Step by Step, a Walk Through New York
I woke up in a blur. A bit of head pain, a bit of weight, a bit of feeling over whatever it is I’ve been feeling the past several days. This happens sometimes. The silver linings, the golden hues, the colorful feelings and capacity I feel in my heart can disappear, always momentarily, but gone nonetheless.
Life can get lonely. We all feel it, I’m sure. Sometimes I feel it so astonishingly strong that I wonder if it’s me, or this place, or this culture. When I spend an entire day adhering to a schedule, making progress towards goals, glued to a screen instead of a face, I wonder: Is this it? Surely it can’t be. What I came here for, what I’m meant for, what we all ought to be doing. Stuck to screens while our lives silently pass us by. It’s been a year since I’ve lived in New York now. A year! I’m working for myself, making more money than I expected to at this age, achieving a ton, and spending time with new friends I now consider family. It seems, by simple plots, that I’ve done exactly what I came here to do. But underneath this all, there’s something else, there’s some void, some understanding that every Sunday, or Thursday, every week or every month I find myself lost and alone. I meditate every morning, practice gratitude, eat well and exercise to provide some scheduled armor against it, but, in the end, the weight of it all can crush me. I find myself motionless on the floor, or in bed, against all motivations to get up. Then a voice says, This is ridiculous! I have so much. I know exactly what I’m grateful for, there’s no reason to be down. Get up! And so I do. I go out, I get up, I work, I meet, I play, I laugh. But sometimes I just want it to stop.
When I think about the various occasions in which I find myself deep in a trench, I recognize that the coordinates that lead me here have always been. This inner need for constant connection, a yearning for love that at times can be quenched, but never for too long. During the happiest periods of my life I’ve felt alone. It’s a part of being human I think, though why it pierces me so fervently, the loneliness when it occurs, I’m not so sure. I don’t think it is an ultimate flaw, or a missing piece of me. It’s simply a part of the journey, it must be. Finding out what this is.
I don’t know exactly what it is I’ve been looking for all these years. I have more friends than I can keep track of, I have close friends I consider the best humans on this earth, and I have an incredible, loving, supportive family. I have a job that lets me eat and drink and projects I’m excited for. But I need to know something. I need to know that everyone else understands we’re as connected as I think we are. Perhaps, actually, I need to know that it’s true. I need to know that my belief in life is not amiss. And in order to know that, I need to feel it. I’m not sure what “it” is, but I know it exists. It’s there when I’m on the road with my friends, or when I laugh with a coworker. It’s there when I fly home to visit my family, when I fly on my own to a new place, when I meet a stranger I adore or see the pure, correct, wise smile and yelp of an infant. It’s there when I cry, when someone else cries, or when we all confess we cried last week.
Laying in my bed, I thought about what I had to do today. I had to clean the house, that was pretty much it. What then? I thought. Then I’m alone. There was a friend’s party tonight. I could get together with friends before, maybe go for a run. But I didn’t want to do either of those things. I didn’t want to. I wanted this feeling to go away, without me chasing it away. I don’t know, I thought. I like walking, I know that. I love walking over the bridge to Manhattan. The weather was pleasant today. Okay, I’ll do that. I’ll walk over the bridge. Maybe find a coffee shop, sit, and read. Hell, maybe I’ll just walk.
I got up and cleaned the whole house, listening to music while the hour dwindled by. Music always pushes me forward and up. I took a shower, moisturized from head to toe, lathered on some sunscreen, and put on my favorite pair of shorts and nostalgia-inducing shirt, the one from California. I looked in the mirror and managed a smile. It was me in the mirror, the same kid who played dress up behind the clothing racks at Macy’s, the same guy who ran around traveling all of Europe with his friends.
I left my apartment and started the hour trek to a coffee shop I planned on settling down in. Coffee shops are quite like temporary homes. When you don’t want to move around 5 times in a single day a coffee and a cookie is your investment and down payment for shelter and comfort, and the interior, the music, the company, if chosen right, can serve as a home away from home. I chose one in the West Village, the place everyone wants to live but can’t afford. The New York we all dream of, the one we came here for. Coffee shops might even give us a chance to get what we came here for, when we walk in between the lovely neighborhoods they inhabit, as if we just strolled down from the 3 floor walk up we’ve been at for the past 4 years.
I made it over the Williamsburg bridge without breaking a sweat, a simple pleasure of good weather, and felt a bit better being outside. Walking between the two boroughs I started to recite a phrase in my head that I find myself repeating quite often. Keep your heart open. Keep your heart open. Sometimes I’ll perch the both of my hands at the center of my chest, fingers pointed inward, and extend out my arms while opening up my palms, as if to release whatever exists inside me, let it encompass the whole world and be accepted by it as well. I didn’t feel full of love, I didn’t feel open at that very moment, but I attempted doing what I told myself. I smiled at the people that passed by and looked around me. The water was extremely vivid, aqua, turquoise, teal, every shade of blue at once. The city was visible in the distance. The people were walking and breathing, thinking about something. Perhaps similar things.
I ventured off Delancey and onto Rivington, slowly making my way through the Lower East Side and up to SOHO. I decided to call my mom after she sent me a string of three texts lengthed the word counts that often require legal attorneys to decipher. Even when I’m like this, the things she does makes me laugh. We talked about her working situation, the ongoing story of management vs. employees. I didn’t have much to say, but I was happy to hear her voice. When I feel empty in these situations I need mental space, something often broken down by walls of grey bubbles sent by family OR FRIENDS. I’d much rather call, hear it all out, while still being able to look at everything around me. I walked by a man napping in a chair with a chess board on the table, an open seat to his side. Maybe I’ll sit down on my way back, play and say hello. Just the thought of it made me smile.
I made it up to lower SOHO, joining tight crowds of relaxed people, a simple pleasure of the weekend. United we formed a gently flowing creek of customers, window shoppers, and people watchers, wading in and out of restaurants, stores, and new places to save for future visits. Perhaps the times our friends come to see the lives we’ve built, or family travels to find reasoning for the ridiculous rent their kin so often complains about. The light in the areas of lower Manhattan always seems to complement whatever is going on, dancing off trees and onto buildings, illuminating paths for the people walking in between them. It’s something I only catch when trotting leisurely, an act rarely performed by the most of us who live here.
I entered a independent bookstore and cafe out of an overgrown love for independent magazines. The first section of the store stocked a surplus of titles I recognized, from travel to art, fashion to fiction. A little light flickered inside me. A treasure chest of perfectly binded talent, thought, and ideas funneled in between colorful covers, a simple but satisfying turn with every page. I played around with each magazine for a few minutes, deciding on which one I’d take with me. Settling on an adventure magazine featuring an investigation of happiness in the Kingdom of Bhutan, I swiped my credit card, smiled at the cashier, and flowed back onto the street. Little stalls selling jewelry, paintings, and personal creations from charismatic vendors constituted a tiny art fair opposite bustling restaurants and cozy bars.
I looked at the stacked pages I’d just purchased now peaking out of my bag, adding a bit of color to the scene. The orange shirt I wore today went along with the cover, as did the blue on my shorts. I smiled.
I soon forgot about what I might look like to the people walking behind me, I didn’t contemplate whether my posture was good or not. I forgot about why I wanted things to stop. They were going, and I was going with it. We all were. My heart was open, at least, opening. The voice in my head telling me to do so through limb led exercises quieted down.
As I approached the West Village I passed several foliaged apartments, welcoming the occurrence of the day with the soft light dispersed upon each brick. A pizza parlor passed out complimentary samples of their newest slices, and a doo-wop jazz group singing renditions of Stevie Wonder outside a crowded restaurant invited passerbys, one by one, until we made what one might call a commotion. The things that happen in New York are not legendarily unique by nature, quite often they’re very simple, things you might find in another city, but the proximity by which they take place, temporal and spatial, makes for a magical morning, afternoon, evening, or night. All of which piece together the lives we identify by an irreverent energy that may exist only here, through the believe and love we have for all things related to it, and the meaning we develop amidst the silhouette of our skyline and the three letters N, Y, C.
A man once spoke to me for around 20 minutes about the experience of New York. He’d lived here for around 10 years, and knew it like the sight of his nose, learning and knowing everything about the city the past 10 years he’d been in it without even realizing. We talked of inspirations and ideas, the every culture, career, interest, and ideology communing from every corner of the world. He talked about the dark places you’ll surely find yourself, but the growth it’ll inevitably ignite, a sparkler lit at dawn, unexpected in obsidian shades. The most beautiful thing, he said, is when each of these sparklers are lit together. When you look back and realize how many of them you’ve lit, and with whom you shared their light. Everyone is bound to run themselves to the ground in this city, it’s built in its DNA. But then you learn. Either you leave, or you learn. You can leave to somewhere else to learn how to get a hold of life, its losses, and its liberties, or you can stay and learn here. When you stay, when you learn, that’s when New York claims you as its New Yorker. He said that the people who know New York, the people who’ve won it over, they’re the ones who can disappear. You won’t recognize which ones disappear because they walk with everyone else, but you might see it in their smile, the way they step, how they laugh when simply looking around. They might be reading a book or gazing at the trees, sitting down for that simple but elegant, perhaps more important than anything else pause. Because the magic of the city isn’t just in the hustle and bustle. It’s not only about the constant churn of ideas, ambitions, or crazy emotional dreams. It’s about recognizing which street you’re on, too, sitting on a bench instead of parading right past it. When you do that, he said, things begin to percolate. All of the magic, all of the details, all of the things that make New York New York, can settle onto your shoulders, fill up your heart, and show you all the love there is to see.
As I approached the cafe I felt something I hadn’t felt in an extraordinarily long time. I felt that, in some practical, non-spiritual way, I was with the world and the world was with me. I was not battling it, or devising a plan to win in it more than anyone else. I wasn’t different than anyone else, no, we were all the same. Things felt trivial in the frame of who I wasn’t or who I wanted to be, I felt, quite simply, that I was exceptional because the world was exceptional. I was exactly where I wanted to be and exactly where I needed to be. I ordered a cardamom coffee on ice with a toasted bagel and cream cheese, sat down at a table under the skylight, and soon welcomed my friend who had texted me hours earlier to meet. He ordered two brownies, we shared what Swedes would call Fika, and enjoyed each other’s company in silence, reading and working. I mentioned how beautiful of a day it was. The past two weeks we’ve been blessed with phenomenal weather, but today was the first day I could feel it.
My friend left for a dinner date and I decided to switch to the open couch, indulging in the colorful photos and stories nestled in my new magazine. Suddenly I heard my name called out. “Travis!”. A friend I met a few times at a coworking space nearly a year ago asked approached me, and asked how I was. I was great. I was great! We talked for nearly an hour, exchanging numbers before parting.
On my walk back home I decided to take a left instead of staying on path, directing myself towards my favorite park. It’s a kind of superpower you develop once you’ve lived somewhere for longer than the term of a lease, the ability to turn yourself towards special places with the general knowledge of where they exist in relation to one street or another. Your favorite restaurant, your favorite intersection, the spot where the man with the saxophone always sits, or the garden where you like to remember good memories and think pleasant thoughts. All things you gather as you spend time in a place, and subsequently remember how to get to.
As I trotted into Washington Square Park I was greeted with the world’s welcoming ceremony of human activity, it seemed almost from all corners of the world, from all years of life. Kids ran around screaming, elderly folks played chess on tables, young friends sprawled out on the grass and adults caught in the middle of the spectrum licked ice cream or shared pizza, fondly smiling at their kids or confiding their latest news. On opposite ends of the fountain two men created large bubbles with their magnificently giant bubble wand, giving kids of all ages another reason to smile, laugh, and play, giving us all a reason to do the same in our heads. A man performed on his percussion set while a group of entertainers flipped, danced, and spun on their heads, crowds dispersed watching in a gentle manner.
When the entertainers landed on their feet from midair the crowds would cheer. When the percussionist struck his bass the melody from the saxophone on the opposite end of the park would amplify in sound. Then the children’s squeals would join in, and finally the flow of the fountain and the chirps from the birds joined auditory consciousness. A full symphony that I let flow in, over, and through me, percolating across every sense I had. It smelled like summer and sun bathed grass.
Later that night I met a group of friends I hadn’t seen in a while at a party in Brooklyn. I felt the joy I was used to feeling, but it was a little different than usual. I wasn’t holding on to it, or rather, I didn’t think about what would happen when it left. I looked around and thought I could see it all around me, in the green of the trees and the shapes of the buildings. I could hear it in the buzz of cicadas and flow of my own breath. I could feel it, too, even outside of hugs hello and hugs goodbye. The feeling of the world resting and me resting with it, in constant motion and harmony. I was here, I could feel that I was here, and it felt better than anything else. I got home at 9:00AM the next morning, slept till the early afternoon, and repeated my walk from Williamsburg to the West Village to join a friend for a comedy show. I made another visit to the park, then walked back to my apartment, with no thoughts of dread, waves of anxiety, or flames of stress. It was more of a miracle than I expected, and made me realize I’d needed it for quite a while now.
At the end of the day, I still don’t know what it is I’m looking for, what or if there are any answers that can clarify the human curiosity for life, but I think that’s okay. I think the process of living involves adjusting our values, beliefs, and understandings of the world as time goes on. We can have hunches, inspirations, moments of clarity, and that’s all we really need. We may never know everything we need to know at any point in this journey, but in the future we’ll know things we didn’t before. Things like: Go for a walk. Remember to look around. Let go of trying to do everything at once. So the trick may be to simply take a step forward, and trust that we’ll get there. We always do.