As a child, New York was my equivalent of The Emerald City: a mythical, fantastical place of wonder that I could only dream of visiting one day.
I used to spend hours in the local public library, memorizing every building of the city’s famed skyline from picture books. I knew the names of each of NYC’s five Burroughs and the main thoroughfares running through them by heart; my friends often gave me as birthday gifts clothes decorated with American flags and “I love NY” logos; I had a long list of all the places I wanted to see and all the things I wanted to do in the Big Apple if my Yellow Brick Road ever led me there.
I finally got to New York when I was 18, the first stop on my first overseas trip immediately after high-school. It was early January of 1990, at the height of winter, and I stayed in New York then for about three weeks, which despite the freezing weather was everything I’d expected, and more.
I remember vividly the feeling of awe and excitement as I stood on 5th Avenue staring up at the Empire State Building for the first time. I remember literally kissing the ground at Wall Street – evidently I was always destined for a career in finance. I remember the heavenly taste of my first New York pastrami on rye sandwich, piled three inches high with a mound of meat, coleslaw oozing out the sides.
I remember visiting museums filled with world-class art; I remember attending a concert at the Lincoln Centre in celebration of Martin Luther King Jnr, where I wound up singing gospel numbers with a group of retired ladies from Harlem; I remember ice-skating on a frozen lake in Central Park; the eye-opening experience of getting to see Les Miserables for the first time; of eating hot knishes from a sidewalk cart. I walked everywhere in New York, partially to save money but mainly just so I could see as much of this amazing city as I could, often arriving at my destination blue from cold and shivering uncontrollably.
New York back then seemed so wondrous to me, and it instantly became my favorite city on the planet. I began making plans to live there one day, and at the end of my third year of university I applied to transfer to Columbia University in Manhattan’s upper west side. I got accepted into the law school, only to ultimately have my hopes dashed when I was unable to secure a scholarship. So I settled for frequent visits to New York instead, and at every opportunity I found an excuse to travel there. I visited more than half a dozen times though the course of my time in university.
Then, as is so often the case, life intervened. I finished university, went travelling in Asia and Europe for 18 months, and then returned to Australia to start a “real job” in the “real world”. My focus turned towards work, and then starting a family, and then I moved to Asia, such that I had much less reason to visit New York. Still, I did manage a few work trips (on one occasion flying there from Singapore, staying for less than nine hours, and then flying out again), and one week-long holiday.
But then I did not get to New York at all for almost five years, during which time my life underwent some pretty seismic upheavals. A planned trip to run in the famous New York marathon was cancelled, and for the last few years any thoughts of a visit to my favorite city in the world were few and far between. Until May of this year, when I had the opportunity to travel there to attend a friend’s wedding, and I have subsequently been back several times since.
Only that this time around, New York has been a very different place indeed. It is still a vibrant and exciting city, of course, but now with the benefit of age and experience it also seems to me to be a bit old, and run-down, and tired. For the first time I have been noticing how dirty the city often is, how narrow and potholed many of New York’s streets can often be, and how crowded and pushy NY’s sidewalks can become.
On my recent visits, the marvel of the Manhattan skyline has given way to a much more ground-level view, of harried mothers huffing and puffing as they push prams down uneven sidewalks, schlepping their young ones to play-dates in concreted-over cells that masquerade as “children’s parks”. Which is not at all the charming urban lifestyle I had once envied, but hard labor that nowadays looks to me to be especially tough, and grim. And while waiting for the noisy crowded subway in the biting cold, which always runs late, I found myself thinking: this is not fun and cool like I remember, but downright miserable.
Everywhere I’ve been in New York these past few months I’ve been acutely aware of the accumulated litter and graffiti and baked-in grime that seems to coat everything, the product of having ten million people cohabit a very small piece of real estate, I guess. I have noticed the crowds and the crumbling public infrastructure and the hardness of people’s faces, as they go about their business one day to the next. And the thought has kept popping into my mind: “thank God this isn’t me”.
In short, twenty-five years on from my first visit there, New York is no longer the same city of my childhood dreams and fantasies. Which to be honest has been mildly depressing: it is never a nice feeling to have the rose-colored glasses of youthful memory ripped away.
So anyway, last week while in New York I caught up with a friend from my university days, who now lives in Tribeca in lower Manhattan. We met for an early lunch at a small cafe that serves “Israeli cuisine”: from classic Eastern European artery busters like pirogi and blintzes, to hard-core Sephardic Jewish staples like hummus, falafel and cous cous.
I opted for a truly scrumptious shakshouka (baked eggs in a spicy sauce of peppers and tomato, topped with salty feta cheese) and a limonana (minted home-made lemonade). Between the food, the company of an old mate, and the fact that the wait-staff immediately presumed to speak to me in Hebrew, I was soon feeling pretty good about life.
After lunch I had to collect something from a store near to Union Square, and my friend suggested I should walk there, as it was only about ten blocks away. It was pretty cold, but the sky was clear and there was no wind, so I decided to do just that. On the way I stopped at a Starbucks to get a cappuccino, and so that is how about ten minutes after leaving lunch, coffee in hand, I found myself walking through Washington Square Park, a ten-acre patch of greenery at the heart of Greenwich Village.
This is one of New York’s more well-known public parks, and as places go, has a pretty fascinating history. It began its life in 1643 as the “Land of the Blacks”, on account of it being a tract of land given to freed slaves (who conveniently then acted as a buffer zone between the Dutch settlement to the south and the Native American village to the north). In 1797 the area was repurchased by the city council as a burial ground, and over the next 30 years about 20,000 people were laid to rest there – they remain entombed beneath the modern-day park.
In 1830 the cemetery was closed, and over the next fifty years the current park was laid out, and the surrounding streets became some of New York’s most fashionable and expensive residential addresses. In 1889 a Memorial Arch fashioned after Paris’ Arc de Triomphe was erected to celebrate the centenary of George Washington’s inauguration as the first US president, and over the following decades this was augmented by two statues of Washington, various other commemorative monuments, and a huge decorative fountain at the center of the park.
In the 1960s Washington Square Park became a focal point for the beatnik movement, where hippies of the day gathered to sing folk songs on a Sunday, rail against the Establishment, and occasionally clash with city police. And in 2007, the park was the site of one of Barak Obama’s largest public rallies, on his way to being elected as the US’ first African-American president.
Over the years the park has been remodeled many times, such that today it is an amalgam of paved pathways that radiate out from a central fountain, like spokes of a wheel, dotted with shade-giving trees, open spaces, benches and picnic tables, neatly trimmed flower beds, children’s play areas and a couple of dog runs. All surrounded by a high wrought-iron perimeter fence, such that on entering into Washington Square Park you feel very much like you are crossing from one world into another, moving from the traffic and mayhem of downtown Manhattan into a place of peace and tranquility, that comes from being surrounded by greenery and the sound of birds tweeting in the sunshine.
As I walked along I saw armies of office workers scurrying to and fro, many taking the time to find a seat so as to enjoy a quick bite. There were of course the obligatory joggers out for their lunchtime runs, there were tourists by the hundreds, there were couples snuggling on park benches. Alongside one such bench a man was feeding the pigeons, standing upright with arms outstretched, in which he was holding fistfuls of seeds. He was (not surprisingly) completely swarmed by the birds, so he looked like a strange Christ-like figure – half-bird and half-human – and a crowd of camera-toting tourists had gathered around him, merrily snapping away.
Without really thinking about it I found that I had slowed down with each step I took through the park, so that my fast walk had now become a slothful dawdle as I looked around and took it all in. Washington Square Park was, I realized, simply lovely: an oasis of calm in the midst of lower Manhattan’s hyper-urban New York madness.
Near the center of the park I came to a semi-circle of a dozen or so stone tables, the surface of each of which had been chiseled into an inlaid Chess board. About half of the tables were occupied by men, hunched over and peering intently at the boards as they furiously played Chess.
Each of the other tables was manned by solitary men who were sitting on one side of the table staring out at the passing crowd, the boards in front of them set up and ready for play. The men were all wrapped up tight in thick parkas, to ward off the cold, and as people walked by they called out: “Want to play?”, “How about a game of Chess?” and so on.
As a teenager I had played in my high-school Chess team, although nowadays my Chess playing has largely been limited to occasional games with my eight year old son (to my great pride and joy he is really good at it, and already gives me a run for my money). But I am familiar enough with Chess to appreciate a game, and so I paused to watch one of the matches in progress.
This was all that was needed for the guy sitting at the vacant table alongside to latch on to me. “Come on mister, one game, have a seat, one game, it’ll be fun, you certainly look like you know how to play Chess, I’m sure you’ll beat me, have a seat, I just need a partner for a quick game, what are you waiting for, it’s just one game” he prattled on, in a non-stop monologue that felt very polished and prepared, like this was not his first Chess rodeo.
Before I quite knew what was happening I was seated, at an outdoor Chess board, in New York’s Washington Square Park, the sun shining above and the air so cold that with each breath a small cloud of exhaled vapor formed in front of my nose. Not exactly what I had been expecting of my afternoon, yet now I was sitting across the table from my Chess opponent, who held out his hand and introduced himself simply as “Bear”. He was mid-sixties, an elderly Black fellow, sporting thin-rimmed glasses and a white-flecked goatee beard, all of which meant that he looked positively professorial.
I introduced myself in turn, and Bear broke into a brilliant white-toothed smile, obviously pretty chuffed with his choice of play-mate: “An Aussie! …” he chuckled, “… now that’s a first, I’ve never played Chess with no Aussie before, that’s for sure”.
What with all the banter I naturally assumed I had been dragged into a Chess hustle of sorts, where Bear was going to let me win a game or two before challenging me to play for cash, at which point he would demolish me. But sensing my unease he immediately put my mind at rest: “It is $5 a game, mister Aussie Ey-ton. Win or lose it doesn’t matter to me, and it’s still only $5 a game. I’m just here to play Chess.”
So I handed over five tattered one dollar bills (coincidentally each with George Washington’s face peering out at me), we began the game, and Bear and I got to chatting. He told me that like most of the other men at the Chess boards, he was unemployed. “I can’t just hang around the house all day”, he explained. “I’ve got to get out and do something, so I play Chess all day. I guess it’s my job!” he said.
According to Bear all the regulars had their specific tables which they “staffed” each day, and whilst the stone Chess boards “belonged” to the city of New York, the regulars brought along the playing pieces – kind of their “tools of the trade”, if you will. Bear was especially proud of his set of Chess pieces, which were red and white as opposed to the traditional black and white, and each piece was big and weighty and super-shiny. “These aren’t plastic, you know,” he beamed proudly, “they’re actually hand-carved from stone, just for me”.
Within ten minutes Bear had comfortably trounced me, but I wasn’t ready to leave yet – it was just so incredibly pleasant to be sitting there in the winter sunshine, playing Chess, sipping my lukewarm coffee and all the while chatting and joking with Bear. So without a second’s hesitation I forked over another $5 for another game, and this time I tried to really concentrate. As a result the game went a bit better for me second time around, in that I was able to prolong it to about twenty minutes. Although the result in the end was no different: Check-Mate to Bear.
Now I stood up to leave. “You sure you don’t want to play one more?” Bear asked, but I couldn’t – I needed to get going. So Bear and I shook hands, and he reminded me he was there every day, and I was always welcome to come back to try my hand again. “You almost had me, so see you soon mister Aussie Ey-ton!” he called out cheerily as I walked away.
New York City may no longer be the fantasy place I recall from my first visits there twenty years ago. It may be a city past its prime, and it may be a much harder more difficult place to live in than I ever remember it being.
But playing Chess in the park that day was a truly wonderful experience, and reminded me of everything there is to love about New York – its people, its vibrant diversity, its ability to always surprise.
I left Washington Square Park with a giant smile on my face, which just wouldn’t go away for the rest of that day. Best ten bucks I ever spent.