Published: Sep 19th, 2021 · Nonfiction | Travel
Travel Dates: Jul 18th-Aug 20th, 2021
Days Nomadic: 170 · Miles Traveled: 17235
The Concrete Jungle
When I used to think of New York City, I thought of angry men climbing over each other at the New York Stock Exchange, yelling at the top of their lungs all day. I thought of bankers and Wall Street executives ruthlessly moving markets around the world with the click of a computer mouse. I thought of the 1929 stock market crash, the Great Depression, and the 2008 financial crisis. I thought of muggings and con men and organized crime. I thought of a place where you have to look out for yourself because nobody else will—an endless cityscape that exemplifies being thrown into the deep end wearing a pair of ankle weights to see if you’ll sink or swim.
I’ve always wondered, who chooses to live in New York City and endure this constant battle for survival? You’d be better off signing up to be the punching bag at a boxing gym.
I traveled to New York once on a family vacation and liked it, but I didn’t think I’d come back outside of a few days once per decade to see a Broadway show or visit an art exhibit I couldn’t see elsewhere.
I don’t know what changed my mind, but something about watching the entire series of Friends for the seventh time convinced me that I need to live in New York City at some point in my life and that adding it to our nomadic itinerary would be a great way to temporarily experience the city.
Prior to our arrival, I was mentally preparing to enter a five-week battle for survival. I felt like an iguana on the verge of breaking through my shell on the beaches of the Galapagos, ready to take my first steps running for my life from hordes of racer snakes hungry to eat me.
As we approached New York City, I extended my neck, pressing my egg tooth into the safe, suburban shell of my upbringing and burst forth into the sunlight.
Our white Toyota RAV4 soared down the highway like a spaceship through small towns in New Jersey named Bedminster and Branchburg. I lifted my head in the air as we crested each hill, hoping to see The Concrete Jungle poking over the horizon.
After two days of driving through rural America, Shelby and I were both desperate for something healthy to eat. While there are endless fields of crops and farms in rural parts of the country, there is an ironically small quantity of quality fruits and vegetables available in most places. When you do find them, they’re usually cooked into mush, candied, or dressed in a mayo-based sauce.
The rural America diet seems to consist of five main food groups—fried food, meat, carbs, dairy, and sweets.
You can literally order buckets of chicken breasts that are deep fried in pools of hydrogenated vegetable oil and that are individually so large, you know the chickens were injected with hormones like a 1980s home run champion. You can find steaks the size of small dogs and ½-pound cheese burgers more easily than you can find something to drink that hasn’t been supersaturated with high-fructose corn syrup. Every meal is served with some style of fried potatoes—whether it be french fries, hash browns, tater tots, or the rare baked potato—in such a large quantity that a professional linebacker would be hard-pressed to both eat the entire serving and burn off all the calories in a single day. And there’s always dessert. There’s dessert after lunch. There’s dessert after dinner. Most snack foods are items I’d label as dessert, such as candy bars, chocolate covered nuts, or shortbread cookies. Breakfast is often dessert in disguise, whether it's a Pillsbury cinnamon roll cracked from a spiral can or a stack of pancakes layered with margarine like mortar between bricks and soaked in synthetic maple syrup that nobody realizes (or cares) is fake.
I might be weird, but this type of diet backs me up worse than the LA 5 freeway during Friday rush hour traffic. Don’t get me wrong, I love indulging in Americana cuisine from time-to-time, but it’s in the moments after shoveling down my fourth burger with fries in half as many days that I realize the appeal of drinking American coffee by the pot is not just as an energy boost, but also a laxative to keep you regular on a low-fiber diet.
Our original plan was to stop at a grocery store to buy fruit, but nothing looked appetizing at the store we visited—the strawberries were covered in furry mold, the bananas were green, and the apples were depressingly gray and dull in both color and taste. It’s no wonder every cart at the cash register was filled with meat, frozen food, canned food, and packaged food.
This wasn’t my first rodeo; we’d spent enough days driving in rural parts of the country by this point in the trip that I had a backup plan—a fiber shake made from ground seeds and sprouts that I’d purchased at a health food store in Jacksonville. I scooped a few tablespoons of it into a shrink-wrapped plastic cup I took from the Holiday Inn Express we stayed at the night before, added water, then used a Starbucks beverage plug to stir it into a gelatinous goop, which I poured down my throat like a professional hot dog eater.
Shelby drove into the city, and I’m thankful for that. I don’t know if we would have survived with me behind the wheel. Some cars moseyed down the highway ten miles per hour under the speed limit, changing lanes lackadaisically without using their blinker. Other cars flew by at twice the speed limit, bobbing and weaving in and out of traffic. We entered a windy section of the street where the white lines that designated the five lanes of traffic were faded. Taxi cab drivers grew lazy in their turns, cutting through the ambiguous lines until nobody was abiding by their lanes at all.
We found our apartment easy enough. It was on 5th Avenue bordering Central Park and straddling the neighborhoods of The Upper East Side and Harlem. Our car was packed full and we struggled to find somewhere to park and unload it. We circled the block a few times and didn’t see any open spots. Then as we drove down a side street to our building, we noticed that a car had parked in the bus lane with its hazard lights blinking. I’d seen this before in large cities—people temporarily park their cars anywhere and it seems to be both legal and socially acceptable so long as your hazard lights are flashing. City people who’d moved to Boulder used to drive me mad when they would do this in Colorado because they’d park in the middle of the street with their hazards on when there was an entire parking lot full of empty spots 100 feet away. Now I understand where the habit came from, though. We pulled up behind the car and mimicked them, leaving the car running with our hazards on.
Shelby hopped out to check in with the doorman while I waited with Skutull. She returned a few minutes later with a luggage rack and said we should unload quickly. I got to work, manhandling our suitcases and bins. I didn’t feel like I had time to take them all the way to our apartment, so I set them just inside the front door. When I was almost finished, the doorman approached. He was a broad man with a deep voice. He had the build and demeanor of someone who could be cast as a hitman in Hollywood.
“You don’t want to park there, the buses have cameras and will give you a ticket,” he said, holding the door open while peering up the street on his toes.
As I processed what he was saying, a bus flew past our car. It didn’t look like the bus took a picture, but I now felt even more rushed. I emptied everything except for a blanket and a set of sheets we use to cover furniture at Airbnbs to keep Skutull’s fur off. It would have only taken one more load and 30 seconds to get everything, but I didn’t feel like I had time, so I left it.
Shelby circled the block while I moved our stuff from the foyer to our apartment. After I finished, I took a moment to check out our studio. It was on the ground floor facing the side street we parked on. The space was small, but luxurious in style. New appliances sparkled in the kitchen, which had abundant counter space for chopping vegetables. A long bar sat across from the kitchen, which would double as both our work desk and our kitchen table. There was a couch and two lounge chairs in the middle of the room facing a large TV and a bed with nightstands on either side at the far end of the room. I later moved the TV in front of the bed so that we could watch TV there instead of on the couch. Three doors lined the left, interior side of the room—one led to a bathroom with heated floors, another to a spacious walk-in closet, and a third to a coat closet with a surprising amount of storage tucked around the corner.
The parking spot we rented was in East Harlem. At $250 per month, it was the cheapest option we could find in the general vicinity of our apartment. Most spots cost $600 and up. On our way over, we passed parking lots that were mostly deserted and surrounded by low, barbed-wire fences. They looked sketchy. Not like a place I’d want to leave my car or visit at night alone. We were pleasantly surprised when we turned a corner and came upon a large parking lot full of vehicles. There were towers that stacked cars four on top of each other and every spot in all three dimensions appeared to be occupied. The man running the lot was friendly, but there was a language barrier. It sounded like he was from India. We were ultimately able to communicate with him well enough to figure out how the lot worked. He told us that the lot doesn’t prorate partial months and since we were arriving mid-July and leaving mid-August, we’d have to pay for two months. The price had always seemed too good to be true.
It was mid-afternoon by the time we made it back to our apartment. Skutull had been in the car most of the day without many opportunities to go to the bathroom, so we embarked on our first walk through Central Park. We were only a few paces into the park when an off-leash border collie approached Skutull with a wagging tail, a mother and daughter duo following in his trail. We made quick friends with them, bonding over our border collies, and found out they live in the same building as us. Their dog’s name was Milo.
“Let me see your phone,” the mother said, reaching her hand toward me, “I’ll put my number in and if at any point while you’re staying here you need somebody to take Skutull out to potty, you give me a call.”
She also told us that dogs are allowed off leash in the park 6-9am daily, but that they never put Milo on a leash and have never had a problem, so I let Skutull roam free. He loves being off leash.
Skutull regularly socialized with dozens of neighborhood dogs during our stay, including Milo. There was the older man who always wore khaki shorts, a sports blazer, and sleek prescription glasses. He had a greyhound Skutull liked and a yorkie he was indifferent to. There was a woman who had trained her poodle to follow her off leash as she ran throughout the park. I saw her multiple times most days. She was always running and wore glasses that strapped to her head like swimming goggles. One morning we came upon the poodle and the lady was nowhere to be seen. The dog was zigzagging back and forth frantically, switching between sniffing the ground and scanning the horizon with his head held high. Me and another girl recognized him and agreed he looked lost. We grabbed him by the collar and looked for his owner. A few minutes later she came sprinting down the sidewalk, cranking her head back and forth looking into groups of trees.
“Oh!” she yelled when she saw her dog, “you need to stay with me.” She wagged her finger at the dog while resting her hands on her knees to catch her breath. “Thank you,” she said looking up at us. Then she took off again, the dog trailing behind.
Skutull made friends with small dogs and big dogs, puppies and seniors.
But there was only one Bonita.
Skutull saw her float past the window like an angel one of our first days in the city, but we didn’t cross paths with her at the park until midway through our stay. She was a three-year-old border collie with shiny fur and a scent that drove Skutull mad with love. Skutull is neutered and has always been good about not humping other dogs or people. He has his “girlfriend”—a body-sized pillow with a furry, border-collie-colored pillowcase—that he’s allowed to have his way with, and he delights himself in that pleasure every night right after eating dinner. For as routine and passionate as he is with his girlfriend, he’s never once tried to repeat said behavior with another dog, nor has he ever even seemed interested. That is, until Bonita came along. She was in heat, and Skutull thought she was awesome. He never actually attempted any doggy promiscuity, but they chased each other in a flirtatious manner and I could tell he thought about it once or twice.
“Is he fixed,” Bonita’s owner asked us.
“Yes,” I replied, “she made us do it,” I said looking at Shelby.
Bonita’s owner was a tall woman about our age with long blonde hair and a European accent.
“Oh, too bad. We’re looking for someone to breed her with next season. It will be her first litter.”
“Ya, sometimes I wish we didn’t get him fixed,” I said.
“A surprisingly lot amount of people seem to do that here in America, don’t they?” she said. I could sense an undertone of judgement and disappointment in her voice.
We spent a lot of time in Central Park over our five weeks in the city. I can’t claim we blazed every trail, but we did hit every corner and most places in between. In the mornings, Skutull and I would go on forty-five minute walks to the west side of the park on a route that wrapped around a large collection of baseball fields. Some mornings there was a trumpet player who sat on benches around our loop and practiced. He was about my age and quite skilled. Skutull was afraid of the noise at first, but he eventually decided he liked the sound and would say hi to the trumpet player as we passed. The guy would pause briefly and smile, reaching his hand out to pet Skutull’s head.
I met a woman one morning who shared my enjoyment of the trumpet player. She told me a man with a bagpipe used to circle the baseball fields every night around 6pm in a kilt, but that she hadn’t seen him since before the pandemic. I wondered what happened to him.
When I didn’t have a time-restricted commitment to get back to, I’d let Skutull pick where we walked in the park. He usually took us to the North Woods, which is a wooded area with a creek, a few waterfalls, and a selection of dirt trails. One afternoon Skutull and I were walking in this portion of the park when a disheveled, middle-aged woman with frizzy hair and a thick streak of gray running down her bangs hollered at me as we walked by, “Nice shirt!”
“Thanks,” I replied.
The woman stepped in front of me, “It’s even botanically accurate,” she said, pointing at the flowers on my shirt.
I’d met so many friendly people in New York at this point, I stopped without thinking and said, “I got it in Atlanta.”
“Oh, I’ve never met a Southern dog,” she replied, looking down at Skutull.
“Well we’re from Colorado, but I got the shirt in Atlanta.”
I told her that I live nomadically and would only be in the city for a few more weeks. She immediately jumped into a list of recommendations. We talked for a while about the museums in the area, which was helpful. She grew up in the neighborhood and knew the ins and outs of where to go, when to go, and what to see. She told me she lives further uptown now. I’d been looking into The Cloisters earlier that day, which seemed like it was technically part of The Met, but was located way uptown, so I decided to ask her about it.
“You’re no ordinary tourist...,” she replied, “You chose the best part of the park to live on and The Cloisters is my absolute favorite. It’s a delight. I live up there now.” Then she changed topics, “I admire that you take your dog with you. I have two dogs and three cats and I always take them with me when I travel.”
“That sounds difficult. It’s been hard sometimes just finding places to stay with him. Where are you able to take them?” I asked.
“Well my parents used to have a fully functioning dairy farm in upstate New York.”
Then she switched the conversation back to museums. She told me about the history of The Cloisters. Apparently Rockefeller purchased pieces of monasteries in Europe, had them shipped to New York, and then used the materials like Legos to assemble his own monastery on a hill uptown. He even purchased all the land across the Hudson River that you can see from the property so that nothing can ever be built on it. He wanted the surroundings to resemble a European monastery in the countryside. Rockefeller then filled his Lego mansion with art from the medieval period, such as the famous Unicorn Tapestries, Hero Tapestries, and the four cloister gardens themselves.
“Awesome, thanks,” I told her when she finished, anticipating a natural end to the conversation. “Well I have to—”
“I promise I won’t keep you long, but you’ll need some information on how to get there,” she interrupted.
Normally I use GPS on my phone to navigate, but I figured maybe a subway route was closed for maintenance, so I let her continue. The speed of her talking instantly increased to that of an over-caffeinated hummingbird. Without prompting, she began an incredibly detailed description of exactly how to get to The Cloisters from where we stood. She didn’t stop talking to take a breath or give me a chance to say anything as she barreled into descriptions of every trail and sidewalk I’d encounter between there and The Cloisters uptown. The only time she paused her laborious description was to repeat her assertion that, “I promise I won’t keep you long, but…”
Twenty minutes later she was still rambling faster than I could understand. My mind was going numb. Twenty minutes doesn’t sound like a long time, but it felt like hours. Skutull was laying in the dirt sleeping. The sun was setting and I wondered if she’d talk all night if I never spoke up. She went into detailed descriptions of not just one method to get to The Cloisters, but multiple. And at every fork of the road, she’d finish the description of her preferred route, then go back and tell me how it would work if I’d gone the other way at the fork. She pulled out a gum packet and dumped the remaining pieces of gum into her purse, then scribbled in tiny handwriting all over it.
When she finally finished and handed me the gum packet covered with markings I’d never decipher, I said thanks and that I had to go. I turned halfway away and signaled for Skutull to stand back up.
“Hopefully I’ll see you up there,” she said, “I’ll just look for the guy with the great shirt.”
That’s when I realized she might be flirting with me. “Thanks again,” I said, turning the opposite direction from where she was walking when I first encountered her and breaking into a walk.
“Bye!” she shouted behind me. For a moment, I felt a mixture of relief and ringing in my ears from the relative silence.
“I actually need a drink of water from the water fountain up here!” she yelled, running up alongside me.
For fuck’s sake, I thought to myself, I’m never going to get rid of this woman. She’s going to follow me around for the rest of my life. I felt like a whale with a suckerfish attached to it’s belly, unable to free myself of its grip without opposable thumbs.
I saw the water fountain ahead and veered as far away from it as I could while staying on the trail.
“Ok, bye,” I said when she turned toward it. I increased my pace to a near jog and didn’t look back.
We visited several museums in the city. Our apartment was only half a mile uptown from The Met, so we walked there half a dozen times during lunch to see a single exhibit. I liked the pace of experiencing one exhibit, then leaving. It gave me the time and space to be more observational.
I couldn’t believe how much paint Van Gogh used compared to other famous painters. You can get a sense of the texture he created in photographs of his work, but I think you have to stand in front of one of his paintings to appreciate how much paint he slathered on the canvas to get his signature swirling effect. His work stood out among the rest in a perplexing way.
Each of the museums drew a different crowd. The Met skewed older and was mostly tourists while MoMA skewed younger and had many artist-looking people wandering the exhibits.
I had an interesting experience at MoMA. I was standing in front of The Persistence of Memory by Salvador Dali, trying to appreciate the details of the painting and pondering its symbolism, but I kept getting knocked out of my concentration by people who wanted a selfie with the painting. This particular piece is only about a foot wide, which meant that one person taking a picture with it blocked the view for everyone else.
A skinny girl wearing shredded jean shorts walked past me with a live-stream feed running on her phone, then held her camera six inches from the painting narrating what she was doing to her followers. I became frustrated and took a step back to observe the people of the museum. This girl oohed and aahed and said a blog post told her it was “a must see,” then walked on to the next piece without ever looking at the masterpiece except through the screen on her phone.
She had “seen” The Persistence of Memory and had video proof to show off to the world, but she hadn’t seen it.
It wasn’t just her. Dozens of people piled in to snap pictures with the painting, but only one person other than myself took any time to look at it with their phone in their pocket.
I’m not an art snob. I know very little about art. My only firmly held belief is that you have to be present to enjoy art, just as you have to be present to enjoy anything in life. It’s disturbing how many people seem to travel for the sole purpose of collecting proof of their travels to share on social media.
Despite my run-in with the lady in Central Park, The Cloisters ended up being my favorite museum. The Unicorn Tapestries alone are worth the visit, but there was also stained glass and beautiful books illustrated by monks that blew me away. My favorite item was a chalice that lives in the same room as the Unicorn Tapestries. It was made of unicorn horn, which people in medieval times believed would protect them from poison. The chalice was of course not actually made from unicorn horn, though. It was made from the tooth of a narwhal! I wondered what enterprising person decided they could pass a narwhal tooth off as a unicorn horn. They must have been rich and probably told elaborate tales of their journeys in the forest hunting unicorns.
We hit many of the famous NYC tourist spots on the weekends. We didn’t want to leave Skutull behind, so twice we got up early and broke the rules by taking him downtown on the subway. He was well-behaved on the first trip, but slid himself under my seat and sprawled his legs wide. I could see the tension in his muscles. The scariest sound was the compressed air when the doors opened and closed. One of the trains we took was particularly rickety and Skutull cocked his head back and forth, staring at the floor of the train as it clanked and banged down the tracks. I’m pretty sure he thought I’d led him into the belly of a monster.
On the second ride, Skutull was reluctant to get on the train, but he relaxed once I pulled him into the cabin by his collar and got him to lay down under my seat. Three cops entered the train about halfway through our journey. My stomach lurched. I hate breaking the rules, but there was no other good way to get Skutull downtown (Uber, Lyft, etc. technically only allow service animals as well), so we didn’t have much of a choice. The cops talked amongst themselves and one waved playfully at Skutull, making clicking noises with his tongue. They never said anything to us. Another woman told us that he was being really good. She’d seen a lot of people try to bring their dogs on the subway over the years and usually they bark and go crazy.
Back above ground, Skutull sat next to the Fearless Girl as he stared down The New York Stock Exchange on Wall Street. He sniffed the butt of the bull. He gazed across the bay as we pointed at Lady Liberty, but I know he was actually staring longingly at the ocean wanting to swim. We took his picture in Times Square, though he was reluctant to look at the camera. We’d call his name and he’d look the opposite way, ignoring us. Meanwhile, a couple dressed in regal white linens and designer accessories were having professional pictures taken next to us. And there was a young girl in a skimpy cat onesie who pawed at a cameraman as she shifted between poses.
My favorite TV show while we were in New York was a food travel series called Somebody Feed Phil. It’s created and hosted by Phil Rosenthal, who’s best known as the creator and writer of Everybody Loves Raymond. He uses the large network of people he’s met around the world in the TV industry to curate culinary adventures. I like Phil because he’s quirky and focuses as much on the people he meets as the food itself. Phil is originally from New York City and we watched the episode where he covers his favorite restaurants in The Big Apple. I went to Di Fara Pizza, which he said is the oldest and best pizza in the city. I could never bring myself to try a Nathan’s hotdog, but I smelled plenty of them roasting in the street carts around the city. Sadly, several of the restaurants he went to back in 2018 didn’t make it through the pandemic. Phil is Jewish and made a big deal about his mother’s matzo ball soup in the episode, so I decided I wanted to eat some traditional Jewish food while we were in the city, too.
On the day we visited the stock exchange with Skutull, we walked through Chinatown to a highly-rated Jewish deli. I sampled bagels, matzo ball soup, and latkes, which were all delicious. It was raining and we had to sit outside because we had Skutull with us. A large man who had a mental disability sat on the bench across from the covered patio we were hunkered under with a big smile stretching across his face. The group next to us approached him with half of a coffee and the man grinned and bobbed his head up and down with excitement. He snached the cup and wrapped both hands around it, “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he said in a childish voice. I gave him our extra food when we left and he was equally as excited.
The rain subsided later that day, so we walked across the Brooklyn Bridge in search of two things: the apartment Shelby’s parents lived in when she was born, and pizza. We found both, or at least, we thought we did. Shelby’s mom had given her their Brooklyn address from 1991, so we made that our first stop.
Their neighborhood was near the East River, just south of the bridge, and contained a mix of small apartment buildings and row houses. Unlike most of Manhattan, the sidewalks were wide and lined with mature trees.
Shelby and I reminisced about the brief time she lived in Brooklyn while her mom was pregnant and through the first year of her life. She has no memory of the city, but I could tell she felt a connection to this spot. We talked about the ice cream shop down the street where her mom used to go to satisfy her pregnancy craving for chocolate-banana milkshakes. And which route her dad must have taken to the subway each day on his way to classes and performances at Juilliard. We proudly snapped a picture of Shelby and Skutull at the doorstep of their old building and sent it to both of her parents. It wasn’t until a few hours later that it became clear we hadn’t found the correct building. Her dad messaged back that the entrance to their building had stairs leading up to it, a feature lacking in the picture we took. We eventually returned to this street on one of our final days in the city and found the correct building. It was next door.
We video-called Shelby’s parents outside the real building and they shared stories about their life in New York City. There was the time one of their good friends didn’t move his car during the 6-8 a.m. period when all street parking had to be cleared. His car was towed, and by the time he made it to the impound center, it was smashed into a metal cube. Shelby’s parents both told us separately about the time one of their friends dropped a glass jug of pennies from the third story. The sound of the jug hitting the tile floor in the lobby was so loud people on the block thought something had exploded.
The best story they shared is one I’ve heard many times over the years...
One day Shelby’s mom was walking home from work. She turned the corner at the end of their street and the smell of garlic wafted into her nostrils. She initially thought somebody was cooking nearby with the window open, but as the smell grew stronger with each step toward her building, she began to worry. When she opened the door into the lobby, it was like breaking the seal on a tupperware container filled with old food—garlic permeated the still, humid air. They lived on the third story and as the elevator climbed up the building, she began to hope it wasn’t coming from one of her neighbors’ apartments. She didn’t want to smell it all night. Then the elevator door opened on her floor and the smell of garlic poured into the compartment, assaulting her senses—her nose ran, her eyes watered, the taste of garlic stung her tongue. The other woman in the elevator used the collar of her jacket to cover her face like she was shielding herself from mustard gas in the trenches of WWI and pushed the “close door” button rapidly until it finally shut. It was in this moment that Shelby’s mom realized it was possible that her apartment might be the source of the smell. With each step she prayed for the smell to be coming from any other apartment, just not hers, but when she turned the lock with her key and opened the front door, a yellow plume of garlic billowed into the hallway. All she could see was a hazy glimpse of Shelby’s dad stirring pasta sauce on the stove.
Shelby’s dad is a savvy cook today, but back then he didn’t know the difference between a “bulb” of garlic and a “clove” of garlic. The recipe he used for the marinara sauce called for two cloves of garlic, so he smashed and minced two entire bulbs, then threw it all in a pot of boiling tomatoes to simmer for hours.
The garlic smell lingered on their clothes for weeks. They had to throw out pillows and blankets that were stained with its stench. To this day on a still afternoon you can still smell garlic permeating from the walls of their old building like an industrial body odor.
For what it’s worth, I believe that they ate some of the pasta and it wasn’t bad. They also did not have to worry about vampires for a long time, so that was a win.
Our building back on 5th Ave didn’t smell like garlic, but there were often drafts of various ethnic cuisines wafting up and down the halls. We contributed to the cacophony of fragrant food with Senegalese, Israeli, Greek, Italian, and Japanese takeout on several occasions.
Our building also had a 24-hour doorman, whose duties were filled by half-a-dozen different people throughout the week. They were all nice, but Areyon was my favorite. He had a deep voice and a thick Brooklyn accent. I asked him where he was from one night and he told me that he lives in upstate New York with his six-year-old daughter. He said his commute is two hours each way.
“Wow, do you take the subway?” I asked.
“Nah man, there’s crazy people on the subway at night. I drive and take a break halfway.”
Our neighborhood was safe and I never felt uncomfortable, but I liked when Areyon was on guard. Most of the other doormen pulled their phones out in the lulls between work, which I understand. If I’m honest with myself, I’d do the same thing. But not Areyon. He was always staring out the door attentively watching the street. If anything ever did happen, I have no doubt he’d be on it.
I saw too many dried piles of puke on the streets of NYC to count and I unfortunately feel obliged to report that Skutull was a contributor. We had a favorite gelato shop on the west side of the park that was about a forty minute walk each way from our studio. One night after dinner we made the trek to the Upper West Side, and while I was in line ordering our sweet treats, Shelby and Skutull saved us a table on the patio. I approached the table with gelato dripping down the cones in each of my hands and was surprised to see Shelby picking up pieces of soggy kibble off the street with a plastic bag. It turns out Skutull vomited the dinner he’d eaten before we left onto the street. We still have no idea why, he must have just been hot. The story had a happy ending, Skutull still ate an entire kid-sized serving of vanilla gelato—his usual order.
We journeyed across the park for gelato many times while we lived in New York. One of the times we returned to our building as it was getting dark and a storm was rolling in.
“You guys are hikers, aren’t you?” Areyon asked.
I told him we were from Colorado where we used to hike all the time and that we were living nomadically.
“Did you drive across the country?” he asked.
“Ya man, I feel like that’s somethin’ everybody’s gotta do in their life, ya know?”
I agreed and told him how barren large swaths of the country are.
“Is it safe?” he asked.
I told him I thought it was, but it was different from the city. “Just don’t go on anyone’s property without invitation,” I said, “some people are crazy.” In my head, I was also thinking that there are unfortunately a lot of racist people outside of major cities and that his experience would likely be different than mine, but I didn’t say anything.
“Ya I’ve heard about that. I have family in Kentucky. Lots of farms everywhere. But if you trespass they can shoot ya.”
One night after walking Skutull in the park I asked Areyon what the craziest thing he’d seen in the city was. He leaned back against the wall and said, “Oh man, that’s tough cuz there’s a lot of ’em... The craziest thing was probably one night me and my sisters had been out and rode the subway. We got off and there was this giant woman on a bench. Like 400 pounds. She was butt naked and there were cops. It wasn’t like she was just sittin’ there, they were tryin’ to cuff her and she was kickin’ and screamin’.”
We had several of our own classic New York subway experiences during our stay, though none quite as interesting as Areyon’s. There was the time after we ate at Eleven Madison Park and took the subway home late at night after our four-hour meal. A man with dreadlocks, red eyes, and an expressionless face walked onto the subway car with his seven or eight year-old kid and a giant boombox. When the doors closed, he blasted explicit hip-hop music and his kid started pole dancing. A girl on the train about my age laughed, so the kid approached her, then turned around and began giving her a lap dance.
The train slowed to a stop and the dad signaled the kid over, then handed him a flat billed hat, “Go get your money.”
This was not the only performance I witnessed on the subway. There were half a dozen mariachi bands, a person with a guitar that had only three strings, and a singer. There were people who begged for money. And young kids holding opened bottles of alcohol in brown paper bags who spread themselves throughout the train car looking for trouble.
We drove to the Hamptons one Sunday to escape the bustle of the city. Our plan was to take Skutull swimming at Ponquogue Beach, but when we arrived a sign guarding the entrance informed us that dogs are not allowed during the summer months and that a $250 fine is strictly enforced. We hopped from beach-to-beach up the southern shore of Long Island, searching for a pet-friendly, public beach, wasting a good portion of the morning.
The drive from the city had gone by pretty fast, but we’d still been in the car nearly three hours and Shelby and I both needed to pee. We stopped in the village of Southampton and poked our heads in a coffee shop, hoping to buy a warm beverage in exchange for access to a bathroom.
“No public toilet, it’s closed,” the girl behind the counter told me, glancing down at her pen and notepad, “what’s your order?”
I waved my hand and walked out.
We passed art galleries displaying giant canvases splattered with vibrant, rainbow-colored paint. And clothing stores full of sun hats and floral dresses. An old woman passed me on the sidewalk wearing an outfit like the ones on the petite mannequins in the display windows. Her eyes were transparent like a ghost’s and her skin was unnaturally taught and smooth like porcelain. A plexus of blue veins ran down her exposed thighs and arms. I wondered how many operations she’d had to try and keep herself young.
The cafe down the street gave us a similar answer, “Restroom isn’t open.”
“Why?” I asked.
“It’s a health hazard from the pandemic.”
“Where is there one we can use?”
“The RightAid or CVS.”
I unbuttoned my pants to relieve pressure on my bursting bladder as we scurried up the street toward RightAid. I spent the entire walk cursing in my head about how the pandemic has been used as an excuse for bad service.
After Shelby and I relieved ourselves, we drove toward the coast and found Cryder Beach. The sign near the entrance said the beach allows leashed dogs year round. The catch 22 was that the beach is public, but all of the parking within a mile is yearly permit only. There were dozens of open spots in the permitted lot near the beach, so we parked and took our chances.
Skutull could smell and hear the ocean before we could see it. He zigzagged in anticipation as we approached the beach. The sand felt hot on my bare feet.
We found our people at this beach. Dogs ran back and forth off leash between the ocean and their families. I let Skutull off and he raced into the water. A black lab approached us and made friends with Skutull. His owner was a middle-aged man who wore orange floral board shorts.
He said his dog's name was Jack. “How old?” He asked, looking at Skutull.
“Five. How about yours?”
“Six,” he replied, bending over and picking up a seashell the size of a small plate. He threw the shell into the ocean like a frisbee. Skutull and Jack bolted after the flying shell, leaping over a wave as it crested. The shell plunged into the ocean and sank to the bottom. “He’ll look for it for hours,” the man said, smiling.
On the way back to our beach towel, we passed a small shark that had washed up onto the beach. It was dead, but looked fresh. Skutull cautiously approached and sniffed from a distance. It’s gills were dug out. I wondered if it was used as bait by a nearby fisherman.
As I lounged on the beach under the summer sun, Skutull rolled onto his side for a nap, caking his wet fur with sand. Nearby, a tan man with a booming Russian accent directed his wife to move this way and that way as he applied tanning oil to her body. Her frame was long and thin like a flagpole. She looked back at her husband like a soldier, moving her body about in a synchronized routine like a machine. Then he yanked her swimsuit top down and rubbed oil on her massive, fake breasts. She slid her sunglasses back on, then strutted off toward the water.
“Oh, jee!” A short, graying man wearing aviators shouted. He wore a blue baseball cap spun backward and was pointing toward the ocean.
There were murmurs under the umbrellas surrounding us of sharks.
“There it is,” the man exclaimed again. He jumped up and down with excitement like a kid ordering an ice cream cone.
The young couple next to us immediately grabbed their curly-haired toddler and started packing their towels and sand castle molds into their NetJets-branded beach bag. I looked in the direction the man was pointing and saw a large, dark object briefly slice through the surface of the water.
“There’s whales too!” The man yelled to his wife, “there’s something going on out there.”
Everyone cleared the water as the Jaws theme song echoed in my head...
Our skin was burning and we didn’t want to put on sunscreen, so we loaded back up and ventured north in search of wine for Shelby. As we cruised down a country road, Shelby performed one of her famous, stream-of-consciousness driving monologues, reading off every sign on the side of the road as we drove past, “McDonald’s!...Handmade pies!...Jay’s Plumbing!”
Our stomachs were growling, so we turned onto an old downtown street lined with brick buildings and found a sandwich shop. I waited outside with Skutull while Shelby went in to scan the menu.
The smell of skunky marajuana blew into my face. “Phee-yewww!” hollered a man wearing an apron with the restaurant’s logo embroidered onto the front. He was older with curly black hair and a hunched back. As he walked through the front door, he mimicked the motion of smoking a doobie, then waved his hand in front of his nose. The girl behind the counter smiled and said, “What?” They appeared to be father and daughter.
“Someone lit something real smelly out there,” he replied.
While I waited for Shelby, several groups of people walked past and made exclamations about the smell.
I thought this was interesting for two reasons. First, I’m from Colorado and have grown used to the smell of pot in public since it was legalized way back in 2012. Second, we’d been in New York City for almost five weeks and the smell of marajauana had constantly permeated the air like cigarettes did a generation ago. I found it interesting that the smell was so novel just eighty miles outside the city.
We apparently got lucky and arrived minutes before the sandwich shop closed. They stacked our turkey sandwiches with three inches of deli meat and sent us on our way. As we sat on a street bench outside, wedging the massive sandwiches into our mouths, the famous guitar riff from “Sweet Child O’ Mine” began blasting from the store, followed by the sound of the front door’s deadbolt locking.
We drove home later that evening, which marked the beginning of our last week in the city. Our final days in New York were quiet, as was our departure early on a Friday morning.
New York City has many nicknames. The Big Apple. The City that Never Sleeps. Gotham. The Melting Pot. But I think the nickname that best describes it is The Concrete Jungle.
Jungles are full of thousands of species and millions of creatures living in harmony. Sometimes the workings of the jungle look like brutal chaos from the outside, but when you become a part of it, you realize how efficient and symbiotic the ecosystem is.
I expected people in New York City to be rude and surly, as they’re often portrayed in movies. I was prepared to break through my metaphorical shell and fight for my life, but to my delight, the beach I hatched on was full of other iguanas like me, searching for their place on the island.
Here’s something I never expected to say—the people in NYC are some of the friendliest I’ve ever met.
One of the things that surprised me most about living in the West (including in Colorado) is how common it is for people to act like they want to be your friend, but in reality they’re just being nice out of social convention and want nothing to do with you. I found this difficult to navigate as a full-time nomad. I never felt like I knew who liked me and who was pretending to like me.
Did I encounter people in bad moods in NYC who weren’t afraid to express how they felt? Yes, but those were rare. What made me feel welcome was that when somebody did take the time to be nice to me, I could trust that they genuinely wanted to be my friend. If they blew past me like I didn’t exist or talked to me without making eye contact or smiling, I knew they wanted nothing to do with me. I no longer think that New Yorkers are rude, but rather, that they’re honest.
The aspect of nomadic life I’ve struggled with most so far has been the lack of community. I can’t spontaneously invite a friend to dinner. Or stop by my parents’ house. When I pick up food or go to the gym, nobody knows me. When I walk around my neighborhood, I’m a stranger. In many ways, the life of a nomad is the life of a ghost.
A year ago, I would have confidently declared that I’d never live in NYC, but now, I’m not sure. Out of all the places we’ve lived so far, NYC is where I’ve felt most at home. It’s the only place I think I could live and easily build a community of people that care about me.
Jack Kerouac said it best in his classic novel, On the Road, “LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; NY gets god-awful cold in the winter but there's a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets.”
NYC can certainly be in-your-face and rough around the edges, but I felt the comradeship of the city at a time when I needed it. There was an energy in the streets that I can’t describe and a feeling that I could do anything and be anybody.
No matter where you come from, who you are, or what you do, there is a place for you in The Concrete Jungle.
I’ll be back. I don’t know when, but I’ll be back.