Got Nothing Against the Big Town: The Yeoman Farmer’s Urban Adventure

We’ve been living on rural properties for nearly sixteen years now (hard to believe it’s been that long), and at this point I’m not sure I could ever again live or work in a city – or even a suburb. Once you get used to having this much open space, this much quiet, so many wonderful country roads, such beautiful night skies, and such terrific home-produced food … it’s not an easy thing to give up. We’re especially fortunate in that we live just outside a small town. Our township is rural and unincorporated, but we’re still close enough to town for high speed DSL internet — and we’re still just minutes from a hardware store, a grocery store, and a freeway to even more resources.

As much as I love country life, I do look forward to — and thoroughly enjoy — visiting bigger cities. Business travel takes me mostly to Washington, DC; when I’m there, I try to carve out some time to see the Smithsonian or other historical sights — or rent a bike and explore even farther.

And there is no other city quite like New York. I could never live there, or even work there on a regular basis. It’s far too large and too crowded for me — and not to mention extremely expensive. But what an amazing place to visit! What I’m always most struck by when I go there: New York seems to have a little bit of everything, and it’s all mixed together, and it’s all happening all at once. Every street is a kaleidoscope of sounds, different ethnic groups, languages, shops, restaurants, and activity. There never seems to be enough time to see everything, or to take everything in.

As expensive as New York is, a trip there doesn’t have to break the bank. Last week, when attending the award ceremony for my novel, I flew out early on a Wednesday morning and returned early the next morning. I found the best airfare (around $300), with the best schedule, in and out of Newark. Even better, the hotels around the Newark airport were significantly less expensive than those near LaGuardia — and much less expensive than staying in the City itself. I was able to get a nice room at the reasonable Wyndham Garden Hotel, with shuttle service just ten minutes from the airport, for a hundred bucks (including taxes, with AAA discount). Similar places around LaGuardia would’ve been double that, and downtown Manhattan would’ve been three times as expensive.

Best of all, public transit options from Newark to Manhattan are easier and quicker than from either of the other two metro airports. The “Air Train” is a little within-airport shuttle connecting the various terminals and a parking garage. The final stop is a full-fledged train station, where one can buy a ticket for Amtrak or regional New Jersey Transit service. For just $13 each way, the NJ Transit train will take you to Penn Station in Manhattan. These trains run all the time, and the trip only takes a half hour. In terms of quality, the train itself reminded me of the DC-area MARC or Chicago-area METRA: nice, but not Amtrak.

Anyway, as the train winds its way north and east along elevated tracks, you’ll get an up-close view of burned out Newark slums — and the former slums that are now being reclaimed and gentrified. Then the tracks dive under the Hudson River. The next thing you know, you’re disembarking at Penn Station. Yes, it’s quite possibly the ugliest transportation hub in the country. It’s badly in need of upgrades and redesign. But who cares? You’ve arrived in Manhattan.

When I emerged in the warm, morning sunlight of Eighth Avenue, the first thing I saw was Madison Square Garden; Penn Station is literally under it. I was of course immediately flooded with childhood memories of televised basketball games and heavyweight fights. However, strange as it may sound, Madison Square Garden evokes for me even more powerful memories of an event I never actually saw: Frank Sinatra’s concert, the Main Event, held there in October of 1974. On long family road trips as a kid, driving from Seattle to Southern California and back, I listened to a cassette recording of that concert countless times. As the hundreds of miles of mountains and Central Valley farmland rolled by, I grew into perhaps the world’s youngest and most devoted fan of Old Blue Eyes.

The concert’s introductory track, voiced by Howard Cosell, does a masterful job of setting the scene. As I stood on Eighth Avenue, I heard Cosell’s distinctive voice telling me: “And in the heart of the metropolis, the great arena: Madison Square Garden, which has created and housed so many champions.” I still can’t listen to that rousing overture without getting chills, and I admit to having it and tunes from the rest of the concert in my head for the whole rest of the day.

My favorite way to see a city is on foot and by public transportation. If I really need to take a cab someplace, I’ll do it. But I much prefer to walk, and to experience the city on the ground at a personal level, than to watch it go past from the back seat of a vehicle. I headed south on Eighth Avenue, enjoying the beautiful weather, and savoring getting a close look at everything around me. My only two firm time commitments were lunch at 1pm with a client, and the award ceremony that evening. So, I was able to take my time and enjoy observing the bustle, all the while feeling completely unhurried myself.

I celebrated the last day of May by making a pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, on 14th Street. It’s a magnificent church, and a peaceful oasis in the middle of a noisy neighborhood. It felt wonderful to take a load off, and enjoy some quiet while surrounded by so much beauty. I then strolled around the streets of Chelsea and the West Village, before returning to the same church for 12:10pm Mass. That ended just in time to meet the client for lunch.

After a nice hour or so of getting caught up with the client, and meeting in person several members of the team who’d I’d previously only “met” via email and phone, it was time to decide how to spend the rest of the afternoon. At the client’s suggestion, I walked west on 14th Street to 10th Avenue, and then climbed a set of steps to enter High Line Park.  The High Line is a former elevated train track, now converted to a mile-and-a-half-long urban greenway. Strolling along in the afternoon sunshine, alongside a throng of tourists and dog-walking locals alike, it was the perfect way to walk the mile or so north to 34th Street. No stoplights. No vehicular traffic. Just a smooth path, greenery, and a wonderful views of the City (to my right) and the Hudson (to my left).

high-line-park

It was especially interesting to see how many residential and commercial developments had grown up alongside the park; some buildings even connected directly with it. This all struck me as an example of urban planning at its best.

Being very much in a literary frame of mind, I decided there was one more place I wanted to see that afternoon: the main public library building. From the Highline, I made my way east to Fifth Avenue, and then north until I found it.

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I’d picked up a large cup of coffee along the way, and still had about half of it left when I arrived. That gave me a perfect excuse to find a seat at one of the wrought iron tables and chairs along the plaza, and enjoy a few minutes of contemplative solitude under the canopy of shady trees. All around me, people at other tables were carrying on quiet conversations, or reading, or jotting down thoughts in notebooks. At my feet, colorful pigeons scavenged for remnants of snacks and lunches.

My coffee finished, I packed up and headed into the library itself. I was blown away by the spectacular dimensions of the place; the grand entryway took my breath away. Then, once I was strolling the grand corridors and reading rooms, I was overwhelmed by the sense of being in the secular version of a sacred space — a must-visit pilgrimage site for every lover of books.

Down a broad set of stone steps, in the basement, I found one of the specific things I’d wanted to find: Christopher Robin Milne’s actual toy stuffed animals, which inspired the Winnie the Pooh stories. I knew he’d donated them to the NYC public library, to be put on perpetual display; I found them — appropriately enough — in the children’s section. As our seven year old has become a big fan of the classic Pooh books, I made sure I got a photo of the display case for him.

NYC pooh display.jpg

When I showed it to him later, and told him that I’d seen the actual Winnie the Pooh bear that Christopher Robin had played with, he laughed with delight.

I took my time exploring the rest of the library; I hadn’t realized the extent of the institution’s special collections (which can be accessed by appointment), or just how many tremendous resources they have available for researchers. It easily rivals many university libraries. I was overcome with the sense that if I’d grown up in NYC, I would have spent a large chunk of my childhood in this building.

From the library, it was an easy walk to the Harvard Club and the award ceremony for my novel (detailed in a recent post). I very much enjoyed spending the evening with other independently-published writers, and the literary professionals who are helping to make our work known to a wider audience.

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Once the festivities were completed, I walked back to Eighth Avenue and down to Penn Station. Along the way, I had to cross Broadway and the theater district — which were now jammed with tourists and other show-goers. Funny, but as large and crowded as the place was, it still had the feel of a community block party.

The NJ Transit train whisked me back to Newark Airport. I transferred to the Air Train, took it one stop to the parking garage, and dashed downstairs to a waiting hotel shuttle. The Wyndham Garden Hotel was a perfectly serviceable place for the night, especially given the $100 price. Nothing special, and the noise insulation could’ve been better (the aircraft were pretty loud, but I didn’t hear any after it got really late), but it was fine for my needs. I’d stay there again.

And I do hope I get to stay there again. Life on the farm is terrific; I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Yet there’s still no place in the world quite like New York City.

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