Even as I booked the ticket I knew it was built-up and pressurized. But who could resist? It was the end of September and I had a few bucks in my pocket, some time on my hands, and the promise of a love story set to the backdrop of one of the world’s most romantic cities.
She surprised me at the airport. In her hands a bag, a survival kit, a welcome bag to the city. A map to the ostensibly simple subway, an I *heart* NY shirt, a local cell phone, a bottle of NYC water (assuring me that it was clean), and very necessary hand sanitizer. It was put together with generous thought and heartfelt preparation. I felt like a spy. A romantic spy. Ten days with this woman just as the heat started to break, a new pair of walking shoes and the dazzling streets of a New York autumn. A writer’s dream.
I guess to understand the gravity of my visit to New York City, you have to know a thing or two about the woman I went to see. Helen is a perfect New Yorker. First, she’s not from New York. She’s Calgarian. A struggling actor and bartender in one of the city’s hottest localvore restaurant, Il Buco (awash with celebrities in its dark, candlelit corners), she commands taxis across to Brooklyn like a contemporary Cleopatra and doesn’t hesitate to trudge crosstown in 4″ heels. Smart, savvy, sexy, and sophisticated, it’s madly impressive that she auditions repeatedly and has not been beaten by the crushing weight of the Arts capital of the world. I admire Helen. She’s one of the few people I know who has not given in to the currents of pressure from society to fall in line with regular jobs, regular families, and regular lives. She wants more. And she puts on her make-up after going to Yoga to the People and takes the city on with grit, steel, and grace. What an incredible guide to an incredible city. As far as leading ladies go, she outshone even the classic starlets.
If you’re going to understand this trip, you have to understand that this wasn’t a Match.com adventure – she was not just some Delilah by the Plain White T’s. Helen was my first love when I was a sliver older than a teenager. She was the first girl I met at university, on the very first day. After a melodramatic young, tormented love, we’d lost touch for more than a decade. We got older, softer…wiser? Thirteen years later we renewed our friendship and explored life, love, and the wold from a continent apart, updating each other with poems on Facebook and hundreds of hours on our phones as she walked home after a late-night shift, me driving with my bluetooth lodged in my ear down the lonely highway. It was these late night talks that propelled me onto a plane to cross the better part of North America to see the magnificent woman on the other end of the phone. Every New York story has to have a love interest. I left to New York City to chase Katharine Hepburn – in life it’s just as easy to romanticize a place like New York as it is to romanticize a love story, to will either to burst into flame is the romantic’s prerogative.
Even though I’d been to New York once before, the city had been built-up in my mind like its immense skyline: impossible to see from ground level. Years before, I sat in a café in Cuzco reading the New Yorker when over the radio Sinatra started to croon his anthem to the city, when a woman from Manhattan sat down to talk to me. I don’t believe in signs, but I also can’t ignore wild coincidences either. Years later while on a motorcycle trip across North America I intended to stop into the Big Apple, but got behind and had to speed across the George Washington Bridge toward Boston. This trip had so much of my romantic stock in it – any engineer could tell you the structure wasn’t strong enough to bear the weight.
I was a step away from being a tourist, staying with a newly ordained New Yorker with the promise of an experience off the beaten sidewalks of the city. There was something genuine about going there with a purpose instead of collecting photos and travel anecdotes about Time Square, wild taxi drivers, or getting robbed. And as I walked with her everything seemed so normal in its weirdness, so familiar in its anonymity that I couldn’t help but feel a strange and instant connection. Or perhaps it was the decades of songs, movies, and endless television, both fiction and non that coloured the lenses I looked through at those streets. When I started this entry last week as I sat across from the New York Times building when I realized that I was using Times New Roman – yes, they have their own font for the love of god! Everything about New York was permeating into my story.
Everywhere I looked, I felt that magnetic snap of connection. I grew up laughing at Seinfeldian relationship and designed my concepts of relationships by agreeing or disagreeing with Carrie Bradshaw and the women of Sex in the City. I walked into adulthood with Woody Allen and Allen Ginsberg, story after story set in this city that reeks of love, lust and despair. Couple that with the frivolity of 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother, and add a few stories from the New Yorker and Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love (which you must read…Helen gave me a copy). How can anyone not fall in love in this city?
While Helen rehearsed or worked, I’d walk through Greenwich Village or SOHO – even the
neighbourhoods demand an excited nod of recognition. I keep stumbling across lists of famous New York spots as I walk down Bleeker or Broadway or 5th Ave. or any of its other well-known streets. Walking along, I couldn’t help but hear Bob Dylan in his Chelsea Hotel, or Jay-Z or George Gershwin, or George Carlin for that matter. The best New Pornographer song is Myriad Harbour..even Canadians can’t help heralding the romance of New York. Later, when Helen and I watched When Harry Met Sally I prickled excitement to see the places I’d seen that day on-screen. She and I created our own movie moments riding bikes in Central Park or walking through the American Museum of Natural History . If you don’t think about it too much, the romance of New York takes over. My good friend Evan flew his girlfriend in order to propose to her while in a little boat on a little lake in the park, surrounded by the tremendous city.
But it’s not just the stories of the 8 million people that forces you to feel something on these streets. New York is not just a big city. It feels…different. Different than Tokyo, London or Bangkok. And even though I try as I may to fend off the feelings of Canadian insecurity; there’s something here that doesn’t exist in the titan Toronto, or healthy and mountainous Vancouver, or even sexy cosmopolitan Montreal.
Maybe it’s the thrill of being in a dangerous place that forces you to grand, romantic gestures. Who knows how much longer we have, you might think. Or maybe it’s because the city is so cold and heartless you seek connection at whatever cost. But, thing is, crime is at a 60 year low. And I’ve never felt so welcomed in a big city – if people see you looking lost (which I did lots), they approach you to see if you need help. So perhaps it’s the collective consciousness of the city, the free-thinkers, the bohemians, the movement upon movement that jumpstarts the heart. There are bike paths everywhere weaving in and out of kamikaze cab wheels. And artists. And musicians. Everywhere. Protests on Wall Street, poetry readings in the East Village, an ongoing Lou Reed song playing in your head. Is it the chaos that makes your heart chaotic?
Helen and I passed a little community garden on Sunday right before it started to rain. Free food and beautiful jazz to anyone who wanted to join. A wonderful mixed collection of community members, all assumedly living in that neighbourhood: an older black grandmother gently scolding her little granddaughter beside her eating a hot dog, the overgrown white hippy sitting beside the young couple Puerto Rico – the Somalian kids helping at the raffle booth…everyone was part of it. I’m not sure where the identity starts or the acceptance begins. Maybe it’s naïve to think that anyone can be a New Yorker, but with a city so much defined by its diversity and outside influences, this is the melting pot apart from the massive country that exhorts conformity – there’s nothing left to shock a New Yorker, it’s all so strange here it’s normal. Feeling like you belong helps soften the heart, opens it, allows someone to come on in and have a seat.
Unfortunately I had to leave New York City and come back to work, far away in the middle of no where. I had to leave Helen and her auditions, those restaurants and all the music and story in the city that never slept. And distance is a funny thing. It forces you to make decisions. Sometimes bad decisions. The romance of an autumn in New York is enough for Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday…and even Richard Gere and Winona Ryder, but sometimes romance isn’t enough. Sometimes a story is just story. Sometimes you can’t live up to a story. New York has power and charm and magic – but it doesn’t change everything by virtue of being a source of art, an inspiration to the heart.
In the stylings of contemporary fictional New Yorker I’ll end with questions: what makes a city romantic or story worthy? Does a backdrop of perfect romance demand a perfect romance? Can a writer find a story in a city that’s been written a thousand times? And where is love, if not in New York City?