In place

At 3:29 in the morning I got on the Cardinal train bound for New York. All the pairs of seats had someone in at least one of them, so I asked an older black man, “Mind if I sit here?” and he said sure and I sat and we both tried to sleep until morning.

When it was properly daytime, I ate some ginger snaps and gave him one. We got to talking and I told him I was an anthropology major. “Since you’re in anthropology, I’ll show you these,” he said, and took out some pictures from his leather satchel. They were pictures of him in Ghana with members of the Fanti people, in the traditional dress of their culture. It turned out he’s a nana there: he only translated it one way, which was “king”, but he pointed out that a nana is more of a servant and a helper in the society. He was raised in New York, but he’s lived in Ghana a lot, and was given the title after he stopped the spread of cholera there, and taught them about ecology, and spent some time “living well”. Then (this was 1988) he changed his name from George something-or-other; now his first name is Nana. He has two other names, but I’m not going to mention them here, out of respect for privacy. He showed some pictures of people with T-shirts that had his name on them. Evidently he’s pretty popular. We talked a lot, and I didn’t read much, which was something I’d planned on doing. But I was just reading in Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose about the difference between these days and the old days. In the old days, a story like Heart of Darkness was plausible in its framing: it’s framed as a story told by one sailor to a group of other ones. But today, even though we go on long journeys all the time, people trade tips on how to keep their neighbors from talking to them: headphones, intent stares at whatever they’re doing, those black cloth eye-cover things. I was happy talking to someone interesting for a day, even if he did have sort of bad breath.

The Cardinal got into Penn Station at about 10:30 at night, and Nana took me a block away, to a subway stop where I could get on the F train. We were in the middle of towering towers and deliriously blinking lights, and I thought my initial impression of the city: “Holy shit, is the whole place going to be like this?” Then we went underground again, and it was a bit quieter. He showed me how to buy a subway ticket, and sent me off to the F train stop, then went to his train. I stood there, mostly alone, looking down the empty tunnel and watching the occasional rat. I was carrying lots of money, my big packpack with a sleeping bag attached to it, and my laptop in its case. Know what? Absolutely no one robbed me. Seems like everyone in my family was telling me that going to New York was as good as throwing all my possessions into a pit and possibly committing suicide as well. I knew this was bogus even before I got there, but now I can confirm it empirically. I got out of the subway near my friend Darwin’s house, which was in a mostly unlit neighborhood, and I eventually found his house and fumbled with the key that I was given under the mat and made it inside. During this time, no one robbed me. Then I got inside and was, of course, home free.

No one was in the house, but I called up Darwin’s mom, and she told me where to stay. Then I called my other friend, Kane, and he was still awake, so we met at a street just down the hill from Darwin’s house, and went to a 24-hour sandwich place that Kane knows about. I had a tasty chiliburger and most of a milkshake, and we talked about New York. He told me about Prospect Park, and the free concerts that happen there. I’m pretty sure they’re all free, and there’s an upcoming one by Norah Jones. Prospect Park is less than ten walking minutes from Darwin’s house. There are tons of interesting-looking restaurants around here. So far I’ve only been to that sandwich place and to a pizza place that I visited with Kane the next day, but I think I’ll get some bread at a bakery soon.

I’ve been exploring on my own time, now that, unlike at college, I have my own time. Yesterday I went on a bike ride with Kane and his brother, and pulled off what was easily my most impressive bike move in years. I was on a borrowed fixed-gear bike, and we hit our first big hill, which I had never dealt with on a fixie before, since this was my first time riding one. I realized too late that it’s rather hard to control a fixie while it’s going down a hill. I tried to slow it down as well as I could with my legs, but I was still going at a horrendously unreasonable speed down the hill, straight toward a roadway with pedestrians on it, on the other side of which there stood a fence. I hurtled toward a woman with a baby carriage, and managed to miss that, by aiming toward a lamppost at the left end of the fence. Before I could smash into the lamppost, though, the curb took hold of my wheel and redirected me firmly off to the left, down the road. Accepting this turn, I kept my feet on the pedals and rode gracefully down the street until I could slow down enough to turn around. “Guys,” I said, coming back to Kane and his brother, “I have no idea how I didn’t fall off the bike just there.” They were impressed, and so was I. The only consequence was that at some point the tire rubbed a nasty stripe of skin off my heel. Kane’s brother offered to take the fixie. I accepted this.

Today I walked around. First I walked down the street, and looked at what sorts of interesting establishments I could find. There are a bunch of laundromats, and a Vietnamese bubble tea place that I mean to check out sometime. I also found a little tiny art supply store and bought a pen. Then I found my way to Prospect Park. I walked around the park, making up each and every step as I went. It’s a nice park, although it’s only the illusion of nature growing wild. They’re up-front with you about Prospect Park being an illusion. Near a waterfall, there’s a sign that explains, “The watercourse starts here, with water piped in from New York municipal sources.” This waterfall, the sign also explains, was placed around a blind corner so that visitors would hear it before they saw it, which would make the park seem bigger. Despite all the little subterfuges of Olmsted and Vaux, I enjoyed the park. Its paths twist enough that I couldn’t see any other people a lot of the time, which was fine with me. The trees smelled like trees should, and I followed tree-smelling trails down the watercourse until I lost it. People were enjoying themselves all over. I found myself at an exit to the park; I wasn’t going to use it, but then I noticed that a sign across the street said “Brooklyn Botanic Garden”. So I crossed the street in an only slightly dicey maneuver, and went into the garden. I walked past trees with signs on them and found myself at a greenhouse. In there I saw what a coffee tree looks like, and saw lots of cactuses, and smelled a citronella plant that I never saw. There was a delicious-looking cafe that I didn’t buy soup from because I’m aiming to enjoy New York for as cheaply as it can be enjoyed. I enjoyed the park plenty without that bowl of soup, following a trickle of water upstream until I found it flowing out of a pond full of big luminescent Japanese carp. I tried to follow it further, past a torii gate on the pond and a Shinto shrine in this very Japanese area, but there were fences blocking me off from where they’re building a new visitors’ center. I still feel cheated that I didn’t find the source of that stream, but it was probably the tap anyhow, so I’m not too sad. Eventually I turned around and got back to Prospect Park. I tried to find my way back to Darwin’s house, but not with a great deal of dedication, and so I ended up going the exact opposite way, to the very farthest point in the park from where I needed to be. As I went around the Lake, it started raining, but that didn’t bother me too much. I kept walking and walking and at last I stopped making wrong turns and got back to where I had come in. I hopped over the wall, as I’d done to come in, and walked back to the house.

Darwin’s mom had now come home. She has a little fat dog—a French bulldog—that snorts when it breathes, and two cats that refuse to have anything to do with me. I haven’t really talked to her much; instead I’ve spent most of my day after I got back working on my fonts, and fooling around on the internet, talking to people and such. I’ve been pretty unproductive, actually, but I’m going to try to be a lot more produtive tomorrow. I might buy some better groceries, too. I bought lots of rice and some noodles too, and for flavoring I have diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. But I think I’d better find something that’s not grain flavored with tomatoes. Perhaps something cheesy? Perhaps some meat? I’ll think about it!

I’ll also write my first rejection letter. I got a novel that was submitted to my internship company by email before I left, and I read the whole thing yesterday. I was afraid coming in that I wouldn’t be able to find anything to pick on in a novel written by someone who’s not a college student, someone who’s trying to get paid good money to write a book. But it turns out I can pick a book apart in a way that’s probably at least satisfactory. This one wasn’t that good. It was repetitive, and not terribly gripping, and the writing style was like an overdone exaggeration of Hemingway’s short sentences. (Fun fact: not all Hemingway’s sentences were short and jabbing. Loads of them were long.) I think I’ll be able to do this job. I start on Friday. I’ll keep you posted. Maybe by then I’ll have had a bubble tea too, and I’ll be able to say something abouth that. They’re supposed to be the greatest thing ever, if some people at the college are to be believed, but I’ve never had one yet. I’ll let you know if the rumors are true.

File under: trains, interesting people, work · Places: NYC


Anonymous

History

I am so happy for you that you got there safe and sound, with all parts intact, well, except maybe for the skin on your heel. PLEASE be careful on bikes!!!! I am cheering you on as you have adventure after adventure. If you are open minded for interesting things to happen, they do, I've always found when I travel. Just like the man you sat with on the train, and he helped you out later. I love that.

I admire your confidence in being able to reject a novel. You know when it's not good, but the writer sure doesn't or he wouldn't have submitted it. And you have to be the one to say the truth. I would guess that for every publishable, actually good novel, there are a thousand that probably should not have been written. That's too bad. Let me know if you run into any manuscripts that are really good. Grandma

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Oxtrox

History

I never told you that you would be swallowed whole by the city. I simply said look out for the girls with Adam's apples. I have several friends that have gone to live there and they were fine. Just a little common sense is a must.

I hope you get to try all those great establishments, but I suspect with your budget, if you do, you’ll be broke in 3 weeks. I’d wager that or you’re gonna be eating noodles at home a lot.

My NY City tip of the day (or more likely of the year) is: if you need to pull out a map to find your way, just step into a store or restaurant where you’re less obvious.

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Anonymous

History

I've spend plenty of time on the subways, late at night, wandering around Manhattan, Brooklyn, Central Park, and never felt in danger. I suggest all of the obvious explorations- the world trade center site, Battery park and a trip to lady liberty, Central park, grand central station. All can be done for dirt cheap on the subways, or better yet just walking. I've walked from central park to battery park, fun stuff! I'm jealous again.

Dave

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