No one tells you that when you move to New York, you learn to walk again.
Sure, there are movies that show the throngs of people walking the streets of Manhattan, the crowd is usually a large, mobile entity that’s faceless until we focus on one particular person in the crowd. That’s the person the story is usually about, the one the camera zooms in and focuses on in the middle of a rush hour mob.
But to be one of the people in the rush hour mob is altogether a different story. You notice, for instance, how fast everyone is walking. And that there is jockeying for position to see who gets to the light, or the subway, or the bus, or to the door first. Elbows, backpacks, bags, and a whole side of flesh can skim past or push you out of the way if you don’t keep up. You notice that every person thinks they are the one in the crowd that the camera is on, the one who matters, the one who is only a few minutes away from being late to a plot twist worthy of destiny.
If you don't live here, you won’t notice that there are people coming up out of a womb-like underground into the light of day, almost like they are being born every time they come up from the train. You can’t count the stairs that they have to go up and down just to travel horizontally across space, and gauge how tired or impatient this makes them.
The first thing you notice when you first move here is that you walk too slow. If you are walking to dinner with friends, they are a block ahead of you before you stop looking at the NYU dropout doing performance art on the corner to even notice. What’s the hurry? You say to them. How can we be late for dinner?
And then you notice that you begin to walk defensively during your morning commute. There is no such thing as strolling, or enjoying the view in the morning in Bryant Park, unless you want to be run over by pedestrians in suits and trench coats. You begin to drink a lot of iced coffee every morning (sometimes while walking) to get amped up to walk from the subway to the door of the building where you work.
You see your first celebrity in New York on the way to the subway after work. In this case, the celebrity is the woman who plays Charlotte in Sex and the City, which is filming across the street. She is being followed by a band of paparazzi who are taking her picture as she’s trying to run in a tight black evening gown that makes it hard for her to walk. You notice that across the street there are two other mini mobs following Miranda and Carrie who are also running in evening gowns. This is the closest you’ve ever been to couture. You don’t know why but you run to keep up with Charlotte. You hear her Jimmy Choo heels clicking as she trots down the street toward the door of the hotel that will shelter her from her own fame. You hear her whine. “I let them take pictures with me, I sign autographs, what more do they want from me?” You want to answer the question. But she isn’t talking to you. You realize that you are just like the other people she’s complaining about. You just want to be in her shot.
Then you get another job and learn a whole other route to get to work. You notice that the walls, and graffiti and the faces of people change, and like alchemy, your thoughts change too.
You learn to avoid ice patches and stomp your way through the slush and snow piled on the streets. You step in some deep puddles and almost fall on your ass before you get good at this.
You visit home for the second time after having moved to New York. After landing at the airport, you push a woman out of your way because she is too slow.
You get that one epic job in New York where you are part of history. In this case, you work at a Mexican restaurant on 14th street. While walking there, you feel like you are retracing the steps of your immigrant parents who would have had to take a job like this. This is ironic because you are over-educated and underemployed. You reinvent yourself. You make this the plot line of your own personal imaginary movie about your life. You walk to work everyday filling in the blanks of the plot using the buildings and the people on the street as your backdrop. Everyone who works at the restaurant has very colorful stories to tell about the drugs and celebrities that have been there. One of the famous people they say ate there once is the woman who plays Carrie in Sex and the City. You see some other celebrities while you work there, and you wonder if recognizing someone from a reality show makes you a loser.
You walk on the Brooklyn Bridge for the first, second, and third time. You notice that you’ve developed a disdain of tourists.
The Mexican restaurant closes and you find yourself walking past on purpose trying to catch a glimpse of something that bears a resemblance to what you remember.
Your family and friends decide you’ve been in New York too long. Your severe moments of underemployment and roommate drama don’t fit the glamorous images they see on television. In a moment of frustration a friend asks you why you don’t move back home. When you don’t give a reason she ventures an opinion. “Maybe you’ve watched too much Sex and the City.” That comment bothers you.
You get another job, and another one after that. You begin to know how to get places without printing out maps or using hopstop.com every time you go somewhere. You begin to recognize the storefronts and buildings you’ve been to or walked past before. They become like faces of people you know. These landmarks become signposts that you revolve around.
One morning after a snowstorm you open the front door of your apartment and the stairs have disappeared under a foot and a half of snow. You think there’s no way you’re getting to work. Then you decide to sit in the snow and slide down the stairs like a toddler. You get to work that day. It is some sort of metaphor for overcoming frozen obstacles.
Then the first New York person dies. It is the cook from the epic Mexican restaurant. The cook whose food was so good it made you want to call your mom. He had just opened his own restaurant and then he had a heart attack. His wife says that it was as if he knew he was going to die. On his last day, he walked alone around 14th street where the old restaurant used to be.
Then there’s the day that the personal imaginary movie of your life becomes real. There are the crowds of people walking the streets of Manhattan; it is a large moving body that isn’t faceless anymore. Ghosts and memories hide in every corner. You focus on one particular person in the crowd, the one who tosses a coin into a fountain or lays a crooked carnation on the sill of a boarded window. This is the one who understands what the story is about.