My very first memory of New York City isn’t really a memory so much as it is a blur. Our flight was delayed, so that waiting for our luggage felt even longer. There was something red in the arrival hall, maybe a wall or a banner. Murky memories, 13 years old, more like dream imagery, feeling rather than thought. We must have passed through Queens for quite some time on the way from JFK to Manhattan, but my recollection of the ride is no more than a vague notion of darkness and the backseat of a cab with her next to me. Or maybe I was in front and she was in the back?
"The sheer size of the Manhattan skyline, vertically and horizontally, wasn’t hard to believe after all those stories, photos, movies and songs, but it was hard to fathom as a reality."
My first vivid memory is crossing the East River into Manhattan. With the skyline engulfed by night, it felt like we were headed towards a colossal black wall with a million yellow windows carved out of it. It looked almost cartoonish, or at least it does now when I look back. The sheer size of the Manhattan skyline, vertically and horizontally, wasn’t hard to believe after all those stories, photos, movies and songs, but it was hard to fathom as a reality. That view ushered in a gripping notion: “you’re here.”
For the next seven days we would chase down landmarks like petty game hunters, the bigger the better, shooting away with our shutters. On day one we walked from the Upper West Side through Central Park and then down 5th Avenue towards the Empire State Building. I remember looking up a lot, mesmerized by these heights, a goofy first timer in New York, easy to spot. And there it was, the one and only Empire State Building. I won’t lie – the iconic skyscraper wasn’t as tall as my expectations. I had envisioned its peak to disappear in distant skies; it didn’t. It was right there in front of me, not tucked away in a secluded imaginative yonder.
But that’s what it means to disembark at places of dreams: rendering them from cloudy visions to commonplace eyeball-truth, jamming untamed imagination into tight realities. When the Empire State Building realized how I had idolized it, the pressure of my clichéd anticipation made it crumble down to reality’s maximum height. And yet, that pointed building pierced my heart and memory. The Empire State Building wasn’t unimaginable anymore, but the feeling of actually being there, of giving a dream a lift to the corner of 5th Ave and Lived-Experience-St left me with a handsome keepsake.
"I won’t lie – the iconic skyscraper wasn’t as tall as my expectations. But that’s what it means to disembark at places of dreams: rendering them from cloudy visions to commonplace eyeball-truth, jamming untamed imagination into tight realities."
More souvenirs followed: Chrysler Building, Ground Zero, Wall Street, Times Square, Pier 17, MOMA, SOHO, Chinatown, Uptown, Downtown. We never really made it out of Manhattan beyond a Brooklyn Bridge crossing; on our first timers' tourist map New York equaled Manhattan thanks to its landmark density. Fortunately, one day our homestay host took the time to show us around some lesser known sights, like her favorite restaurant in Greenwich Village and the Staten Island Ferry, which offered free view onto the Statue of Liberty.
She also recommended the Rockefeller Center for the best view over the city; after all, the Empire State Building isn’t in the picture when you’re standing on top of it. I remember the Rock’s observation deck as a platform for my awe – what was before me was beyond me: a paved organism of civilization so vast that I beautifully failed to grasp its dimensions even though I was looking right at it. My eyes wandered over the sea of concrete that was Manhattan only to find it dwarfed by the ocean around it – four more boroughs, each one several times larger than the fancy centerpiece.
And then there are the more personal memories, away from the generic tourism moments: like that little Marina by the Hudson, or one of the most powerful thunderstorms I’ve seen till today, or the 100 year old building we stayed in.
My last impression of New York was one more grand angle: a nighttime bird’s eye upon take off. Myriad lights lit civilization’s gargantuan electrical sprawl, with Jersey City and other neighbors chipping in their bulbs. I left with a feeling of wanting to live in that cosmopolitan city one day, no doubt, and that future vision accompanied me for years to come whenever I’d think back to New York. It wasn’t until a decade later that I returned and discarded the idea.
"...somehow the city had changed. First I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then I realized that it had shrunk..."
New York the second time around was smaller. Ten years later I had returned with my sister and her friend. By then, my main interest was nobler than landmark hunting and dedicated to everything outside of Manhattan, but, being in NY with a bunch of bloody first timers, it was Manhattan, Manhattan, Manhattan all over again. Revisiting many of the places from that first time had me all nostalgic, but somehow the city had changed. First I couldn’t put my finger on it, but then I realized that it had shrunk. It had gotten significantly smaller and more ordinary next to other giants I had met by now, like Mexico City, Mumbai and Tokyo.
"Seeing New York with this new set of eyes, my vision had sharpened too. Suddenly I spotted disparities that had been in the blind spot of my younger angle."
Seeing New York with this new set of eyes, my vision had sharpened too. Suddenly I spotted disparities that had been in the blind spot of my younger angle. This time I saw those left behind by this city rich with opportunity and dreams.
"...there was certainly something endearing in that city coming down to earth from its pedestal..."
Considering that our experience in a place is shaped by circumstance, no place can ever be the same again. Over the years, I have returned to places that I found more intriguing with every visit and have been let down by others. As for New York – there was certainly something endearing in that city coming down to earth from its pedestal and one day I’d like to explore it without tourism goggles. Third time’s a charm!
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