I’d been awake for 24 hours when I got my first taste of the Big Apple.
I was in one of those other-worldly states that only people who fly long-haul – almost literally from one side of the globe to the other – can truly understand.
Your exhaustion is mixed with a jaded, surreal sense of excitement, not unlike waking up after a very big night, still a little pissed and wondering where the fuck you are and possibly who is lying next to you.
I checked into my hotel, which I was soon to learn (later that night at 2am precisely) would be the recipient of road-works outside its front door that involved an actual steamroller and a quasi-psychotic, sleep-deprived Kiwi/Aussie who’d been “upgraded” to a room on the second floor and who slept her first-ever night in New York with five pillows on her head.
That first night, with only a few hours to kill before my fateful night of unrest, I took the short stroll to Times Square and like so many before marvelled at the light so bright it seemed like it was 9am and not 9pm as well as all the people – who were bloody everywhere.
Only a few days before I’d written a blog about the loneliness of being a self-employed writer and so I was perhaps a little unprepared for being thrust into an environment that screams at every single one of your senses at maximum volume, every single moment of every single day. It really is the city that never sleeps and the one that never, ever shuts up.
In those eight days I walked 85 kilometres or 53 miles around the streets of New York City. In hindsight, this may have been a tad excessive but my feet seemed possessed – but I did come home a kilo lighter than when I’d left and I’d eaten every bad food choice imaginable (how good are chilli dogs?)
But, if I’m honest, one of the reasons why I walked and walked – from 10th to 89th Street and everywhere in-between – was partly because the subway scared me shitless. And it wasn’t because I’d heard particularly bad stories about it because I did live in London for a number of years and rode the Tube (usually drunk) with no qualms whatsoever. The only reason I can think of was that I’d morphed into a scared old 40-something lady and hadn’t actually noticed. I mean, what other explanation could there be for walking those rock-hard streets so much I was exhausted almost every night?
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my two solitary nights out in New York (which strangely were a Tuesday and a Thursday) were at the very beginning of my trip. My one and only weekend there involved more killer kilometres of solitary sauntering as well as people watching and side-stepping, and which culminated in me curled up at my hotel with two slices of bona fide New York pizza watching a movie on a Saturday night. Party Fucken Central.
That’s not to say I was completely nana-like during my sojourn. My two nights on the town were punctuated by a revolving door of curious Americans who couldn’t believe that I was a) a woman travelling by myself, b) not married, even though (in the quote of the trip) I was “pretty enough to be married”, c) could drink them under the table, of which they offered to pay for time and time again, which was rather charitable if you think about it. They sure were a friendly, generous bunch.
I’m not going to list the notable sights that I saw as I walked those streets, because that’s just boring. But ask me what’s on the corner of 34th and ninth or 48th and Broadway and I can quite possibly tell you.
I paced and prowled around that crazy “I think I love and hate you” city for hour after hour. And it’s only now that I understand that I was looking for my mojo, because I know I’d lost it somewhere along the way these past few weeks, months or years. But with each kilometre, as my calves ached and my hips creaked with age, weariness and hope, I knew I was getting closer to finding it. And so I kept on walking. Mile after Manhattan mile.
I strutted to Central Park, then traipsed through it and around it often. I meandered down Fifth Ave more than once and hung out in Hell’s Kitchen most of all. And each night as I lay listening to the non-stop noise and humanity happening right outside my hotel window, I tried to sleep while simultaneously fighting the urge to leave the safety of my room so I could walk some more.
And so it was on my final day in New York that I walked down the dark steps on 42nd and, with much anxiousness, took the subway downtown. I looked around at the heaving hordes doing the same and wondered if they could tell I was a subway virgin. If they did, they sure didn’t show it and I sure wasn’t going to give the game away, so I just clutched onto my ticket tighter and pretended I knew where I was going and what I was doing with my life.
A few hours later, I bravely took the journey back again and something in me notably shifted. All of the “life shit” of recent years let go of me and I knew there was nothing to fear. No more than walking the streets of New York alone, but far from lonely, because you’re amidst the masses who can make you feel very small but also sometimes very big. No wonder people come to this place to follow their dreams, I thought. It made me feel like anything was possible – even if in the end, it was a visual and aural overload that I partly wanted to run away from.
But a few days later, while horrendously sick in DC (that’s a blog for another time), I found myself searching online for where I’d stay on my next visit to the Big Apple. I think that city creeps up on you like that. Too much all at once but once you’re gone, you want to go back and do it all over again. A bit like good drugs or a mind-blowing one-night-only lover, now I come to think of it.
And so it was that part of that research was how close my future NYC hotel was to the subway, because maybe my aimless days of wandering might be done for a little while. I think I strode those streets of New York and perhaps somewhere around 47th I found myself.