My first glimpse of New York City was from the window of a train car on the Long Island Railroad. It didn’t hit me all at once; instead it came in slow bursts. It was better this way; I had time to process it. First, miles of water and houses along the banks. The whole image was picturesque, with the city line as the backdrop. Then, more and more buildings that grew taller and taller as we got closer. My eyes went dizzy trying to look at every single one as the train kept whizzing by. Manhattan was far off in the distance, yet I felt I could touch it if I reached my hand out the window. My fingers could pluck a building right out of the ground. It looked exactly as I expected. The skyline was identical to all the Google images I had saved as my phone background. And then, complete darkness. A tunnel swallowed the train whole and we plummeted farther underground to continue the rest of the way. The train finally stopped in Penn Station, in the middle of Manhattan, except I was underground. From the station, I had no idea what lay waiting for me in the world above.
I was raised in a small town in upstate New York; a 6-hour drive to NYC, so the mere thought of the city excited me. My town consisted of a little less than 12,000 people. I spent most of my childhood running around acres and acres of land in my bare feet with my little brother and sister. I loved the country, but I longed for the day I would get to visit the city. I couldn’t stand the smell of cow manure and I hated the idea of wearing camo as daily clothing.
My sister and I would walk into school together every morning and stop at each other’s lockers before class.
“Oh god, look at that girls’ camo jacket. Like, why?” she would say, glancing down the hall.
“That is just fashion suicide,” I would say, and we would giggle quietly as to not bring attention to ourselves.
“If I ever try to wear something like that, you have permission to slap me,” she added.
Although we were middle class, we were well off for people in our town. We understood that not everyone could afford the nicest things. But we had expensive taste and an “out of the ordinary” sense of style for our town. We avoided camo at all costs and while other girls were sporting uggs and black leggings, we were wearing skinny jeans and vans. As our friends blasted pop music in their headphones and begged their parents for Justin Bieber tickets, my sister and I were patiently awaiting the release of tour dates for our favorite alternative band, Imagine Dragons.
Once we were old enough to realize that we didn’t fit in with most of the people we went to school with, we tried to find somewhere we might. New York City just happened to fit our criteria perfectly. We fell in love with the city before we had even been to it. We dreamed of living in a penthouse on the Upper East side like all the chic women we saw in the movies.
I remember spending the summer days in the room we shared, debating on something to do.
“Well, what do you want to do?” I would ask her as I sat Indian style on my bed.
“I don’t know. There’s nothing to do,” she replied. “I hate this town. There’s never anything to do.”
“Yeah, I know. I can’t wait till we can move to the city. The city that never sleeps,” I would say, daydreaming of the two of us walking down Fifth Avenue.
I longed for a place where I could be myself. I needed a place where the word “bored” was no longer a part of my vocabulary. I wanted a place where my soul could be set on fire.
My first step outside Penn Station was overwhelming. There were people everywhere, everywhere. I continued on the sidewalk to look up. When the concrete overhang unblocked my vision, I titled my head skyward and stared. The buildings were so tall that the whole sky was covered in steel and glass. I remember thinking how amazing it was that a species as small as humans could build such incredibly tall structures that were ten times our size, at least. I finally understood where the term “skyscraper” came from as I looked up and the entire blue expanse that was the sky was filled with towers, stretching miles up into the abyss. All I could smell was pizza, hotdogs and falafel from the carts parked on the sidewalks. My mouth salivated with the thought of all three of them on my tongue at once. I wiped my hand across my lips to make sure I wasn’t drooling.
“Oh my god, this is crazy,” my sister said, in awe as well. Her eyes scanned the sky as fast as mine.
“It’s like the movies, only better, ” I said, craning my neck to look.
“Look at all these people, they’re practically running in the middle of traffic,” my sister pointed out.
A small crowd of people had crossed the street before the little man lit up in a white light, announcing that it was safe to cross.
“That’s how they are here. They don’t care,” my mom said.
“Yep. It’s how they are,” her friend, Steph, agreed.
Steph knew the city well and had offered to take us around that day. She had taken my mom to the city for the first time a few years back.
We walked along the streets, each block passing in a matter of seconds. Normally, I would have complained that my feet hurt, but the thought never crossed my mind. As we drew closer to Times Square, my sister and I giggled and pointed out signs to each other.
“Look! The M&M store,” she said. She knew chocolate was my favorite thing in the world.
“No, look over there! It’s the American Girl Place,” I said, listing all the places in my head that I wanted to go.
It was a humid summer day, and the crowds of people and buildings blocking the breeze from the water nearby made this day hotter than I expected. I strained my neck to look up at all the billboards and lights and signs. I snapped a few photos on my iPhone and kept moving just in time to avoid being trampled by more tourists taking photos. I had only seen this place on T.V. on New Year’s Eve every year as people stood waiting for the ball to drop. I couldn’t believe I was actually there. I felt so tiny compared to the buildings, like a single drop of water in a rainstorm. I was surprised at how insignificant I seemed compared to the thousands of people and the humongous structures that stood around us.
For a moment I stood there, taking it all in. I felt an energy around me that I had never felt before; one I surely had never felt in my hometown. It was a kind of energy that made you excited and happy but confident and self-assured all at once. It was one that made me feel like I could do anything, everything. And I never wanted it to go away.
I am speed walking through Times Square, in a line with three of my friends. We push through people and run across intersections before the light changes. The tourists are stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take pictures and I almost run into a man with a bright orange fanny pack kneeling with his camera facing the sky. I stumble around him and catch up to my friends.
“God, I hate Times Square so much,” Ruby says, her golden red hair blowing around in the late afternoon breeze.
“Yeah, once you live here, you never come here. It’s so touristy,” Dylan adds as she turns to me. Her light blue eyes look gray in this bright lighting.
I had been going to school in this city for 3 months now and I already felt like a New Yorker. I was even annoyed by the tourists and overcrowded streets of Times Sqaure, yet that energy came back like a welcoming friend. When I decided to transfer schools at the end of my freshman year, the first place I started looking was the city. I wanted nothing more than to be back there. I came across a school in Brooklyn that was comparable in price to a state school and transferred there without a second thought.
We crossed the street one last time to arrive at Bubba Gump Shrimp. The giant smiling shrimp on an orange rectangle sign welcomed us inside. We were seated at an antique wooden booth in the middle of the upper story with red leather seats. Hanging on the wall above us was a beat up metal license plate that read, “Run, Forrest, Run.” The whole time I couldn’t help but stare out the window.
Walking back to the subway station that night as the moon rose in the sky, I felt the same as I had the first time I set foot in the city. The energy I experienced before was back again and stronger than ever. I felt a confidence I never had before as I swiped my metro card and pushed the metal wheel with my body.
My friend Sarah, from Texas, decided to pick the train car we would get in. She saw one that was oddly empty and shouted for us to follow her. We raced to it, jumping in just before the doors closed, amazed that there was open seats on a train at this hour.
As soon as the doors closed, my nose was smacked with an odor so foul, I could have mistaken that train car for a month old dumpster. Huddled in a mass of newspapers and trash on the bench was a sleeping homeless man that smelled of rotted flesh and the harshest B.O. ever. The four of us looked at each other and held our breath.
“We are getting off at the next stop and switching cars,” Dylan said before taking a breath in.
After escaping the grasp of the smell in that car, we took deep breaths in and out, cherishing the clean air.
“We are never letting Sarah pick the train car again,” I said, still trying to erase the smell from my mind.
“That’s why there was no one in there,” Sarah chuckled and we couldn’t help but laugh too.
We make our way out of Times Square and follow Steph, my mom’s friend, along the streets of Manhattan. We come to a crossing where we are abruptly stopped and told to stay on one side of the street. I look around trying to figure out what’s going on and my mom and sister search the crowd too. Everything looks normal, expect for the guards at the edge of the street keeping the crowds from moving into the intersection. I push my body to the front of the crowd and stand on my tiptoes to look over the heads of the pedestrians. I begin to hear people talking, saying something about a movie, a movie set, filming going on. Finally, the four of us make it to the front and we can see down the street.
Set up in the middle of it is some sort of rig with a car attached to it. The car cannot drive itself but is moved along by a track. There are cameras everywhere and people running around getting things into place. Someone yells “action” from somewhere I cannot see and the car is thrust forward in an instant. A second later the car is brought back to its former position and everything is reset to the way it was before. Then the guards tell us we can cross. The crowd moves quickly across the intersection and I keep up although I want to stay and watch some more.
“What is the movie that’s being filmed?” my mom asks some of the bystanders.
“The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” someone says, “It’s coming out in late 2013.”
“Who’s the star?” she asks again, always being the one to get info out of people.
“Ben Stiller plays the main character,” someone else says, “He’s over there now somewhere.”
I search the crowd of people near the car rig and am disappointed when I can’t see anything. We make it across the street and continue on our way.
“Oh my gosh, wasn’t that the coolest thing?” my mom says shortly after, “We just saw a movie being filmed in New York City. That’ll be one to tell your friends.”
I realize how crazy it was as soon as it’s over. It’s not something you see everyday and definitely not something everyone gets to see their first time in New York. I imagined what it would be like to be on the movie set, filming that car moving through the street, the actors inside playing their characters. I imagine it being a lot more invigorating than the short films I’ve made.
In high school, I took a few French classes where my teacher allowed us to create videos for our projects. We reenacted scenes from a French movie we watched, created cooking videos and made commercials. I loved filming my fellow students and directing them. My favorite part was editing the clips together to form a cohesive story. I remember my two friends coming to my house one day after school to shoot for our project. I acted out one small part and mostly did all the directing. As soon as they left, I ran to my room and stuck the memory card from my moms Nikon camera into my laptop. At the time I didn’t have any fancy editing software, but I did the best I could with Movie Maker. I would laugh so hard at the bloopers and outtakes and sometimes even throw them in at the end for some comic relief.
As I got into my senior year, I considered going to school for film and making movies. I wasn’t sure I had the skills to be a director, but I loved editing and could imagine myself working on the next award-winning movie listed in the credits as an Editor.
The day ended much too quickly for me, yet I had no choice but to return to my town in upstate New York where I would go back to feeling like an outsider. I remember the train ride back and watching the skyline disappear out the window. I watched until the last bits of it fell away into the distance. My sister and I spent the whole ride back talking about everything we saw and planning our futures there.
The day I left to come attend SUNY Oswego was much the same. I couldn’t afford to go to school in Brooklyn anymore and decided it would be best to transfer back home and save money. My parents came to pick me up on a cold December day, a few days before Christmas Eve. When the care was all loaded up, I said goodbye to my friends and jumped in the back next to all my belongings. I watched the city disappear through the back window of our SUV and felt as if I had left a piece of me behind.
I clung to the memory of one rainy night over the summer as the city faded away in front of me.
It’s late August and Dylan and I have decided to venture into Manhattan and get dinner at a kosher restaurant she picked out. On our way back to the train, it begins to rain. It starts as a drizzle, then turns into big wet droplets. The air is calm and warm still, but the rain is cold on our bare skin. We are lost in the middle of Midtown and it’s almost midnight. I am standing on the sidewalk, waiting to cross the street and I feel it again. I am engulfed in an energy that makes me feel invincible. We take off running across the street when the light turns green and we’re screaming and laughing until we get to the other side. The lights are so bright and it doesn’t even feel like midnight. I could walk around for another hour and still not be bored or tired. I look around as we walk along, admiring all the lights and the sounds I hear; taxis whizzing by, cars beeping at each other at traffic lights, people yelling from a 6th story window. Although I am completely lost, I know exactly where I am. I am somewhere that I am happy, somewhere that I feel, in my soul, I belong.
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