Empire State of Mind/Niagara Falls

New York, May 15 – May 17

My first introduction to New York was inauspicious, to say the least. The first sign that something was wrong was the pilot’s sheepish admission — after everyone had boarded and had stowed their oversized bags away — that the navigation system “wasn’t working”. One wonders what the pilots were doing while the passengers boarded if not checking to see that they could fly. One believes that’s the smart thing to do. “We could guess where we’re going, haha,” our pilot continued, vastly overestimating our appreciation of his humor at that point in time, “but we’d prefer not to. Haha.”

Eventually, after considering such options as “fly in parts from Dallas”, our pilots ingeniously decided to — exact wording, here — commandeer a flight going to Los Angeles and fly it to New York. And then we sat around simmering for another hour while flight authorities, having given up our flight as a lost cause, loaded every other flight cargo in the multiverse except ours. I was meant to get to New York by 2 pm. By that time we hadn’t even gotten off the ground.

And then I landed in New York only to make increasingly desperate calls to my parents, who couldn’t answer because they were deep underground in a nightmare of a subway trip. Poor S probably spent the entire trip on a subway, making it about ten hours in total in a subterranean state, but it was so terribly good to see her. I need some kind of method to go see her in Yale soon. My brother was almost exactly the same, except possibly taller, more muscular, and smarter than ever. I didn’t think such things were possible.

New York was at both everything and nothing like what I’d imagined. I only wish I’d had more time to look into its nooks and crannies. I’m all right with touristy things but I’m more interested in what a city is, rather than what it prefers to present itself as.

Manhattan in the mist.

Mostly, New York those few days was a depressingly chilly city, a place that punishes you for living in it. As the roads became increasingly clogged, the subway system began flooding under the relentless rain. I’m entirely in love with trains and train systems, but even the New York subway seemed a little hard to love, as dirty and, well, ugly as it was. Industrial chic only goes so far, really. Even Times Square’s neon lights seemed tacky under a stolidly grey sky as we queued for an hour for our Broadway tickets to a show we weren’t even sure we wanted to see.

At the theatre showing Priscilla.

But then we went to the Broadway show*, and an entirely different New York emerged. This New York was smart and irreverent and shockingly politically incorrect and tongue-in-cheek. It was a New York that loved boldness, worshipped the arts and breathed culture, that had something for literally everyone. When we emerged from Priscilla, still reeling from the sheer hilarious campiness of it, I realized I essentially couldn’t tell night from day. Times Square’s neon lights blazed forth still, a mecca of a metropolis where theater-goers milled around looking for decent food at ten-thirty pm on a Monday evening. In the subway, built for functionality and loved and loathed by New Yorkers, my brother and I cocked our heads as we hurried towards the number 7 line — was that a thavil playing? No; it was a young black man with two sticks and an upturned can, drumming ferociously, quite unconscious of the growing, gawking crowd, thumping out complex rhythms as counterpoints to the rattle and rumble of equally precise and focused subway trains.

That’s the New York I’ll remember.

The enigmatic drummer on the subway.

Niagara Falls, May 17 – May 19

Saying the Falls is just water is like calling Einstein kind of a smart guy. It’s 75,000 tons of water, in fact, hissing down into a gorge separating Canada (which I always thought was part of the United States when I was very (very) small) and the United States. There’s something compelling about it; it’s elemental and irresistible in its apparent fury. It’s not just about being reminded that you’re tiny in the face of Nature — it’s the fact that Nature doesn’t give a rat’s posterior about you. The rock might erode over time and the shape of the cliffs and the falls might change in a few decades, but the process has been around for millennia. We’ve nothing to do with the Falls but make better ways to admire it.

Niagara Falls at night, across the border at the Canadian side, is an aurora borealis distilled from mist. The constant roar in the background is accompanied by a gentle haze that’s part water spray, part fog, and in places is a fiery seething cauldron of water. The illumination makes it all the more weird and wonderful.

Niagara at night, from Canada.

In the end I wished we’d spent more time in NY. There were so many things we wanted to see — like Ground Zero and the Top of the Rock and possibly eat at a typical New York place. I hear there’s a lot of good contemporary Indian food around too, whatever that means. Next time. For sure.

*It was chosen by my father. I just want to put that down for the record.

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