Scenes from New York

June 14, 2016

It’s been about nine months since I first came to New York City. I’ve reached the end of my first academic year of my Master’s degree, and with that comes a bit of time for reflection. I’d like to take the time to share with you guys some of the little moments I’ve had around this city, and maybe give you a bit of a taste of what it’s been like.

This is Washington Square Park, as seen from the tenth floor of NYU’s Kimmel building. If there’s any place that serves as a nucleus for my experience here, it’s this place, located at the center of NYU’s loosely organized “campus”.

One of the most striking moments I had when I first came to this city was standing in the middle of this park, and noticing that when I looked northwards, I could see the Empire State Building (visible in the background of the picture), and looking southwards, I could see the new World Trade Center. There was no denying it. I was here.

Music is everywhere in this city. You can’t escape it. In the parks, on the streets, in the subway stations, even in the subway cars themselves, you’ll find talented musicians. I saw these guys when I was first visiting the city back in April 2015. Not all of New York’s street musicians are this good, but when they are, it can make your day just a little bit better.

Here’s another talented pair of musicians. What struck me about these guys was the unusual instrument they used—a banjo bass. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. Talking to them afterwards, they said it was completely custom-built for their band.

In a lot of ways, coming back to school was unusual to me after spending a while working. But in other ways, it was good to be back. This is an environment I’m familiar with, that I know how to work in, but that still pushes me. I have the opportunity for growth and learning, to meet people, and to involve myself in interesting things.

In that sense, NYU has done well for me so far.

Bobst Library (seen here in a slightly messy vertical panorama) is the biggest study space on campus. Looking like an unassuming red block of a building from the outside, you’re caught off-guard when you walk inside and see one of the most striking designs for an interior space in Manhattan.

I’ve spent a lot of stressful evenings here before tests and assignment due dates, that’s for sure.

New York City is the most commercial city in the world, or at least the most commercial city I’ve ever been in. Not even the skies above Chinatown are safe from people trying to sell you their products or services.

One night last September, I came home to find a full film set on my street corner. Fascinated to see this happening so close to home, I took a picture. About a half-second after that, one of the workers politely asked me not to take pictures of the set, so this is the only shot I got.

People are speculating that this was a set for some episodes in Marvel’s upcoming Luke Cage series. This is corroborated by the fact that later on that month, I saw some chairs set up with cast members’ names on the back, and after googling them, I found that they were in the credits for Marvel’s Daredevil. So keep an eye out.

Another picture from the film set on my street corner, this one about a month and a half later. They rented out this restaurant for a good while, changing its name on the sign to “Genghis Connie’s” (its original name is “La Dinastia”), emptying it out, and setting up pyrotechnics in its windows.

To give you a sense of how close this was to my apartment: I was in the kitchen in my apartment a few floors up on the night that they were filming with the pyrotechnics. Suddenly I heard a “BOOM” from outside and felt my entire building shake.

“Yep,” I thought, “they’re filming alright.”

The area I’m living in is primarily hispanic, so much so that most people you run into on the street in this neighbourhood will be speaking Spanish. Even the billboards and advertisements are mostly in Spanish.

This mural is a few blocks from where I live, giving people bilingual advice on how to handle a confrontation with police. Even in the street art, you can see the concern that many non-white communities have with law enforcement in this country.

Since New York has always been a nucleus for American business and prosperity, it’s always seen itself as a target, even well before the September 11th attacks. You’ll find several buildings scattered across the city with these signs on them, as a reminder of the time when the threat of nuclear annihilation was much more real and imminent than it is today. Because if any place is likely to be the target of a nuclear strike that would cripple the US, it would be New York.

Almost everywhere in this city is pedestrian-friendly. Even the Brooklyn Bridge has a pedestrian walkway above it. If you’re visiting somewhere in northern Brooklyn, it’s worth taking the time to walk into Manhattan at least once, as from there you get one of the best views of the Manhattan skyline.

Here’s the obligatory picture of Times Square. Once you actually start living here, you’ll avoid this place as much as possible. The crowds, the flashing lights, the costumed people on the street who are mainly looking for your money, all of it is just too much, and you get tired of it pretty quickly.

Personally, the only reasons I go to Times Square these days are either to be a tour guide for visiting friends, or on the very rare occasions when I want to get last-minute Broadway tickets, something I’ve only done twice so far.

The first time I came to New York—which was actually April 2015, after I was accepted and when I was first visiting the university—I decided on a whim to get discounted same-day tickets to go see Avenue Q on Broadway.

It was the best possible decision I could have made on that trip.

The entire show was a comedic story of a twenty-something-year-old, recently out of college, who was trying to figure out what he wanted out of life. To say that it was relatable to how I was feeling at the time would be an understatement.

I mean, can you imagine how I felt when I was on the verge of going back for my Master’s, and I get confronted with a song like this?

There’s always a big police presence in the city. Justifiably so for a place like this, many would argue, and admittedly the police are usually pretty friendly. Still, between sights like this and the omnipresent “if you see something say something” announcements in the subways, it can sometimes be more than is comfortable.

I’ve taken to describing Manhattan as “one of the few places in North America where you can be claustrophobic while outside”. Given that it’s an island that’s less than 22 km long by 4 km wide, space is obviously at a premium. This is a big part of why few people drive here—it’s not just that everything is close by, but that it’s hard to find a place to put your car after you’re done with it.

Sometimes you have to appreciate the little things. Like when I was randomly wandering near the Flatiron Building one day and came across an artist setting up her exhibit: hundreds of snowflakes made of shiny foil and origami paper, each different from the last. It was a beautiful sight to come across, and I found it by complete accident.

Compared to Toronto, though, New York does not know how to handle snow. Some of you might have heard about the one extremely bad snowstorm we had early this year that effectively shut the city down: that day, I received an emergency alert on my phone saying all non-emergency vehicles had to be off the roads by 3 PM.

Although they got the roads cleared in relatively short order, they left enormous snowbanks blocking the sidewalks and didn’t leave room for the water and slush to drain away. In a city with this many pedestrians, that’s a problem.

Uncomfortable truths are written outside an NYU computer lab. In this time of my life, the computer is my work, my school, and my entertainment. It’s a big part of my social life, since so many of my friends are far from me, especially in the time before I made friends here, and it was even my romance, during the time when I was in a long-distance relationship last year.

It’s a bit much, honestly, and it’s a hard trap to avoid.

This is one of three Tim Hortons I’ve found in the city. I’d thought that Tim Hortons in America were a bit like unicorns, but apparently they do exist. This one is in the vicinity of Times Square, as you can tell from the flashiness.

Notice that they put the Cold Stone brand front-and-center, and that they have a small neon sign beneath “Tim Hortons” on the side saying “COFFEE AND BAKE SHOP”—otherwise, no one would know what it was.

Fun fact: tickets to John Oliver tapings are actually free. You just have to be on the website the moment they open, since they run out really quickly. When my friends Keith and Elizabeth were here, we almost didn’t get tickets, and only a last-minute no-show got the three of us bumped off the waitlist and into the audience.

It wouldn’t be a big city without its fair share of crazy. I’ve seen this guy both down in the subway in Brooklyn and all the way up in Times Square, with his signs preaching his nonsensical gospel: “SIN is ACIDS in your EYES called OPSIN, put there by LUCIFER, the fallen angel from the planet Saturn. Only CHRIST’S BLOOD can dissolve it.”

After doing a quick google search, I found that opsins are light-sensitive proteins found in your eye’s rods and cones, heavily involved in the process of turning light into an electrochemical signal.

So I guess you can thank Satan for the fact that you’re not completely blind.

Speaking of crazy, my visit here back in April 2015 was the first time I came across one of these: a Toynbee tile. Hundreds of these have been found across the United States, and they all say the same thing: some variation on the phrase “TOYNBEE IDEA, IN MOVIE 2001, RESURRECT DEAD ON PLANET JUPITER”. Somebody has been embedding these into asphalt in dozens of American cities, and nobody’s really sure who it is.

This one’s in the vicinity of the Empire State Building.

While my friend Keith was here, I had the privilege of attending a Billy Joel concert with him. These days, Billy looks almost nothing like the 80s heartthrob he used to be: he’s gained some weight and what little hair he has left has gone almost completely white. But the moment he opens his mouth and starts singing, you realize the most important part of Billy—his voice and his talent—is completely unchanged.

Big thanks to Keith for bringing a camera with a fantastic zoom lens—our seats were nowhere near as good as this picture makes it look.

I know I have a lot of friends who don’t travel as much as I do. For those people: this is what tourism is actually like a lot of the time.

Not that I’m complaining—I know I’m fortunate to have these opportunities. And I was just like the rest of these people, taking a snapshot to remember the moment and to post on social media later. But it’s worth keeping in mind this side of tourism, because this is the side you don’t see on the marketing brochures.

This is the view from my apartment window. It never lets me forget where I am.

That’s the end of the pictures from this year that I want to share. Here’s to another year full of new experiences.