This year’s college spring break may have been my last, but it was a week full of “firsts.” Or rather, two big firsts: My first flight (which I recently wrote about), and my first trip to New York City.
These are both pretty big, exciting things — or at least, they were to me — and doing them alone made them a bit nerve-wracking.
I was going to visit my cousin Laura and her boyfriend D.J., both of whom have been studying law in New York for the past few years. Laura emailed me really detailed instructions for what to do after I got off my flight at JFK, but I realized while reading through them that I wasn’t sure if “Hoyt Schermeron” was a place, person, or Pokémon, so I wasn’t too confident in my navigation skills.
Luckily I met Tom on my flight. Tom and I had serendipitously found each other in RDU while boarding the plane, and it turned out that he and I were seated near one another. It also turned out that Tom lives in Brooklyn — which is where I was headed — and was taking the exact same subway route as me. He told me we should stick together until I was in Brooklyn, and could take the rest of my journey by foot. Friend!
Tom and I hopped on the subway together in Queens, and it felt like I had stepped into a different timeline. The subway car was a lot more old-school than I had expected, with its yellowish fluorescent lights and shiny seats, all varying shades of orange. A 70s color palette. The walls were beige, the floors grey, the details a dingy chrome.
As we stepped in and the doors shut behind us, I was instantly struck by an overwhelming smell of marijuana. We took our seats. The distinct thump of 80s hip hop resonated from a pair of headphones on the opposite end of our car.
Tom and I chatted on the ride into Brooklyn, speeding past tightly-packed houses, over tightly-packed used car lots, and, eventually, under the city itself. Tom shared some of his favorite things to do and places to go in town, and I listened carefully, making mental notes of things I wanted to do and see. We got off at Jay Street Metro-Tech and parted ways, hugging in the subway station before he hurried off to catch his connecting ride.
I was on my own now. Luckily, I was only a few blocks from Laura and D.J.’s apartment.
I made my way out of the subway station and up onto the sidewalk via some stairs. I wasn’t trying to look like a tourist, but when I stepped out into the sunlight and onto the busy walkway, I stopped and just stared.
It was just so much…bigger that I’d expected. The buildings were so tall, the streets so boisterous, the people so busy-seeming. It was like class change time on campus, except I knew this is probably what these streets were like all the time.
Everybody was just going about their everyday; some people were clearly on their lunch break, others were obviously just out shopping or walking around with their friends. And here I stood dumbfounded with my bright blue duffel bag stuffed to capacity, my eyes wide and my mouth agape.
This was a really emotional, overwhelming moment. Maybe I should’ve been, but I wasn’t worried or scared for a moment going into my trip alone. And in this moment, even though I had no clue where I was or where I needed to be going, I still wasn’t scared — I was wildly happy.
I had this weird sense of having made this happen, of having brought myself here. Maybe I’ve watched too much Kimmy Schmidt or maybe I’m just an overemotional dweeb, but the feeling I felt from head to toe was: “I did it! Here I am!”
Granted, I’ve never really traveled much. My family goes to the same beach most summers, occasionally to the mountains, and I’ve been to Disney World twice. But I’ve never been further east than the Outer Banks, never been further west than the edge of Tennessee, and had never flown until about an hour before this. Sometimes it feels like I’m just stuck in a little bubble and will never get out, which is frustrating for someone who is so fascinated by the rest of the world. Traveling costs significant money and time, neither of which are available in excess for a young woman on the cusp of adulthood — especially a (currently) unemployed one. But this was worth it.
All at once, this felt autonomous, adult, freeing — but also very silly. All these people, some in suits, some in sweatpants, were brushing past me mundanely. These people lived here. This subway exit, this street corner was a small quadrant of their everyday life; but to me, it felt like a portal into another world.
I had this same feeling often throughout my trip. The rest of the days, I had Laura with me as my guide and friend, and she was naturally used to seeing all these things I was seeing for the first time. But on Thursday, I dropped off my bag at Laura and D.J.’s apartment and spent the afternoon exploring alone.
I saw the Manhattan skyline. Dog-walkers walking ten dogs at once. Pastel-colored Huxtable-style apartments. Pigeons with the same level of brazen cockiness as Chapel Hill squirrels. I felt like a quiet observer walking around inside a movie. Every few minutes my mindset would shift from “I could never live here” to “Cancel my flight! I’m living here!”
I realized at some point during my wanderings that I was CRAZY hungry, and divine providence planted a bagel shop in my path. I did not know this at the time, but I would end up eating here a total of four times throughout my short weekend in Brooklyn. I am a creature of habit and this place’s bagels were nothing short of life-changing.
I grabbed a window seat and observed the Brooklynites going about their business outside, while I destroyed the first of that weekend’s four bagels with jalapeño cream cheese. The Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane” echoed through the shop’s tinny speakers. “This is it,” I thought. “This is the height of luxury.”
This place also served coffee in some of the saddest plastic cups I’ve ever seen in my life, the kind where you have to tear back the tab on the lid to drink it. But it was the best coffee I’ve had in a really long time, and I swear the dumpy cup made it taste better.
Again, I had four cups of that coffee over the weekend, one for each day. We did FAR too much over the course of those four days for me to thoroughly detail, walking over 30,000 steps on our first day in Manhattan. But we hit all the highlights: The Staten Island Ferry and Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building, Time Square. We walked the Brooklyn Bridge into Manhattan, where we had New York style pizza (I understand the hype). We saw an off-Broadway show.
A personal highlight was Rockefeller Plaza, where I got to live out my Liz Lemon dreams and cry, “LIVE EVERY WEEK LIKE IT’S SHARK WEEK” while posing with the 30 Rock sign. I also adored the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I got to see some works from some of my favorite artists in the world. I swore I wasn’t going to take a million pictures, but I just couldn’t help myself, and took a million pictures.
The New York Public Library reminded me so much of Wilson library on campus, but it was very special and beautiful in its own right. There was an amazing exhibit on counterculture and protest movements in the 1960s, where we ended up walking around a long time.
But I think my favorite part of New York was just the simple interactions and everyday things that happened there. Riding the subway became more normal over the course of the weekend, but it was still a thrill. One day, I peered into the adjacent car and saw a man twirling and pole-dancing on the pole in the center. The people around him were remarkably unaffected. And on that same ride, a man who boarded the car right beside me pulled out a trombone and began to play.
I went into the city with the idea of southern hospitality vs. big city brashness in my head. Even though I know plenty of people from up north, I didn’t know what to expect out of strangers in the middle of bustling Manhattan. But almost every single person I encountered was incredibly kind and open, and more often than not these strangers would join in my excitement if I mentioned that it was my first time in the city.
Even if city life isn’t your cup of tea, I think New York City is a place everyone should visit at least once. I thought four days would be enough time to do and see most of it, but I barely even cracked the surface. It is the definition of a “melting pot,” a place with people from all over the country and all over the world, all of them with unique stories and experiences. Each individual may be a small piece of the puzzle, a tiny moving speck on the map of the city as a whole; but together, the people of New York City are what make it truly magical.
I came across a wonderful quote credited to John F. Kennedy while reading Cloud Atlas, one of my favorite books, a few years back. And now I can say from experience that I think it’s true:
“Most cities are nouns. New York is a verb.”