By Geo Ong
That chronic travel bug inside me has awakened from its dormant slumber and as of late re-emerged to make itself known again. Shockingly, if you exclude my move to New York and my brief week-long return to Los Angeles a few months ago, I haven’t travelled since October 2010. Goodness, can that be? Surely, I’m forgetting something…
To be fair to myself, I suppose, moving to a new city does satisfy the travel bug, but only as much as any travel jaunt would anyway, so here I am again, and here it is again. It has even manifested itself in my subconscious – last week I dreamt I was moving to Philadelphia. When asked why, my response was ‘Why not?’
But to feel this way, still inside of a year in New York City, seems absurd. Absurd and alarmingly true. If New York City still doesn’t feel like home to me yet, then the routes I walk to work everyday, the bar around the block, and the cafe I visit on my days off, certainly do.
Because I am fortunate enough to be committed to a full-time job right now, it is difficult for me to travel to other cities or countries. My restlessness defaults to the desire to leave, even if just for a short while. But I realised not too long ago that I can easily achieve that meditative, instinctual quality of travelling right here in New York City, seeing as how much of my first year had been spent ‘regularising’ parts of the city.
So one day I went on a long walk. Walking is the best way to know a city intimately – with a city this large and diverse, I figured I’d explore just one part at a time. Rather arbitrarily, I chose to wander around Lower Manhattan. I know the East Village quite well, but other than how to get to Babycakes from my friend’s apartment, the Lower East Side, Chinatown, Alphabet City, and Two Bridges were largely alien to me.
So I took to getting lost, which for me is sometimes quite difficult. Even though I loathe this age’s GPS-ing of everyday life, I’m actually just as concerned as the next person, about knowing where I am. The last long wander I took was through Boerum Hill and Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, but I eventually found myself walking back to Fort Greene, my neighbourhood of employ, for that free cup of coffee I can always count on.
I did better this time, focusing more on my immediate surroundings and my other senses rather than picturing myself on a Google Map. It was a hot Saturday, so everyone was out. Chinatown in particular was crowded with sounds, voices, and smells. The heat seemed to heighten everything, and for a second I felt myself in a paragraph of a New York novel, since everything seemed so highly descriptive.
I walked farther south to Two Bridges, where it is quite difficult to notice anything other than the massive Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges stretching over the East River. From Manhattan’s side, I located the tops of the buildings in Downtown Brooklyn so I could at least think to myself, ‘I can see my house from here!’ I walked along South Street, just under the roaring motorway of FDR Drive, reading traffic signs like ‘Right Lane Manhattan Bridge’ and suddenly something hit me.
No, not a car. A thought. Something about reading the place-name, in my momentary state of proposed self-exile, took my mind back to the first time I visited New York City. I was in a car with Sarah and we were gazing at the buildings of the city in the distance, and though we were driving toward them, it felt more like the city was coming at us, and it never felt quite real.
So much of my moving to New York City was about grounding its myth in some sort of reality. I knew people lived here but I never gave it much realistic thought. Part of me was aimed to prove, to myself as well as to others, that it was possible to move to the Big Apple; after all, people did it all the time. Yet another part of me felt like a child preparing himself for a trip to Disneyland. In the child’s rational brain, he most likely knows what’s real and what isn’t, but what the child chooses instead to focus on is that the entire place is magical.
I remember going to Disneyland one time about six months too old. In many ways, I was still straddling the line between innocent acceptance and questioning suspicion, but deep down I knew exactly what was going on; if anything, I chose to pretend like I didn’t. I happened to spend my first year in New York straddling a similar line, one between optimistic idealism and responsible practicality. And one thing I learned during this tightrope act is that it feels much safer to lean more on the side of practicality, regardless of the fact that an equal balance is all it takes to get you safely to your destined goal.
Many people I’ve come to know have told me that the first year is the hardest. Generally speaking, and situational circumstances aside, I believe this. But I know that each year will offer a different kind of lesson to be learned. So much of my first year was spent grounding the city’s myth into reality; really, just pulverizing it into the dirt. Perhaps this second year will be about trying to dig it up again.