Our week in New York was mostly spent at the United Nations. We visited the large UN conference rooms, each of us sitting at a desk labeled with a country name, and tried to listen attentively to various speakers; I religiously took notes and worried over the entire week like there was a final exam. (There wasn't). We were shuttled through the city in giant tour buses, and felt rather like fish in a glass bowl: peering out, craning our necks to see the tops of the buildings, but firmly prevented from touching and tasting New York. The glass bowl syndrome contributed to the feeling that we were on a movie set, encountering a place that looked deeply familiar but wasn't quite real. A balding woman who carried a bright umbrella hustled us from the steps of the bus to the next destination, those few brief moments we spent walking across actual New York sidewalk clearly making her nervous, and we took to calling her Dragon Lady behind her back, in that cruel and clever way teenagers have.
We stayed at a hotel in Manhattan for a week, forbidden to leave its doors without chaperone permission, and spent our first evening loitering in the lobby and wondering if we dared to just walk out the doors and out into freedom. (We didn't dare). I don't remember being allowed to visit Central Park, but we were granted a rare two or three unstructured hours to roam along 5th Avenue, in true consumerist fashion, semi-free from the careful eyes of our chaperones and able at last to spend our cash on souvenirs. It was my first time venturing into stores like H&M, where I bought some clothes that I could likely have bought tax-free at home; I also purchased one of those famous I (heart) NYC tee-shirts because I wanted it make it all feel real, as well as a knock-off leather Prada bag I carried for a year after.
My one true New York moment came after our evening at Broadway, where we saw (of course) The Phantom of the Opera, sitting high above the stage in nosebleed seats. We emerged out of the theatre into the hustle of Times Square, the air was thick was thick with a thunderstorm, and our little group of friends spotted Dragon Lady from a distance. We decided, in perhaps one of the only truly rebellious moments of my teenage years, to get lost, literally. We slunk away from the bubble of the bus waiting to whisk us off, away from the chaperones with their colored umbrellas held high in the air; we used those New York crowds to our advantage, at last able to taste and touch that famous city. We sucked in deep breaths of the humid air, wandering through the bustling crowds and trying to absorb the city that never sleeps. The thunderstorm quickly arrived to dump water on us, and we were in dresses and suits for the Broadway show, so we walked for blocks and blocks in the rain in our fancy clothes, snapping photos with our small digital cameras and trying our best to guess how to get back to our hotel, before smart phones held GPS as close as one's own pocket. We eventually arrived back at the hotel, throbbing with excitement and somehow sliding in under the radar of the chaperones, already tasting the deliciousness on our tongues of how it would feel to tell the people at home how we walked back from Times Square in a New York thunderstorm.
It was this small taste of the real New York, of some of the wildness and adventure and daring the city itself seems to promise, that I remember when I long for a visit to that electric place.
Inspired by the book of essays I'm reading about New York at the moment.