After a few days in New Jersey on a recent trip (Inspiration), I spent a week in New York. It had been many years since I was last there and, this time, I had no appointments, no business to attend to, no one to visit, just a time to savor old memories and explore new places, to immerse myself in the excitement of one of the greatest cities on Earth, and walk and walk and walk and walk.
Born and raised in Newark, thirty minutes by bus from New York City, I feel fortunate to have been so close to an unparalleled art center. My aunt worked in the city and often invited my mother and me to cultural events—ballet, Broadway musicals, art museums, symphony. One of my brother’s friends was an understudy in the play Sound of Music; we went to see it when he was filling in. Thrilling to know a real person to say hello to at the stage door who was part of the glamorous life of the theater! One day, in eighth grade, when I was walking home from school, I saw my brother walking up the street from the opposite direction.
“Where are you coming from?”
“The New York bus!” he answered with a grin.
Whole new possibilities opened up! After that, and throughout my high school years, I regularly cut school, carefully keeping within the limits of allowable days absent so it would not affect my grades, and spent the day wandering the island solo, taking the subway down to Greenwich Village, walking up tony Fifth Avenue to stroll in Central Park, or admiring the marquees and posters in the theater district, craning my neck at the skyscrapers, milling in the crush of bodies hurrying in business suits or hippie garb, breathing in the atmosphere and urban buzz.
In college, I was also thirty minutes from Manhattan. As an art student, with little money, I frequented art museums on free days and poked into the galleries along Lexington Avenue, my knitted fringed poncho and frizzy hair blowing in the wind. I’m sure they knew I wouldn’t buy anything, but welcomed my questions, happy to give encouragement to a budding art student, to talk about the artists and their works. My aunt gave me her membership card to the Museum of Modern Art and the wonderful paintings in the regular collection etched themselves into my brain, becoming more meaningful while I studied art history, as I visited them through the years. I was always a bit hesitant to show the guards my entry card; did they really think I looked like a Bertha Kruk?
In my freshman year, a student I knew approached my friend and me outside the student union building. He had tickets to a concert that night at Fillmore East—Crosby, Stills and Nash. He couldn’t go; did we want them? He didn’t want us to pay for them. We could still make it. We ran down the hill to catch the New York bus, calling back our thanks, and hopped on the subway. As we came through the door, the beginning chords and heavenly harmonies of their first song, “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” (we knew all the words), welcomed us and we were floating on air as we found our seats. Neil Young emerged from behind the curtains to join them for the last song or two, soon to be an official member of the band.
I dated a student who always seemed to have Fillmore concert tickets and invited me to join him. He didn’t have a job—how could he afford them, I wondered? It took me a while to discover he was selling drugs. No wonder he was always well supplied. Another guy I dated on a few double dates with a friend. We would drive into the city in his friend’s beat-up old station wagon with a big cardboard box in the back. He’d pull up to a fire hydrant, take out the box, and nonchalantly drop it over the hydrant. Never got a parking ticket.
And then there was the time when three of us, tripping on LSD, a straight friend driving and guiding, spent the day at the Central Park Zoo. Everything—animals, rocks, water, clouds—was alive and celebrating the unity of life, one with the world, at peace, joyful. A drug-induced illusion we knew, but a spiritual feeling warmed me afterwards for months.
For his graduation present, years later, I took my son to New York for a long weekend to see Spamalot and found last-minute tickets to Amadeus. His choice was to visit the United Nations; he was enthralled with the intricate toy displays at FAO Schwartz. We listened for a while to a saxophone player in Central Park on our way to Strawberry Fields, a tribute to John Lennon. For dinner one night, we connected with a cousin I had never met and his girlfriend, who lived in a high-rise with a stunning view over the East River, for dinner in Soho, and they invited us to join them at Carnival in Trinidad.
One of the benefits of traveling solo is choosing the things to do that interest you. On this more recent visit two years ago, I planned a few things in advance that needed tickets: plays (The Book of Mormon, Come From Away, and Kinky Boots) and jazz club concerts (Smoke, Village Vanguard), my selection determined by who was playing that week. My days were for wandering, with just a few destinations in mind: the Tenement Museum (I pictured my immigrant grandparents in the tailor’s apartment) and Russ & Daughters Deli (food from my childhood) in the Village, walking the High Line Canal, and a day in newly trendy Brooklyn. And, of course, lots of detours to art museums and excellent hole-in-the-wall restaurants to discover along the way. What would you choose for your New York jaunt?
Your comments are welcome!
Email me at: RRontheroad@hotmail.com