By Ashish Seth
A two part series (and a song) about a suburban kid’s experience of the Big Apple.
Figure # 1: A view of the New York skyline from Central Park.
The Temple and the Building
We are at once from birth born into a temple atop a building looking out, skyscraping above tables and desks, towering above smaller creatures like ants, cats, dogs and beavers. And as we walk with each leg progressing forward momentum, we realize these buildings sway if not properly planted, if not supported stably by our legs. And whenever our supports do give way and the building trips and the temple plummets, making contact with other buildings at dangerous velocities, we realize that the world outside the temples we live in is indeed trying to get in, trying to cause damage. Or so we believe this because the impact of the first, second and even third incursion is so painful, that for some and maybe even most of us, it sends us deeper into the recesses of our temples, in a dark corner, where we feel alienation from the world without. And yet the longer we linger, deeper pits and chasms infest our spiritual centers and the outside world looks colder. Taller buildings loom above us when we glance outside our temple windows. And looking within and seeing the walls wear away and run down, and feeling the supports of the building lesson with the passage of time, we are left with one certain fact and one courageous task. That if the very foundations upon which this temple is situated be undermined, our time inside the temple is finite. And if our time inside the temple is certainly finite, the only way out of this existential despair is to make peace with the world outside. And that is our courageous task in life. To live.
Now back to your regularly scheduled programming…
Long Island Express
The Rockville City Centre train station of the Long Island Express is not a stone’s throw away from the apartment complex we reside in but we decide to walk it anyway, soaking up the sights and sounds and smells of the area around us. Along the way, I come across another dreamcatcher strung on a chain link fence, its feathers fluttering in the light breeze, beads tapping the metal, strings spun like a spider web around the hoop.
Figure # 2: A dreamcatcher.
“What is that?” asks Abhi.
“Native Indians, I think the Ojibwe, used to put it near their beds so that they could filter their dreams,” I say.
The fence runs down an alley. The sound of air conditioning units plugged in windows three storeys up. The smell of fresh dry cleaning. Scraps of paper stuff stuck in bushes and shrubs. Uncut grass and hidden weeds. A man in a wife beater struts along the sidewalk with a lunch bag in his hand.
The breeze picks up and the dreamcatcher flutters rapidly, hitting the fence like a flyswatter and then coming to a rest again. I continue speaking.
“The nightmares would get trapped in the net so they couldn’t affect the sleeper. The good dreams would flow in and travel down the feathers to the sleeper.”
After a few moments, we continue on down the road.
We reach the station ten minutes later. The heat is stifling and as we stroll into the station lobby to buy our tickets, I regret wearing my red striped polo shirt and carrying my backpack. The shirt isn’t comfortable and the straps on the backpack are too tight. We decided to bring it along to carry a water bottle and souvenirs we purchase.
Our goal today: Manhattan, Central Park, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Times Square.
After purchasing a one way ticket for two for 18 dollars total, we climb up the cement steps to the platform of the station, walking past a cracked Snapple bottle on one step, a half-eaten pizza on another, and a teenager glued to her cell phone standing erect and self-contained on the landing before the next flight of steps. We reach the top of the platform and sit down on a bench to wait for the train. The platform stretches along the tracks for a hundred meters or so, overlooking the old townsquare, the heart of activity near this station. The top floors of these buildings house law offices, consulting firms and local business headquarters. The ground floors of these buildings, where most of the day to day commerce is held, house the pizzerias, convenience stores, and bars. Rockville City Centre is at once an active community teeming with diversity and liveliness, an old and mature suburb far out from New York City. If New York has every type of person from every walk of life concentrated within a few blocks, Rockville City, Long Island is its equivalent with plenty more room to breathe.
Figure # 3: A view of Rockville City Centre’s Long Island Express platform.
I hear the lull of the train tracks, rumbling metallic, and watch as the platform, containing roughly twenty passengers, starts to get ready to disembark. I take out my ticket.
The train arrives shortly and we take our seats by a window. A few moments later, the train jerks forward. The gears of the train sound like a chorus of moans and screams and crackling Adam’s apples pitched to low frequencies. As the train picks up speed, a fat Italian man comes around and hole punches our tickets. I watch Long Island pass by slowly before about a half hour later, the skyline of the city appears in the distance past a plethora of train tracks and wires and construction debris in the foreground. Then the train dips into a dark tunnel underneath the Hudson River and the hollow sound of a speeding object hustles the final lap home.
Figure # 4: New York skyline in the background before the plunge under the Hudson.
* * * * *
The place reminds me of Union station back home in Toronto. Kiosks set up for food and shops selling random items. The whole place is crowded and smells of sweat, urine and tasty sugary treats. People rush around to buy tickets, catch trains, keep up with loved ones or get away from the characters begging or busking or looming in one place for too long. A musician sings Motown hits from the sixties and seventies through a microphone jukebox, his voice amplified and echoing throughout a large portion of the station. His friend accompanies him on saxophone. Their faces wear smiles. White pearly teeth. Fedoras and dusty jumpers. A glimpse at quintessential Americana. Tourists snap photos of them with their cellphones. Some throw quarters or leaves of dollar bills in to their open saxophone casket. Some walk away to catch their trains, tightening their backpack straps.
Abhi whispers in my ear in Hindi, “keep checking your pockets.”
I nod and check. Wallet and phone secure.
We descend some stairs to the crowded subway platform and await our train. Down the dark tunnel, the breeze gets heavier and the hollow sound of a speeding object hustling to its destination gets louder just before the metallic screech of jarring brakes.
“Look at that rat!” says Abhi, pointing at the tracks. I look but only get a glimpse of something whisk under the tracks.
“It was huge,” says Abhi.
The train pulls up. Doors open to a crowd of people. Only one or two exit the compartment. It’s almost completely packed yet the whole throng of waiting passengers, uncountable, moves in from around me. My Toronto attitude would be to wait for the next train but that’s in ten minutes. And I’m swept in by default.
We squeeze through people with no time to worry about personal space.
The doors close. The bell sounds. The sound of exhaust exits a pipe. We get close to one end of the train. People breathe down my collar. I have no grip on a railing. The train jerks forward. My feet give. I bump into someone. I almost trip. Feet regain control.
“Bend your knees,” says Abhi.
Lots of tourists. Smiling faces. Holding phones. Holding hands. Backpacks. Cramped.
“Relax,” whispers Abhi. “They’re just people.”
With each. Stop. With each jerk I.
Keep losing my balance. The ground rumbles. Shakes. I grip my palms on a wall beside a bathroom. Who takes a piss in a-. When each jerk slips you off-?
An Asian lady looks at me funny. I look at my brother. Relax, he mouths. The train’s gears sound and it pulls up to a station. Chill. As it comes to a full stop, I fight to stop myself from bumping into the person in front of me, fight to quit tripping.
“Jesus, your flat feet,” says Abhi.
Doors almost close on a couple trying to escape.
Finally we make it to the station closest to Central Park. The doors open and people flood out like water emptied onto gravel.
“That wasn’t so bad,” says my brother.
* * * * *
Figure # 5: The field in Central Park.
A clear field looks upon a portion of the New York skyline below a blue sky with only few ghostly white clouds puffing by. Well-built athletic men throw around a pigskin. Sexy slim women lie sunbathing on sprawled towels with unbuttoned bras. People picnicking. Couples lying embraced on carpets wearing sunglasses. A trio of young girls in bikinis, lying under the shade of a tree, laughing.
“This is where the final scene in Elf takes place,” I say.
And we continue on.
* * * * *
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Figure # 6: The entrance to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Figure # 7: Alexander the Great with his mother.
Figure # 8: A painting by Mark Rothko, all due respect despite views in article.
“How is this art?” asks Abhi.
We look at a painting that is just red and white smudge on canvas, with various shades fading away at the bottom.
“This just looks like a bad paint job,” says Abhi.
I see a very skinny white woman with short brunetty reddish hair give my brother a disapproving look. I look back the painting. Screw this! Even if there is some deeper meaning to this slob of red murk, the present determines the meanings of the past and this painting here is just a bad paint job. I’m not going to take a six month long course in art history paying a thousand dollars of tuition to appreciate a bad paint job.
“Let’s go look at something else. This piece is giving me a headache with its pretention,” I say.
We go to the next painting. This one looks like mere scribbles on dark greyish foolscap paper, something a kindergarten kid would make if given a large piece of paper and told to go wild.
“This is just scribbles,” I say.
Abhi looks closer.
“Oh, see those curvy lines near the top. I think those are lady parts in abstraction.”
I squint to see what he means. The thigh. Leg. Vagina and some side boob.
I look at my brother and smile and nod.
“Now, this is art.”
* * * * *
Figure # 9: Park Ave.
We pass Madison Ave where the infamous ad men work to make the citizens of the United States and the world beyond go mad for branded cigarettes, boutique eye liner and the bucket list journey of flying coach on an airline.
We head to a Starbucks on Park Ave.
Five minutes later, I sit at a table staring at my iPhone. We stopped here for some coffee and free WIFI. My brother bumps my shoulder walking by and puts an orange drink in front of me.
“What’s this?” I say.
“I just got it for you, drink it.”
“I can’t drink acids,” I protest. “My dentist-.”
“We’re in New York. Take a break.”
He sips his coffee and takes out his cellphone. I look around.
We sit at a long table. A man, grey sweater, white, balding and wearing round glasses, sits at the other end of the table. He switches between typing into his Apple Laptop and writing figures on a tabled piece of paper. Maybe an accountant. Maybe an ad man. Maybe doing his taxes. Doesn’t look rich or well-to-do. Looks tired and old. Looks like he’s trying to be busy. Looks… our way.
The tired tourists sit in Starbucks Cafés chatting and drinking mocha lattes. Their lives are more difficult because they have to search for problems to stay busy. Manhattan. Just twenty minutes ago, we ate at a restaurant on Madison Ave. That’s where Mad Men takes place. The clientele at this Park Ave café are mostly young students, single moms, hipster yuppies and some businessmen doing taxes.
Aren’t we all tourists everywhere, even at home; we just decide what we want to say is familiar on our resumes.
I continue sipping my fruit sugar orange drink.
The queue for the lineup at Starbucks is increasing.
I look out at Park Ave. A tourist taking a photo of the street sign with his iPhone. That was me, 15 minutes ago.
And 15 minutes later, we’re off to Times Square.
* * * * *
Figure # 10: Abhi in Times Square.
We emerge from the Subway underground once again surrounded by the skyscrapers we saw from the George Washington bridge.
Large billboard plaster over the sides of buildings. The Walking Dead. Madame Tussauds, The Lion King, shiny glass paneled windows and shiny glass panelled pixels of streaming commercials on moving screens. Art Deco archways of old building carcasses stick out of modern office lobbies.
A crowd of people of mixed ethnicities roams aimlessly on a long narrow strip of sidewalk as the road beside is cramped with taxi cabs and cars in gridlock. Cab drivers honk inoffensively to signify their presence. Some honk at cars. Some honk at pedestrians. Some pedestrians hold plastic shopping bags. Some hold their partner’s hands. Some hold their hands in their pockets. I use my hands to check my pockets. Safe. The smell of sewage and the smell of sugary pretzel grease. Piss. Meat grilling. Barbecuing street meat. Safe and unsafe to eat?
“Check your pockets,” says my brother in Hindi.
We move through the crowd. Like two rolling marbles moving against other rolling marbles, fluid, in a wobbling zig zaggy motion, a mix of forces pushing each other.
Doors open to bustling restaurants. A line up to see a theatre show.
Tables set up at the edge of the sidewalks sell fake jewellery, random paraphernalia of stereotypical NY perceptions, plastic encased photos of old and new pop stars, Elvis, Drake, Jay-Z, Bieber, and nearly forgotten wise guys from the fifties. Middle-aged Asian proprietors sell beads with mandarin letters that mean nothing. A greying white man with a stained white shirt sells his wife’s homemade something. Young street artists spray paint neon metropolis vistas from the eighties on perfectly cut rectangular slabs of dry wall. Cartoon portraits for paying customers, five minutes a face for some odd dollars.
Everything is alive.
“This is it,” I say to Abhi. “This is New York.”
New York. A city that never stops. New York. A city that keeps going. New York. A translucent skyline apparition that blends with the sunset in the distance. And then with the flick of a light, glows bright in the night with rays streaming far into the country and the Atlantic, a full lit metropolis born of immigrant sweat and successful treks to the edges of dreams.
A track produced during my time in Long Island will be posted soon, probably some time next week.