of the Big Apple!
Cliche or not, this was my first trip to NYC and it SO. FAR. EXCEEDED. my expectations! (Heads up for a lot of exclamation points in this post.)
Probably no one can truly prepare you for the adventure that is New York City. All my life I’ve been asked if I’m Jewish, from New York. For years I had no idea what that meant. With age and experience, I’ve better learned what this stereotype is and after this trip to NYC I fully embrace this compliment!
When I graduated high school in 1983 I wanted to go somewhere as far away and different from Albuquerque as possible. This was New York. I had a pen pal that lived in Queens in those days, his letters helped me add flavor to what this fuzzy picture looked like. My dreams to study Fashion Illustration in The Big City were enhanced by torn photos from Vogue magazine by the work of my hero, Antonio Lopez.
For a family as ours, this dream was not possible. And I dare wonder, were there even any programs for this career path in those days? I ended up going to an Art School in Denver— a very good substitute for those big ambitions, but a substitute none-the-less.
After a lifetime of wondering and hearing about New York from well-traveled dear friends and my mom, I finally arrived. And I have our daughter to thank for this. Even though she grew up in California for most of her years, NYC and Columbia have always been her dream. She worked incredibly hard to make this happen and on Sunday with great pride we delivered her to the next step in her journey.
This trip was transformational in so many ways: the change to parental “empty nester” status, the return to air travel after 4 static years of family life, a hoist from a creative slump. I write this post to remember; to have record that the world CAN open up and still has so much to show me, which in turn expands the mind, body and soul.
Even last month people were still warning me about New Yorkers. “They can be gruff, don’t look them in the eye, they may help but they’re not warm.” Some form of BEWARE in all these cautionary tales. We had such a different experience.
The diversity is an absolute joy! NO ONE stuck out. No body is a minority there. Ethnicities, languages, shades of skin and clothing styles were all a-jumble. Your fellow man and woman are evident ALL THE TIME. Humanity has so much more of a face in these conditions. Also, many more tall people in NYC as compared to New Mexico.
Service workers are PROUD. This is such a unique and special segment of workers in this city where every cog depends on the next wheel. It felt good to see security officers posted in neighborhoods, just watching out and there to help the community prosper. I wanted to know what each day was like for them, how they would describe their job satisfaction because overall, they seemed to be quite content.
In our society of worshiping work that’s connected to information and technology, these crucial service workers gain respect and purpose from performing old-fashioned hard work using their minds and bodies. From the dining staff to the facilities crew on the Columbia campus, the workers were in good cheer, helping, busting butt, but so in it TOGETHER. Teams of cooperation with a common goal. No phoning it in on Zoom or Slack. I love that Columbia gets it and has different Instagram accounts to honor the work of support staff.
As we were in the cab to JFK, I saw the most wonderful (and huge) art on a building where the US Open was being played: “Dear Service Worker, Thank you for keeping NYC alive!” For ⟶ forever… Artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles’ dedication to highlighting service workers is pioneering!
Other service workers we enjoyed encounters with: the male staff at the Milano Market sandwich counter are finely-trained men commanding delicious ingredients with an almost military efficiency. A handsome bald man with heavy Brooklyn(?) accent commented jokingly that I must have been a “really bad chick” back in the day because of my tattoos. I’m so accustomed to the abundance of tattoo culture in California and New Mexico that I had not stopped to think of how few tattoos I’d seen in Manhattan. We joked back and forth and he was such a lovely, genuine New Yorker! The encounter was special to me, teasing with a stranger just because it was fun and good.
I had brought 4 Bandanñas with me to give away. I had planned to give them to stores I was researching but on the last day I decided to hand them out to the people we’d encounter. I gave the last two to a woman and her new assistant that ran a luggage storage space where we left our bags for the day. She was all business at drop off, very preoccupied with her job and the massive amount of tasks ahead of her. When we returned in the afternoon, the mood was lighter and I asked if she’d like a red Bandanña and it took her by surprise. It was a delightful feeling to change up her day and connect.
Roland and I talked about how the tough demeanor stereotype might come from just being busy. That recognition that when you’re really busy you tend to give short answers, you’re getting things done and it’s a fast pace there. People took the time to be warm when invited and when they were ready. I could totally respect that.
Our cab driver to JFK was another person I’ll never forget. He was a man about our age, and looked at his phone to take us to the airport. At first I thought maybe he was new to the job so I asked how long he’d been driving a cab. He said 15 years! Through a very open willingness to chat, he told of his immigration to the US in 2003. When I asked why he wanted to come here, he said: “America is the best country in the world!” Not “WAS” the best country, “IS.” He had come from Cairo leaving his family behind. He worked 7 days a week (often still does) so that he could bring them here to make a life where his kids would have opportunities for futures that were fair and just. He said: “it’s not about me and what MY future is, everything I do now is for them— they are the future hope.” A classic immigrant story. I teared up. This universal parent truth again reminded me of how we are all one.
Subways, Cabs and Busses
We were blessed to see A LOT on this trip. We didn’t plan it out to the minute but instead took each day and went to the things that were near the first location. Unbeknownst to me, Ramona had researched the subway quite a bit and had a quick handle on it. She and Roland also really knew where we were at all times, which I did not.
Ramona’s preferred mode of transport was the subway and we followed her around like little chicks; a reversal of roles. Although I like efficiency as much as the next person, the subway also felt like we were always walking to it. I disliked the extra heat, the smell of oil and the many walks to and fro. (Got a blister on the first day.) A good friend had told us to save money for a couple cabs when we wanted a break and we did take 2, but cabs now have little tiny seats with not great views. But— BUSSES! Are. My. Favorite. Maybe because they were brand new, clean, AIR CONDITIONED and always there, I felt like this was a great way to watch the city and people. It’s also a lot less disorienting than the subway.
Here in the high desert, we like our DRY heat. People had warned me about the humidity but it was shocking. A few days I walked around feeling like I had peed my pants and just had to live with it. I was sweaty or at least moist all the time. And I was always looking for others in a similar state. I actually wondered if I had gone back to hot flashes, I put ice cubes in my Bandanña the day of college move-in. This helped, but my wet chest told of my secret strategy. I’m excited to feel this city at a different time of year in the future.
I definitely did not expect as much nature as we saw. In Manhattan (the only place we were this trip) every inch of dirt was utilized to create a community garden, sidewalk patches of exotic bright plants, container boxes of green life, and of course the giant Central Park with all it had to offer! We rode bikes through Central Park and that was glorious. The park felt like a few seasons at once, some areas did not appear to have sprinklers, others were super lush. On our first night we saw a pond that was day-glow green with algae.
As you would imagine, staying on the Upper West Side meant we saw plenty of what money can buy. And we were prepared that everything would cost more. We were pleasantly surprised that the things we wanted were usually a few dollars more than in Albuquerque, but not noticeable as a whole. We had one of the best Indian meals for two for $21.00 with tip!
Transportation seemed like a great deal. You could be anywhere for about $3.00. The subway and busses were payable by holding our phone up to a screen! It’s an app, I believe. Amazing!
We’ve been watching Industry on HBO and the day we went to the MoMA we got a feel for what that world looked like NYC-style. Lots of young professionals on their lunch break in a financial district that reminded me of San Francisco’s. These workers looked scarcely older than Ramona and yet were in full finance world function (domination?) Sleek people, the confidence of the new generation of money movers with the world at their feet. From the museum, the giant looming museums of money could be seen through big tall windows.
Food & Water
Food has never tasted as good as in NYC! I tried to understand if it was because you’re actually hungry when you eat, or if everyone’s standard in the kitchens were similar, or if it’s the pride of serving your culture’s best. Whatever the reason, each and every meal was delicious, cloth napkins were used even at modest restaurants, servers served and were not surly. It was so elegant and respectful. Also: real-sized, clean bathrooms in most of these restaurants. Favorite meals: Cafe Mogador, Massawa, and Anar.
Speaking of intake: the WATER in NYC tastes so good too! (Trickles down to making better bagels.)
Art & Architecture
Exceptional art and design were everywhere, infused in daily life! As I expected, I took so many pictures of buildings. Craftsmanship, decoration and the attention to creating beautiful utility is and was an unrestrained specialty here.
I feel like there was is much to tell in the way these buildings were built and embellished, the history they tell through the workmanship of the artisans who created them, and the foundation laid for even more great art. A gilded royalty entry gate to greet you every day, a building with massive carved ears of corn seemingly holding up the foundation, limestone and brownstone lovingly tooled to perfection. Even ordinary buildings were blessed with extraordinary elaboration.
New buildings were a different kind of treat. For Roland, who works for an architecture firm, the finishes and quality were enthralling. He loved everything about Little Island and did a deep Google dive into the architect, engineer and history of the project.
The Guggenheim was definitely a marvel and nice to experience in person. My strange equilibrium kept me from enjoying it fully as all the angles and slanted floors were just not workable for me. Roland loved everything about it and took great photos.
The MoMA was high on our list because my mom had been a membership administrator there in 1963 at age 18 or 19. This building reminded me a lot of SFMOMA, (the new version.) We got there right when the public was allowed in and it quickly became crowded. Roland and I spoke wistfully about the old days of QUIET museum rooms and staring at art for more that 15 seconds as compared to taking selfies with art and filling a mental tick-off list. Instead of trying to absorb the exhibits as they were, we shifted to a broad overview and came across some well-known masterpieces that were great surprises by just wandering.
The American Museum of Natural History was on our list as a maybe and it was fantastic! I truthfully didn’t expect to enjoy it so much. I got the very tiniest taste of what old NYC must have felt like in the somewhat mishmash rooms you’d come across that were not yet gussied up and modernized. I will never ever see a diorama and not feel enchanted. The Spectrum of Life in The Hall of Biodiversity was my favorite exhibit. It felt like all the not so interesting science-y stuff that I never understood was arranged in the most pleasing and lovely way that made design sense to my brain. “The only one of its kind in the world, this 100-foot-long installation is arranged into 28 living groups covering 3.5 billion years of evolution. Construction of this display involved scientists, artists, filmmakers, educators, and many others.”
The Cloisters was a gem. One of those types of places where the age of the art and architecture can’t really compute in your mind. Again, so many lovely spots with plants and greenery outside. I love religious spaces.
…Which brings me to my favorite art of this trip. Cathedral of St. John the Divine! Oh my gosh. I’m so glad we finally made it in to this great treasure. We kept walking by and went in on our last day. If you don’t know of it, definitely browse the Wikipedia page. I could have spent all day in there. The attention to flourishing every surface and architecture element can not be overstated. Among the old and formal religious elements were contemporary art installations. A Keith Haring altar screen, two memorial sculptures to 911 and a Poet’s corner. This is a progressive place. The cathedral is still a work in progress, part of what I think was so intriguing to me. I could hear muffled workers high atop the scaffolding. The vastness of the dim space and the extraordinary decor everywhere was enchanting. It was like a church to the worker. To their skill and craft. As grand and impressive as any colonial church I’ve seen in Mexico.
Overall, I saw that I was dry. Parched and lacking for inspiration. This trip had more for me in the first days than I could ever absorb. Inspiration photos pulled from the internet to create new work, help build a collection, or gain knowledge from just don’t do it like EXPERIENCING it. The ways in which I was able to see anew were a total gift and boost to my future art.
I didn’t know what else to call this section but thought it was important to share. We met up with Albuquerque friends on our second day. The conversation about New York’s current cleanliness and user-friendly ease came up. When we talked about the unusual lack of unhoused people we had expected to see, our friend Marc described how with more affluence comes the initiative to move those experiencing homelessness out of cities like Manhattan.
Like many cities, the current state of humanity in Albuquerque is dire. In New York I realized that I was actually appreciative of the lack of hopeless human suffering that I’m used to seeing every day. In total we saw probably 5 people who actually lived on the streets in NYC, in 7 days. In Albuquerque, I see 5 people in the first hour of leaving my home.
This was obviously not a happy circumstance but an observation of my mind. The reality is that they have probably just been pushed further down the road (boroughs), and this will be another area of research for me. It felt like a long time ago. When most of us were at a somewhat stable place in life. When Americans had social and financial support that offered dignity and possible prosperity.
The gift shops we went to were mostly Museum shops. Surprisingly, they had VERY FEW, if any, local maker products and most concentrated on branded general categories of mass appeal. I understand that it’s easier for buyers to order these and they will have and longer shelf life but it would be so nice to see these big museums take interest in local designer’s work that still fits their niche. Or even better: HIRE an artist to make that thing they want that’s also branded but in the more personalized style of an independent artist! A few pencil designs created by commercial artists does not have to be a huge investment. The exception to this is a Baggu (a Brooklyn Brand) Pop-Up at the MoMA design store in Soho which we did not go to.
So, as I said the main reason for this trip was to take our precious only to the university of her dreams. From first application and communications to drop-off day the school has been top notch! We are lucky to know two families with kids who are at Columbia currently or have just graduated so these parent mentors have been bringing us along and addressed every fear and question.
The workings of the college are much like the rest of New York. There is a pitching in, a recognition that we’re all in it together. The mood of upward and onward is so strong!
For move-in day we did the traditional walk through the Broadway St. gates to be cheered by enthusiastic student NSOP (New Student Orientation Program) volunteers. We then left Ramona’s suitcases with a team that swiftly delivered them to her room via a box on wheels. These workers hustled these short trips so families would not clog the elevators continuously from 8:00am—4:00pm. At the end of the day, they looked tired but still smiling and enjoying the shared excitement. We were all fed great food, given tons of fun swag, and then treated to one of some of the best speeches I’ve ever heard, on any topic.
The Convocation 2022 Ceremony (video) was the first back-in-person convocation after Covid and the school really did it up. Somehow they managed to facilitate an entertaining, stress free day for 2,000 students and their families. A student from every state in the US and 86 countries from around the world!
The video is long but if you’d like to read President Bollinger’s inspired speech, it’s well worth your time. He’s retiring after 20 years as president and will continue his work as a Columbia professor dedicated to his scholarly work on Free Speech. These people are brilliant thinkers and it was so clear that they want what we want for our kid. This opportunity feels so giant. The gift so grand. This school is developing future leaders and helpers, some of the people who will be pivotal in our fate and that of this tired world. I’m also so proud of Columbia’s dedication to diversity, the campus feels how I wish the world felt: talented, open-minded people from all backgrounds and colors and experiences and abilities there to expand their formal education and do good.
Today I shed a few tears as I recounted the experiences around the Convocation and our “goodbye for nows” but in the moment on that Sunday all I could think about was how great it was to hand off your child to this historic, supportive institution that wants the same as you do for your kid. Today I’m basking in these memories and I could not ask for more out of this phase of life. I drank the NYC / Columbia kool-aid and I liked it!
Thanks to our supportive friends and family who gave us fantastic recommendations, texted us excitedly, and those who helped hold down our fort.
I listened to this before going. Highly recommend for NYC history!
New York, New York, New York Four Decades of Success, Excess, and Transformation by Thomas Dyja
Top View Rooftop Bus Tour / Little Island / The Highline / Basquiat Show / Central Park / Morningside Park / The World Trade Center / The Occulus Transportation Hub / The Guggenheim / Washington Square Park / Washington Heights / The Cloisters / The Cathedral of St. John the Divine / The MoMA / The American Museum of Natural History / TWA Hotel & Terminal at JFK / Columbia University in the City of New York
If you see a pic of something you want to know more about, ask me.
If you have ideas for a future trip for me, tell me.