lacy petals meticulously swept up: this was nature without the mess, baked to conformity against plate glass and pavement. Still, this strange mixture of city and country, where garbage sweepers wandered amongst shaped floral bushes, was exotic and exciting. I took a deep breath, wondering at the heat, and was shocked at how stuffy the air was, thick with the breath of other people and the heaviness of acrid exhaust. If I were at home, the air would be sweet with springtime, but even the white lilies springing from lumps of mulch failed to perfume the air here. If this were my home, I’d be opening all the windows, but in New York City there weren’t any windows to open off the streets. The sky was harsh above us.
We were all country people, and clustered rather furtively on the sidewalk, we offered our opinions to anyone who would listen while shedding extra clothes we’d thought we’d need. “It’s so hot here.”
“Well, we have gone four hours south.”
“And look at all the buildings! They radiate heat.”
“The air here isn’t fresh. It’s stuffy.”
“No wonder. It’s like when you’ve got a lot of people in a room. The street’s like a room, with buildings for the walls...” I trailed off, trying not to gawk at passers-by, these suave beings who didn’t even look at the astonishing window displays of the latest fashions.
Fountains and statues were frozen above the crowds, sharply contrasting the ever flowing motion of the people passing by. We wandered into this odd garden, constantly ducking past people; it was never this crowded at home, even in the busiest school hallway. In a matter of moments, the group settled into sub-groups, with our chaperone and the younger boys at the front, the older students hanging at the back, and myself drifting in the middle, looking with interest at everything, one hand always on my purse.
For a moment, we paused to gaze at the huge, leaping fountain overlaid by a gold statue, then peered down at the skaters. Skaters in this heat? Outside? It seemed impossible, but the white ice gleaming below was proof.
Dipping into the shadows was pleasant, for there the heat abated, if only just a little. Radio City Music Hall flared its neon lights at us as we wandered away from the open areas and on to city streets. We were constantly cutting through crowds, or seeking protection from mad drivers within their flocks as they, the experienced ones, crossed the busy streets with confidence. Scaffolding towered everywhere, offering an even deeper shadow beneath its unsettlingly rickety structures. The city kept shedding its skin; was everyone rebuilding all at once?
“Where should we eat?” We were all hungry. We glanced around at signs, searching hopefully for somewhere appealing.
Glimpsing a red-and-yellow flag, somewhat dirty, waving deceptively close, I called, “I see a McDonalds!”
Somehow we made an unspoken decision to walk there, even though we’d already eaten at a brother location of the franchise a few hours before. As we trekked along the sidewalk, we discovered that city walking is a practice of selfishness. Harried business people, violently swinging their briefcases to clear a path for themselves, dive through the crowd, shouting in exasperation, “Excuse me!” without a shred of the politeness it implies. Cut through by these people, we glared at their retreating backs, soon swallowed by the crowd, in our own annoyance. Couldn’t they see that we had to stay with the group? Strange, to be immersed in a crowd like that, yet to still be miles apart in culture and opinions; we were unable to see the other’s point of view.
The fast food restaurant reared its ugly head, chock full of obese people and rude help, disposable everything, and garish linoleum. Repulsed by the smells of fried food, we lingered uncomfortably in a shifty cluster near the doorway, all pretending to scrutinize the boards we’d memorized at our last McDonalds stop. We hadn’t really wanted to come here.
“Isn’t anybody going to order anything?” asked the chaperone after a few tense minutes. “I thought we came here because we wanted to.”
“I saw a pizza place a block or two back, ‘New York Pizza’ or something like that,” offered a senior, leaning against the greasy wall. The whine of the air conditioner masked our collective sigh. We were relieved, though I was skeptical: I was of the opinion that you couldn’t always count on a pizza place for decent food, and sometimes McDonalds was better, in all its cheap mediocracy.
“Lead us to it, then,” replied the chaperone in somewhat irritated resignation, and drifted toward the rear of the group, perhaps thinking along the exasperated lines of “Kids these days!” Led by the senior, we pushed our way out the glass doors, also greasy and frosted with overlapping fingerprints, and escaped onto the hot street again.
This system of travel was different, and easier; all we had to do was keep our eye on the curly head of the senior in front of us. Winding our way in single file through the crowd, we could stay together more easily, and could hug the sides of buildings instead of chancing the current. This garnered fewer annoyed grunts from passers-by who were all, inexplicably, on urgent errands that stood above the needs of all others present. Ducking awnings and blinking in shock at the advertisement flyers shoved into our hands, we made our way back to the elusive goal of a pizza place. The “walk/don’t walk” signs, we’d learned, couldn’t be trusted: cars cut across when the “walk” command was lit with white, while people spilled across the street, making no effort to stay within the boundaries of the worn crosswalk, while “don’t walk” glared.
At last, after several pauses to ponder signs and turns, we ducked a few more awnings and splayed out across a widely beckoning doorway. There was no need to check prices; the smell was good enough that we didn’t care. Dimly, I remembered my father saying about a pizza we’d eaten at home, “Best crust I’ve had outside of New York.” Well, here I was.
“It’s a real pizza place,” someone admired as we stepped in. It was true: this was the classic pizza place, right down to the dough wheeling in the air, caught by skilled hands.
Inside, it was sweltering. Heat rose in waves from the ovens that lined a side wall, and as sweat sprang to my skin I cursed my jacket, which began to stick to me almost instantly. Due to the heat, our hunger, and the tantalizing wealth of choices, our pause wasn’t long or uncomfortable this time. “All slices $2.75” informed a sign on the wall. On shining trays, the pizza was spread out in flavors to guess. Not feeling very adventurous, I stepped forward and requested a slice of pepperoni to go. It was thrown in a bag, which was in turn thrown to me, and I shuffled down to the register to pay.
Even with my contact with European relatives, people with accents speaking quickly can bewilder me easily. Before I could even compute what the man dressed in white, complete with paper hat, at the register had barked, he demanded, “$2.75,” and I paid numbly. I retreated back to the back wall, regretting that I hadn’t bought a drink.
“Can we go outside, just outside the door?” we begged the chaperone, waving our bags of pizza as proof. The restaurant was filling quickly now; people were eagerly crowding in for lunch, joining in the winding line, raising the temperature to unbearable levels. He nodded and we piled out to the sidewalk again, relieved to be out of the heat, though soon the street was too warm for us. Asking someone to hold my bag, I thrashed out of my jacket and slung it over my arm, silently berating the fabric, “Good riddance!”
Back in Rockefeller Center, we settled amongst the pruned bushes and gurgling fountains and tore open our pizza. I drew my slice out hungrily, ignoring the grease splashing over my fingers, and took a bite. The crust was thin and crisp, darker than I was accustomed to, but in the first bite I caught the rich taste of the sauce and chewed delightedly. Swallowing and glancing over to my companions, who were still opening their drinks, I exclaimed, “It’s good!”
“It is?” they asked, looking down at the white paper bags in their hands.
“Greasy, but good,” I insisted, eagerly taking another bite and wishing I’d grabbed a napkin as well as a drink. I’d had my first taste of New York pizza. It was amazing. And to think I’d been doubtful.
Our pizza finished, we gazed longingly at the chocolate stores jostling for space with stylish boutiques. The racks of designer handbags in candy-colored leather were dwarfed by window displays of sweet, expensive treats.
“We could get chocolate,” someone suggested, pointing to a Godiva store, its gold sign glimmering temptingly.
“We’d only be able to afford a chocolate chip,” someone else pointed out grimly.
“It’d be a damn good chocolate chip,” I commented, then giggled at the rows of bespectacled men at the other end of the fountains and flowers, lined up one after another with cameras raised and clicking. Perhaps they’d all have photographs of other people taking pictures. Was that their goal?
Soon the entire busload regrouped, brandishing plastic bags of expensive souvenirs--someone had bought an “I Love New York” t-shirt, another a piece, just a piece, of the aforementioned expensive chocolate--and began to migrate down the sidewalk in our own slice of crowd. Cameras flashed nonstop as we excitedly pointed out the Empire State building, sapphire shadowed to its sharp point, and other landmarks in the hazy skyline. I joined a friend in the rippling crowd; he grinned at me and then looked to the girl next to him.
“She’s a New York virgin,” he told her, gesturing to me with his jacket over his shoulder.
“She is? It’s your first time here?” she asked, with something between amusement and sympathy. I nodded mutely, slightly embarrassed, and looked out over the sea of people before me.
“Yup, a New York virgin.”