New York City arrived softly, clouded in haze, between one-sided phone conversations and an uneven bus engine, and after the uncomfortable in and out of sleep as we passed through Maryland and New Jersey, trading shoulders for pillows. And despite all misgivings, a twisted and saturnine comfort accompanied the $30 bus tickets folded in our backpacks and the liberating isolation of mindless travel, the getting away from it all kind of desperate freedom that presses at your throat and fingertips and grew as the bus’s wheels came to a slow stop and we, with our backpacks clutched close, peristaltically made our way between the narrow aisles out into the crisp spring air, still too shocked and tired to be fully conscious. And I couldn’t tell you how many blocks it took for everything to sink in.
But we pulled our jackets tight and greeted the streets of Chinatown with alacrity, making our way passed windows of cigarettes stacked like Lego walls, multi-layered car garages resembling hollow Rubix Cubes, bright buildings, green parks, and clean brick apartments contrasting the dull, gray sky.
We sat only for coffee or a meal. With no itinerary, guidelines, or schedule, we interacted with the city as it spread itself out around us along its many intercalated streets, finding stores along our aimless, exploratory routes, which led us ultimately to Terminal 5. But I’d heard of Strand Books from friends, and we all loved reading too much to pass up any bookstore–or any chance to escape the cold that had left Asheville, North Carolina some time ago, but still held New York City in its tight grasp—and were quickly lost among the tall, narrow shelves, packed with books of every language, genre, and age; this was a place you could spend years of your life with no second thoughts of the cold outside or the inconvenience of school, making light and trivial conversation with strangers.
* * *
Sitting in my car flipping through photos from the two disposable cameras I’d stuffed in my backpack during the trip, the light changed and, setting the photos on the empty seat beside me, I wondered why I never took any pictures of that bookstore. Or pictures of us eating at diner after diner throughout the night because we didn’t have a place to stay. Pictures of us clumsily sleeping on benches in Grand Central Station. Pictures of the many moments that I realized in this silent aperçu defined and completed the trip. And frustrated by the habit I have of cathartic nostalgia, which never seems to upset my flawed prescience—I recognize a moment as important or significant, but looking back I always end up asking myself why I didn’t ever truly appreciate it—I was filled only with a strange sense of regret, or guilt maybe.
We should have spent more time there. We should have made eye contact. I should be able to remember the smell of those books. But, sitting here, it escapes me.
* * *
The twenty-some photos, flipped through and examined, now wait on my walls for the rare moments I see them, background noise. They exist apart from New York City: A faded recollection of the words spoken and buildings passed fills the gray space between one photo and the next and then is lost.
I’m putting together sentences; I’m searching my memory for the moments I would like to remember for as long as possible. But neither this—nor my walls of photographs–can adequately express the moments in those diners and cafes.
A block from Terminal 5 and four hours until the show, we stumbled into a small corner store, shuffled our feet, and squinted up at the grammatically flawed menu posted on the wall above the deli counter.
“Whacha want, baby?”