Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made

Upon returning to New York City from my brief trip to New Jersey, it hit me that this was going to be my very last week in New York, and the next time I left the Big Apple it was going to be with all my worldly possessions in tow, and no future return date in sight. There were a few tourist attractions and activities that I was yet to see and do – partly because I might have been a little bit lazy, but also because I was waiting for a fellow tourist to see and do them with. Back in Berlin, as well as talking about my previous travels, I’d also chatted to Ralf about my travel plans for the future.
“And then after the UK it’s off to the USA! I’m going to have my birthday in New York with one of my best friends.” At the time, I thought it was only Georgia who I was going to be seeing for my birthday – I was completely oblivious to my planned birthday surprise.
“Ah, very nice,” Ralf said with a smile. “I’ve also got a trip planned to New York later this year, actually. I’ll also be there for my birthday.”
“Really? When is your birthday?”
“October 9th.”
“No way! Mine’s October 6th!” And that was how Ralf and I discovered that, completely by chance, we were both going to be in New York at the same time. I guess that’s why when we said farewell in Amsterdam after our weekend at pride, it didn’t really feel like goodbye. We both knew it was simply ‘See you in a few months!’

***

So the afternoon that I arrived back in New York, I helped Melissa carry some things she had brought home from New Jersey up to her apartment, but then set off to meet Ralf for the afternoon. He was staying with a friend over in Chelsea, so we decided to meet at The High Line. The High Line is an old train line that has been converted into a long park that stretches more than two kilometres down the western side of Manhattan. I’d visited it a couple of times during my time in New York – once by myself and once with Jesse – but it’s a beautiful place that sits above the hustle and bustle of street level, offering views of the city, yet somehow also a peacefulness that comes with your removal from it, so I didn’t mind returning for another visit.

It was a little surreal to meet up with Ralf again. Meeting him a second time in Berlin had felt relatively normal, since that was where we’d first met, but to sneak up behind him and surprise him on a street corner in lower Manhattan felt like I’d found a glitch in the universe or something. But we hugged like old friends before proceeding to climb the stairs and walk along the High Line, catching each other up on the last few months while taking in the scenery and the artwork that was spread out along the thin, narrow park.

The New York City High Line.

The New York City High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

That afternoon was actually Ralf’s birthday, and although he was trying to not make a big deal about turning 40, I managed to convince him he at least needed a cake, which we shared that evening with the friends who he was staying with. It was still early in the week though, and we decided we’d wait for the weekend before going out dancing to celebrate.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

***

The next couple of days I caught up with Ralf again to do a bit of final sightseeing in New York City. We decided that we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and possibly explore some of Brooklyn. The following day we arranged to meet at a halfway point between both our homes and go from there. We met at Maddison Square Park, but when I started to brainstorm how we could get to lower Manhattan to cross the bridge over to Brooklyn, Ralf said, “Why don’t we walk?”
“Uhhh…” I was hesitant. “It’s kind of a long way?”
“I’m not that old yet,” he joked. “We’re both fit and healthy, right?”
“Uh… sure, yeah. I guess we can walk. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

As it turns out, Ralf has a horrible sense of direction and geographical awareness. I can’t really tell you how we came to the decision, but we decided to walk to the edge of the island and then head south along the bank of the East River. There were some nice views of the various bridges, but when I kept checking our location via the blinking blue dot on the Google Maps app, I was concerned at how little progress we were making in the scheme of things as we walked along. Don’t get me wrong – it was actually a nice walk, and we talked and caught up the whole time, but October was coming along and the days weren’t as warm as they had been when I’d first hit the east coast of the USA. This day in particular was a little bit chilly with a fair bit of wind.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there's almost always something interesting to see.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there’s almost always something interesting to see.

To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to get to the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. At which point we had to stop and rest our feet for a little while.
“Why didn’t you tell it was such a long walk?” Ralf said with a cheeky smile, and I just rolled my eyes and told myself I’d probably needed the exercise. And then we set out to cross the bridge, which actually offers some beautiful views of Downtown Manhattan and the Financial District.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge itself is no walk in the park, and we even had to stop halfway across, partly to enjoy the views but also because we had been on our feet and walking for quite a few hours now. By the time we reached Brooklyn it was already starting to get late in the afternoon. After finding a place to eat and having an extremely late lunch, we were both too exhausted to do too much more walking.
“And we are definitely taking the subway back to Manhattan,” I said sternly when we decided to head home. I wouldn’t make the mistake of listening to Ralf’s judgements of distance again, plus I’d grown so accustomed to the NYC subway over the last month, I found it almost comforting. And as for Brooklyn itself, I never really got another chance to explore it. However, I knew that this was only my first time in New York, and definitely not my last, so I vowed to explore the streets of Brooklyn next time I visited the Big Apple.

Welcome to Brooklyn!

***

Ralf and I spent another afternoon heading down to the southern tip of Manhattan (via the subway this time, of course) to make a trip even further south on the Staten Island Ferry. Melissa used to live on Staten Island, and while everyone had assured me that there wasn’t a lot to do there, it was a nice (and free) ferry ride which once again provided excellent views of the Financial District in all it’s tall and shiny glory.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

A few people had told me that it wasn’t worth sticking around on Staten Island, and that once they’d herded you off the boat it was better to just turn around and march right back on. Defiant and determined to find something actually likeable about Staten Island, Ralf and I decided to had have a wander around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Staten Island, it’s just that Manhattan (because Staten Island technically is still part of New York City) is hard act to follow. Most of Staten Island just seemed to be residential. There weren’t even that many shops – just a corner store here and there and a café or two. There’s is a museum on the island, at least, but it didn’t seem to be that interesting, and we weren’t even going to go inside. But as we turned to walk away, a woman came running out to tell us that entrance was free after 5pm, so we shrugged our shoulders and headed back for a quick scope around, and learnt a little bit about the history of the ferry and the history of Staten Island as a part of New York City. Which was interesting enough, but… overall, if we had turned around and hopped straight back on the ferry, we wouldn’t have been missing much.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

 ***

Of all the sightseeing that one just has to do in New York, I think I must have saved the most important for the very last. There are – at least in my opinion – three major towers in Manhattan: the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Each of them offers stunning panoramic views over the concrete jungle, but there’s really no need to go to the top of all of them – so how do you choose which one to visit? I spent a long time (i.e. my whole life until arriving in New York) believing that the Chrysler Building was actually the Empire State Building. I’d seen more pictures of the former, but I was so familiar with the name of the latter that the two became conflated in my mind.
“That’s because so many photos are actually taken from the top of the Empire State Building – that’s why you never see it,” was the explanation I was offered, and put that way, I guess it makes perfect sense. So using that logic, and knowing that there were three buildings, I convinced Ralf that the Rockefeller Center should be the tower the picked. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it looked like, and climbing to the top of it would offer views of the two towers that I did know.

Walking around New York City, you definitely get a feeling of how big the place is. It seems to stretch on forever, and one wrong turn and you find yourself lost in a place or street or suburb that you never knew even existed. But a trip to ‘The Top of the Rock’ only served to confirm these feelings that New York is an infinite city that stretches almost as far as the imagination.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

Ralf and I lined up to get our tickets and, after watching a short presentation about the Rockefeller family, the building they created and their place in American history, hopped into an elevator that would take us to the upper reaches of the Rockefeller Center. Even the inside of the elevator was fascinating – the roof was made of glass, and as the little box you stood inside zoomed upwards, rows of lights that lined the shaft wall came racing towards you like shooting stars.

The tower we were about to go up.

The tower we were about to go up.

Looking up - inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

Looking up – inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

But once we were on top, the views were breathtaking. To the north was Central Park, and for the first time I think I really appreciated just how huge it really is. It’s just massive. And to think, it’s only a fraction of Manhattan itself. To the south, the Empire State Building rose up from the street, the afternoon sun turning it into a silhouette as it began to set into the west. Words really fail to describe the immensity that surrounds you when you’re standing there, or just how tiny and insignificant you can feel when all that is New York City rises up out of the ground around you. Part of you is on top of the world, but all that you see just reminds you that you’re just another part of it. It’s a rush to be up there, but I somehow also found the experience very humbling.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

However, here's a tip: Top of the Rock doesn't actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

However, here’s a tip: Top of the Rock doesn’t actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

Ralf and I spent a long time up there, just wandering around and taking in the epic views. When it was finally time to come down, we debriefed and unwound with a walk through Central Park. After having seen it from the air, I had a greater appreciation of just how big the park was. We set off without a plan and no real direction, and soon we were lost, taking new turns and discovering new locations in the dying sunlight.

Strolling through Central Park.

Strolling through Central Park.

Night setting in over NYC.

Night setting in over NYC.

We even stumbled across the huge lakes up on the northern side of the park – that I recognised so vividly from episodes of Gossip Girl, as well as a host of other TV shows and movies – but unfortunately by that stage it was too dark to capture any good photographs. Once night fully set in, we decided that Central Park was potentially not the safest place to be, so we made a beeline for the subway, and made our way home. It had been nice having Ralf there – an unexpected surprise that had allowed me to indulge in some of the more touristic elements of New York City. Sometimes I felt like a gushing tourist, but then I know too many locals who feel exactly the same way about their home to feel too badly about it. Because let’s face it – New York is a pretty incredible city.

Across the Atlantic: Arriving in Manhattan

Having a seat on that afternoon flight to New York was a feeling of sweet relief that went unrivalled for a quite some time – the emotional toll on everyone involved during my last morning in Dublin plus all the unexpected problems with the flights and visas had made for a very stressful series of events. Even if it was amongst a group of rowdy and restless Italian teenage boys who were acting like they’d never been on a plane before (they definitely weren’t locals of Ireland so I highly doubt that was the case), a seat was a seat. In a way the long overseas flight between continents was kind of cathartic – travelling by train in Europe had always left things open to possibility and potential, and plans could change at the drop of the hat, but the long haul flight across the Atlantic meant that there was no going back. As difficult as it may have been, I had felt the feelings that I needed to feel, but then I packed them up and moved along. It was almost like leaving home again – there were definitely things I would miss, but the excitement of what to come was just too overpowering.

Since I had gone through the pre-customs clearance at Dublin airport, I didn’t have to deal with any of that when I got to New York. We landed at Terminal 5 of JFK, a domestic terminal, and after collecting my bag from the baggage carousel I walked out of the terminal and… that was it. It was so easy. Too easy, I would have thought, but seeing how quickly I was out of there, I guess the whole pre-customs clearance thing in another country makes a whole lot of sense. I navigated my way to the subway system, purchased the swipe ticket that would be my access to said system for the next six weeks, and started the long train ride from the airport to Manhattan. Thank God for express trains, that’s all I can say (even then it took over an hour).

***

And so I found myself in the main chamber of Grand Central Station, staring up at the ceiling and all around me at the great, cavernous hall. It was almost like having déjà vu – I knew I’d never been to New York City before, but I had seen this very scene countless times in movies and television shows, and the familiarity was somehow there. Just being there made me feeling I was in a movie myself – hearing American accents alone was enough of a novelty. But thankfully I wasn’t sleeping in Grand Central Station – I was waiting on a message from a friend, and as soon as I got it I navigated my way out of the station to the street.

Enter Melissa – co-star in this part of my journey and subsequently in many blogs that will follow. Melissa and I had met in Sydney when she had been there on an exchange semester. She was in the same philosophy class in which I had met Stefan (the three of us had been study buddies before our final exam), and from the moment she had struck up a conversation asking me about some of my tattoos – and showing off some of her own – I instantly knew that we would be good friends. We didn’t get to hang out too much off campus or outside of classes, but we had kept in touch when she went home, and when I had told Melissa about my plans to travel the world she had insisted that I come and visit her should I ever find myself heading to New York. Of course, New York being… well, New York, I had hardly needed a reason to include it on my travel itinerary, but the fact that I did have a reason made it all the more exciting. I scanned the opposite side of the street 42nd Street until I saw her jumping up and down and waving, and as soon as the traffic lights changed I rushed over to greet her.

“Robert! How are you? Oh my God, it’s been so long I’ve seen you!” Melissa is without a doubt one of the happiest and most loving people that I know. It had been over a year since we’d seen each other, or even really spoken in depth about our lives, yet meeting her there that night felt as natural as meeting an old friend I had known for years.
“I’m good! I’m great! Exhausted, but still great,” I said with a smile as I leant down to hug her – Melissa was a short woman. “I’m so sorry I’m late, the airport in Dublin was a bit of a disaster – I have so much to tell you!”
“Excellent, I can’t wait!” she replied with a smile. “You’re so lucky, though – I know I’ve been saying you could stay with me this whole time, but I’ve been in the process of moving at the moment… I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be in this apartment by now or not, but I moved in today – literally just got the keys.”
“Today?”
“Yeah, today! I was scared for a minute that we’d have to stay out with my mom in Jersey.” The impact of that statement was lost on me at this point in time, since I really had no idea how far away New Jersey was.

“But you’ve got it now, right?” I’m all about spur of the moment plans, but I’d had my fair share of them this morning in Dublin, and the time differences between here and there had made it a very long day. I just needed to lie down.
“Yep, it’s only a couple of blocks away. Follow me!”

***

Melissa’s new apartment was on East 39th Street, pretty much right in the middle of Manhattan. At this stage I still had no sense of where that was, or how big Manhattan was, or how big New York City as a whole was, but the geography of the city is actually both simple and fascinating – anyone who’s seen a road map of Sydney might understand – and something that I would come to master by the end of my stay. But for now, we were home.
Melissa introduced me to the doorman on duty as we passed into the lobby, stressing to him that I was just a friend who was staying with her for a little while. Brandon introduced himself, a muscular man with tattoo sleeves extending from his wrists up his arms and underneath the shirt he was wearing, and I almost squealed with excitement when he spoke with his Queens accent – it was just like the movies!
“The place is a studio, and I told them there’s only one person moving in,” she explained once the sliding doors had closed. “So it just looks a little odd that there’s another person coming in with all these bags.” She just giggled, confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. When we went through the apartment door, we walked through a small kitchenette and a bathroom before walking into the main room. It was a sizeable studio, and would have been very spacious… except that there was a lot of junk all over the place: stacked boxes, stacked tables, half assembled furniture.
“So, the reason I ended up getting the sub-lease for this place was because I agreed that the girls who were here before didn’t have to move their stuff out right away. They can’t get it out for a few days, so for now… well, it’s here for now.” There were a few things that were Melissa’s, but a lot of her stuff was back at her mom’s house in New Jersey, which she would bring over once the previous owners stuff was gone.
“I don’t mind,” I said as I plopped my bags down to soak it all in. “It’s kinda cozy.” I turned around to smile at her and found she was back in the small kitchen.
“Aww, yeah! It will be cozy! I’m so excited you’re here! Are you hungry?” There was leftovers of a thick, New York style pizza Melissa’s mother had bought earlier in the day, so  we heated it up and I tucked into a piece of that. There was also red wine, so Melissa got out some glasses.

“To your new place,” I toasted, raising my glass once Melissa had poured. “And to living in New York City, baby!”
“I’ll drink to that!” she said with a grin, and she raised her glass to clink with mine. We pulled down one of the mattress that had been standing against one of the walls, and we sat on the floor with our wine and pizza and caught up and gossiped like school girls.
I also decided it was best to have a shower after the long flight, which led to the minor problem of us not being able to turn off the bath taps when we were done. Unsure what to do, Melissa ended up calling Brandon to see if he could help us. The bad news: the hardware in one of the taps had come loose, and we would have to wait until the next day for the building manager to come and repair it properly. The good news: Brandon was able to force the tap closed and stop the water flow, but it took him several minutes to achieve, and Melissa and I enjoyed the fabulous view of his butt in his tailored work pants while he was doing so. I considered it our housewarming gift.

It’s hard to believe that all this was the same day that I had had my airport emergency back in Dublin. My situation had changed so much that it was bare recognisable – I almost had to pinch myself. But such is the life of a traveller, and I didn’t dwell on it too much – eventually jet lag lulled me to sleep, and in the morning I had a brand new city to explore.

London Calling

So on my last afternoon I set off to Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam and boarded my plane to London… well, not exactly London. See, I overlooked one important detail that anyone flying into London should really pay a little more attention to, and that was which airport I was actually flying into. Many people, even Londoners themselves, might tell you that the city has 5 airports, when in actual fact it has 6. “Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted and City,” they would say. If you reminded them about Southend airport, they would probably scoff and say “Southend? That’s not even in London!” I think it is, technically, but for all intents and purposes, I basically flew into a small village on the far outskirts of the furthest reaches of suburban London. When I finally looked at the map, I understood why Giles was so shocked when I told him I was flying into Southend. I had booked the cheapest flight, and I suppose I got what I had paid for.

Regardless, my flight from Amsterdam to Southend was actually quite an easy and pleasant experience. The flight lasted all of 45 minutes, and when we landed we were ushered out of the plane and down onto the tarmac, where we were directed over to the arrivals hall. Inside there were two queues: EU passports and non-EU passports. I think I was one of about ten non-EU citizens on my flight, so I breezed through immigration in about two minutes. I’d been told by many people that airport security in London would give me the grilling of a lifetime, but the customs woman barely batted an eyelid as I walked past after collecting my checked baggage. In less than 20 minutes I had landed, cleared the airport and was waiting for a train at the Southend train station, located conveniently next door to the airport. Sure, I would be on the train for over an hour before I got anywhere even remotely close to central London, but I’d much rather spend that time on a train reading my book than standing around in airport halls and queues and being interrogated by British officials at Heathrow airport.

When my train pulled into Liverpool Street station, I met Giles where he was waiting for me at the end of the platform. The first thing we did was go to one of the ticket machines to get me an Oyster Card. Now, the public transport enthusiast in me just needs to stop and hyperventilate for a minute here – the London Underground was, if reports could be believed, something of a Holy Grail of efficient commuting. The Underground metro system – known as ‘the tube’ – stretched all over and out to the furthest reaches of the sprawling and never-ending metropolis that was London, and there were an almost infinite amount of bus routes and services too. The Oyster Card was an electronic ticket that you used to tap in and out of any station, as well as being able to pay for any bus trip with just a single tap of the card on any of the electronic touch pads. No messing about at ticket machines or stations (unless you were putting more money on your card) or missing your train because there are long lines. It wouldn’t even matter if you did though because the trains come so frequently. While it often did take a long time to get to most places, that was usually only because London itself is actually just such a huge city, and the fact that the public transport could get you there in that time was actually quite remarkable. If you ever hear a Londoner complaining about the tube, slap them square in the face, because they honestly don’t know how good they have it. I absolutely dreaded the day I would have to return to Sydney’s public transport.

But that evening we were going to catch a bus to Giles’ house in Hackney. Mile End was the closest tube station, but it was still about a 15 to 20 minute walk from where he lived, and considering I had all my luggage he thought it would be easier to get a bus that took a bit longer, but also took us much closer. At first I was quite surprised at how long it took to get there, given that where Giles lived in East London was considered reasonably close to the centre. It was the beginning of my learning curve in discovering just how enormous the city actually is. It felt a bit like home, though – from the city to the suburbs, there were so many things that made London seem weirdly familiar. Maybe it was the fact I was back in an English speaking country, or possibly because I’d just seen enough parts of England in British films or TV. Maybe Australia is just a lot like Britain in its planning and design – we technically are, as they like to put it over there, “one of the colonies”. But despite that familiarity, it definitely still gave me that exciting feeling of being in another country, filling me to the brim with anticipation. I would be staying in London for longer a period of time than I had stayed anywhere since Bangkok, and I was extremely excited to ground myself for a little while and explore what the city has to offer.