Wandering New York
On the heels of a busy few weeks and a somewhat overwhelming workload, I decided to spend a couple of days in New York for a brief holiday. Chalk it up to having recently discovered the joys of street photography and a brilliant new documentary, in which a simple man of simple pleasures gives up the trappings of a materialistic life to wander every street, park, pier, coast, cemetery and alley in all five boroughs of New York. His journey has taken over five years and is still not complete. I’d only have about 48 hours.
New York has always been another home for me, so I was quite curious to see what I would find when treating it as a playground for wandering and photographic exploration. At times it did feel like being a tourist in one of my own cities, and at a less-enlightened age in my life, I would have dreaded being branded as such, but one of those things I’ve learned with age is that the stigma surrounding tourism is a particularly boring form of cynicism. There is nothing wrong with hitting the hotspots, whether you live in a place or are just visiting for a while.
I kept my wandering to a tight pattern - from Grand Central Terminal, then on to the park, and up toward Museum Row, from the low 40s to the high 80s.
Grand Central is a monument to human achievement, with an astonishing scale and size. The frequency and volume of traffic passing through its tracks is immense, and the weight of all of that marble, steel and glass feels unimpeachable. Even in such an imposing structure on a cold winter’s morning, there’s a warmth that comes from the orange hue of its gilded chandeliers and the way it enthralls everyone passing through. Even the locals pause to look up and snap a photo of the vaulted roof - impossible, as it is, to have just a platonic relationship with such a place.
The dim catacombs of its lower levels are just as captivating. Whispers skip across the domed ceilings from the pillars at each corner, creating a blissfully analog messaging system for lovers to share secrets or parents to play parlor tricks on their children. Nearby, three junkies on a wooden bench in the food court nod off in unity as families munch on pizza and millennials indulge on Shake Shack.
Exiting onto Fifth Avenue and heading toward the Park, I was reminded that opulence and excess are two sides of a very slim coin. The shopping isn’t nearly as interesting as Rockefeller Center, dripping in gold and Art Deco appointments. Despite its veneer, the plaza remains a stoic and remarkably sober dedication to a time of American exceptionalism. Prometheus and Atlas somehow coexist amidst the NBC Comcast Universal offices and the LEGO store, recalling a time when the country’s biggest exports were grit and determination.
And then there’s Central Park - one of New York’s crowning accomplishments of balance between the man-made and the natural world. On this blue-grey and snowy day, the real discovery was a woman singing arias for an unassuming crowd in the dimly lit but perfectly appointed Bethesda Terrace off of 72nd Street. I could hear her voice as I approached from the nearby fountain, and was pleasantly surprised to find that she was asking for likes on her Instagram page instead of panhandling for money.
I’ve grown especially fond of city wandering; it’s the antithesis of a distraction. Adulthood brings with it a very laissez-faire attitude about one’s surroundings. We tend to miss the tiny details that make cities vibrant, living organisms, constantly passing over these quirks for the truly disinteresting humdrum of daily life. Wandering around a familiar place with the aim of exploring and documenting the experience is far from a distraction - it is an engagement, and I’m completely hooked on it.