He remembers standing on E 63rd St, Upper East Side. They’d gotten out of a checkered yellow cab; he counted out $55, which was the standard fare from JFK those days, plus tip and handed it over to the driver. The city was loud, humid and had a congested feel and smell. He exhaled deeply, looked up at the skyscraper lined sky, took it all in. He was terribly excited. This felt different, even thought he had been to the City before, different than all the other experiences. Not lived before, nor visited since.
The apartment building had a concierge/doorman, which, as they were to soon discover, meant that if a doorman was ever present at his post, he would sometimes hold the door open for them, but would always look as if expected a tip. The apartment complex also had, unheard of luxuries apparently, an elevator and a laundry room on their floor. They entered their apartment and looked at each other and laughed. It was all of 400 sq.ft. and furnished with cheap furniture. The rent was staggering, more than three times what they paid for their apartment back home in the Midwest for a place three times this apartment’s size. They peered out the windows and marveled at the street noise.
All he wanted was a shower and some sleep after the flight. She would hear none of it.
She dragged him out into the heat. They turned right out of the building and wandered aimlessly and with no plan in particular. They had no maps, no GPS- phones during those days had none. 300 feet later, they found an Indian restaurant, thrilled to find one so close to “home”. Little did they know then that had they walked the other way to Lexington and a few blocks south, well, give or take 20, they’d find a ton of much better Indian places to eat in “Little India”. They ate their meal and resumed their jaunt. They found a grocery store, again excited that it was walking distance from home. They bought bread, cheese, cereal, milk, flowers and some beer. At that time, Sapporo was his favorite beer- he would prefer its taste in tall aluminum cans rather than a bottle. He loaded up his stash.
The next month was a whirlwind. She’d leave early for work and walk her way to her office on 42nd St. He would wake up late to find her already gone. He would switch on the TV to watch CNBC; he was big into trading the markets those days; to catch the commentary. Eventually hunger would kick in and he would get restless of getting cooped up in the place. A dash of milk and cereal in a plain white bowl and off he’d go. Sometimes he’d join her for lunch, but more often than not he’d be late or she’d be with her colleagues. So off he’d go to explore on his own. Always heading south from the 63rd, picking any Avenue at random. Each Avenue had its own distinct personality. Lexington was narrow and busy- it had markets, with vendors selling vegetables, ethnic foods from every country imaginable, trinkets, magazines, flowers. Park Ave was wide, upscale, snobbish, with luxury car dealerships and a couple of great bookstores. Fifth Ave was very touristy, with Tiffany’s, the Trump Tower and Bergdorf Goodman. The Streets were shorter pitched, the Avenues were spaced much further apart. There was always a subway to duck into were he to get tired of walking, the fare was a grand $2 to get anywhere.
In the evening he’d join her outside her office. They’d made a pact- one she suggested and one which he had no problem agreeing to. All the money she made, each and every one of her generous paychecks, they’d blow it all up, right then and there. He was on a sabbatical, which meant that he was not getting paid during this time off from his work. There was also rent to be paid back home, but they didn’t care. She’d gotten a score of good internship offers including this one and this one had been her second best choice. Her first preference had been one in Connecticut; that was more prestigious and would look much better on her resume. They’d discussed about which one she should pick. It was rather simple to him- he saw how her eyes lit up every time they talked about the City. He asked her one question. Later, when she looked back in life, which one would she regret not taking? The choice was clear.
And so they proceeded to burn her money up in style. They’d watch Broadway shows such as Chicago. They’d go to the Lincoln Center for Mozart concerts. They’d dress up for these events and were often the youngest in the crowd. The older couples would watch them lovingly and with some amusement. They never purchased anything at the expensive stores on Fifth Ave, but it was always fun window shopping and people watching. They’d then eat at all kinds of places. Every day, she would be poring over City Pages hunting for a new place to eat. They’d show up, the promoter or maitre d’ would take one look at her and give them the best tables. He’d be ordering $14 Cosmos and Manhattans, drinks he wouldn’t ordinarily touch or pay so much for. She would order a glass of wine and get drunk or pretend to get drunk after sipping a teaspoonful. When the waiter would come over with the check, he would point to her and loudly proclaim- “She’s paying!”. She would just roll her eyes, smilingly say “You Ass!”, reach out for her credit card and fork it over. They’d meander around the Lower East Side and then walk across the Brooklyn Bridge. He was experimenting with his new camera, tripod and all and enthusiastically took pictures of the East River lit in the rising moon, as the trains shuttled across and boats lazed downriver, ignoring her petulant pleas to get moving. Home would sometimes be only 6 miles away. No problem, they’d walk it off, or sometimes take the Green line back if it was too late, falling asleep in each others arms the moment they hit the bed around 1 am.
After a while though, the hustle and bustle of the city became too much. The city was getting to him. He had to get away from it from it all, go back to his known calm home base, so he could think his problems out. The constant activity and excitement wore on him- the lack of sleep, especially since the Queensboro bridge emptied right outside their apartment and so the car horns sounded all day and night. He wasn’t in a happy place then. Their relationship was tumultuous, it would always be so, but that was not it. These were good times for them now. The City felt like a new start, howsoever temporary. However, his job, that he was taking a break from, was awful. It was a toxic environment, this much he knew after being away. The mere thought of going back there to work made him feel sick. Her career was obviously taking off and the sky was the limit, but his had stalled. Much to her dismay, he fled back to their town in the Midwest, in search of answers.
Once removed, he could see things clearly. He would walk around the lake, talking it out with her on his flip phone, which had an antenna. Good luck had intervened and things had begun moving his way. An old friend had managed to land a job interview for him on the West coast and they’d begun to investigate if she could follow him there. Being eminently employable, she just had to re-target her industries and perhaps it would all go smoothly. They were making big, exciting plans, of job changes, coast to coast moves, anticipating being closer to friends and family and the sun and beach away from this cold, lonely, desolate town they’d lived in. It was happy accident, Serendipity, which by the way is the name of great dessert place on the 60th, this confluence of events. Following a week long trip to California for his interview, which he aced, he accepted his new job offer, deferred his join date to after summer, put in his two weeks notice at his current place, wrapped it up and went back to the city to enjoy the rest of summer. The city had definitely gotten to him.
Saturdays were the best. The city would be a little bit quieter because the inhabitants would flee for the weekends on the tunnels and bridges, but it would still be chock full of tourists. Times Square was always crowded, day or night, shops and restaurants open 24×7. The city that never sleeps- it can’t afford to, the rent is too high. Diners where they’d gorge on fries and milkshake. Central Park, where they’d watch free, open-air Shakespeare plays enacted. H&M and Zara’s stores every couple of blocks. And she would have to visit them all, because according to her, the collection was different in every shop- being targeted towards the people who lived in that neighborhood. And who knows, they may have changed their collection since the last time they visited, which could be as recent as yesterday. The damage was never too high though, averaging $20. The thrill was always in the chase. And Daffy’s, on 34th, innumerable trips to Daffy’s. She picked him a colorful patchwork leather jacket on sale for $50 which he still has. Then eat street food and duck into a ubiquitous Duane Reed for a bottle of water.
They’d walk all through the day and eventually rest in a park. They’d find a bench and she’d take a nap with her head on his lap. She would offer to trade positions but he’d be too fastidious to lie down on the bench. So he’d sit up, pretentiously reading the Wall St Journal or Barron’s guide to the markets, on printed paper; remember, this was the pre-digital era. She’d have her forearm shield her face as she slept and be snoring gently. He would often wonder since then if it was possible to live the equivalent of a few lifetimes in a span of four short months. Looking back, he certainly seemed to have done so. As much as the City was having an effect on him, perhaps that wasn’t all there was to it. It would be hard to imagine the city without her, every single facet had her stamp on it. The experience wouldn’t have been even half as good had she not been part of it. Dozing and reading serenely in Madison Park, they were young and fearless; this was surreal. The hottest girl on the planet in his lap. He was happy. Understatement.
Then he’d feel her stir and she would catch him peering down at her through her long, jet black hair. She’d smile back, get up, yawn, stretch her arms. Then she’d grab his bicep and off they’d go to their next adventure.
Here’s to the City. And to Her.