New York City has to be overrated. There are a thousand-and-one love songs to Manhattan. It is a seat of arts, of culture, of sports, of fashion, of music, and of a host of 2000s rom-coms. New York seems to be the touchstone of the “American Dream” – freedom, opportunity, and excess. Nevertheless, as I sat in the back of an iconic yellow cab, the city lights blurred as rain streaked across the window, headphones pumping Frank Sinatra’s “Theme from New York, New York” into my ears, there was a certain magic in the air. (Hey, I said it was overrated, I didn’t say I don’t wholeheartedly buy into it.)
I met my parents in Manhattan over spring break. It serves as a convenient midpoint between St Andrews and western Canada, and my family loves a trip that enables us to combine musicals and museums. University has also given me a new appreciation for travelling with my parents, when I don’t have to worry about logistics (and, more importantly, when I don’t have to pay).
Our first morning, we woke up to news that a nor’easter had moved in overnight. Though it was the third week of March, huge snowflakes were falling thick and fast. People moved through the streets in dark coats with their heads down. School was cancelled, but people were already out salting the sidewalks. We were staying at the Hotel Elysee, in Midtown East.
After breakfast at the hotel, we headed out into the weather, for which we were woefully unprepared. It was fascinating to watch the city mobilise, especially in contrast to the mayhem incurred by the snow (I’m sure we’re all tired of hearing about) in St Andrews a few weeks before. It wasn’t especially cold, and shopkeepers were out with scrapers and shovels, clearing the sidewalks before the snow could stick. Immaculately dressed business people pushed through the streets, heads bowed in a vain att empt to prevent becoming too bedraggled.
We walked down to Bloomingdale’s, where my mother and I browsed while my father sat in a chair and tried not to look too bored. We headed back to the hotel at around 11, where we donned some more layers. I hadn’t thought to bring a toque, thinking that I’d be safe in New York in March, but I did have a scarf and gloves. The snow had slowed, but the wind had picked up and the flakes were starting to circle on their way down, giving the impression that we were all in a snowglobe. We set out again, my parents muttering something about heading towards Times Square and finding lunch on the way. We stopped at a little coffee shop, where we had paninis and lattes, then continued west.
Times Square was packed with people, the lights cutting through the snow and the heavy grey sky. My parents seemed to know where they were going, so I followed them through the crowd, too jetlagged to question much of anything. We exited the square onto a side street, and the massive sign of a theatre marquee appeared through the gloom. The Richard Rodgers Theatre. Hamilton. My face lit up, and I whipped out my phone to send a snapchat to my similarly obsessed friends. My parents were watching me with oddly expectant expressions. I looked up from my phone and glanced at them.
“No,” I said, hardly daring to believe.
“Yes.” My mother’s face broke into a smile. “Welcome to your early birthday present!”
Hamilton killed me. I had slight fear that it would feel too different without the original cast, but it was absolutely incredible. The Wednesday matinee was completely sold out, and people were lined up around the corner to see if they could get the tickets that weren’t collected. There was an instantaneous standing ovation.
We made our way back to the hotel, my precious Playbill hidden under my coat to protect it from the snow. Despite the inclement weather, the sidewalks were packed. Some people were using umbrellas to protect themselves from the snow, and keeping your head down proved to be dangerous.
That night, we had dinner at a French restaurant, Benoit. After two months of hall food, vegetables that aren’t boiled seemed to be the height of luxury.
The next morning, I was woken by watery sunlight fi ltering in through the curtains. There was barely a trace of the snow that had fi lled the air the day before. The sky was a sharp, clear blue and people passing below were wearing bright colours and sunglasses.
After breakfast, we took the subway uptown to Central Park. We spent the morning at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Particular highlights were the Thomas Cole collection and the musical instrument wing. After the better part of five hours, we started to feel that certain brand of museum-specific fatigue and emerged into the bright sunlight. It was a beautiful day, so we decided to walk the 27 blocks back to the hotel. (My family is nothing if not ambitious when it comes to walking on holidays – a trait I seem to have inherited.)
We walked back through Central Park for as long as we could. People were strolling with ice cream, faces turned towards the sun. Children were sledding down embankments that may have had some residual snow when they started, but were now just damp grass. I took off my coat and carried it.
We had left the park and were nearing our hotel when I saw a familiar face in the crowds passing us. It was my cousin from Victoria, in Manhattan for the weekend for a business conference. Neither of us knew that the other would be there. In a city of 8.5 million people, we just happened to pass each other on the street. I thought that I would stop seeing people I knew everywhere when I left St Andrews, but apparently I can’t escape it. I’m still not sure whether that’s comforting or disquieting. We arranged to have dinner with him the following evening.
We got back to the hotel and my mum and I decided to go out for another walk before dinner (as I said, there’s a lot of walking involved). We walked over to Fifth Avenue, where we window-shopped and people-watched.
That night, we went for dinner at a little Italian restaurant, then we went to a free concert at the Lincoln Centre. Two vocal students were chosen from Two vocal students from Juilliard performed, but it wasn’t necessarily an evening of pleasant music Juilliard to perform. They sang very technically challenging songs, but it wasn’t necessarily an evening of pleasant music. Nevertheless, it was a reminder of the arts and culture available to people who live in big cities, and the immense amounts of talent in the world.
I’d been to New York twice before. Once, I was five years old, and it was December. I have vague memories of seeing the enormous tree at the Rockefeller Centre and watching people skate in Central Park. The second time, I was thirteen, and it was August. The whole city was packed with tourists, and the heat was sweltering. The whole city seemed grimy.
This time, I found the magic. I now understand the world’s obsession with New York, a city that is at once massive and incredibly small, that is unruly yet well-organised. I found the art and the music and the history pouring from the subway gates, flashing in the lights of Times Square.
In St Andrews, I know several people from New York, and I am all too aware that I am seeing the city as an outsider. I am glad of that.
It exists for me only as a concept, as the city of The Great Gatsby and Gossip Girl. It is a city of horse-drawncarriages and fire escapes. It is a city of music and light and life, in all of its vibrancy and chaos.