Friday, November 08, 2013

The Thing About New York

A few days ago, my cousin asked me whether there is one scene, a single image, that describes USA to me. He asked the question because one of his friends had said that the scene that comes to his mind when he thinks of America is a row of car lights on the highway, red on one side and white on the other. Something like this:

Disclaimer: I was not driving the truck from which this photo was taken. 

I wasn't so sure of the answer at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I converged on the single image that describes America to me. Not cars on the highway, not trees covered with orange leaves or snow covered houses. Not even Niagara or the Grand Canyon. It is the sight that took my breath away five years ago.

The Manhattan skyline.

Again, this photo was not taken while driving on Route 1

And as I was entering US Route 1 while driving to Virginia last Sunday, and the skyline loomed up in front of my windshield, I suddenly realized that I would not be seeing this sight regularly anymore. It is a sight which people from across the world come to see, a sight which I have become so used to during the last five years that I don't even notice it all the time. From now on when I see that sight, it will be as a visitor, not as a person who can call New York his own city.

Clearly, research leaves me with a lot of free time
But was New York ever my city? Strictly speaking, the answer is "No." I was a resident of Newark, New Jersey. New York City does not feature anywhere in the list of cities where I have ever lived. In fact, Newark is as much my city as Kolkata is. But in the last five years, with the law & order situation in Newark far from satisfactory, I have spent a lot more time walking around New York City than I have spent in Newark. Be it the Broadway, or Wall Street, or Brooklyn Bridge, or Central Park, I have really come to know a lot of Manhattan like the back of my hand. This familiarity, of course, came at a price. In my mind, New York City (or simply "the city" as we call it) became something like the sun or the moon or the tree in my backyard. Something that exists there, but something that I don't usually think about. Need to develop some film? Just drop into B&H. Some fresh fish at budget rates? Chinatown has the answer. Need crayons for my sister? Go spend a few hours in Pearl Paint. And then there was always the Borders or B&N stores to spend a lazy day at, if the weather was bad. One could also go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Americal Museum of Natural History. I even came to know the locations of specific exhibits in these museums by heart. Lunch? No problem! I know the best carts and a store where you can get an amazing Chinese lunch for $5. And if the weather is good, there is the Central Park. Take your camera, or take a book, or an mp3 player, and for a few hours you can forget that you are in the middle of one of the largest cities in the world. I did all these activities all the time, and yet, I felt surprised when some friend from outside expressed envy at my geographic location, or the fact that I left college early to go buy some fish in New York. I felt puzzled when someone wanted to visit New York twice just to "see it," because living next to New York almost made me forget that it is one of the top tourist destinations in the world.
People at the Grand Central Terminal. Some people are busy and some are not.

I have no idea what was going on here
So what is the city like? I have been asked to write a blog on NYC several times, and I never did it, though I wrote blog posts about DC, Boston, Chicago and Las Vegas. At first sight, New York is not pleasant at all. A concrete jungle with sun-deprived alleyways perpetually in the shadow of skyscrapers, overcrowded, expensive and dirty (as my American-born nephew put it, "It smells like India"). People have no time for each other, they are always running. Cars jump stop signs, people jaywalk blatantly. In short, utterly chaotic. But then, as you get to know the back alleys of Brooklyn and the Bronx, the Egyptian Temple at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the people, the food carts, the parks, the quaint little coffee shops, the ceiling of the Grand Central Terminal, you see the real New York City. The city where seemingly busy people will still stop and pose for a photo, the city where in the middle of a thousand glaring neon signs you suddenly see a small banner saying "টাইমস স্কোয়্যারে স্বাগতম", the city where on certain days, traffic comes to a standstill due to photographers shooting the sunset. A city where you take a photo of a bird's nest, only to have a group of elderly birdwatchers swoop down upon you with all kinds of information about that bird species.

Seen in Central Park
Nothing can match the energy and grandeur of Kolkata during Durga Puja, but New York puts up a brave attempt during the Christmas week. The crowd around the huge Christmas trees at Bryant Park and Rockefeller Center is something that you rarely come across in this country. And on New Year's Eve, thousands brave sub-zero temperatures and bone-chilling winds to see the ball drop at Times Square. I haven't been part of the last mentioned madness, but when I see the rest of it, something somewhere, reminds me of Kolkata, where crowds gather for the smallest of reasons.

Wall Street on a winter day
Sometime, in these five years, unknowingly, New York City became my city. Kuntala calls New York a nest of lunatics. I feel at home among its multitudes of lunatics, because I know there is a fair bit of craziness inside me. I bristle when someone criticizes the city or its people. I have served as a NYC tourist guide for scores of friends, relatives and ultimately my parents, and showed them New York with the same pride that one associates with one's hometown. I would take them to the best viewpoints, at the best times, and then, when they were drinking in the visual treat in front of them, I would derive the ultimate joy from their awestruck expressions.

Sunset behind Liberty

Which brings us to the biggest reason why I loved New York City so much. Even after these five years, even after so much familiarity, New York City still surprises me on every visit. Each time I visit the city, I come across something --- a public art installation, a little shop that I had not seen before, a person dressed like a wizard, a gentleman walking a goat on a leash, a sign written in Bengali, a frozen fountain --- that surprises me. During my initial visits, the phenomenon was understandable, but it never stopped when the places became old and known to me, and I started stepping beyond the usual tourist traps. In fact, on my very first visit to the city I saw the aforementioned Bengali sign and on my very last visit I saw some amazing things inside the public library that I didn't know were there. New York has been throwing these surprises at me for the last five years, and I hope it won't stop.

Because although I have bid farewell to New York and moved to Virginia, which is in the suburb of Washington DC, I plan to keep visiting NYC whenever I get a chance. I really love surprises.


  1. মন ভরে গেল পড়ে। নিউ ইয়র্ক সিটি যে পাগলের আড্ডা সেটা আমি এখনও বলব, আরও একশোবার বলব, কিন্তু পাগলামোকে ঊপেক্ষা করা শক্ত। আপনার মতো কাছ থেকে আমি এন ওয়াই সি-কে দেখতে পারিনি, সে আফসোস মনের ভেতর ছিল অনেকদিন। তবে আপনার ব্লগে নিউ ইয়র্ককে অনেকবার দেখেছি। শহরটাকে আপনি কথায়, ছবিতে, ঘুরিয়েফিরিয়ে নেড়েচেড়ে দেখিয়েছেন অনেকবার। সেটা আমার দেখার থেকে কোনও অংশে কম নয়। থ্যাংক ইউ।

  2. Thankfully, you have put the disclaimer :). For me, I think they are the NYC skyline as well as the Central Park (I cannot choose any one of the two).

    This post could not have been written in a better way. Awesome one, really! Loved it.

  3. @Kuntala: ধন্যবাদ। এন ওয়াই সি এর জন্য আফসোস করলে চলবে? আর আপনি যে এতদিন ধরে প্যারিসে বসে বসে আইফেল টাওয়ারটাকে পাড়ার জলের ট্যাঙ্কের থেকেও বেশি চিনে ফেললেন তার বেলা?

    @Atreyee: Thanks! I had to put the disclaimer because people were asking me on Facebook how I could take the photo while driving.

  4. Nicely written,agree with you but hate NYC,Chicago and other bigger cities of the east and west coast.They all have lots to offer ,just too much of being in Midwest ,laid back and peaceful.

  5. @Anonymous: I can understand your love. I am from a small town myself. But on the other hand, India is a populous country, and even small towns can be pretty crowded. That way, NYC reminds me of home.

  6. Oh I totally agree with you NYC reminds me of India infact NYC, New Jersey etc looks like a cleaner version of India from kolkata ..just so you know