Sunday, November 03, 2013

A tale of two cities

I'm not sure what I was thinking … taking the kids to New York City for a weekend.

Oh sure, I had envisioned that we'd see some sights, visit friends, do a little shopping. Just your average, basic, run-of-the-mill adventures exploring big cities that are a little more than a hop-skip from home. I thought they'd Love it with a capital L.

And, for the most part, the Big Apple itinerary was pretty straight forward.

We took a train downtown. Checked into a hotel. A nice, clean place with a bathroom that rivaled the size of the bedroom. The kids could jump back and forth between the beds without fear of slipping off. I didn't even worry that they would hurt themselves since there was nowhere to fall but into a mattress. Still, it was the Taj Mahal compared to some of the flea bag places we'd stayed in the days before kids.

We walked. Met friends. Walked some more.

The New York experience was old hat to us, it was all new for our little tourists, each of whom were directed not to bring anything in their backpacks they couldn't carry all day. Under no circumstances, I stressed, would I be lugging around their bags, so they might want to make selections based on weight.

Soon, it was pretty clear New York City was a bit of a culture shock.

The kids were overwhelmed by all the contrasts: The giant buildings housing tiny cubicles. The bright lights and the grit. Everywhere we stepped there was something to be avoided.

Manhattan isn't so much a place as it is a living, breathing entity with an unimaginable array of surprises in its pockets.

It is place where unbelievable wealth rubs up against unimaginable poverty. Where homeless families look remarkably similar to us: A mom dragging a wheeled suitcase through the subway, her kids hefting their best things in their backpacks.

My kids, hefting their own backpacks without complaint, skipped across East 64th Street, happily noting the neatly-kept stoops and doorways of the stately brownstones. This is the New York they understand. The one they've seen in movies. This New York with its cloistered entryways decorated in the muted, tasteful colors of fall. The word “manicured” perfectly fits the condition of the teacup gardens we are able to see as we make our way to our destination. Symmetrical topiaries and ground covers tended in pots flank doorways. Perfectly round pumpkins dot stairs.

This is the New York they appreciate. The land of FAO Schwarz and Central Park, and the Upper West Side.

It occurs to me as we make our way to the zoo and its tidy self-serve ticket booths that most people don't see the allure of New York City until they reach an age where designer handbag knockoffs seem irresistible.

Below Delancey, where we had been staying, the city is steeped in smells of a different place. An atmosphere made from the mixture of old garbage with fresh fruit and fish.

With their shirts stretched up over their noses, they jumped over schools of cigarette filters swimming in oily puddles. They gawk at shopping carts filled to overflowing with deposit bottles and other possessions parked along the sidewalk and locked with heavy bike chains.

A woman is sleeping next to one of the carts. Two dogs awake in her lap stare up at the kids. They don't wag their tails. A young man with a scarf leans down with his camera and takes a picture. His friends laugh.

Ittybit looks sad. She doesn't ask for an explanation.

We keep moving. Past markets and shops. Schools and pocket parks. Anything you can imagine and more than you could ever imagine are here somewhere. Street musicians, pop-up shops where you can get your shoes shined or your clothes mended.

It occurs to me that this is the city I found when I came to visit the first time, a place where small and large are one in the same, and where no space ever goes to waste.

But it isn't the one my kids will remember. Their NYC has real live toy soldiers as doormen, and snow leopards in its parks.

No comments: