As you wade through New York City, inch by inch, different smells assail your nose, whether fragrance or odor. Though my pitifully empty bank account and aggressively full schedule did not permit me to stop at those falafel trucks or hotdog stands, my craving for the greasy and the salty failed to be satisfied by dining hall brunch the next morning. And while I didn’t actually smell the Givenchy being advertised on many a billboard, I did delight in the curious odors wafting from alleyways, especially those quaint smells of chemical waste or, at odd times, some really very powerful marijuana.
My tastes in the city were few, for our feet had too much distance to cover. But I could not resist a brownie from the Hershey’s store, one that of course crumbled as soon as I exited. But its chocolatey self was not diminished by its absence of shape, no, but rather it was an amalgam of my favorite things: sugar, cocoa, and a good healthy dose of guilt from my kidneys. A pitifully small serving of Panera mac punctuated my day, eaten in swift silence as I lounged, feet throbbing, by my equally exhausted companions.
When I go walking, I never really think about what I feel, beyond some half-formed thoughts about how it should be cooler if it’s hot or how it should be hotter if it’s cool. Those half-formed thoughts certainly took up their fair share of real estate while I ambled around New York, but the buzzing city doesn’t let your nerves stay idle. Rather, they race.
My mind pinged faintly when the train dumped me at Grand Central, for I had not considered the rolling sea of people through which I would have to wade. From partially growing up in rural Indiana I am not accustomed to surfing waves of pedestrians, but soon I learned that apologizing for each elbow bump will quickly leave you out of breath.
Why do writers describe crowds of people as “buzzing?” People don’t buzz: They talk, they shout, they mumble, they cry, they declare. “Buzzing” seems a sadly inadequate blanket term that glosses over what actually happens, for even along a small stretch of 5th Avenue, I heard arguments, whispers, gossip, hawkers, rushed phone conversations and pleadings for mercy. There are many arguments for how humans are different from animals, and sound is one of them. Bees have a singular buzz; humans have an entire spectrum of voice.
New York City shapes that spectrum like a baker kneads dough for that impossibly thin New England pizza. People speak, but they also write, sometimes on a ragged sheet of paper that tumbles around Central Park, and sometimes in gaudy letters that strut across the Times Square billboards and make you forget you’re outside and not at an advertising convention. One sign welcomed me to Anhui, China, even though I only paid for New York, and another simply stated, “Do what you can’t.” That last one caught my interest, for I looked away before seeing the company it was affiliated with. Having no anchor, the words seemed instead to indicate that all of the city, with all of its glitz and dust, was indeed there to help me do what I couldn’t.
Sightseeing for the typical tourist probably involves Times Square and Central Park, and by that definition I certainly was a typical tourist, but it was the walks between landmarks that defined the city beyond what I’d seen in movies. I was walking and saw a lot, just an empty lot, completely devoid of anything but dirt. I was shook, because in a place like New York, where the colorful buildings blend together into one stationary caravan, there was just an empty lot, dessicated, nothing but rocks and dust, looking wildly out of place among its richly endowed neighbors. I don’t know what used to stand there, but I wonder if, when it went down, people cared. If they even remember what used to be there.
Something similar happened at a fountain near Central Park, by a hotel my friends had seen in a movie. But despite the fountain and its obvious intention to be pretty, I was struck by blocks of smooth stone stacked outside the hotel, labeled clearly in a blue ink: “NYPD.”
I’m from Chicago, and any mention of police anywhere within the city limits is sure to set off alarms, either mental or physical. These blocks, then, proudly labeled as property of the police force, struck me, for I have grown used to tiptoeing around the issue, not having it displayed so loudly and so openly. And as I stood there, I realized how surprised I was that the blocks had not been painted or knocked over. They just stood, undisturbed.
While I’m usually content to let the smells and sound and colors wash over me, I didn’t want to do that in New York, because while the city is old, it was sparkling and new to me. I know that some people who were born and raised in New York probably hate it with a passion usually reserved for OGs, but I’ll probably return one day, and maybe that empty lot will be filled.
Valerie Pavilonis | email@example.com .