When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus from Richmond to New York City for no reason other than to do it. Well, it wasn’t exactly for no reason: the plan was to see a concert by an acoustic punk outfit named Andrew Jackson Jihad. But that approach didn’t pan out and I ended up wandering the Big Apple for 24 hours with nothing to do and nowhere to sleep. I’d just gotten out of the worst relationship of my life and I was full of youthful energy. New York City seemed the logical place to release that misguided vigor. So I bought a ticket on a cheap Chinese bus line and began a five-hour trip to the Big Apple, unsure of what I’d find there or what I was even looking for.
I’d been to New York City once before, with my parents, when I was 13. The thing that stuck out most from that trip was how there were thousands of people in the street even in the middle of the night. I remember waking up at 2 in the morning and looking out the window and seeing all the lights and the throngs of bodies down in the grayness. Coming from rural Virginia, this felt like being on Jupiter. I had more life experience when I returned to the city in my early 20s. I’d lived in Richmond for a couple years, which wasn’t a huge city, but a city nonetheless. In reality, though, I was still so green and dumb.
New York City seemed the logical place to release that misguided vigor. So I bought a ticket on a cheap Chinese bus line and began a five-hour trip to the Big Apple, unsure of what I’d find there or what I was even looking for.
I was sweating when I stepped off the bus in Chinatown. Not because I was nervous, but because the driver had been blasting the heat for no obvious reason. The cold air was a relief, and a New York cliche was there to greet me as soon as I stepped into the street: a drunk homeless guy on the corner giving a sermon about how our souls were damned and that we’d be headed to hell before long. I understand now that this is, like, an everyday occurrence in the Big Apple, but at the time it drove home the point that I was somewhere unlike anywhere else I’d ever been. I hadn’t lived a sheltered life, but I hadn’t traveled much, either. So I’d like to thank this devout homeless man for making my first moments alone in New York City memorable. He was a worthy welcoming committee.
I followed up that NYC cliche with another one by grabbing a bagel from a cafe so packed with people that I had to shimmy to the front of the line like a snake. Thinking about that now, in the context of COVID, illuminates just how disgusting we were before the pandemic. Body-to-body with complete strangers. Strangers who could have been carrying any disease under the sun. I’m sure life will revert to this level of griminess after COVID runs its course. It might take a while, but hell, probably not. People tend to forget quickly.
The main theme of this spur-of-the-moment trip to New York was its complete lack of action. It devolved into a study in flaneuring, or walking the streets simply to walk the streets, observing all that is good and bad and beautiful and ugly about humanity. It became clear early in my journey that I wouldn’t make it to the Andrew Jackson Jihad show, because it taking place in Brooklyn and I was in Manhattan, and I didn’t have the balls to hail a taxi and it would probably cost too much money, anyway. So I abandoned the idea of making it to the show and increased my aimlessness a few more degrees.
New York City was as vast as expected. As I walked its streets, the buildings towered over me like gravestones. They seemed never-ending. I had a Blackberry at the time, which meant no GPS and no way to orient myself in what felt like an indecipherable urban maze. In retrospect, this lack of a smartphone was perhaps a blessing. It allowed me to roam the city untethered to a device that would’ve removed the magic from the experience.
At one point, I passed a Jonah Hill lookalike sitting against a building holding a piece of cardboard that read: “NEED MONEY 4 WEED.” His eyes were bloodshot. I asked if I could take his picture and he said yeah, sure, and smiled. I didn’t give him any money when I walked away. In retrospect, that was probably a dick move on my part.
As I strolled along the outskirts of Central Park, kicking the ground and noting the excess of trash on the sidewalk, it started snowing big fat flakes. For a moment, everything was perfect. I was wearing a ratty black peacoat and the snow was sticking to the fabric. It was beautiful. The pureness of the snow stood at odds with the griminess of the city. For a moment, I understood the New York myth. If you couldn’t fall in love with this place in the snow, when could you? I felt the urge to move here. Not for a career or anything, but just to meander for a few years, for the unfiltered experience of it all, for the chance to say I once lived in New York City. At the time, I believed this to be a novel idea because I was immature and puffed up on my ego. But this idea has inhabited the minds of most 20-somethings with even an ounce of poetry in their souls. I never moved to New York, and in retrospect, that’s OK. The winters, generally, are too brutal. Pretty snow notwithstanding.
I ate pizza for dinner, one of those signature huge New York slices, while continuing to flaneur like the poseur poet I was. In my mind, I was Bukowski. O’Hara. Arturo Bandini. I was actually none of these people, instead a wandering douche in a shitty coat with a bad haircut with a sports editor job at a community newspaper making $21,000 per year. I allowed myself to live in a poetic delusion for a few years after the New York trip, and I’m all the better for it. Your 20s are for embracing delusions, trying on new skins, so you know which one fits best by the time you reach 30. That way you’re able to move from there to the grave as your true self.
It was dark and cold. I had nowhere to stay and not enough money for a hotel room. It was after midnight. I searched for a place indoors where I could hang out. As luck would have it, I stumbled into a movie theatre that was open very late. I bought a ticket to Nebraska, a black-and-white joint starring Will Forte. I don’t remember the plot, but I remember it being good, and I also remember I was the only person in the theatre and that the floor was tremendously sticky. Thinking back on it, being in that theatre feels like the heart of the trip. I’d come to New York to lose myself, and there I was, alone in this big empty space for no reason whatsoever. For a moment, I imagined that the rest of the world was gone, that the only thing left was me, in this movie theatre, in the center of the universe, watching Will Forte’s black-and-white face move across the screen.
When the movie ended, I stayed in the theatre as long as I could because it was cold outside and getting very late. An usher, or someone who worked there, shooed me away after a half-hour or so, and I was back on the street. In need of a pick-me-up to make it to the morning (my bus left at 9 a.m.), I slipped into a 24-hour Dunkin Donuts, where I ate a sausage egg wrap and nursed a coffee while listening to a group of teenagers lie to each other about getting laid. At least I think they were lying. The verbiage they used (one of them said, and I distinctly remember this, “I banged her real good.”) suggested they were exaggerating. But who am I to assume? Maybe kids started earlier on that sort of thing in New York than we did in rural Virginia. Eventually, the kids left and I was all alone in Dunkin, looking out a window at the empty street. It was 4 in the morning and I was getting the itch to move. So I got up and wandered into the frigid Yankee night.
I stumbled into a punk rock bar for reasons I still don’t understand. It was a real dive. The Misfits were blaring from the stereo and the walls were covered in scrawled punk rock poetry. There were three or four people sitting around the bar. All dressed in black. One dude was wearing a spiked necklace and a scowl on his face. There I was, in my black peacoat and brown corduroy pants, looking so much like a douche. I ordered an IPA and tried to relax, but as I sat there, feigning calmness, I realized I was utterly disoriented, that I had no idea how to get back to the Chinatown bus station. I must have shown this anxiety on my face, because the guy with a spike necklace leaned over and asked me if everything was alright. Yeah, I said, I’m fine, but hey, you wouldn’t happen to know how to get to the Chinatown bus stop, would you? He smiled and gave me succinct directions. I thanked him, feeling guilty because I’d taken him for a mean person when here he was helping some jackass wearing corduroys for no reason other than to be a good guy. The bar was closing soon. I polished off my IPA and left, nodding goodbye to the friendly man in the spiked necklace.
It was dark and there were still a few hours to kill, so I went to a McDonalds somewhere between the punk rock bar and the bus station. This Mickey D’s, I figured, would be a prime place to wait out the wee hours of the morning before hopping on a hot crowded Chinese bus back to Richmond. The special thing about this McDonalds was that there was trash all over the floor and the 10 or so people inside were completely hammered. I sat at a booth without ordering anything and laid my head down in an attempt to rest. When I awoke a drunk girl in her 20s was staring at me. She was all alone and her head was tottering back and forth.
“You look interesting,” she slurred. “What’s yurssstory?”
I told her I didn’t have much of a story and that I definitely wasn’t as interesting as she perceived me to be.
“C’mon, man,” she said. “C’mon, I mean you’re wearing brown corduroys. Who wears brown corduroys?”
Before I had a chance to answer, one of her friends grabbed her by the arm and whisked her out the door. I watched the two of them wobble down the sidewalk through the window, stumbling like the lost Millenials they were. I entertained the idea of following them down the street, to search for some early-morning New York diner so I could grab a nice breakfast and wait out the last few hours until my bus left. But instead I laid my head on the ketchup-stained table and tried to get as much shut-eye as possible before someone kicked me out.
I awoke to one of the employees, a girl with a managerial look, tapping me on the shoulder and saying hey, dude, you gotta leave. You’ve been sleeping in here for like an hour, this is not some boutique hotel. Yeah, yeah, I said, I’m sorry, I’ll get up now. I pulled myself out of the booth, head-throbbing, and drug my body back into the cold street.
That was the extent of the trip. See, I told you not much happened. I spent my last two hours in NYC waiting at the bus station. At one point, I went into the bathroom and found the walls covered in bumper stickers reading DOLPHINS RAPE PEOPLE. I don’t know who made these bumper stickers or what the point was, but it was a fitting finale, because the trip, like the bumper stickers, had been absurd and meaningless. I exited the bathroom and walked through the station doors and up the stairs onto the bus. The Chinese driver greeted me with a nod and a smile. He seemed nice enough, but I’d come to hate him, because he spent all six hours of the trip blasting the heat and shouting into his cell phone in a language I didn’t understand. There’s no point to any of this, I thought, and left it at that.
When I arrived at my apartment I immediately went to bed and slept for a long time. I slept so long and deep that a few minutes after I awoke I wasn’t sure if I’d actually gone to New York or if I’d simply dreamed it up, like a dog in the woods in the nighttime searching for its pack. Or just any pack to be a part of, really.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
I could wake up tomorrow, walk into my front yard and be attacked by a rabid bobcat.