At the beginning of the third quarter of today’s Lakers-Nuggets game I decide I am going to walk from 100th St to Ground Zero.
With the Lakers up by 6, I leave the apartment. It’s 5.49.
I take the subway from Chambers St express to 96th St. As the stops flicker by, it dawns on me that this isn’t an insubstantial walk, especially given the snow, the cold and my choice of shoes — a pair of worn down Chuck Taylors.
Yesterday I walked from East Williamsburg, across the Williamsburg Bridge and home to Tribeca. It was colder and snowier. Through the red bridge, I stared out at Manhattan and it felt like my chest cavity was expanding.
As I pass 66th St I get a sense that I’ve come a long way uptown. To my right a group of kids laugh hysterically. There’s an old man reading a book beside them. He doesn’t flinch.
I boarded the subway in the day’s final light and I exit in the dark.
Standing on the corner of 96th St and Broadway I get my bearings. Downhill to the left is the Hudson. Central Park is a few blocks to my right.
I begin walking towards 100th St. Past 99c stores and cheap massage parlours. Past diners and juice bars and Dunkin’ Donuts. This part of Manhattan seems nondescript. Like I could be in any American city. The same shops, the same characters, the same sparse mix of people.
I turn right at 100th St and walk uphill a block. The snow is banked up, 2 and 3 feet deep in parts. The roads are clear, as is the sidewalk, but there remains the occasional ice spot, subtly menacing in the reflection of the full moon.
Walking east, high-rises spring up around me. High-rise, low cost, high density housing remains one of the great social failures of last century’s governments. Regardless of the country, a high concentration of towering shoeboxes always produces the same thing. Lifeless, light-less streets. People with their heads down.
Past roadworks and scaffolding and snow piled high on the roadside, I get my first glimpse of Central Park. Covered in snow yet still full of runners and bikers and families with kids on sleds or dogs on leashes, it’s light and airy and inviting.
I pass The Lake, and Dakota, on 72nd St, the building where John Lennon was shot. I think about decisions I’ve made in the past. I think about decisions I’m making now. I think about how intensely I debate and test them. How obsessively I try and squeeze out a sense of purpose from them. And then I think that really, it doesn’t matter what I do. No-one cares or remembers. I’m a grain of sand on an infinite beach.
I climb icy stairs, pass tourists with SD cameras and long lenses and circle through The Ramble.
The LED clock in Columbus Circle flashes in the distance. 7.08, 33F, .5C.
As I pass the skaters on the Central Park ice a miserable horses clicks and clacks past me pulling a white carriage adorned with frozen roses. Through the slush and mud and horse manure stench, I come out on 5th Avenue at Central Park’s SE corner. The Apple Store sits like an ice cube to my left and I cross the road, passing the Grand Plaza, thinking of Home Alone, wondering whether Macauley Culkin is happy now.
5th Avenue. FAO Schwarz, Bergdoof Goodman, Prada and a hundred more ‘flagship’ stores. All selling $800 high-heels and faux fur.
There seems to be a lot of stores selling a lot of clothes. No-one I walk past is particularly well-dressed.
I admire the complexity of the window displays and imagine the stress involved in their creation. I imagine a high strung, short, skinny dark-haired girl with bangs. An extra large coffee in her bony hands and a 15 minute diatribe about how she got no support from her west coast colleagues when she tried to find wigs to match this season’s shoes. I imagine her single and crying in her rented studio apartment. I imagine her small dog staring back up at her as she weeps in her kitchen, a pile of mail unopened on the bench beside her.
Opposite De Beers, in the steps of a church huddles a homeless man smoking a pipe, his bags piled around him to protect him from the cold.
I walk to 48th St and make a right past 30 Rock and its weird, gaudy golden statue. I pass News Corp and the McGraw Hill building. Just a few blocks away flashes an MnMs display, four stories high. That must be Times Square.
In Times Square I sit on the red steps and watch as people pose around me, cameras flashing.
“Look. This is me at Times Square. This is me standing here, smiling, doing the peace sign. I am in New York and this is the proof. This will go on Facebook and everyone will know that I was here. I will do this at The Golden Gate Bridge and the Grand Canyon and The Statue of Liberty. I am away and here I am.”
My grandfather once told me he played cricket against Don Bradman in a Sydney club match. After the game, his team-mates approached the Don for autographs. Almost 60 years later, my Grandfather recounted the story, indignant. What on earth did his teammates want with an autograph? What good is an autograph to anyone? As Grandpa explained — “I got more from watching the way he played, the way he interacted with people than I ever could have from a lousy scrawl on a piece of paper.”
Needless to say, I have never since sought out an autograph.
Likewise, I don’t take photos of myself at tourist attractions.
Looking out from the red steps, the overwhelm of bright flashing neon brings to mind some Tokyonic psychedelia. It’s ghastly and beautiful at the same time. Hundreds of vertical metres of smiling faces, side-scrolling red words and male models running on desert highways in fashionable shirts. Puff Daddy, Broadway shows, and the new Bruce Willis movie. It makes no sense, and yet, people flock to it, giddy at the thought of being at the free world’s epicentre.
I head down Broadway, past the purple Yahoo sign telling me that Yahoo is where the world checks in every day. It seems like a relic from 2003. Like the marketing department bought the space and forgot to take it down. I pass through Koreatown. After the burst of light that is Times Square, Manhattan drops away below 32nd St. It’s all of a sudden desolate. There’s graffiti and small, cheap phone stores promising to unlock iPhones.
Then the Flatiron building appears and I’m left and into Madison Square Park’s Shake Shack with its famed burgers and cheese fries.
– “What are the cheese fries?”
– “Sir, they are our standard saw cut fries covered with our shack-made cheddar and American cheese sauce.”
– ‘”I’ll have some of those please.”
As I go to pick up my meal from the counter, the young woman squeezes the bright yellow cheese mix straight from a 6L bottle. Minutes later, the freezing wind has turned the cheese to congealed rubber.
The burger and milkshake more than make up for it.
I sit beside a beautiful, young couple. She tells me she’s a print model and not knowing what that is, I imagine her lying on a pile of newspapers. He has more diversity in his look apparently, despite the fact he’s been modelling for a shorter time, so he does more than just print. They’re from San Diego. They live on 45th St and have their own backyard for only $1500 a month. His Dad is a carpenter, just like mine was. They haven’t been out of the apartment for weeks due to illness and the Winter Olympics. They tell me the USA lost in the Ice Hockey final and I tell them about Stephen Bradbury, the last man standing. They are wonderful, genuine people. And as we freeze slowly in the night’s falling temperature, we share travel stories and big dreams. I really like them and give them the only business card I brought with me to the States. I tell them to email me. I hope they do.
On their recommendation, I follow Broadway downtown. It’s more appealing than 5th or 6th they say and they’re right.
Union Square is still bustling and full of people. I eye the people entering the heated subway with a tinge of envy and try not to think about my left foot which feels like it’s about to strike with one of those awkward, middle of the night cramps. I don’t want to be lying in the snow, grappling awkwardly with one of my long legs, trying to unfurl my foot while all these people stand and stare.
I push on. Through Soho, past great streets like Prince and Spring and Broome and Grand. I take a self portrait, walking.
I cross Canal into Tribeca. I get yelled at by a guy with a beard and a dirty, bottle green jacket. I have headphones on so I can’t hear him. I pretend he’s yelling — You are so happy right now! You are so happy!
Broadway in Tribeca is empty and I’m relieved when I turn left at Fulton St. I have made it. 100th to Ground Zero. I take a photo of the fence that surrounds the site. I stare in disbelief at the buildings around the WTC site. I try and imagine what that day must have felt like.
Six blocks back uptown and I’m home. There’s a new doorman on duty. His jacket fits him awkwardly. He’s new here.
With the twists and turns in Central Park, Broadway’s diagonal cut and the extra walking to and from the subway, 100th St to Ground Zero probably took me close to 13 kilometres.
I open the door, take off my shoes and hang up my jacket. I pour myself a glass of water and check the time. It’s 9.42 PM.
(Originally published March 1, 2010)