When I first set out in April of 2017 on my pilgrimage through Europe, I didn’t really know where the journey would lead me. I had planned minimally, knowing barely more than my general route and a smattering of language learned through an app on my phone, enough, in my mind, to get me by for three months in a foreign land. I left my home in Washington state with a series of targets, more than any specific goal, but before I could go forward into that unknown world, I first had to go back, to the home I’d once known, the great city of New York.
I’ve lived in New York City twice in my life, once in 2000, as a student at the then fledgling New York Film Academy, and again in 2007, during a transitional point in my life while I applied to graduate schools and looked for work. The City had always held a great mystique for me, a pull as a place to live at the tip of progress, to experience the ever-evolving nature of culture and civilization in the place that seemed to change the quickest of any place I’ve known. In my days of looking for college, I’d twice set New York University as my primary target, and twice been declined the opportunity to attend. Though my life has diverted significantly in terms of my goals and aspirations, and general outlook, there was still a pull to be connected with this great city.
My best friend and former film school roommate had invited me to his wedding some months prior, and I’d circled the date as one that I refused to miss. Being in New York that weekend was important to me on a personal level, but it was also the perfect opportunity, and the impetus, for deciding to go to Europe in the first place. The cost of actually getting to Italy had always been a major detractor to me, but with round-trip flights to New York costing the equivalent of a two one-way connectors, using New York as the midpoint between my home and Rome, I felt it was the ideal opportunity to hop the Atlantic and tackle one of the great challenges of my life. My dependence on logic has never been my strong point, but this rationale seemed like one that made I way too much sense to ignore.
I took a red-eye flight from Seattle on a red-eye to JFK airport, sleeping only an hour or so cumulatively, and landed on the east coast as the sun rose across the Atlantic Ocean. I hopped a train into Manhattan and dropped my bag off at the family friend’s apartment where I was staying, and grabbed my camera to set out and make the most of my two days in the city I had once wanted to call home over any other.
I had very few goals for this trip to New York. There were some restaurants I wanted to try, and I wanted to spend some time with my friend before his big day, but mostly I just wanted to wander the streets the way I used to when I was a 20 year old film student getting to know the ever changing, yet never changing streets of this one of a kind city.
And so I wandered. I walked from NYU up to midtown, then caught a train to the Upper East Side for a lox bagel from H&H, which has subsequently ruined every other bagel for me. I went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and found St. James in the Hall of Saints, an auspicious find given my impending hike along the Camino.
I crossed Central Park to the west side, then back to the south, finally walking down to the building on 40th St. where I’d lived 17 years prior, just to discover it had been rendered completely unrecognizable. Across the street
I met my friend for dinner at David Chang’s Momofuku, a place I’d long dreamed of trying, and reconnected over ramen and beer and pork belly steamed buns. We talked for hours, about life, work, food, and relationships. He was more happy and comfortable than I’d ever seen him when we both lived in LA, and I realized he’d found his home, and I was beyond happy for him.
We went to a bar and had one more beer before it was time to call it a night, but I wasn’t ready to go to sleep yet. I walked to a nearby pizza spot and grabbed a couple of slices, not out of hunger, but out of a desire to reclaim some of the love I’d had for the city so long ago. It was good pizza, not mind-blowing as I remembered New York slices being, but that somehow seemed to fit with the ever-growing sense I was beginning to feel from the place.
The next day, after about 4 hours of sleep, I went to the Natural History museum and spent the whole day there, wandering its halls and reliving the times I had spent there, on my own or on family vacations in my youth. I sat beneath Teddy Roosevelt’s statue and ate breakfast sweets from Christina Tosi’s Milk Bar, and paid a little extra to walk through the living butterfly exhibit, one of my favorite exhibits. I walked the dinosaur halls and remembered my youthful obsession with prehistoric creatures.
On the way back to NYU, I stopped by Strawberry Fields in Central Park, the place I considered my happy place, the place I felt most connected to my creative energy, the place I used to go and write and listen to buskers play poor imitations of John Lennon songs to tourists who came to pay respects not 100 yards from where he had been murdered. The place was packed with people as I stopped to try and feel some of what I used to feel there, as tourists jostled to get a picture of the tiled “Imagine” mosaic inlaid into the paved path. I sat and listened to a street musician tell stories about how he once met Lennon in the early 70’s, and tried to find what little peace and quiet I could.
I thought about the two days I spent in New York, and tried to reconcile the feeling of disconnection with a place I’d once felt so connected to. I thought about the things that had excited me about going back there, about trying to return to the feelings of freedom and independence I’d first found in 2000, the first experience I’d had living on my own.
I realized that I was trying to recapture something that had been lost long ago, swallowed up by a city that is constantly changing, constantly evolving. It had been ten years since I’d last been in New York, and it was a vastly different place than the one I thought I knew. Gone were so many of the small stores and the family-run restaurants and delis I used to frequent. In their place were Targets and Taco Bells, but beyond that, the soul of the place seemed to have changed in the time I’d been away, or perhaps I had been the one who had changed too much.
As I left the city the next day, on a train to Newark where I’d rent a car and travel up-state for the wedding, I, for the first time in my life, didn’t feel sad about leaving New York. It was no longer home, or even the dream of home, that it had been for so much of my life. My love for the canyons of Manhattan and the towering spires of her buildings had been subsumed by my new love for real canyons and spires, those of granite or sandstone. I knew I had changed in the intervening years between visits, but I was just beginning to realize just how much.