New York, June 2015

There was that time I went to New York for a weekend last year.

I had hoped to have this written and posted while the experiences and emotions were still fresh, but between a busier-than-normal July, some income-related chaos in August, a job change in October, and a job hunt since March, I haven't really been motivated to edit pictures or put words together. Unfortunately, my memories from the trip aren't quite as vivid as they would have been had I posted immediately after coming home from New York: the general impressions are there, but the details come and go, and every experience has an extra filter from everything I've experienced since the trip. Sometimes the specifics come back to me as I write them out, but right now, when I look back, everything's a bit gauzy and no longer as concrete in my head.

Trips to the States have always have had a slight novelty factor for me. I think a lot of it is the whole "almost the same but different" aspect that reflects itself in things as mundane as junk food selection and compact disc packaging. Some parts of Canada are more globalized/Americanized than others; the part of the country where I live (the Maritimes) is a bit more isolated from the American commercial influence than, say, southern Ontario. We're still aware of the products and chains, but only the most mainstream of the mainstream have made inroads here. As a transplanted Ontarian friend put it, a lot of gift cards she gets aren't much use here.

My flight out of Halifax Stanfield Airport was for early Saturday morning; airport security being what it is meant I had to be there about two hours before departure, and since the airport is some distance from the suburb where I live, I shelled out the extra money for a shuttle to pick me up at about 3 am. Navigating the world of international travel wasn't too daunting, though I had to give my sister Carrie a quick call to ask the name of the hotel she and my other sister had booked our room in before I could get through security.  When I landed in Newark at 7:30 Eastern time, I was running on very little sleep. 

I love arriving in unfamiliar places. I only began to notice this when I first flew to Toronto alone about seven years ago, but I'm exhilarated by the immediate disorientation that I experience whenever I fly somewhere: the discontinuity of two worlds separated by a period of time in a flying metal tube, the process of mapping out my new position in the world at large, and making sense of new surroundings. It could have been my sleep deprivation, but Newark Liberty airport had a bit of a surreal quality: aside from the massive throng that ran immediately to use the bathroom or grab something to eat, most of the terminal was quiet, and the stores outside the gates were not busy at all. Despite my exhaustion, I made my way to the AirTrain and hotel shuttle without issue, and took a brief nap as soon as I got to my sisters' room.

My younger sister Carrie and I took the shuttle into the city late in the morning, going from the outskirts of Newark and emerging into Manhattan through the Lincoln Tunnel. The first thing I saw as we emerged above ground in Manhattan was of a group of people outside a church in Hell's Kitchen; maybe it was the age of the building or the general run-down city atmosphere, but this scene reminded me a little of Uptown Saint John, NB. The shuttle let us out somewhere near the Port Authority Bus Terminal and we began to walk around around the city on foot.

I was surprised by how the crowds and the noise of the city really seemed to fade into the background. Maybe it's just because I was too focused on the task of finding breakfast, but the scale of New York wasn't a huge jolt to my small-city Canadian sensibilities. For all the noise, flash, and crowds at Times Square, for example, the impression I got was basically of Toronto's Dundas Square, except more so. We ended up walking about 8 blocks before getting a bite from Donna Bell's Bake Shop (they make a damn good breakfast sandwich) and stopping to people watch in Worldwide Plaza.

We impulsively tried our luck with the Book of Mormon ticket lotto; we didn't win, but the experience was entertaining anyway. Following a quick detour to a vendor on 6th Avenue to buy a new belt (which has since broken), we made it to NBC's New York headquarters in Rockefeller Centre. In some ways, visiting 30 Rock was a pilgrimage for the SNL nerd that I am, but it was the off-season and I wasn't actually in NYC to see the show, so our main motivation for this visit was the Top Of The Rock sightseeing tour and the chance to get some pictures of the city skyline from the building's observation deck. Even without actually bothering with the NBC tour, it was still interesting to see this place that loomed large in my cultural consumption over the past 20 years or so; if anything, seeing this grand old building humanized the cast, writers and crew of SNL a bit for me. Top Of The Rock was worth doing, but it's not the kind of thing I would do repeatedly. Getting the view from that height is a prerequisite for anyone's experience in the city, but once you've done that part, you're free to chase your interest. 

There was an SNL exhibit going on, but I didn't really want to use up my limited time and money looking at props and costumes divorced from the context of the mad week long rush to a 90-minute chunk of network air when I could see more of the city. 

A trip to Barnes and Noble was originally a practical move: we were looking for a place to eat, although the lack of available seating in the cafe made us decide to go elsewhere. I found myself entertained by the vast number of deep catalogue CDs available for $5 US (seriously, get me anywhere that sells a better selection of music than your standard-issue HMV and I'll browse for hours). After we finally managed to eat, we took the subway down to Union Square and checked out The Strand and Forbidden Planet. I spotted Kate Beaton's The Princess and the Pony on sale and picked it up without hesitation.

Continuing our journey on foot, it was beginning to spit a light rain as we walked along West 16th Street; my friend Dennis gave the address of a brownstone where the late founding SNL writer Michael O'Donoghue lived long ago, so I wanted to see for myself before we had to head back to the theatre district for dinner and our show. I wish my impressions of that walk were a little fresher in my mind, but from the place of hindsight that's now coloring my memories, I think having that quieter moment near the former home of a writer dead for over 20 years was more of a revelation than 30 Rock or any exhibit would have been.

After another subway ride back to our starting point and dinner at Mother Burger, we headed to see Fun Homewhich had just won the Tony for Best Musical a few weeks before. I knew the story and songs as I had read the graphic novel on which it was based several years ago (and loved it), and had the original Off Broadway cast recording, but this was my first actual Broadway experience. I could not have been more fortunate to have seen such an amazing show; I knew it would be somewhat emotionally harrowing, but what really caught me off-guard was how funny it was at times, particularly the kids' "commercial" for the funeral home, or the awkward, newly out Middle Allison's declaration that she's "Changing my major to Joan." Listening to a cast recording doesn't fully prepare you for how much of a gut-punch it is to experience the performers fully embodying their characters.

When the play let out, it had started to rain, and our main concern was catching the train back to New Jersey. After a quick stop at a drug store in Times Square, we navigated Penn Station to find our gate. By this time, our exhaustion had caught up with us; there was also a bit of time until our train was supposed to leave, so we just sat and watched some of the other people in the station; several seemed to have visible mental illness or addiction problems. I wonder if they were homeless, or if they've survived for long since then. Our train came; the ride back to Newark seemed quite a bit longer than the shuttle to the city, and I was ready to finally get to bed.

The next morning, Carrie and I another shuttle back to Hell's Kitchen. We quickly flagged a cab and rode to the Flatiron district, where people were already gathering around the barricades to setting up for the LGBT Pride March. 

I've been to a number of Pride parades over the last ten years in Moncton and Halifax and had a good time each year. Halifax in particular has a particularly vibrant Pride, and there's the added bonus of seeing so many people I know marching each year. Obviously, the festivities in New York are on a considerably more massive scale, but I still didn't expect the parade to last anywhere as long as it did. The mood was especially jubilant US Supreme Court's ruling on same sex marriage came only days before, but after the third hour, and what seemed like an endless stream of corporate entities' floats, we were both more interested in finding a place to eat and sit down than sticking out the rest of the parade. We already got to see Sirs Ian McKellen and Derek Jacobi, Mayor DeBlasio and his family, Chuck Schumer and Lea DeLaria pass by, so we figured we could leave.

It's a bit of a cliche to mock tourists for going to The Olive Garden when they visit New York, but I'm just going to admit that's where we went. I'm under no pretense that it's anything but a merely OK chain restaurant, but to be fair, I hadn't been to one since I moved to New Brunswick from Winnipeg almost 16 years before. Again, that whole insulation from the American chains thing. I didn't mind what I had, although the next time I'm down in the city, I'll probably go for some more adventurous fare. At other times in the day, we also stopped in at a Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme; I mainly wanted to see how their fare compared to the ubiquitous Canadian Tim Hortons chain. I found the Dunkin donut a little too sweet and cakey for my tastes, but Krispy Kreme lived up to the hype.

Without much else on our must-do list, Carrie and I just decided to walk around the city for a little while. We walked west, passing by an apartment building on West 21st Street with someone's proudly-displayed Emmy in their third-floor window, as if it were just some knick-knack. Turning south on 8th Avenue, we headed toward Greenwich Village. Our feet were starting to get sore, so we stopped for a bit in Jackson Square Park to rest and people-watch.

We went down 8th Avenue, down to Hudson, looping from West 11th to Bleecker to Charles, then going up 7th Avenue back to Jackson Square via Greenwich Avenue; the crowds from the parade had already hit this part of the city, so the streets were filled with people, including so many more people of color and visibly queer people than you would find in Atlantic Canada. As much as I love the sense of community within Halifax, the anonymity of a big city's always had an appeal to me, especially when I want to go out but don't necessarily want to run into anyone I know. 

We took the subway back up to Penn Station (we had to get the box of Krispy Kremes to take back to our hotel room), in a state where we were hungry but not really sure what to have. The sun was starting to go down, and we needed to rest again, so Carrie and I sat down in Herald Square, watching people go by. Despite the constant pulse of the city, it was actually a pretty tranquil moment, but it could also have been our exhaustion filtering out the noise and stress. It didn't matter; it just felt right to be sitting in that spot on an early summer evening. Eventually we decided to get something to eat close to where we had to catch the shuttle, but weren't in the mood for anything in particular, so Scallywag's ended up being our dinner spot by default, and we were able to catch a bit of the night's entertainment before we headed back to Newark.

My flight was around noon on Monday; instead of a direct flight back to Halifax, I was booked on a plane to Toronto, with a brief layover at Pearson before I boarded an Air Canada back to Halifax. Security wasn't a hassle, but the departure gate from Newark no longer had that weird alien quality it had when I was there on Saturday morning, all exhausted and disoriented; it was more mundane than surreal. The flight to Toronto was uneventful, though I did get a nice view of the city as the plane approached it from Lake Ontario; customs was a little bit of a slog, but more for the lineup than anything else. I was surprised how little time I actually had to spend at Pearson waiting; between customs and boarding, I barely had enough time to scarf down a burger and fries. I watched Looking on the plane and tried to pinpoint what part of Nova Scotia I was passing over. By the time I was back at Stanfield, it was late in the afternoon, and the shuttle took me back to the city on highways that were decidedly less busy than any I had been on the last two days.

I would have liked to get this out sooner, but I made the mistake of shooting the parade in RAW format, so every shot would have to be run through Photoshop before I can share them. Maybe this was a subconscious way to postpone doing much in terms of photography for a while, but as much as I tried to capture what this trip was like here, trying to construct the narrative a year later through photographs and other souvenirs has rendered my recollections a bit cold and sterile. Trying to interpret a memory isn't the same as being able to share fresh experience. I know this trip happened, yet it feels a little less real to me as time goes on and my world shrinks back into Halifax.

I want to be able to come down to the city again, preferably for more than two days, and with a little more open-ended time than I had down there. I didn't even touch Central Park or Brooklyn this time out.