There are extremely valid reasons to not do this kind of travel in this era. Here’s why I did.
- I booked it when things were a little calmer, before infections rose again and we had Delta Variant feelings. So it goes. I also paid extra for direct flights in the interest of less exposure (and potential exposing).
- I was particularly cautious about what I did in the two weeks before I left. None of this stuff – only necessary errands, carried out in exactly the same way I did in, say, October 2020 and other similarly dire pre-vax periods. I wanted so badly to go out dancing, but I couldn’t justify it when I knew I’d be crossing the country soon, when other people would be in proximity to me without the ability to consent to the risks I’ve opted into.
- I was going from the Bay Area to New York, which have similar vaccination rates. This was very important to me both for my own safety and for people I’d encounter.
- Even so, I was, if anything, even more zealous with masks while I was there. Sometimes, especially late evenings in the Lower East Side, I was the only person wearing one. I reasoned that the biggest benefit of a mask is specifically to protect people from my California cooties. I don’t mind looking paranoid if it keeps other people safer. I’ve been the dork in a room before and will be again.
- A lot of my activities and all of my meals were outside.
- I gravitated toward Official Tourist Activities where masks and vaccinations were required. These let me relax. Bless you, Tenement Museum.
- If I didn’t do something other than existing in north Oakland for another several months, I was absolutely going to lose my entire fucking shit.
I’m a security engineer and believe in harm reduction over goals of perfection we’ll never live up to. I took the trip.
I arrive at JFK in the early evening, just in time for a sudden rainfall to reduce the west coast smoke that preceded me here. I had hoped this trip might help me duck some of the fire and smoke back in Oakland, so seeing those hazy pictures ahead of my arrival was a disappointment. But when I arrive, the air is wet and fresh and heavy. Alive.
I’ve only slept for 4.5 hours, so my subway ride into the city is a little surreal, my rumpled self draped immobile and sweaty around my bags as my brain begins what will be a constant practice during this trip: seizing on all the small details of the people around me. I’ve always done this, and in fact love it, but after so many months of not being able to immerse myself in other people, my brain starves for this in a way that makes it not an entirely voluntary activity.
I promised myself I didn’t have to go out on my first night unless I really wanted to, and that was before I realized how little sleep I’d get on my travel day. I summon Chinese food to my hotel room, eat most of it, and pass out for nine hours.
Since I’m still getting used to this “no longer in my living room” thing, I kept my plans modest for my first full day. I do well when I tell myself things like, “Do this one thing, and then you don’t have to do anything else.” This applies for activities like preparing for job interviews, but it also applies to fun that I know could stress me out.
I order a bagel with lox from Russ and Daughters to pick up, which I eat in bed. An everything bagel with lots of poppy seeds is, I will say, an interesting choice of bed food, but here we are. I eat it while I start my work during London Writers’ Hour. After, I take a walk around the neighborhood, get a coffee, and go on a Tenement Museum tour. I chose Finding Home, which takes us into a recreation of two eras of a tenement apartment, one from when a Jewish family moved into it just after World War II, and the other from a later era when a Puerto Rican family moves in. Everything feels connected to my awakening brain, so an hour-plus of a super-informed guide augmented by tales from several older Jewish New Yorkers on the tour just makes the synapses sparkle. I feel so lucky.
I go back to the hotel to decompress a little and realize that my occasional travel problem of sorting out food in a timely way is extremely likely to be an issue on this trip. I make myself go out and get a veg burger, which I even eat outside, before going back to the hotel for my online appointment with my therapist. I stay in bed and think and write and read until I realize, again, the food thing is an issue, and I dress up a little and shove myself outside. What I didn’t anticipate was that Thursday in the Lower East Side is basically Friday. Almost all the outdoor tables at restaurants are full, and the sidewalks are crammed with the young and drunk.
This is a lot for me right now.
I wander around for more than 25 minutes, coming up empty-handed, vowing to make more reservations if I’m so hellbent on going out to eat in the future. Finally I spot a couple empty tables at an Italian restaurant with a stunning indoor bar, all twinkle lights along the ceiling, just a glittering golden oasis of possible inebriation that I cannot go into right now. I stuff myself with burrata and cheese-filled shells. I listen to the table next to me having a fairly ruthless and joyless political argument, a European lecturing an American and being what I think is correct but also pretty exhausting about it. I see people ten-odd years younger than me thrilling to their own hot vaxxed summers, coming within six inches of my sidewalk table.
I resolve that I do not need to go out for dinner tomorrow if I don’t want to.
I set an alarm and head for my time slot at MOMA. I have a Clif bar for technical breakfast and then, after saying hello to “Starry Night” and some other lovely things, I eat macaroni and cheese at their Terrace Cafe. It’s overcast and soft when I go outside, but the sky laser turns up to 11 approximately 30 seconds after I order. Like any common vampire, I cover myself in the large light scarf I usually have on me, and thus I survive to see the rest of the museum.
After, I walk north into Central Park, meaning to amble toward Bethesda Terrace in a roundabout way. I see dogs and read bench plaques. I see bike rickshaws, so many bike rickshaws, plus those tourist carriages and dozens of aggressive cyclists. And it’s wonderful. I dressed light, so I’m not dying from the humidity. I’m kind of wondering what my hair looks like, but I’m not uncomfortable. I get to my destination and sit on the cool stone ledge inside to write, listening to a guy playing the duxianqin, mixing the more traditional stuff you hear from one of those with things like the theme to The Godfather. I watch people selfie (the true theme of the day; MOMA was constant shit for the ‘gram, in a way I found more melancholy than annoying), I watch a guy making giant bubbles with one of those rope wands, I watch people living out their Real New York City Experiences, and I feel fairly content. I get up after a while and walk further through the park. A bit later, it begins to rain.
I haven’t felt soft summer rain in a long time. California doesn’t really have that: rain the same temperature as your skin, that feels like it grows things, like encouragement. My bag is full of moisture-averse things like my journal and the museum postcards I bought, so I can’t exactly luxuriate in it. I end up walking down Fifth Avenue, hopping from the shelter of one tree to another, until I end up under a Bergdorf Goodman awning and realize I’m close to the train back to my hotel. I wrap that sun-shielding scarf around my head, draping it over my bag, and make my way there, getting to the platform just as my train pulls up.
True to my word to myself, I get home and hang out for a while before getting crepes from the little shop across the street from my hotel. It stays open until two, and the crepes are exactly what I want. I do my daily writing. I do my first batch of sink laundry. And after I stayed outside for seven whole hours without having a pandemic agoraphobia-induced panic attack, I start to make more plans.
It feels safe to make more plans.
I keep staying up later than I mean to. It’d be easy to blame this on time zones, but the reality is that I have a Kindle full of excellent library books and zero ability to cut myself off of anything joyful at this point, even if I know it’ll be waiting for me tomorrow. Last night, I stayed up past three finishing The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune, which was described to me as a warm hug, and it delivered. This meant, however, that getting up with my 11:30 alarm was… pushing it. I finally lumbered out of my hotel room around 12:45 (after washing my hair, because I’m rediscovering how curly hair works in humidity) and walked to Tompkins Square Bagels to grab breakfast and lunch, which I took to Battery Park to meet friends. “Meet us by the Seaglass Carousel” were the magical instructions, and I found a shady bench and devoured my nova lox bagel like any common large sea mammal. I came here to try to see what it’s like to live, and sitting in a park with friends, watching Zelda the dog roll ecstatically in the grass and try to eat mango, then walking back to my hotel with one of said friends, weaving through neighborhood after neighborhood, stopping to buy fruit at a sidewalk table, seeing layers of city give way to each other… it’s good. It’s very good. This could be your life, my soul whispers to me. I know, I whisper back.
I collapse back at the hotel, diminished after hours of sweating, before resurrecting myself to go out to dinner. It’s month-long restaurant week here (ok!), and I found a place around the corner with a prix fixe menu that includes both shrimp risotto and panna cotta (I fucking love panna cotta; a useful thing to know about me, because now you know to keep your hands away from my mouth and dessert when it’s on the table). It takes a good 15 minutes for someone to take my order, which is five minutes less than my limit for waiting on that kind of thing. The Lower East Side, it turns out, makes me feel very on the outside. I’m pretty accustomed to feeling that way, having been a weird kid for many many years now, but I’m not accustomed to being among people again yet, so it’s a little difficult. I sit alone at a four-top with another excellent book, content enough, but feeling outside, as I’m surrounded by friend groups fueling up for a night out (with both food and, in the case of some table neighbors, rounds of tequila shots). I have no problem eating alone, but eating alone at a place that’s all about large groups is a slightly different situation. I order champagne, because yay me, but am informed they only have rosé champagne that night. Oh no, not that. I say that’s fine, but the waiter brings me regular champagne and then a bonus on-the-house glass of the rosé, with a wink of that particular kind that comes from a career waiter. It feels like extra oxygen in the room to be visible and judged worthy of a little kindness and delight. The panna cotta is excellent too.
He comps me another glass of champagne with my check. I tip well and happily. I am very happy to be seen as that woman who dines alone and warrants champagne.
I stayed up late last night, waiting for the champagne to work its way out of me, and then decided at 2:30 am that it was definitely time to do a first revision/editing pass on that printed-out short story I brought with me, and so I give myself the gift of sleeping as late as I damn well please. I emerge from my hotel just before three and walk back to my favorite East Village bagel shop. The ice melts in my coffee before I get to Tompkins Square Park to eat them, but fortunately, the coffee is mostly gone by then too. I am relieved that travel’s magical transmuting quality on coffee still works for me. At home, it’d give me an elevated heart rate and a sense of vague danger; elsewhere, it provides more of that awake/alive/ready feeling that seems normal for a lot of people.
I find a place on the lawn to eat, drink my lemonade, and write in my journal a little. A cover band plays mostly Beatles songs, and excellently, with one single deviation with an Eagles song, for which I can forgive them. I smell weed and watch dogs try to chase squirrels and see everyone in their shared yard in public. I realize I’m too warm to eat more, so I stop at half a nova lox bagel. It will be the last thing I eat for more than six hours, well into the evening.
I need to get to the Upper West Side, and I screw the directions up a little, somehow missing the stop on Houston I sought. Instead, I end up walking a long, warm mile and a half, mostly avoiding the sun for all the good it did me, arriving at the next station approximately seven hours later (meaning probably 30 minutes) and certainly down a pint of the humors I need to keep me alive. Seriously, I become a freaking lawn sprinkler as I wait on the platform. I know it’s gross when my shins are sweating. The train I needed pulled away as I stepped onto the platform, so I have the longest wait possible, 13 minutes to stand in the shared sauna, breathing deeply and reminding myself that suffering is as transient as joy. The AC of the train is a balm, is an absolution, is a reminder that maybe I’ll live to see another day.
I get to my destination at least 30 minutes later than I’d intended, just long enough to talk to my boyfriend and spot a minivan with the license plate
1-HOTMOM parked outside. I’m there for a performance of Twelfth Night at a community garden on 89th Street.
“I, uh, didn’t know you liked Shakespeare,” Sean says as I talk to him before going through the gate to find a seat. “You’ve never seemed especially interested when I’ve proposed it.”
“I’m not when there are more options,” I tell him. “But I like seeing theater when I come to New York, so I like it just fine when it’s one of the few outdoor performances happening.”
It’s a lot of fun to watch. My attention span remains spotty and unpredictable after all that time in my apartment, and I watch some and drift away in my mind some, going back and forth, but enjoying the performances. I like a whimsical interpretation of a Shakespearean comedy. They do a nice job, and I’m glad I stumbled onto it online. The president of the garden sits next to me sometimes, on the edge of a planter, and we both have hand fans in motion most of the time.
After, I go get dinner at the Mermaid Inn, where I drink almost two liters of ice water. I eat a giant pile of kale, because one of my weekly goals is to try to get more salad. (My last few days were more bagel-based than is ideal.) They bring me a little surprise chocolate pot to finish things up, and I feel blessed by waiters again.
After, I wander down Amsterdam and into some of the more residential blocks. I have to figure out where a character of mine lives, and I take pictures of front doors of likely looking places. It’s interesting roaming around an area I kind of know but who someone I’ve invented knows very well. May I recommend writing a novel set somewhere else and then going there? It’s a new kind of orientation, the imagination overlaying the half-familiar.
I walk down to 60th, frown at the people taking stupid selfies in front of the shitty former president’s shitty hotel (I mean, seriously, still?), and duck onto the subway. Some deeply odious bros are being exactly as you’d expect, and I put my headphones on for the first time since the plane here. Lots of things are easier with an application of Nine Inch Nails.
I arrive home and discover new blisters on my left foot in places I generally don’t get them. It’s good; it means I’ve been walking a ton, one of my primary goals for this trip. But it also means that tomorrow’s a great day to try to take it a little easier physically.
In fact, I take the day off.
I get up before 11 to do London Writers’ Hour while eating a bagel from yesterday. After I get my words done, I realize I’m still zonked, so I go back to sleep for a couple of hours, having those shallow, vivid dreams that pop up sometimes with out-of-band, uncertain sleep. Between my feet being kind of fucked and the fact that it’s somehow warmer out today than yesterday, I realize that the best, most honest approximation of living here today is… staying the hell inside. I eat longan for the first time, piercing their shells with my incisors before shelling them and spitting the dark seeds into my crepe bag from several nights ago. I write and catch up on neglected emails and responses on Slack and Twitter. I wash my hair after all the sweaty hours of yesterday and get to let it dry before I go outside. I do the next London Writers’ Hour and work on some editing.
If this were a week-long vacation, it would feel like such a massive squandering of time, but I’m realizing that this is the luxury of a longer trip: I can just veg sometimes and be a person who gets tired and needs a moment. If I’d gone outside today, I might’ve forced myself through a couple hours at the Met or some other museum that I probably would have liked well enough but which didn’t really sing to me today. Anyway, it’s Monday, and lots of cultural things are closed. Instead, I’m letting my body rest a little, limiting the push of sharp, sharp summer on soft, pale limbs that really aren’t into marching around in 90-degree heat and sweltering sun. I’m starting to understand what it would be like for me to live in New York in the summer: I’d do less some days, like you always do if you’re just home. It’d be easier if I could just go see a movie or luxuriate in restaurant AC, but I’m not doing either of those things right now, so my options for climate control are my hotel room, the subway, and museums. Instead, I stay inside, and it’s just right.
In the evening, I take two trains over to Fort Greene to meet online friends for German beer, and it’s nice to just sit and talk and exist with people who have at least a little context of who I am. I love this version of traveling: a couple of days to wander and feel only barely tethered to the world, then getting to see friends and be a person in the context of the rest of my life for a little while. We talk hacking things and security conferences and mutual friends. (It’s security; there are always mutual friends.) When I go home, I’m able to make the return trip without consulting my phone. Not the most complicated route, but it’s just such a joy to be able to figure things out again for fun reasons. A memory of letters and colors, understanding what the endpoints on the trains mean, and getting to be just another blase person on the subway platform.
I realized during dinner that I seem to have walked off the unhelpful portion of my “I am among people, oh shit!!!” anxiety, leaving only the useful stuff (masks inside, a general disinterest in unsafe indoor things and people). I book a ticket for a day at the American Museum of Natural History and am surprised at how excited I am. This kind of unadulterated looking forward to stuff has been largely out of reach for the last pandemic length of time. Always, some part of myself had to be left on the shelf in order to emotionally survive things. What a gift it is to look at even one thing without that weight sitting across my shoulders.
I learn during dinner that the place I’m staying in the Lower East Side sits neatly within what’s called Hell Square.
This explains some things.
For my last full day staying in Manhattan, I go to… Staten Island.
I’ve meant to take the ferry for my last several visits to the city, but do you know, it’s really easy to just keep not doing that. Not until a friend mentioned the Alice Austen House did I have the double-barreled reason to actually go. I book a 1 pm tour, set an alarm, and spend the last hour of the morning making my way to the ferry. On the other side, I get a bus down Bay Street to the museum.
It overlooks the water, and it’s fitting to learn about Austen’s work there, because she documented so much local stuff: street life in Manhattan in the late 1800s, quarantine islands in the same era, and her robust social life, which seemed to be full of sardonic nerds. I like them immediately.
When I get back to the hotel, I give myself the gift of a couple hours in the AC before I go out, eating an egg salad sandwich from Pret-a-Manger in bed to tide me over before fancy dinner.
My new favorite kind of bar is the kind that wants to see my vax card. It doesn’t fix everything, as we know, but it’s harm reduction, which will do. The room at the back of the bar in Brooklyn is small, probably the size of my living room and bedroom put together. Mambembe is a ten-person ensemble (that night, anyway) that takes up between half and two-thirds of the space. I’d forgotten what it’s like to feel the strike of a drum in my bones, going resonant through my ribcage. Turns out it’s everything. New Heights Brass Band is all women, and their solos, I just… I get FEELINGS much more easily right now than I usually do, and I found myself on the edge of tears at a guitar solo during an arrangement of “Genie in a Bottle”, to say nothing of all the other actual brass solos.
I am not the same as I was, and in some ways, that’s pretty ok.
I dance and I dance and I dance, and I drink pulque that even the bartender didn’t realize was on their bottle list, and the bar staff is extremely kind, and everyone’s so glad to be there. Including me.
I take the subway back for my last night in my hotel, and I’m struck again at how simple it is: how frequent the trains are, how clear everything is, how stuff just works. I’ve been here enough to know that’s not always the case, but I am pretty sure it often is, and for someone who has gone through elaborate thinking to figure out how to get from Rockridge to Ashby via BART without wanting to tear things apart or wait a pointless 28 minutes for a transfer, that is everything.
Tomorrow brings trip part two: the Brooklyn-based days. I cannot wait.