A look back to move forward.
These days, after work or on the weekends, I walk around New York City. I’ll take random turns and change course if one path looks more interesting than the one I’m on. I have no agenda, no destination — just Google Maps running in the background to guide me home.
Even though I used to call this eclectic metropolis “home,” I feel like a stranger. Like a tourist in my own city. And I really am. I find myself stopping every 20 minutes just to take a picture of the landscape and towering buildings and constantly have to stop in my tracks and turn around because I was walking uptown when I needed to go downtown, all the while restraining my urge to gape at the enormity of it all and my infinitesimal existence in this expansive web of diversity, culture and people.
Part of the shock comes from the stark contrast between New York and Maryland, where I live now. For the first 10 years of my life, I witnessed everything: celebrities eating at Joe’s Pizza, sex toys and other paraphernalia in shop windows and blatant racism on the streets. Starting in the fifth grade, I was transported into the sheltered bubble of suburbia, full of neatly-clipped front lawns, polite small talk and quiet, lazy Saturdays. It might as well have been a different planet. I find that I have no strong preference or dislike for either of the two. Rather, I have come to appreciate both lifestyles and look forward to meeting people of other experiences or backgrounds.
However, after some walking and reminiscent reflection, I realized that living here as a child was different from how I experience it now. My siblings and I would just follow my dad around to Zagat-recommended restaurants and wealthy residential areas without so much as a hair of geographical bearing. The memories I’ve made in Manhattan are so distinctly stamped by certain moments in time or specific neighborhoods that I was taken aback when I walked from Times Square straight into Korea Town because they’re much closer in proximity than I realized.
I remember summer picnics, dad’s pickup soccer games and local bands playing on the large expanse of grass in Rockefeller Park — what was an uncharacteristically calm and peaceful nook, overlooking the glimmering Hudson and Jersey City towers, tucked into the urban chaos of the city. After school, mom would take us to Duane Reade to pick up our daily snack, and after wolfing them down, we would wet the sand and mold ambiguous structures, squeal in delight as we chased or were chased by other kids, slide down that steep steel slide (with sand on our butts to go faster) and flick water sprouting around the bronze dodo structure. Occasionally, dad would buy us ham and cheese subs to eat while we studied the curious bronze structures of Penny Park. On special days, mom would buy us beef empanadas. On top of all that, we would garden with gentle instructors, play chess and eat rook-shaped cookies, borrow hula hoops and Monopoly from the shack, and race for the highly sought-after swings.
The green, playground, shack and slide are all still here, but filled with new families and young kids. The swing set remains half-empty most times. The slide doesn’t seem as tall as it does in my memories, and the empanada place has closed down. “Wintergarden,” the once cavernous shopping center filled only with echoes, is now jam packed with luxury brands and people eager to buy, relabeled as “Brookfield Place” to denote its chic, commercialized identity. Things are different. A mix of urban development and growing up.
But then there are things that haven’t changed, the landscape, to some degree of course, but also the people. Willy, my old bus driver, used to drive a little ways away just to stop at an area more convenient for my mother to pick us up. Every time I boarded the bus, he’d greet me with “Princess” and reserve a special seat in the front. Enwar, the reticent, introverted and enigmatic ticket master at the ferry docks would crack a smile with endearing eyes whenever my brother and I would prank him and cause him trouble. After years of living in Maryland, I went over to the docks just last night and found him still there. “Yes?” he said looking at me expectantly, clearly unaware of who I was. “Do you remember me?” I ask with a smile. His eyes briefly squint in confusion, then widen as he recalls. Through the small ticket opening, I extend my hand and he takes it, greeting me warmly, asking how I’ve been doing and marveling at my height. “Say hello to your brother and mama for me,” he says, as I leave for home, already too late.
So on my late night walks I reminisce with bitter-sweet nostalgia, trapped in a liminal space where things seem both new and old at the same time. It’s unsettling, but I’d like to stay here for a bit longer. I used to hold my mom’s hand while window shopping on Madison Ave, and now, I walk alone at night. I’d run with my dad across station platforms to make transfers, and now, I hurriedly fumble with my iPhone, making sure I’m on the right route. No longer a young child, but a working young adult, I’ll make new memories that will never take the place of old ones, but they will characterize my experience here. And it’s a part of growing up: looking back to see how far you’ve come since and taking in the changes one nostalgic memory at a time. But no matter what, I know that each time I come back, I’ll look upon my memories with the same fondness, grateful to have New York City as my childhood home.