I was 16 the summer of 1986 when I won a trip to the United Nations. At that time, New York City was a different animal. And by animal, I mean animal. As in “feral.” It was every bit the horrible urban hellscape we saw on TV, only worse. Our hosts (the Odd Fellows Lodge) were strict about the rules: Stay in your lines, keep your wallets in your front pockets, and for God’s sake, no matter what you do, don’t talk to anyone.
This was good advice. For the entire week, we marched up one side of stinking Manhattan and down the other, sweating in our sport coats or formal dresses. We stepped over street people sleeping on the sidewalk, tried to ignore the piles of garbage stacked like greasy beanbags outside the restaurants, and flinched at the sound of women screaming and chasing the crack addicts who had stolen their purses. The copy of New York Newsday, left on our bed by the maids on Day One, bore the lovely headline COP SHOOTING. To a kid from Cottage Grove, Ore., population 7,000, New York was terrifying. It assaulted the nose with sewage, fryer grease, and urine. And by the time I left, I was in love with it. I loved the buildings that disappeared into clouds. I loved seeing A Chorus Line at the Schubert Theater. I loved seeing all those important places that I’d always heard about on the news. When the bus pulled away and started the long trip back across the continent, I knew I wanted more. Someday soon, I’d return as a writer or a talk show host or some other sweet gig that would put me right in the middle of that beautiful mess.
Thirty-one years later, I finally made it back. I never got that book contract or that sweet NYT job. But I did have a couple of vacation days, some money in the bank, and my Canon. Mindful of the fact that New York wasn’t entirely tamed, I kept my 74-105mm and 200mm lenses at home and forced myself to get by with my 50mm—or, the “Nifty Fifty” as one blog put it. It sticks out of the camera body about 2 inches. It also forces the intrepid photographer to get close to the action.
I’m a little sad to report that New York … just wasn’t the same. That was mostly good, I guess. I could walk the streets without fear. I was ready for anything, of course. But it just wasn’t necessary. This new version of New York reminded me of when I lived in Portland, with maybe more angry car horn-honking but with fewer street people. (I counted two of them, and they were tucked away off the sidewalk, politely sleeping on boxes.) This time around, only hazard to walking around before dawn was getting inadvertently sprayed with a hose, because apparently they clean the sidewalks now. Servers in restaurants were much less cranky; new accents had replaced the standard dropped-R: Dominican, Eastern European, and others that I couldn’t place. But oh, New York. What happened to you? The fight has left the place. I don’t know if it was the much-maligned Disney-fication of Times Square or whatever, or if the city is still recovering from 9/11. Or maybe the creeping automation and Amazon.com has eliminated the need for people and storefronts to be stacked on top of each other.
Don’t get me wrong: I liked the cleaner, safer Manhattan 2.0. But I wanted some of the old New York. I wanted to be yelled at by a cop or something. Just once.
All in all, though, it was great to go back. And now that I’m only four hours a way, I won’t wait another 31 years to do it.
I’ll post a new batch of photos every day this week:
- I—Nice Day for a Walk (today): I walk around smiling at stuff like that stupid U2 Vegas video.
- II—THUUHHHHH Yankees Win: New York beats Toronto, David Judge gets tagged out after overrunning first base, and I pay $12.50 for an IPA.
- III—Central Park: You could fit downtown Manchester in this thing and still have room for the rest of N.H., too.
- IV—Day at the Museum: Doesn’t anyone around here know how to dust?
- V—The Empire State Building Strikes Back … by taking $38 of my money for an elevator ride. Oh, and your tilt-shift cup runneth over.