It's a borough of 1.6 million, on an island city of 8.6, with likely just as many tourists all trying to catch a glimpse of a particular tree. It's the city that never sleeps.
You never imagined you'd be one of the sleepless.
Your fifth trip to the Big City starts out uneventfully enough. An email is sent out during the summer announcing an annual December bus trip to Manhattan. You excitedly make plans to visit with a friend you haven't seen since she left Ireland. You decide on brunch and purchase tickets for that Broadway show you've been dying to see since your roommate introduced you to the soundtrack earlier in the year.
It's too late. HR sold out of tickets. No bother, you decide, you'll take OurBus. It meets right in front of Holiday Inn in the city. You used it the previous year to return from your fourth trip to Manhattan. It's November; the chances of booking a decent train ticket to New York are slim to none. The bus will be fine.
And it is. Early mornings aren't preferable, but it's worth it to catch the sunrise over East Cocalico Township. You sleep most of the way, waking up every so often to read and then fall asleep again. Your originally empty seat is now occupied by a seatmate, who is also dozing.
The skyline comes into view, with - corn? Why, yes, it looks like row after row of corn. That isn't something you expected to see - tall skyscrapers of the Big Apple behind cornfields. Your camera aims at the glass, but sadly, the cornfields fade away before the device successfully captures the moment.
People blur as the bus buzzes by. Houses focus and then pixellate, each one filled with strangers who all have dreams of their own. For many years, you'd wished to be one of them. It's easy to picture your life if you had moved to the City; it's equally as vivid to imagine a life of unease and uncertainty as a starving writer on the streets of New York.
No, you'd rather stick to visiting.
The bus drops you off between 26th and 27th on Madison, not far from Madison Square Park. You briefly check your phone for directions to Union Square and then start walking. It's a beautiful day - cold, but beautiful. The cold rarely chills you, not in that coat you picked up back in Iceland. The gray sky has turned blue. You lose yourself to the aria of languages that filter in through the streets of New York, shimmy down the grates, leap onto the subways and then fly back out through the chimneys.
It isn't long before you arrive in Union Square. Although your friend has been derailed due to a delayed subway, the interruption need not ruin this trip. There's an outdoor farmer's market. You meander down the row, observing the colorful palette of vendors and their wares, of people purchasing the last produce of autumn. Camera poised, you spot a row of stalls deeper into the square. Excellent - another Christmas market, your third this year.
It's here that you meet Abel, the Brooklyn-based photographer whose black-and-white captures have been imprinted onto old vinyl records. Another stall offers butterflies in glass jars, with the disclaimer that no real butterflies were used in the making of the decorations. You continue to wander, passing stalls of every color imaginable, wading through pillows, scarves, hats and gloves, smelling the distinct aromas of Christmas, until you're drawn to Dylan's Candy Bar.
It's a touristy candy shop, you recognize immediately, though the exact degree of tourism becomes more prevalent when you snatch at a Galaxy bar. A small Galaxy bar - $3.50? That's 4 euro. You used to spend a euro fifty on a large Galaxy bar. As much as you want that Galaxy, you can't justify the purchase and walk away.
Dylan's offers Choc Aids and Gummy Pizzas, skyrocketing you back to childhood. There are Candy Trees - not the candy trees of family Christmases, but rows upon rows of candy bars and boxes, shaped into trees. And Pocky. Like any good candy shop, there is a wide assortment of Pocky.
Somehow, you leave the shop with your wallet untouched.
Your friend arrives. You immediately greet each other as if it's been two years since the last time - which, it has (though neither of you can figure out how that happened.) You decide on a Danish cafe for pastries, hot chocolate (coffee, for her) and a catch-up. Your time together is short, but wonderful; only a couple of hours later, you both take the subway and depart at different stations - she to her work, you to the show.
Walter Kerr Theatre on 219 W. 48th St. is stunning. Its interior is reminiscent of an old opera house, or the last show you saw - Wicked, in West End's Victoria Palace Theatre. The musical is phenomenal (but that's a story for another piece.)
Satisfied with your day in the City, you prepare to leave for your bus stop. Glancing at the mobile clock, it becomes apparent that you'll be waiting for quite a few hours if you go now. You decide to walk around, whiling the hours away through exploration.
Only, you didn't plan to walk in the direction of The Tree.
You certainly didn't intend to do so five or six times - or in the beginning of December, a mere few nights after its first lighting.
Initially, it's grand. You've seen the tree, don't need to see it again (it looks the exact same as last year) and decide to instead walk into Rockefeller Center, as you did once in adolescence. You have several hours to kill. The golden guys and ice-skaters beckon, but there is no way you will willingly spend nearly $40 just to go on Top of the Rock.
When you emerge back into the crowd, it's no longer a crowd. The street has been closed for a parade. There are hundreds upon hundreds upon possibly thousands of individuals and families, all standing on one sidewalk. Nobody is moving, not effectively. People are pushing. Parents cry out to not push, for the sake of their children. It's a front-to-back, elbow-to-elbow, short person to tall person vision blockage, tourist jam.
You can see the time decrease on your phone, along with your battery. Google says the bus stop is 13 minutes away. You still have plenty of time. If you can get away from the people, you can make the bus.
They carry you, to the tree. A second time, to the tree. A third time, to the tree. When you finally extricate yourself from the mass, you are determined to never see The Tree again.
According to Google, you can still make it.
There's more tourists. Waits on sidewalks. Cars. Everything chaotic about New York has culminated into this one moment. Your phone is nearly dead. You're only a few blocks away from the bus.
The bus is gone.
You're left behind.
In New York.
On a Saturday night.
Three weekends before Christmas.
(to be continued.)
”We’re not leaving. My phone’s somewhere in the city. I paid $500 for it. I don’t want a new phone! I want my phone. I’m not fucking leaving without my phone.”
”Who are all of these people and what are they doing in my city?”
“Sorry - sorry -“ “Are you kidding me?” “Yeah, ‘excuse me’ would’ve been better.” / “I forgot I was in New York and said sorry, instead of excuse me.” “New Yorkers don’t say excuse me. Must’ve been from Jersey.”