I felt anxious the entire way to the Burbank airport for my Thursday night redeye to New York, but I thought the anxiety would subside once I got on the plane.
I thought my anxiousness would dissipate once I landed at JFK Friday morning.
I rolled my luggage towards the taxi stand – thankfully empty at 5:30 a.m. – and the attendant, as though straight out of a 1980s sitcom, grumbled at me, “Where ya goin’, kid?”
“Manhattan,” I declared.
“Manhattan it is!”
I got into the cab with a young dreadlocked driver, just starting his 12-hour shift for the day. He misunderstood “34th and Park” as “34th and 1st” more than once.
We breezed down the Van Wyck, the Grand Central and the LIE to the Midtown Tunnel, and I didn’t even look for the red flashing lights at the top of the New York State Pavilion in Flushing Meadows Corona Park.
When it occurred to me that I’d missed them, I realized the one prevailing truth of my trip: I wasn’t coming home; I was just visiting a place where I used to live.
I crept into my friends’ apartment at 6 a.m., changed into my pajama shorts, and crawled onto their couch, which they’d made into a bed. With only 20 minutes of winks caught on the flight out, I was exhausted, but I couldn’t sleep. It was bright, the lights of a thousand skyscrapers beaming into their midtown bay windows. It was noisy, the sound of traffic and trucks and mechanics and industry blaring through their open windows.
I strapped an eye mask over my head, held a pillow at my side, and exhaled, trying to empty my brain of the thoughts that wanted to invade it, my ears of the sounds that they could not avoid. Finally, I drifted off…
My alarm woke me up at 10:30 a.m. – the same equivalent time it wakes me up every day in LA – and I was ready to tackle the city. When I left at the end of January, I’d been on the defensive for years. Upon my return this weekend, I was determined to not even notice anything that would require a staunch defense. I sauntered across the street, impervious to the corner-turning cabs and stroller-pushing pedestrians. I sat waiting in the chair at the eye doctor’s office, neglected and unaffected. I let them dye my eyes orange, numb and dilate them. I arrived to lunch a half hour late and blind. I required the waitress read the menu to me.
I survived the 6 train ride to the East Village, my first time anywhere underground except a mine shaft since January. I braved the chaos of the Russian Turkish Baths, sat in a sauna so hot my lips burned, and plunged into a pool so cold my pelvis froze. I was downright affable.
Until the rain hit.
“Ugh, I hate New York,” I said.
“Oh it’s not so bad…See?” Edith said as she gestured up to the sky. “There’s blue sky over there. “
“I can’t see it,” I said through my squint. “I see black clouds here” – pointing overhead – “and white clouds there,” pointing to the distance.
Putting her palm outside of her umbrella to test the rain, she smiled and said, “Oh, I forgot. They blinded you earlier.”
“I still don’t think I’d be able to see it,” I grumbled.
My legs were soaked, feet sliding into flip flops, umbrella dripping all over me, and I looked around at the crowd by Madison Square Park, who held their ground with the onset of the rain. No one ran away. They barely broke out their umbrellas, instead just moving in closer together under the public table umbrellas despite seats getting soaked and food getting cold.
“And the amazing thing is,” I said, “Is that New Yorkers don’t seem to care. This doesn’t seem to bother anyone at all.”
“But,” I continued, “I never could stand the rain. Even when I lived here, the slightest bit of rain sent me straight into cab to work.”
A few minutes later, as Edith predicted, the rain let up quickly enough to allow us to walk back to her apartment, get ready, and go back out to take the subway to my first big reunion dinner.
Another Friday night in New York City, after thousands of others. I could do this.
But would I turn back into the same person I’d been when I left, just like the first time I returned to my parents’ house after a year at college?
Or would I be able to stay Californian in a city so self-obsessed it can’t see beyond the tip of its own concrete nose?
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