Finding yourself in New York for the first time, which was my case in that boiling hot August morning in 2010, is in itself an experience, so emotionally intense, that it inevitably raises your self-respect and confidence. That is, of course, if you don’t race back home early in tears but instead put yourself together and manage to make it through. Especially if you are a European college kid from Bulgaria, who had been a part of the Work and Travel USA whirlpool and had worked over the summer more than 100 hours a week with a day off once every three weeks and with the sole mission of fulfilling a childhood dream. A silly dream that had been nurtured since your childhood by the stories of relatives and friends who were lucky enough to visit New York and to see with their own eyes the places where your favorite Friends and Sex and the City sitcoms were shot NEW YORK ASIAN ESCORT.
As the years pass by, though, you realize that New York is not all about movie settings, lights, fancy clubs, expensive stores, huge corporations, boundless cultural life, money, money and some more money. You grow older, gain some experience in your daily life, watch several dozens of mediocre movies about New York and read way too many superficial books on why this city is the most magical place on Earth. As some more years pass, you eventually read some worthy literature, analyzing how such a historically young city has become sanctum for millions of people, who, because of being different from the masses, are forced to live as recluses elsewhere but in New York feel comfortable and respected for being different.
Finally you find yourself having a new perspective on why New York is such a big deal, and a fair shot at actually grasping the real message of the city. This message could never be the same for any two college kids from Bulgaria who had worked at coolie jobs all summer, but in most cases the emotional side of each first-time visitor takes over and turns the New York experience into a symbolic milestone. In most cases when the New York experience is shared and a couple of friends go there prepared to dive into the ridiculously many entertainment options that the city offers, the whole visit turns into a crazy adventure that generates sweet and precious memories and makes a hell of a summer story to tell back home.
When a single person dares to go to New York for the first time all alone, just like I did, the experience is more likely to turn into a life-changing lesson. The simple explanation is that the loneliness inevitably forces you to engage in serious internal discussions with yourself and ultimately teaches you lessons about your character that you could hardly learn in any other circumstances. My spontaneous decision to experience New York in only 50 hours was maybe the main reason why I skipped almost all classic symptoms of a virgin New York observer, such as immediately putting on an “I (heart) NY” T-shirt or taking random pictures with random weird-looking people in the streets.
Sure visiting the Empire State Building and taking a dozen pictures, where I pretend that I’m holding the Statue of Liberty between my thumb and my index finger, was simply a must. After all I didn’t want to risk being labeled “uncool” according to the latest Facebook trend of uploading at least two albums with pictures with the same name as the corny “I (heart) NY” T-shirts, followed by the respective year of one’s NY adventure. But when it comes to visiting New York and trying to absorb as much of it as possible, 50 hours are the equivalent of the blink of an eye. Nevertheless, my optimism was boundless. And, as it turned out, my luck also.
As I was relaxing after what turned out to be the longest day of my life (simply because it had started at 6 am that morning and finished about 8 am the following one), I saw this African-American guy approach me with a friendly face and body language (his hands weren’t crossed in front of his body like mine were, which was because I didn’t feel like talking to anyone at all). All these signals made me think he was really planning on talking to me. I had my feet buried in the moist grass of some Central Park meadow that I had managed to reach, recovering from the 15-hour walk I had already had that day.
It was my second and last evening in New York. Forty hours of my 50-hour New York hourglass had lapsed. I had visited about 90 percent of all places that I initially wanted to see, using nothing but my very own feet for transportation all around Manhattan. I was completely and entirely down and out due to my 14-hour patrolling that started from Bowery Street in China town at 6 am that day, continued all the way down Broadway to Battery Park, then straight to Times Square. I had bought quite a few of the tacky, yet classic “I (heart) NY” souvenirs for my family and friends back home. Although up until that moment I used to pride myself as an extremely tolerant person who respects all races and nations, the Chinatown episode from my New York experience almost completely destroyed my intact reputation of a non-racist.
The room I had booked for my two nights in the city was in the heart not only of Chinatown but also of the Vietnamese neighborhood, where you can easily buy raw fish and weird-looking hairy vegetables from open stands on the streets. The more fun part, though, were all the short middle-age Asian women, who were hardly taller than my 12-year-old brother, yet extremely rude and, most importantly, did not understand a word of English, which turned out to be surprisingly upsetting for me since I only wanted nothing more but to buy a pound of cucumbers and a tomato.
On top of everything, the $140 room I had booked online a couple of days earlier and where I eventually got to sleep only about two hours altogether for the two nights that I spent in New York, was in what felt like a half star creepy youth hostel in the middle of Chinatown, in a room that was exactly as wide as the bed that was in it and had no windows whatsoever. What followed next was some random wandering around and trying to find some key Manhattan destinations that my summer landlord in Nantucket, where I spent my WaT Program, had jotted down on a napkin for me and had highly recommended that I saw.
It all finished by what felt like crawling all the way up Fifth Avenue to Central Park and particularly to the place and state of my mind and body that the African-American water supplier had spotted me in. As all these recent memories were flashing through my mind while I was resting in the quiet Central Park, my heels were swollen as, what Bulgarians say, a bag of fermented dough. So, normally, talking to the random African-American stranger was the last thing I was up for.
“I have some water here, you know. Just so you know, I have my cart here with some bottles if you get thirsty.” The guy seemed friendly so I couldn’t afford to be rude or impolite. I had my mouth full with some of the 20-dollar salad I had bought for dinner from a decent downtown salad bar called “The Green” (I was proud of my choice to go with the healthier option, considering the fact that Burger King was right next to this organic heaven), so I just pointed at my diet Snapple, implying that I was good and didn’t need any other drinks.
“Why alone?” the persistent water supplier said. That was more than a clear indication that he was definitely planning to continue with this conversation. Although I had spent the past day and a half wandering around New York completely alone and had talked to zero people I had known before the trip, I was feeling totally overwhelmed with physical and emotional exhaustion. It felt like I had met at least a thousand people, and each of them had told me the story of their life from birth to present day, without sparing any dramatic detail. Bottom line – I was out of energy and half awake, only thanks to the five coffees and three cokes I had had.
So in normal circumstances, I would have ignored the water guy or politely apologized and avoided any interaction. This time, however, I saw yet another opportunity for exploring one more slice of the New York reality, so I looked at the guy and smiled with the last energy I had left, indicating that I wasn’t just another obnoxious tourist who wouldn’t bother talking to him. “Appreciating the beauty of solitude is bliss, you know,” the water guy said staring at my shoes that I had taken off to let my poor feet relax and lose the smell of sweaty leather.
It was like he had me all figured out only after 10 minutes of distant staring at me doing my little ritual – a simultaneous combination of massaging my swollen feet, eating some raw mushrooms (an amazingly tasty discovery I had just made that day), enjoying my last cigarette from the 15-dollar Marlboro lights pack I had bought earlier that day and sipping on my diet Snapple. “I’m Ken. Ken Nunoo, nice to meet you. Ever been in New York before?” For some unknown reason his manner of talking and the way he hardly pronounced any word in its entirety caused some scenes of the movie Dangerous Minds to pop into my mind. In the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer becomes a teacher in a high school in California where all students are either African-American or Hispanic and almost everyone engages in some criminal behavior even at their fragile age. I felt like Ken had had a similar background but with our following conversation he proved me wrong shortly after I had come to this illogical conclusion. I was being shamefully stereotypical. My mind was all set up and ready to force me to project my deeply rooted prejudices that middle-aged, messy-looking black people, such as Ken, are dangerous and hence to block all of Mr. Nunoo’s requests for a simple conversation. And then, just out of nowhere, I had an epiphany.
Had he met many people like what I used to be – biased and haunted by stupid prejudices and being ready to label people for some ridiculous stereotypical reasons? Even if he had and I was one of them, he was still open and trusting. As I speculated after I spent some time talking to him, Ken had learned to appreciate the beauty of solitude and even to take advantage of it by using it for inspiration. He had maybe also trained himself to start referring to it as solitude instead of loneliness. While you’re hustling back and forth through the avenues and blocks, trying to figure out the subway, facing dilemmas what to see and what to miss, the last thing on your mind is trying to make sense of your New York experience and to draw some conclusions about how significant it is to you. It is also stupid. Best case scenario – you try to merge with the environment, try to avoid feeling like an alien who doesn’t fit, and just absorb. Absorb the atmosphere, the crowds’ energy, the noises, the smells, everything that would help you relive your adventure after it’s over. Because after it’s really over, you have enough time to actually take a deep breath and realize what you just went through.
That wouldn’t happen if you were to spend two weeks or a month there. But spending an intense weekend like the one I had is like listening to a sensual piano etude that runs in the background like a soundtrack to your experience. You might remember the melody once it’s over but as the time passes, all that remains stuck in your mind is how it made you feel. New York is exactly the same. Taking excessive amounts of pictures of every possible building, park, monument or random fancy store is the classic tourist syndrome. Some even resort to taking copious written notes of each step of their New York adventure. But you can’t capture the spirit of the city in a picture. You can’t describe the smell of warm pretzels, floating around Battery Park early in the morning. You can’t choose any words vivid and expressive enough to describe the taste of a skim, tall, caramel Starbucks’ latte, sipped as you walk around the New York Stock Exchange, trying to decipher your map and figure how to get to the right subway station.
The most enchanting aspect about New York out of all, though, is that it gives you all the room in the world for interpretation of it and of yourself. It gives you the opportunity to see your life in the light of its reality. It is a quiet, yet a sophisticated and wise interlocutor. It speaks to you through all these random people you meet while getting to know it and at a certain point you inevitably start feeling as if your whole experience is the project of some ambitious director that has your adventure already all planned and scripted.
“I write poetry, you know. And other things too – articles, inspirational stories,” Ken said, interrupting my flashbacks from the past day that were soaring chaotically in my mind. Usually I would label such guy as a weirdo and simply nod and hope he leaves me alone as soon as possible. This time there was something about this friendly water supplier. “Here is my website and my Facebook,” he said while he was jotting something down on my New York map in his hardly legible handwriting, “you can find me, you can read my stuff.” He insisted on telling me about what he writes and what inspires him. “I’ve lived in New York my whole life,” he said. “I come here to Central Park, bring water and sell it to people. I like studying them, you know, how they would react to a messy-looking 47-year-old African-American who would bother them with his presence.” At that point I was listening to him with one ear, still interested in the discrepancy between the way he looked and the acumen of what he was saying. But I had also started an internal discussion with myself. Ken Nunoo seemed to be such a profound and discerning person who had learned so much about human nature only by observing people. As he mainly hung out at the New York’s key tourist destinations, such as Central Park, Times Square and Battery Park, when he wasn’t at his home in Queens, he had met hundreds of people from all over the world. He had come to the conclusion that most first-time visitors think they know what New York is about and miss the essence of its beauty, blinded by their beliefs and expectations. That was when I realized it – if you force yourself to wrap your mind around the thought that New York is much more than the Empire State Building, the Statue of Liberty, Times Square, Donald Trump, MTV and the New York Yankees, the city could turn into a guide to your senses.
I thought that the ultimate way to experience the city is to let it take over all of your senses. Certain events, arranged by a freakishly symbolic coincidence, could genuinely make you realize that the solitude so many are afraid of is actually your best friend in this city. The main reason for that is that being alone gives you time to think. It lets you break the boring routine of the grey daily life and actually get to know yourself. The loneliness, or should I call it solitude, is the bliss that takes you to the place where you can have the most intimate conversations with yourself and admit truths that you would rather keep secret from anyone else.
Solitude forces you to face your fears, the fear of loneliness being the operative one, and guides you along your way of learning how to cope with those fears. This way my case. And, from what I learned later, such was Ken’s case also. Ken said he had many friends. He said that everyone who would dare not to ignore him was his friend. “I like hearing stories about people’s lives. They give me inspiration. I like to hear people’s impressions of New York, what they found amazing, what made them cry, what appalled them,” he said. Ken was one of the multiple faces of New York that I saw during the time I spent there. His refreshing honesty and readiness to share his most intimate feelings about the city with any friendly stranger seemed to illustrate one of the most typical characteristics of New York.
Many people had told me before I came here that the city could be brutally harsh and cruel, it could throw you into desperation and pessimism and push you to the darkest corners of your emotional vulnerability. Not for another reason but simply because problems of any kind tend to look bigger in the settings of a new and unknown overwhelming environment, such as what New York could be. However, my new friend Ken made me realize that if you let the city guide you through your emotions and if you follow blindly its directions, if you learn how to turn each situation you find yourself into as a useful lesson on how to deal with different circumstances, New York could actually become your best inanimate friend. Although inanimate is the last thing New York is. Until that two-day adventure it had always been a mystery to me why people keep blabbing that huge cities could make you feel lonelier and more isolated than if you were in the middle of nowhere by yourself. How come humongous cities, with all the hustling crowds and roaring cars that rush through the streets just like blood in human’s arteries and veins, make them feel lonely? I’ve never believed in the popular theory that you tend to feel the loneliest exactly when you are surrounded by the biggest number of people. But my 50-hour New York etude helped me understand it.
I was alone, even when at one point I found myself on Times Square around midnight, sitting on one of the colorful stairs that look like a stage where people just go, rest and enjoy the light show of all the illuminated advertisements and billboards. Even though there were hundreds of people around me, I didn’t know or care about anyone there. The interesting observation I unconsciously made, though, was that I loved it. Sure then I finally understood why people believed that the feeling of loneliness could be the strongest exactly in situations like the one I was in – after all there wasn’t a single person to share my excitement or with whom I could take ridiculous pictures, but I loved how I felt. I was so self-sufficient that I didn’t really need anyone. New York itself was the best companion I could have asked for.Probably Ken’s situation was pretty much the same, only that his wasn’t just a brief, two-day adventure but rather a lifestyle.
I met Armend the previous day after I had briefly played the role of the typical first -time visitor. I spent a fair amount of time going up and down some typical famous buildings like the Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, Trump Tower and a bunch more. Although I ended up almost not using it at all, I had familiarized myself with the colorful lines of the Manhattan subway as illustrated on the map that some helpful employee at the JFK airport had given me upon my arrival. As I was taking a final look of Times Square and was preparing to call it a night, there was Armend.
“Wanna take picture inside [the limo]?,” he asked me through a smile that was saying he could tell that was probably my first time in New York. I gladly agreed and had Armend, this suited-up, black-haired guy with one of the biggest smiles I had ever seen, take my picture as I was coming out of a black limo. Armend is an Albanian immigrant who has been living in New York for the past eight years. He drives a limo for a living, picking up celebrities and escorting them to various public events. I had encountered a pretty decent number of Albanians during my two years of studies, and could tell that the guy had kept his original accent. He was still making some grammatical mistakes in English, although he was adeptly using the typical New York slang that I had noticed while watching sitcoms shot in the city.
“Why are you alone, did your gang bail? How could they, you’re such a Betty,” he said as he was shooting me come out of the limo, which, when I later googled, meant that he thought I was pretty. Armend and I had only a brief conversation, but he had come to the conclusion that once you get over the initial excitement that inevitably swoops you when you go to New York for the first time, you start realizing that the idea you had had about the city was simply a media-generated illusion. “I had never been to the Statue of Liberty,” Armend said when I shared my plans for the second day of my two-day New York adventure. “Visiting all world-known local monuments doesn’t make you a real New Yorker,” he said. “The decade that I have nearly spent here doesn’t make me feel a New Yorker either. Being a New Yorker is virtually a state of mind.” As he offered to help me find my hostel via some fancy GPS application on his iPhone, I wasn’t exactly sure that I understood what he meant. Armend called the receptionist at the World Hotel Inc., an individual who I speculated later was the teenage Chinese boy who helped run the tiny family hostel.
When Armend hung up, he told me how used he was to not having friends at all. “I communicate with many people – tourists, celebrities, some neighbors at Queens where I live but they are not my friends,” he said. When, a couple of months later, I called the number from the business card Armend had given me that night, I was surprised to find he remembered me. I told him I was writing a story about my trip to New York and that I wanted to include him because he had impressed me with his friendly attitude and willingness to help me that night back in August. From the 20-minute phone conversation that we had about three months after our first and only interaction, what struck me the most was that Armend had come to the same conclusion that my friend, the Central Park water-supplier, Ken Nunoo had shared with me back in August.
The limo driver was convinced that New York is among the most difference-tolerant places in the world as there probably isn’t a nation, race or subgroup minority that is not represented there. “You would hardly ever be disparaged or frown upon because you are a homosexual, Mormon, Albanian or have only one leg,” Armend said. But people hardly make friends here. Everyone is surrounded by hundreds of people almost constantly and yet completely alone at the same time.” After my interview with Armend, I found some striking similarities between the ways the people I had met during my two-day adventure back in August thought.
Both Ken Nunoo and Armend, the one a born and raised New Yorker and the other an immigrant for eight years, had realized that the good side of solitude was one of those inexplicable states of your mind and spirit that enable you to rediscover yourself in a way that no communication or interaction with other people could. New York had taught them that bittersweet lesson. For the span of the two days that I spent in New York, I came to realize that enjoying the lack of familiar faces around you is a skill, maybe even a talent, reserved only for those few who are capable of absorbing every nuance of the emotional palette that their experiences provoke. I don’t know whether or not I could have arrived at this opinion had I not visited New York that summer and encountered Ken and Armend but their stories definitely pushed me toward thinking in this direction. So did Natalia.
Should I summarize in a few words what led me to my interaction with Natalia, I would have to say I got lost in the middle of a Sunday night somewhere in between some spooky Brooklyn subway stations and was facing the extremely likely possibility of missing my flight back to Nantucket. I was frantically reading the instructions that some MTA (Metropolitan Transportation Authority) employee had jotted down on my New York map right after I had landed the first day, and was trying to figure out how the hell I get on a “Z” train and go all the way down to Sutphin Blvd. and Archer Ave, then to Jamaica Station and then eventually to JFK airport.
This girl came to me as she had probably noticed my desperate expression and confused body language. “Here, let me see that,” she said as she took the map and asked me where I needed to go. Natalia Clemetson is a 19-year-old Jamaican girl, although she looked much older with her puffy eyes and mahogany black curly hair, tied back in a ponytail. She had left Jamaica five years ago and had been living on her own and taking care of herself ever since. She had chosen to come to New York because some friends from home had moved here also and she had a place to crash for a while. After she found out where I was going and we realized we needed the same train, Natalia helped me get a ticket and we started talking as if we had known each other for years. “I work in a bar in Brooklyn six days a week and today is my only day off so I’m going to visit my goddaughter in Queens. I have to travel like four hours with all those trains only to go across the city but it’s’ worth it since I haven’t seen her in four months,” she said. Natalia didn’t have money for college.
She said she needed to work and take care of herself but was planning to join the U.S. army where they’d pay her better so she could save some money and go to a community college. I couldn’t help but ask Natalia what she thought about Ken and Armend’s consensus on loneliness. “Sure I have friends, I have many friends. But I don’t have time to see them. I work nights and they go to school during the days so Facebook is how we stay in touch,” she said. “Oh, do you have an account, lemme find you.” Our conversation lasted about 40 minutes, until the train got to the station where we both got off and each headed in her own direction. After I went back home to Bulgaria, we started exchanging messages and briefing each other about how our lives were going. Natalia was what I saw as another New York cliché – the cute Jamaican girl who chooses to move to New York to live a better life and have more opportunities. She is an optimist. Just last month she uploaded a big album with pictures from a Halloween party on Facebook where she and her friends were all wearing costumes and having fun together. “It’s not easy but no one’s life is. I love New York because I meet interesting people here- see, I met you. I had never met a Bulgarian before and now I know you. Didn’t I live in New York, who knows when I would have met a Bulgarian in Jamaica.”