Of Cities and Friendship
Friendships can be a difficult thing to maintain when you’re on the road.
People who played starring roles in your life in one town or another all too soon fade into the position of fading guest star.
Maybe they don’t even manage that. Their regular appearances in your adventures are soon forgotten, and suddenly they’re just a face you see as you scroll through your Facebook news feed. You’ll occasionally be reminded of what it was you saw in that friendship, but the complexities of it have become blurred by time.
Of course, there are also those friends who persist in spite of your neglect. The kind of friends who, despite the fact you never call and rarely message, are there with a companionable hug and a couch for you to crash on when you do breeze back into town.
Their friendship shames you even as it reminds you of how lucky they are. Despite the gulf of years and the growing gulf in lifestyles, they’re the ones who still remember that you hate lamb. They’re the ones who text out of the blue to say they miss talking footy with you.
With these old friends, there is no awkward reintroduction. No uncomfortable period of feeling one another out and trying to figure out where you stand.
You slip back into your friendship like you would slip back into a comfortable pair of tracksuit pants on a winter night.
And just as you have these friendships that fade all too soon and these friendships that endure across the years, the same is true of cities.
There are cities with whom you have a meaningless but enjoyable one night stand. Your boozy night with Austin, Texas. Your tender hours spent curled up in bed with Chengdu. That regrettable hook-up with Seoul.
And then there are the cities that have become old friends.
Maybe you lived in them. Maybe you spent a wonderful few days in them.
For me, New York City is like an old friend.
Coming back into the self-professed greatest city on the world felt every bit as right as collapsing into your lover’s bed at the end of a long-haul flight halfway around the world.
Even having only spent twelve hours in Manhattan previously, I know these streets.
Not with the intimacy that a New Yorker would, obviously, but there’s a sense of familiarity to this skyline. To the steam-spewing subway grates, honking traffic, and towering skyscrapers each representing a different architectural era.
After all wasn’t I, like most TV watching, cinema going westerners, raised in these streets?
Wasn’t I there when Ted professed his love for Robin with a blue French horn?
Didn’t I listen as George, Elaine, and Jerry discussed absolutely nothing in Tom’s Diner in Harlem?
Isn’t that the skyscraper from which Spider Man swung to save some nameless, screaming plot point?
More so than perhaps any other city on earth, New York City feels like coming home to an old friend. Maybe not a friend you’d trust not to draw a penis on your forehead while you’re passed out.
Maybe it’s the kind of friend who, after a few beers, might get irate and throw a punch or two.
But it also feels like the kind of friend who, the next day, would know there’s no need to apologize. It’s in the past.
The traffic overwhelms us as our red Mustang convertible nudges its way into the current of metal and red-faced, sweaty-browed commuters.
It’s a cold March afternoon and the top is up. The sun may be shining, but the cold in the air is far from welcoming.
I ride shotgun, barking out directions as they’re fed to me by Google Maps’ chipper voice. My friend grips the wheel with white-knuckles. We’ve encountered nothing like this in the entirety of the Great US Road Trip.
We don’t need to discuss our decision. Ten minutes in Manhattan traffic and we’re ready to hand our rental in a few days early.
An hour later, we’re in the back of an Uber and making our way towards Harlem.
Crowded delis, cheap hotels, and the emerald of Central Park roll by out our window.
I’d like to say it’s only my friend who is as starry-eyed as a virgin as we pass landmarks we recognise, but I’m not above slack-jawed gawking.
This is fucking New York City.
We set up camp in HI New York City for the duration of our visit. It’s an intimidating edifice at first glance. A towering mansion that seems more likely to be home to super-powered or magically gifted teens than the motley of ages and nationalities that instead people it.
Our dorm-mates are a pair of Korean backpackers who perfectly fit the Asian tourist stereotype, but at breakfast we see a foursome of blue-haired old ladies still wearing their pajamas as they gossip over awful American coffee and fresh muffins.
“We’re in Harlem?” my companion asks with doe-eyed fear, “Won’t we get stabbed by gang-bangers?”
A quick scan of the clean street with its bustling businesses and generally friendly looking pedestrians seems at odds with whatever reputation he seems to think the place holds.
“I think we’ll be okay,” I assure him as I wander off in search of a barbershop to get a haircut and straight razor shave.
It’s not quite Pops and Luke Cage discussing baseball over my shoulder, but the tiny little barbershop certainly fits the rest of the bill. It’s all 1950s style machismo, hair clippings, a too-small TV, and the scent of talcum powder and soap.
We visit Tom’s Restaurant for breakfast. The iconic exterior puts you immediately in mind of Seinfeld, although the interior looks nothing like the space in which Elaine didn’t have a square to spare and didn’t find anybody sponge-worthy.
We stare up at the bright rectangles of light that our phones cast in our darkened dorm. Outside, New York gets a dusting of snow that will ensure our visit to the Statue of Liberty is positively frigid.
We wander the darkened streets on one especially whiskey fueled night in search of a place for Hogg to take a piss. We find pizza instead. I trespass in a Walgreens staff restroom while he pees in an alley gripped with terror that he’s going to get robbed and/or arrested.
He still hasn’t come to grips with the fact Harlem isn’t Baltimore.
A Walking Tour
Our time in New York is brief, but a lot of fun.
We catch a show on Broadway – although Phantom of the Opera doesn’t exactly blow my skirt up.
We have a few beers in the bar from How I Met Your Mother, pay a visit to the Statue of Liberty, and head to the top of both the Empire State Building and Top of the Rock.
We have a snow fight in Battery Park and regret it half an hour later when we’re damp and cold on the Staten Island Ferry.
We visit the 9/11 Memorial and come away from it feeling so hollow that even a big lunch doesn’t seem to fill the void.
The high point of this reunion with New York City is a walking tour with City Rover Tours.
Our guide, Max, is as passionate and proud a New York native as you’ll ever find. Wandering the city with him isn’t so much a guided tour as it is spending time with a friend.
He regales us with tales of both the city’s history and his own experiences here as we wander through Central Park and the very heart of Manhattan.
We duck into his favourite deli for fresh bagels, swing by one of his favourite coffee shops for the first good coffee we’ve had in months, and ride the subway alongside people who have long since lost their wonder at this fascinating city.
Central Park on a fall day is no less beautiful than I remembered it from the summer of 2012.
The colours have changed and the wind that stirs the leaves to their rattling symphony is a good deal colder, but its wide open spaces and secret gardens are no less charming. No less an island of wilderness in the heart of one of the world’s most bustling metropolises.
Walking tours often feel like tedious infomercials for whatever place you’re visiting, but I never feel like I’m being sold a destination or an agenda.
In fact, a big chunk of the day is my mate or I telling our own stories. Over the course of a frosty day, we craft in-jokes with Max and fall into a kind of easy companionship. We’re not touring the city with a paint by the numbers guide. We’re spending a day with a local.
We meander through the park and eventually make our way to the part of the city that is most recognizable. Modern skyscrapers and Gothic giants vie for your attention while the incessant honking of traffic and mutter of passers by seems almost soothing.
While we walk, we munch on cookies we’d bought earlier in the day. It’s a kind of easy stroll through a city rather than a frantic cataloguing of its landmarks.
We might not see every one of New York’s most famous sights, but those that we do see come with a sense of ease and comfort that I’ve not felt on other city tours.
As a result, it feels like a more intimate exploration of a city that has come to hold a large place in my heart.
Did we see everything?
Not even close! But I doubt that’s possible on a city tour without feeling like you’re in some kind of theme park.
Did we finish the day with a more thorough under of one of the world’s most fascinating cities?
Goodbyes are always so hard
New York City would be the final stop on the Great US Road Trip.
In a lot of ways, it feels fitting to end at the city perhaps most commonly associated with the US.
I spend my last day in the city alone. My travel companion has flown home.
It’s a tender kind of goodbye.
New York and I sleep late in a tangle of sheets.
We order in and watch bad movies.
We wander the High Line and breathe in our final moments together.
Reading back, I’m not sure if New York city is an old friend or an erstwhile lover.
Either way, the goodbye is every bit as bitter as the arrival had been sweet.
And really, that holds true for both lovers and old friends.
My City Rover walking tour and my stay at HI New York were both provided free of charge. All opinions are my own.