At some point in my public school education, I had learned that ;the Northeast is essentially one unbroken conglomeration of cities, in a line from Boston all the way to DC. A megalopolis, I believe it was called.
As I drove from Delaware into southern Pennsylvania, I found that this was a bit of an exaggeration. South of Philadelphia, the area was surprisingly rural. It was the classic New England landscape, with picturesque farmhouses and villages.
From Philadelphia to New York City, though, the megalopolis held true. I never felt that I left the city, across the entire state of New Jersey.
I am not sure why so many people want to live there.
I didn’t have any great desire to go to Philadelphia. It was just sort of in my way.
As someone who at least has a Dallas address, I guess I am supposed to dislike Philly. I don’t even like T.O. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do in Philly, other than eat cheesesteak andboo Santa Claus. I didn’t figure I could find Santa Claus, so I focused my efforts on getting some cheesesteak.
As I drove through the southern reaches of this megalopolis, I noticed helpful road signs with messages such as “Beware of Aggressive Drivers.” You mean the drivers are so bad here, they have to install warning signs?
I drove through almost half the city before I found a place that I could easily stop at to get an authentic Philly cheesesteak. When I finally found one and found a place to park, it was in a somewhat seedy part of town. The store itself, though, was very seedy.
I walked into the corner store and found myself in a crowded, two-aisle grocery store. The restaurant was just a counter hidden at the back, nearly invisible behind and under the stacks of cereal boxes and paper towels.
When I found the order window, the Hispanic man who had been stocking shelves in the store walked back to the kitchen, where he doubles as the cook. I ordered a cheesesteak, and he tried to ask me what I wanted on it. But I had a hard time understanding the choices that he listed, and he had a hard time understanding what I ordered. Finally he seemed satisfied that he had it figured out, and I browsed through the store while he worked the grill.
As I looked for a drink to go with my sandwich, I noticed an unfamiliar brand next to all the Pepsi and Coke: Day’s. I picked out a bottle of Day’s Black Cherry Wishniak Soda.
I turned to the clerk running the cash register at the front of the store. “Is this any good?”
“I don’t know,” he replied. “I’ve never tried it. You’ll have to let me know.”
“What’s a Wishniak?”
I went back to check on the cheesesteak, which seemed to be taking a long time. A small woman was standing there, also waiting on her food. I tried to strike up a conversation.
“So, are you from around here?” I asked.
“No, I’m from Georgia.”
“Oh, really? I’m from Texas myself. Are you here on vacation, too?”
“Oh, no, I live just down the street. But I’m from Georgia. I’ve only lived here since 1959.”
Ah, I see. A newbie.
I finally got my cheesesteak, wrapped up in butcher paper, and hurried out to my pickup to make sure nothing was stolen.
The cook, who had seemed to understand my order, ended up putting almost nothing on the sandwich. I’m not sure it even had any cheese. But it was at least edible, which was all I was really expecting from it. It was about a foot long, but was not much bigger around than a hot dog. The Wishniak soda seemed like a bad choice at first, but the taste grew on me.
I didn’t have much time to hang around, though; it was Friday, and I wanted to get to Manhattan before rush hour.
I stopped in New Jersey for fuel.
As I pulled up to the pump, an attendant walked over and asked if I wanted it filled up.
“Oh, sorry,” I said. “I meant to pull up to the self-service pumps.”
“It’s all full-service here.”
“Oh. Well, I guess I’ll have to go across the street…”
“It’s full service everywhere.”
I looked closer at the sign across the street. Sure enough, it was full service as well.
“What, is it a law here?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s a law for the entire state.”
Huh. Whaddaya know. I had never used a full-service gas station before. But in New Jersey, apparently they don’t trust you to pump your own gas.
Manhattan. New York City. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. The—wait, another guy in another white van wants me to roll down my window.
“Hey, where’d you get the canoe?” he asks, in a heavy New York accent.
“I got it in Dallas,” I replied, realizing that this information was not going to help him much. He wasn’t going to drive to the local Dallas store where I bought it. “It’s a Hobie,” I explained, “so you can look it up online if you want to find a place here that sells it.”
“It’s good for fishing, right?”
“Yeah, it’s good for fishing.” I had never fished from it—I’m just not that big into fishing—but I do know that it was designed partly to appeal to fishermen. And I’ve had more than one fish jump up in the kayak with me, of its own accord, so I know it must be pretty good for fishing.
So, where was I? Oh, right, lower Manhattan. I had just driven across through the Holland Tunnel, and was trying to get my bearings in the forest of skyscrapers.
Manhattan was one of the places that I knew I must get to on this trip. If embarking on this crazy career can be considered my declaration of war on the ways of this world, then Manhattan Island was my personal Normandy beach. If nothing else, I wanted to be able to say I drove around New York City in my old pickup, still dirty with mud from Mississippi, and walked through the concrete canyons wearing my cowboy boots and jeans. Perhaps I would even go kayaking in Central Park.
First, though, I had to find Central Park. And to do that, I had to figure out where I was.
I drove until I found a place to park along the street, and got out my map. I knew that the tunnel would have taken me to the south end of the island, and as I looked over one block and saw a tall fence along the edge of the pavement, I thought I must be right at the southern shore, and that was where the island ended.
Then I noticed that there were still buildings beyond the fence, though several blocks distant, and realized what I had been looking at.
I got out and walked over to the fence. On the other side was a huge gaping hole, with apparently some kind of ramp leading down into it from the far side. Several large city blocks of just void. I could see the straight concrete walls of the hole, but could not see the bottom from behind the fence.
I turned back toward my pickup, and noticed for the first time what I had parked next to: a tall building with no exterior wall. The open-air offices were draped with a black cover. The building must have been hit by falling debris, and unlike its neighbors, it had not been rebuilt yet.
With these somewhat sobering thoughts, I moved on. Nothing I can do here, now.
When I told some friends that I was going to Manhattan, and that I was going to drive there, they tried to argue against it.
“You don’t want to try driving in that traffic, do you?”
Actually, that is exactly what I wanted to do. If New York traffic is one of the main defining things about the city, then I wanted to experience that, though only for a short while.
Once I had my bearings and started up the island to Central Park, the big thing I noticed was that the traffic was not that bad. And, it was not very hard to find your way around. Almost every road was a one-way street, and though one-way streets seem to get a bad rap, I think they are a pretty smart way to go in a city like this. It makes it much easier to turn, and since there are only two directions you can drive at each intersection, you don’t spend as much time at red lights.
In Manhattan, almost every street is numbered, so it is pretty easy to find where you are going. You have a numbered grid you can follow. It also makes the one-way streets easier to understand. Even-numbered avenues go north, for instance, while odd-numbered ones go south. They did make the mistake, in my opinion, of using numbers for both the north-south and east-west streets, so that it is possible to have an intersection of 5th and 5th or 8th and 8th.
Still, as I headed north on 8th Avenue, I wondered why such a big deal was made about NYC traffic.
Oops. Spoke too soon.
I approached Central Park as I approached rush hour. Suddenly, the system crashed. There were too many cars to fit on each block, so that a red light backed people up through 2 or 3 intersections. The cross traffic could then not get through the intersection, turning the side streets into parking lots that also blocked off additional intersections.
Ladies and gentlemen, we have gridlock.
As I inched through the traffic circle at the entrance to Central Park, lanes ceased to have meaning. You couldn’t see the circular lane dividers under the mass of cars, so people just drove wherever there was room. What was designed to be a 4- or 5-lane road was now packed with cars 6 or 7 wide.
I found myself behind a city bus. I’ll just follow it, I decided. It probably knows these roads and lanes really well. At the very least, if we were wrong, I had a big city bus playing fullback for me.
All around me, people were honking. That’s helpful, I thought. When surrounded by cars that cannot move, honking your horn really helps people get moving faster.
As we continued slowly up the west side of Central Park, I kept an eye out for the roads, listed on my map, that I hoped would take me to some parking spot in the park near one of the lakes. I was hoping I could find a way to go kayaking in Central Park. The roads into the park, though, were all closed off.
I finally did find a street into the park that was open to traffic, and turned onto that road. It was a through street, though, with no exits or access to the park. You could almost say it went under the park, not through it.
When I emerged onto 5th Avenue on the opposite side, I realized that I just had moved on up to the east side.
I eventually found an open, legal parking spot along 5th Avenue near the south edge of Central Park.
I was surprised to find that there were no parking meters. It appears that most of the parking in Manhattan is free. If you can find a spot, you can park there as long as you want and cover Manhattan via the preferred mode of transportation: your feet.
So, that is what I did. I walked through the park until I came to its southern end, and then joined the masses walking down 5th Avenue.
A business professor had once told me that people in New York City would commonly wear sneakers with their business suits, because of all the walking required in the city. It was considered completely normal and acceptable to do so.
Apparently, he was talking about a different part of NYC.
Everyone around me was dressed in what I presumed must be the latest fashions, considering that we were surrounded by every high-end clothing store on the planet. Saks, Armani, Anthropologie—a seemingly endless string of stores with mostly Italian-sounding names. All of the shops that I would never shop at. I figure there is only a very, very small percentage of people in the world who can truly afford to buy anything at these stores. A large percentage of that small percentage just happens to live on the east side of Manhattan.
I doubt these stores are able to sell very many of their $3,000 purses, but they don’t have to. The markup on a $3,000 purse is probably about 98%. They wouldn’t cost all that much more to make than a $30 purse.
As I brushed elbows with the throng of people wearing stilettos and designer jackets and scarves—it wasn’t even cold that evening, but they were wearing scarves—I realized that I had walked into a very bad case of Uptown. All of these people were trying to impress someone, for some reason. I wondered who it was, somewhere in this mass of humanity, that they were trying to impress.
I continued on my own way, in my designer NOLA relief T-shirt, Wranglers, and brown boots.
After about 15 blocks, I turned right onto 50th Street.
I started passing more familiar landmarks, like Radio City Music Hall. A large group of people were standing around an empty block, so I joined them and found the Rockefeller ice skating rink, one story below street level.
A man stood at a microphone on one end of the ice, performing a sound check.
“What are they doing down there?” I asked a uniformed man who seemed to there for crowd control.
“Getting ready for Christina Aguilera.”
“Really?” a woman next to me exclaimed. “Is she having a concert? Will she be out soon?”
“They’re filming her for something or other. She is supposed to perform at 8:00.”
I looked at my watch, and translated it into Eastern time. 6:00 p.m.
Well, I’m not going to worry about that, I decided. I’m not even a fan, and it was hard enough to get through the crowd of people who were just watching the sound check. Only the first row or two of people ringing the hole in the ground could actually see the ice.
I moved on down the street, where a tour bus was unloading a group of mostly older tourists onto the sidewalk. There, on the sidewalk, was a man with a large pile of purses, and another man holding an open briefcase filled with Rolex watches.
Here is one of the classic New York City sights, I thought. The man selling stolen or fake wristwatches. I pulled out my camera for a picture.
I didn’t think the man could even see me standing off to his side, but the briefcase immediately snapped shut.
“What are you doing?” he asked, clearly concerned.
“Oh, I was just going to take a picture, as long as that’s all right with you.”
“Are you with them?” he asked, motioning toward the bus that was still unloading a stream of retirees.
“No, but I’m a tourist here. I drove up from Texas.”
“Oh, OK,” he said, and smiled as he opened the briefcase back up for me. I snapped a photo, smiling myself at the fact that I knew the photo would make it onto the world wide web.
Since I had eaten a cheesesteak in Philly for lunch, I decided that I needed to continue with the locally appropriate food in NYC. That means New York-style pizza, I figured.
I passed by several generic chain restaurants, but finally found exactly what I was looking for: a hole-in-the-wall named Ray’s Pizza.
I went inside and ordered a slice. It cost a little bit more than I would have expected to pay in Dallas, but I figured that was probably standard for New York City. And the pizza was really good.
Ray’s Pizza was small and popular, so I counted myself lucky to find an open seat. I sat down next to a few people about my own age. I thought I would get to know some of the locals.
“So, do you live here?” I asked.
“No, we’re from California,” one girl replied.
More tourists. Manhattan might be one of those places where most of the people you run into do not actually live there.
People are not the only showy thing about Manhattan. The buildings also compete for attention.
In most cities, a skyscraper is impressive just because it is really tall. In Manhattan, all of the buildings are really tall. So, to stand out, developers in NYC don’t just build skyscrapers. They try to build interesting or unusual or artistic skyscrapers. Or, they take regular skyscrapers and attach showy signs or giant video boards.
As I wandered around the city, I found myself in the most showy of New York neighborhoods: Times Square.
This was the ultimate in big-city lights. The neon signs and electronic billboards did produce a strange sort of ADD-artwork beauty. But, they were all advertisements. The power behind Times Square is not architectural art or even electricity; Times Square is powered by marketing dollars.
Still, it is one of those landmark places that everyone knows about and most everyone would like to visit. I called my parents, a world away in Grainola, Oklahoma.
“Hi! Where are you?” said my Mom.
“I’m in Times Square.”
“Really? What’s it like?”
“Well, there are a lot of lights, and giant TVs, and a lot of people, some of whom have blue hair.”
“Yeah, but they’re doing marketing, so I guess it’s OK. No thanks, I don’t need one.”
“You don’t need one what?”
“Oh, somebody here tried to hand me a flyer for some show, but I said I didn’t need one.”
“Who is handing out flyers?”
“The people with blue hair. Like I said, they’re doing marketing.”
My Dad wanted to know if I was going to take in a show while I was there. We both had the same idea for which show to visit: The Late Show with David Letterman. I didn’t see the Ed Sullivan Theater, though, and I was pretty sure that they filmed the show each day around 5 p.m. I was too late for the Late Show.
My folks asked where I was going to stay for the night. Tricky question, since I wasn’t sure if I would stay anywhere that night. New York City is known as the city that never sleeps, which sounded to me like a personal challenge. And I wanted to leave the city at night, when the traffic would no longer be a problem.
My parents accepted that explanation, but my Dad did give me one parting piece of advice: “Don’t walk through Central Park at night.”
Later that night, as I walked across Central Park for the third time, I thought that this could actually be a place I would like. From here, the giant city seemed almost manageable.
I’m not saying I want to move there. If I did, I would spend most of my free time in the park. But it is a nice place to visit.
The park itself was beautiful at night. It would be a great place for a romantic walk. Too bad I was there by myself…
My phone rang.
“Oh, hi, Kevin. This is our good buddy Derrick.”
Well, Derrick was not exactly the person I had in mind. Derrick is, I guess you would say, sort of a special guy. He is very much like a 5-year-old, always asking random questions about everything.
“So, Kevin, what are you doing tonight?”
“I’m walking across Central Park, in New York City.”
No matter what my answers were, they never seemed to surprise Derrick. He took them all in stride.
“So,” he segued, “what did you eat today?”
Derrick’s main preoccupation in life is food. Not because he has a shortage of it. It’s just his favorite subject.
“I had a slice of pizza.”
“Oh. Where did you get the pizza? Did you get it delivered to your house?”
“No, I ate it here, in New York City.”
“Oh. So, do you like New York City?”
“I like it all right. It’s big.”
“Oh. Is it bigger than Dallas?”
“Yes, it’s bigger than Dallas. It’s the biggest city in the country. Dallas is, I don’t know, 5th or 7th or something.”
“Oh. What about Houston?”
“How big is Houston? It is a little bit bigger than Dallas. I think it ranks about 4th in the country.”
“Oh. What about Los Angeles?”
I’ll spare you the entire conversation, but we covered most of the top 12 metro markets. I didn’t really know the answers, though I had seen several lists of the biggest metropolitan areas through my former job. There didn’t seem to be any purpose to Derrick’s questions, other than his natural curiosity.
Derrick did say that he missed me. Well, I guess it is good to be missed. I thought about all of the friends I had left behind, temporarily, in Dallas other parts of the country. I walked over to a Starbucks on the west side of Central Park and set up my mobile office, to send out some emails and attempt to stay in touch.