Mention of New York City would often bring on an “Ooowww…” with a slight rise of the brow. It’s not unusual. True, New York easily fulfills a dream, of “seeing and believing”, but one could also be startled finding the ordinary.
Answers depend on one’s own psyche—what imaginings we’ve tagged to our flights landing either in JFK, LaGuardia, or Newark Liberty international airports. Most inner compasses hover on skyscraper tips, especially that huddle of dreams in mid-Manhattan, the glitz of Fifth Avenue, the marquee lights on Broadway—haven’t heard it called the “Great White Way” in a while, by the way—and the dizzying forks from Herald Square.
Dwarfed and lost in a moving wall of breasts, wrangling for a patch of sky, that’s me, at first, blinded under fractured lances of lights ever uncertain, which direction the sun falls—where’s East or West? What neighborhood have I strayed into? Once you’ve figured out with time spent on its streets on foot, and with grit, sunk deeper into its neighborhoods—because it does coils and uncoils in pockets of them—one begins to breathe in air as distinct as a new fangled ozone.
Fifteen years ago, gliding on a night ride from JFK through Williamsburg Bridge across the Hudson River to the East Side, I had wondered what the fuss, which side of the city I got to. I later learned that not only does location get one to an address, it also identifies milieu with its boundaries or even “state of mind”, as Hippolyte Havel once described the Village, later called, Greenwich Village on the Lower Eastside, where he lived and worked as a cook “during the bohemian years before World War I”, according to Jess Kisloff’s “You Must Remember This, An Oral History of Manhattan from the 1890s to WWII”.
Perhaps by chance, I had been ushered here on my first time in New York—to my thrill, one day, when I realized I had tracked down the footsteps of poets and artists, whose revolutionary spirit I once divined only from books, the arts and movies; there’s hardly any marker and all that had guided me have been details from school readings or images from youthful dreams.
For instance, at Washington Square on my first Manhattan spring, cherry blossoms had been all that awed me, or so I thought. Until, I realized I stood “Barefoot in the Park”, as in the movie that long lingered in me—well, partly because of Robert Redford—the young romantic, when I watched it. But later, browsing books at Thomas Jefferson Market Library, Henry James’ novel, “Washington Square”, leaped into focus, of course—right here, the opulent Green Village, his setting, he grew up in, which we struggled in Dr. Carolina Garcia’s class to imagine.
Today, nary a shadow of the 1850s bohemians, who once lived on their passionate poetry and their ideas on free love, flit by. Though superseded by bolder generations, their rooming house at the southern side, at least, wears a heritage-building marker. But it doesn’t say, “here once lived—among others—Theodore Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, O. Henry, Willa Cather, Stephen Crane and Isadora Duncan, who presaged barefoot ballet”, who we talked about as if we’ve shaken their hands at UST.
One day, straying westward past Fifth Avenue on to a McDonald’s on Sixth Avenue, portraits on the wall of Edna St Vincent Millay, whose poems we pored over sleepless in American literature, struck me—what, she also lived here? Passing Minetta Lane once, I noticed a tiny marker that casually says, Edgar Allan Poe prowled this narrow street, though he wrote “The Raven” in a farmhouse at the Upper Westside.
Also in later times, Allen Ginsberg lived in The Village, as well as Jose Garcia Villa, the Filipino’s “Doveglion”.
Sometimes, I blame but honor my literature professors for glossing over what friends would expect me to share from New York—Tiffany’s or Saks or having had tea at Four Season’s, perhaps? How could I, with a mere ten dollar bill in my pocket dare I step past their doors? Visits to the Metropolitan and Whitney Museums on free days, a couple of Broadway Shows with “twofer” tickets, City Ballet performances, the Metropolitan Opera at Lincoln Center, Shakespeare plays and the New York Symphony at Central Park, the last two for free—these I haven’t missed, staking it out early with a folded chair to line up at Astor Place for tickets.
But my first trip zipped me on Day One to the Lower East Side, along with a gaggle of pilgrims for coconut bun (pan de coco) at Hop Kee in Chinatown. Yes, it’s where the Chinese sailed into, weaving in their ancient ways and tastes as alive today in New York as any Oriental like us, Filipinos, would search and find with but a sniff. Yet again, it’s where Martin Scorcese breathed life into “Gangs of New York”, as in countless other movies, television series, and recently snapshots or Instagram posts of the city, that persistently conjure in many, a pining to be there.