Long ago, when I was going through a jarring life left-turn (le divorce from my high school sweetheart), I made a to-do list for self-discovery. Among other things, I wanted to polish my French and try it out in Paris, write a story that stretched me, make friends with my dad, take a literature class, kiss 25 men, and visit New York “until I got it,” I specified.
Those 25 men, they’ll disappoint you every time. But oh, New York, New York. I went every year for my birthday to see Central Park in the fall. I went in December with my mom and my sisters to realize “it’s Christmas time in the city.” I went for a hurricane — and stayed. I went in January and never will again. And finally, this month, I went (with Marni) to see the spring.
It was only once we’d arrived and found ourselves wandering the streets that I realized I’d left my worn-out map and guidebooks at home. Maybe I didn’t need them, I thought. Maybe now, after all this time, I understand New York.
I suppose what I wanted was just to feel comfortable here.
The city scared me the first time I came — as a little intern from The Baltimore Sun who took the train up for the day to visit the paintings at the Met, alone. I was afraid to go into the restaurants and ask for a table for one. I was afraid to take the subway. I was afraid to walk under scaffolding, even. My mother had warned me about dark corners and New York.
That same summer, I realize now, I was afraid of many other things. I was afraid to take a job offer that would stretch me. I was afraid NOT to get married. I feared being 24 and single. I was scared to leave Arizona, and home.
A few weeks ago, as Marni and I tripped along the city streets, pausing at daffodils and tulips and white-flowered trees, I thought about that frightened girl.
She would marvel at this older self who yells at cabbies, laughs when she gets lost on the subway, dances on tables with drag queens at the Standard Hotel on Halloween, sits alone in restaurants all the time and sometimes even prefers it. She would admire the open smile that invites strangers to become friends — on street corners, in cafes, at museums and plays and standing outside photo booths, waiting for a turn.
She would love the reading room of the New York library, too, and be glad to have found it.
Maybe now, after all this time, I also understand her.
Traveling, I think, is brought on by the instinct to search for something: a memory, an experience, a painting, a dessert, a place, an ideal, or the thought of a different kind of life.
“There are two kinds of travelers,” writes my beloved New Yorker scribe Adam Gopnik. “There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see, and the kind who has an image in his head and goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more.”
This spring, in New York, I found myself on the brink of many frightening things: another wedding, the hope of starting a family, and new jobs that will stretch and scare me.
When I set out for New York all those years ago, I held an image in my head of a girl who charged bravely around town and knew just where she was going.
And this spring, I saw her there.