That’s How I Got To Manhattan
All kinds of things happen in New York.
It’s not safe.
Don’t make eye contact with anyone!
Read a map in private. Disguise being a tourist.
Keep a close watch on your bag.
Thinking about everything friends had told me about New York, anxiously, I boarded the N.J. Transit bus from Parsippany.
This was in 2010, when Ashwin was first given the opportunity of working in New Jersey for a couple of months. It had not occurred to me that New York was different from New York City. I have come to realize, that this distinction of state, city, suburb, does not really matter when it comes to New Jersey; it could be dump and it would still be New Jersey. But when I first came, accompanying, Ashwin on his trip- I was going to America. I was not jaded by the American view of New Jersey.
Making plans for my travels from Parsippany in New Jersey where Ashwin, my husband, was to be working for a few weeks, did not seem fruitful. This whole concept of state and city was messing up my google search. Maps showed me I would take five hours to get from ‘my location’ to New York (New York being Buffalo.) When I looked for directions to New York, again a few hours later, this time New York was Albany and it would take me two hours. Assuming Google was temporarily having some down time, I set out to explore Parsippany, what I understand now is a “suburb” of New Jersey.
I could see green trees, a beautiful pond with geese and ducks enjoying the water, a gazebo and green lawns stood outside my window. Large pavements, (which I have now learned to call sidewalks) lined the sides of the road. A few cars went by. I walked out onto these clean streets and saw a bunny grazing, a deer hop by and a tiny red robin. Cars passed me and I often felt eyes peering at me from inside them. I walked for hours and there was no one in sight. Not one other person seemed to be using the sidewalks. I returned, making up my mind to go see New York (meaning the city) as soon as I could.
At the hotel I browsed the internet, spoke to the receptionist at the front desk, looked for maps and brochures and made plans to go to New York City. I made a list of the ten things to see in “The City,” since like every city I had visited thus far, a list and a plan was the best way to go. As every other tourist, the list consisted of Times Square, Empire State building and Central Park. ?
With apprehension, excitement and uncertainty, I looked for a place to sit on the bus. I took off my bag pack and lay it on the seat beside me. My thoughts jumped to warnings about prostitution as a big money making business in the area and that I had to watch out for pimps. I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but I had to be watchful. I muddled up stories I had heard about my father’s trip to Detroit, about ‘big’ men trying to mug people walked the streets. I tried to focus my thoughts on the route I was planning to walk on once I was in New York. I was going to start my self guided tour at Penn Station, where my guide book said people traveling in from New Jersey, got off. The plan was to keep my eyes down and walk to the Empire State Building. I checked to see if I had my tiny, pink, ‘non-smart’ Virgin mobile and remembered Ashwin saying, “Be safe! Call me if you need anything.”
My seat was at the back by the window.
I saw strip malls that I had heard about, whizz pass me. Pathmark, Michaels, Party City, Wendy’s went by. On scanning the bus, several seats taken by people dressed in grey or black suits all holding leather bags or briefcases. The bus pulled to a halt and a lady in a white blouse, blazer, short A-line skirt, white stockings and pumps came in with a few others and sat beside me. She sat down and out of her brown bag came an IPhone, on which she began furiously typing. At subsequent stops immaculately dressed people, followed the same routine. They got in, scouted for a place, sat down and almost immediately pulled out a laptop or a phone and punched away at the alphabets. Everyone’s use of Apple products seem to impress me!
Unable to find the courage to interrupt anyone from their morning work, my thoughts and I looked outside and eventually Manhattan’s skyline came into sight. Tall buildings with their iconic shapes, short ones, pretty ones and not so pretty buildings all stood with the backdrop of a beautiful clear blue, May sky. My excitement made a few heads turn to look outside and then back to their work.
We entered Lincoln Tunnel and the view disappeared to be followed by nauseating alternating white light and darkness. When the bus finally stopped, all devices went into people’s bags. Everything was getting packed up and people started straightening their clothes and standing. An uneasy knot began developing in my stomach. This was it. All that I had prepared for, read about and researched for was going to come into action.
Everyone seemed to be getting off. Just before dismounting, I couldn’t stop myself any longer, and I excused myself and talked to the lady beside me, who waiting for her turn to jump out of the, now stationary bus. “Which direction do I have to walk on leaving Penn Station to get to the Empire State Building?” To which her response was, “This is the Port Authority. Do you want to go to Penn Station?”
The knot in my stomach tightened and began moving to my chest when I realized I had to get off the bus, and I hadn’t even managed to get to the correct location. So much for the guidance from guidebooks!
What was I going to do?
Where is this Port Authority?
Is there anything outside?
Is it safe?
I didn’t want to get out from the comfort of the bus. I quickly hid my guidebook, made up my mind to act like a local and got off the bus.
No one had prepared me for what was to come. Before I knew what happened, I was being pushed by people; lots of people. There was nothing more I could see. I wasn’t given a chance. I was bumping into the person in front of me and was being pushed by the person behind me. Not having a moment to look around and find my bearings in the building or to make notes on how to come back, I had to keep moving. No time to think. Could not see anything except the backs and sides of people’s jackets and leather bags. No place to pull over to the side. I simply slid with the crawling crowd into the hallway of the building, down the escalators, into another long hallway. More people poured in from other directions – coming from in front of the escalator, from the sides and going down another escalator. Suddenly I saw some color on the side- a shop selling magazines, candy, water and fruit. I managed to pull myself to the side to figure out what to do and where to go next.
As I stood, in the corner, outside the store, a tall, dark skinned man in a beautiful black suit, sensing my helplessness stopped next to me and asked, “Do you need to get somewhere miss? Need help?”
Oh no! The secret was out. He knew I was a tourist. Others will know too. I was not supposed to make eye contact. I looked up at him for a second. Shook my head no, looked down and quickly jumped back into the mad rush of people. If nothing, they would be able to lead me outdoors into the sunshine.
And they did. I was pushed out into the light, into Manhattan.
My advice for anyone visiting New York
- “Ask New Yorkers for help.
(They are extremely helpful and enjoy telling you about their city. They have once felt lost here too and will happily help you in your time of need.”)
- Walk around there is stuff to see everywhere.
First thing that people want to see when they visit the city is Time Square. But that is hardly what the city is. I try to explain. “When you are in Times square and mid-town, do not ask for help! Everyone there is either there to make money or is a tourist. If they are there to make money off of tourists- street vendors, dressed up cartoon characters or tour bus reps they are going to be intrusive and rude. If they are tourists, they have been fed similar garbage, about the city’s natives, you have been and, they will respond with the same hostility they expect from New Yorkers.”
- Everyone is not out to pick pocket. Relax, walk around the streets of Manhattan.
- While looking for directions, look for New York City. Empire State building is a good central landmark to go to.
New York City is in New York State, of which Albany is the capital.
A note on American cities and town? (Suburbs)
- Cities are where people work and live in close proximity. Rents are high and people often live in small apartments in high rises.
- Cities usually have some level of public transport- varying from good in New York City, to just ok in Atlanta.
- People live all over the state. Places that are not cities are usually suburbs.
This is very different from where I grew up in India. The suburbs are not underdeveloped or ignored by the government. It is quite the contrary. Suburbs are quiet, where people own big houses, always have a car and are often you have to depend on family and friends to take you EVERYWHERE.