When I was sixteen, my brother and I flew to NYC and stayed with my grandmother for a week. She did a really good job of showing us New York. We saw Radio City, Central Park, Madison Sq. Gardens, Empire State, NYSE (where I am certain we stood and looked down into the trading pits), Rockefeller, Chinatown, Coney Island, the subway system, the bus system, Greenwich Village, Little Italy, and the twin towers of the World Trade Center. I remember standing at the top of the World Trade Center, behind the mass of razor wire, and peering down to the tiny dots of people running like ants on the street below. The wind was so strong that a lady beside me a lady lost her beret even though she was gripping it tightly. I remember how brash Grandma’s answer seemed when I asked why there was razor wire. “So people don’t jump.” I don’t have any photos from that trip. I don’t know if I even took any.
I remember Grandma’s tiny apartment in a five story brownstone just north of Columbia University. I remember studying the fire escape and wondering how it was more of a help than a hindrance to safety. I remember that The City had 212 and 718 (newly added in 1984) and that was the first time I tried to wrap my head around how many people were here – so many they needed 7 digits times two area codes. Now they have six.
The thing that impressed me most of all was Chinatown. We ended up in Chinatown on a Friday at lunch time. We’d arrived about 10:30 and wandered the subdued streets. The only people there were tourists and shop keepers. Then at noon straight up, it was like a bell rang and the streets flooded with a sea of shiny black-haired heads, all heading to lunch. I remember that at 5’4” I could see over all but the very tallest of them, and I remember the feeling of holding Grandma’s hand while the sea ebbed around us. We selected a restaurant and she ordered chicken dumpling soup for all of us, then threw a fit at the guy behind the counter because she was sure they had served her pork instead of chicken. As she had just converted to Judiasm from atheism, and as she was known for her melodrama, we made quite a scene. I remember the line of people behind us rolling eyes and being far too patient.
I loved Chinatown. I remember the bamboo and paper fans, the woven coin purses, the lacquered chopsticks inlaid with mother of pearl, the painted pink fabric parasols, and the myriad of rice bowl designs. All of it was foreign and lovely and ridiculously cheap. I budgeted most of my allowance money on stuff in Chinatown and I had a pair of those chopsticks for about 10 years after that trip.
As we stood across the street from one of the larger Buddhist temples, I noticed people setting bottles of Mazola corn oil at the entrance to the temple. We crossed the street to get a better look, and the whole temple was full of identical bottles of Mazola that had been left as an offering, maybe a thousand of them. It was more confounding than alluring, but it apparently made an impression on me, since I still remember the details of the shrine, the gold Buddha, the red fabrics and the rows of oil bottles.
For a very long time, that week was one of my greatest learning experiences. I’d already been to Boston, walked the Miracle Mile, seen George’s teeth, the North Church and Concord. I’d been to the Grand Canyon, Montreal, Niagara Falls, and watched Mt St Helens spout steam right after its big eruption, but NYC left an indelible mark like no other place I visited. New York felt like the thing that it was: That big city of opportunity, the flagship of the land of promise. From where I stood, it was a giant gateway to and from a much larger place. It was the first place that struck me as a window to the rest of the world.