Leaving New York

Bohemians are useless at saying goodbye; and they never want anyone else to leave. So, they don’t say goodbye; they vanish, or they cease to be bohemian, suddenly or gradually assuming responsibilities they have for a long time postponed.
–Inigo Thomas, “Leaving New York“No matter how long you have been here, you are a New Yorker the first time you say, That used to be Munsey’s, or That used to be the Tic Toc Lounge… when what was there before is more real and solid than what is here now.
–Colson Whitehead

Just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
–Paul Simon

Departure is permissive. As it draws close you get to say the unsaid and try on wishes for size. I love its carnival intensity, and maybe that’s why I’ve done so much leaving. But in spite of all that practice– or because of it–I am useless at goodbyes. After a fortnight of cake and beer, and with a week left in New York, I excused myself. I spent my last Friday night not with old friends but on a first date, scaring the bejesus out of the guy by announcing that from here on in I was only in the business of hellos. Well, I thought I meant it.

That Sunday I put on my snorkel jacket and took the 1 train to 215th Street at nine in the morning. Broadway slices skinny Manhattan top to bottom on the diagonal, and I wanted to walk its length in tribute to the place I’ve loved. The moving boxes were still stacked, not packed, in the hallway, and my to-do list lay undone. I carried a print-out of Inigo Jones’s recent Slate piece for vague directions on how to cut across to Fort Tryon Park to begin my pilgrimage.

It was the best of New York February: crisp and brilliant, and warming towards a balmy thirty after too many frozen weeks. The winter trees stretched like models and I made a little prayer to the Olmsteads for their grace in planting gardens for generations they’d never meet. Below the Cloisters museum, middle-aged firemen played volleyball, showing off a little for a passing audience.

On happy days, when you need it least, everyone wishes you more joy. “Baby, you have a beautiful day now, y’hear?” yelled the flower stall guy, and I did, helloing my way down Broadway. In Washington Heights, the, the Spanish signs were formal: COAT $10! GRAN ESPECIALIDAD CON MOTIVO DE “SAN VALENTIN.” I thought about a pupusa stop, but it was too early, and I could count on San Francisco to provide Salvadoran food, if nothing else. And I was too early, as always, for services at the United Church of Reverend Ike All Welcome, but that was okay. It’s important to leave a city unfinished so that you come back.

Outside the Hispanic Society of New York–another Inigo Thomas tip–a man sitting on the steps groused while I petted his dog. “Oh yeah, that’s it. Pay attention to the dog. That fucking dog gets more attention from females than I ever did or ever will. And it’s a girl!”

I jotted down a Toni Morrison quote in a Morningside Heights bookstore: “In this country, American means white. Everyone else has to hyphenate.” Around 115th Street, near Columbia University, Broadway un-hyphenates briefly and drearily. “Those women are so hostile,” someone said outside Starbucks. Her friend mentioned his soy intolerance, and she reminded him of her lactose difficulties. Barnard College was running a production of _The Vagina Monologues,_ as if they were in short supply.

Then a detour to Amsterdam Avenue to visit the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, still in progress after more than a century. I like the notion of house of faith that stays unfinished. It seems more flawed and more alive that way, like its worshippers.

The CrackersAt the northwest entrance, I found that Christo had gift-wrapped Central Park as a going-away present. His saffron flags flapped and glowed like monastery robes drying in the sun. A man rapped on a saffron gate post. “Ple-astic? Ya think it’s ple-astic?” It’s vinyl, someone said. “Voi-nyl, thank you.” Bikers reached up to bat at the flags. So did a three-year-old on his father’s shoulders, mad with joy.
“And there’s another flag! Oh, Daddy! I missed that one. But there’s _another_ one!”

I felt mad with joy, too, at The Gates flaming on the snow and the thousands of open faces looking up. The Gates taught that the fleeting deserves as much–or more–attention as the fixed. At first I wished I had a camera; then it was enough to smile for strangers’ photos. On the East Drive a pearly limo glided north. “That’s Christo and Jeanne-Claude,” someone said, “They’ve come to see the reactions.” I imagined a second installation: The Reactions. The crowd cheered the smoked windows. “Thank you! Thank you, Christo!” And Jeanne-Claude.

Below the park, I stopped at Prada to touch the bags, and became the owner of patent-leather silver sneakers that seemed both daft and comfortable enough for a journey to a new life. They were shiny as mirrors. I made a note not to wear them with a skirt. “I see Paris, I see France…”

Around the corner, on 55th and 5th, I visited the apartment I’d lived in my first four years in the city. I hadn’t been back since. The Manolo Blahnik store on the ground floor had moved; it was another Italian restaurant now. I walked past twice, very quickly, glancing into the lobby and hoping not to see the Colombian doormen or the old lady next-door I’d never said goodbye to. Darker and shabbier than I remembered it, and hard to look at now.

The lobby of the Algonquin Hotel has discovered wireless internet access, but the service is still surly and slow. I waited and waited for five-buck coffee: “Is coming. Is brewing the new coffee.” When it came at last, it tasted as though it had been on the boil since I first stayed there, fresh off the plane.

Then down, down Broadway–galloping now, ten miles of rhythm in the strides. I wasn’t seeing the February people any more, or paying attention to the shading from discount cameras to designer furniture as the block decades dropped. I was back with the moments that had stitched together my time in the city; ducking left and right in sidestreet pilgrimages. My first New York job at Times Square. The old Vindigo office on 25th Street. The theater where I’d seen Andrew’s play. The school where I’d done bootcamp training for my volunteer job. Farrar, Straus & Giroux on Union Square, where I’d learned to file and grudge. My first bowl of pho. A final, blistered pause on the corner of Broadway and Houston to wave up at the office I’d left the week before.

In two hundred blocks I’d traced another layer on the palimpsest of my New York, which is not the same as yours.

Even in Kyoto
Hearing the cuckoo’s cry
I long for Kyoto
–Basho