As I opened my eyes and tried to come out of my sleep, I was greeted with an ocean of glittering lights beyond the darkness outside. The bus was moving towards those lights. Within a few seconds I was able to discern the all too familiar shapes among the lights: the semi-dark Freedom Tower with the tall spire on top, the irregular shaped Bank of America Tower, and most distinct of them all, the Empire State Building bathed in a deep red and yellow glow. I took out my phone from my pocket and messaged Amrita, "About to reach NYC."
And then I lay back in my seat and tried to take in the scene outside. The scene that was so commonplace for me a few months ago that I would have probably slept through it. People around me were trying to capture the city lights using their cellphones. I knew it was futile, because apart from the technical difficulties of the situation, a photo is only a pattern of light and darkness that does not capture the feelings of the photographer who took it. The brain is far better than any camera in capturing those. The bus moved closer and closer to the city before plunging into the Lincoln Tunnel under the Hudson. When it came out on the other side, our bus had become part of that ocean of lights.
I collected my things and stepped out of the Port Authority Bus Terminus onto 42nd Street. It was 11 o'clock in the night, but who could tell that from the state of the streets? I couldn't walk a step without bumping into people. I could read a newspaper by the neon lights. The ambient noise was such that I couldn't hear myself speak. Living near Washington DC had spoiled me. Midtown Manhattan assaulted all my senses at once and welcomed me with the fierceness of a long lost friend. The Friday evening crowds streaming in and out of the AMC theater, the women in mini skirts braving the near-zero temperature, the huge LED video displays advertising the Disney musicals, the smell of burning meat emanating from the roadside hot dog stands, and the steam curling out of the street manhole covers here and there, transforming 21st century New York to 19th century London without a moment's warning. Everything was so familiar, yet so new.
I stopped to appreciate all of this for a moment, then smiled to myself and walked on. I smiled to myself because I knew I wasn't supposed to be here at this time if everything had gone according to my plans. And how boring that would have been!
I had booked this trip when Atreyee had informed me from India during her month-long visit that she was bringing some Bengali sweets for me, and I should come and get them if I wanted them. This weekend was chosen because there was a Saraswati puja celebration in New Jersey on Saturday and I could hit two birds with one stone. But New York City was nowhere in my plans. I was supposed to take a bus from DC to Newark, and go directly to Amrita's house for the night. New York City, it seems, had other plans, and I ended up catching the wrong shuttle from work on Friday evening and missing the 6:15 Bolt Bus to Newark. The next best option was taking the 7 p.m. Greyhound to NYC and going back to Newark from there. Hence this detour.
And I smiled to myself because I realized I actually liked it. In an otherwise tiring day that had gone downhill from the moment I had got on the wrong shuttle, this plunge into Times Square was like a splash of cold water that rejuvenated me instantly. I was no longer my exhausted and nervous self standing at an unfamiliar Virginia bus stop looking at my watch a few hours ago. I was a cheerful and confident local trying to reach New York Penn station by the shortest route, and pausing to admire the chaos every few minutes. Once again, I could see that in spite of all that empty talk about wider roads, more greenery and a higher standard of living, Virginia has failed to diminish my love for this crowded and dirty human anthill.
And when I start the workday tomorrow morning, probably already tired from returning home late tonight, I'll be longing for my next visit to the city that never grows old, the city where it's always festival time. It will probably not happen for months, but I know for certain that when it happens, I'm going love it.