But, on both trips, one of my favorite things to do in New York is just walk and wander. And I have a lot of deep thoughts. New York is an incredibly efficient way to package humanity. Every block is a little city in itself, with most everything you need to live your life. The supply chain is amazing. Huge trucks navigate narrow congested streets. Other huge trucks take out trash. There seems to be scaffolding on every block and always something under construction over your head. New York City is not done. There are new skyscrapers under construction everywhere.
The oldest buildings fascinate me most. I marvel that the builders took the pains to adorn out-of-reach rooftops with elaborate sculptures and architectural flourishes. They seem from a time when pride outshone utility. I wonder what is up in the top floors, nestled in the uppermost turrets and under the peaked dormers. I am in awe at the histories they house. I have so far searched in vain for some kind of book, titled something like "100 Top Floors Of New York Skyscrapers." I don't want one about super-luxurious penthouses. Blah. I want one about the mysterious, ornate historic building tops. And my favorite of all New York buildings is The Flatiron. The first time a saw it was in this 1904 photograph by Edward Steichen - The Flatiron - in my history of photography class at the University of Arizona. A reproduction of this photo hangs in my office. On our last visit to NYC, I made a pilgrimage and stood near the exact spot the photo was taken from. I could hear the hooves of the carriage horses in my mind, and though no longer the tallest building in view, The Flatiron is still the most awe-inspiring.
The three most common sites in NYC must be cabs, police, and signs. And there are so many signs that they actually become imperceptible - visual background noise. I mostly ignore them and look in store windows to determine what kind of place it is and what they carry.
Driving survival: Drive with purpose. In Manhattan, to show indecisiveness earns scorn. Drive with conviction. If you're going to miss your turn, do it boldly. Just keep going and come around the block and try again. But don't dawdle and peer with craned neck.
Front fender rule: whoever has their front fender ahead of the other has the right of way. Just put your blinker on and move over. To hell with everyone behind you. Corollary, if someone has their front fender ahead of you and starts moving over, don't take offense or honk, just yield and let them go.
Walking survival: Pedestrian crossing signals matter. Many cab drivers are seemingly psycho. Green light - they floor it, weaving in and out, cutting across 3-4 lanes, accelerating through intersections. Red light - they nose-dive the car with the brakes. You know how, when watching Iron Man, there's a part of you that thinks, well even if the suit was capable of making turns and accel/decelerating that quickly, no human could have reflexes that fast? Wrong. New York cab drivers do. And the suit is a Crown Victoria. Yet pedestrians and cabbies alike heed the pedestrian crossing signals. If it says walk and you step in front of a cab, they wait complacently. If you step out on don't walk, they will honk, curse you out, and lurch the car at you for emphasis. Never cross against the light unless you're suicidal or very, very daring, athletic, and observant. That is how 40 mph cars, giant trucks, buses, bicycles, pedi-cabs and pedestrians coexist without a high death count. And I recommend really waiting for the walk light. Sometimes it's been a few second since a car flew by and some jackass walks right out like he knows what he's doing and everyone follows suit. Then - surprise! The cross-traffic still has the green light and all hell ensues.
Don't make eye contact with other approaching pedestrians. You will collide. Look beyond the people in front of you, at your destination. Then, like magic, the hordes melt away before you, or flow around you like water around a stone in a stream.
Generally, don't worry. There is nothing you can do to be safer. Just follow my rule above about pedestrian crossing signals and that's all you can do. All of New York City is implausible. The buildings are too tall to stand. The crowds are so big they'll trample you. The water supply can't be sustained. The electrical grid should fail any second. A cab should careen onto a sidewalk full of people. Race riots should break out any second. A piece of building or an air conditioner should fall on your head. Except none of that happens. Everything just goes on okay. And if you did worry, it doesn't matter. There is nothing you can do. So a sort of liberation sets in.
You can walk around with sound isolating earbuds listening to music with no problem. There's nothing you really need to hear. There's so much noise, that if someone actually honked at you - or a siren came, or gunfire, or shouts of warning - it wouldn't matter. It would all blend in to the background noise. And this I confirmed: if you want a magical NY menagerie moment, put on the earbuds (or full headphones) and put Gershwin on the iPod - either Rhapsody in Blue or An American In Paris - and just watch the people, cars and buildings as you walk. Suddenly, you notice every face, every expression, odd outfit, and impassioned gesture. Everyone becomes a character in an elaborate ballet. That Gershwin could capture the pulse of city life with sound is amazing - and that rhythm remains the same 88 years later.
The City is an amazing place. One worth visiting for all people, just to have had the exposure to the distillation and concentration of all humanity's dreams and efforts. There are many places I've visited and never desired a return, or visited numerous times and worn out everything I care to see. New York is not one of those places. I'm already looking forward to another visit in April, albeit with a group of high school drama and music students in tow. And I'm confident I'll be visiting periodically for the rest of my life.