A Tourist At Home: New York City & New Jersey

When you live in New York City, it’s near mandatory to complain about tourists and their antics: the stopping in the middle of the sidewalk to take photos, the holding up of the line for the subway, the perpetual sneaker-wearing. But who are the real chumps? The New Yorkers who scoff at out-of-towners while on their 10-minute lunch breaks–or the group of camera-toting Kansans with freshly purchased Metrocards on their way to see the sights? I suspect one group’s having more fun than the other, and they’re not wearing heels.

For the past two weeks, I was essentially a tourist at home–well, where I still consider home: Princeton, NJ and New York City. I was at home, but without the normal burdens that accompany being home, like having to sort the mail, walk the dog–oh, and that other thing people do: go to work. Instead, I spent my time enjoying family and friends and exploring the two places I know best, more as a sightseer and less as a local, and it was lovely.

In Princeton, one of my good friends, Johanna, wed her now-husband, Brian, on a perfect autumn afternoon. In the days leading up to the big event, there was bowling and belly dancing (or some approximation thereof), a wine-tasting and artisanal pizza. The happy celebration itself included sunflowers and cupcakes, a photo booth and dancing, a soft setting sun and a heart attack. The latter was mine and happened just hours before the ceremony, when I gave a freshly buttered bagel to the beautifully dressed flower girl who proceeded to drop and then catch it between her hands and the front of her snow-white dress. When we peeled it away from the satin, the fabric was both butter-yellow and butter-scented. Fortunately, after a quick trip to the bathroom, no one was any the wiser, and she smelled delicious.

Belly dancing is sensual. I am not.

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A highly opinionated wine tasting at Hopewell Valley Vineyards.

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Osteria Procaccini in Pennington, NJ. Yum.

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Together, my mom and I spent prodigious amounts of time doing, well, whatever. We roamed Palmer Square in Princeton admiring shiny jewelry, kitchen knick knacks, and J.Crew’s current penchant for French hens. We bought cheese, chocolate, and salt water taffy.

We went to Trader Joe’s multiple times to restock the freezer with my mom’s latest obsession: TJ’s woefully named but still tasty “fruit floes.” She saw a bunch of Asian ladies rapidly snatching them up one day and assumed they had to be good. They are, and she’s bought them ever since; her preference is lime, mine is coconut.

We made checking things off my “need to buy” list for Guatemala priority, though other essentials, like Garnier’s BB cream (which I now love), were added along the way. One day, the only thing I had to do was make a 3:30 p.m. train to Philadelphia to see a friend’s new house, but our requisite stops to the grocery store, Rite Aid, and a pastry shop for snacks meant we arrived at the train station too late.

Mom: “The train’s not even here.”

Me: “That’s because it already left.”

I made it to Philly, anyway, and was thoroughly smitten with Clare and her husband, Matt’s, new house. I’ve never really understood why people buy homes when they could rent. I mean, I understand in theory, but I didn’t know why you’d want to be tied down to a single spot. But seeing their gorgeous home in a neighborhood that looks and feels a lot like Park Slope in Brooklyn, I could see the appeal. Buying a house is an investment in the future life you want and in the stories you hope those now-empty rooms eventually tell.

Shon arrived in Princeton a week after me, and my role shifted slightly from tourist to tour guide. One day, I took him around Princeton University’s campus. I pointed out the gym where I used to work, my dad’s office building, and the dorms where I stayed for two summers in college. Oddly, he seemed to want more in the way of information, and so, a few days later, we went on an official tour, this one led by an impossibly cute and chipper student guide. She was a geosciences major who played the cowbell in the marching band and could have been a Madewell model. So enthusiastic was she that I caught myself getting excited about attending Princeton before I remembered that I was about 15 years and one B.A. too late.

An exhibit called “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” by artist Ai Weiwei in front of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University. My zodiac animal is a ram; Shon’s is a tiger. I’ve had enough of his gloating.

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At night, my sister shared babysitting horror stories while my dad plied us with his favorite microbrews and seemingly worked to reinforce our family puppy’s worst habit–biting. Holding two fingers together, my Dad would bop Beau on the nose while saying “Karate!” but pronouncing it “Kah-rah-tay!” Beau would then try to bite him back. They played this inexplicable game nearly every night, which meant that anytime Beau bit me and I bopped him back, he thought I was up for a round of Kah-rah-tay! and would try to eat my toes.

Eventually, Shon and I tore ourselves away from New Jersey to head to New York, where we stayed in a cute little studio on 79th Street and Amsterdam. It was an apartment we had booked through Airbnb.com, a Web site where people can post rooms and apartments (some private, some not) for short-term rentals. It was the first time we had used it, and it took awhile to find a place in our price range and in a location we liked (I think it’s best to book far in advance), but in the end, it worked out well–and meant we didn’t have to sleep on anyone’s sofa.

It also meant that I could live out Meg Ryan’s life in You’ve Got Mail. Indeed, standing in front of Zabar’s on the Upper West Side our first afternoon, Shon offered to wait for me while I went inside and tried to pay for something with a credit card in a cash-only line. I considered, but declined out of fear that Tom Hanks might not appear to save me.

Visiting New York in autumn is a dangerous thing to do, as the city does everything in its power to make you want to stay. During our three-day trip, there were beautiful blue skies, packed sidewalks, and sun-dappled buildings. Cooler temperatures meant the proliferation of kale and pears on menus, artfully layered clothing, and gnarly squash everywhere.

Fort Greene park.

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The Upper West Side.
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Union Square had its performers, Times Square its tourists (like us), and the 25th St. flea market its worn, dirty treasures. We spotted trolls in Soho’s Animazing Fine Art gallery, bocce ball players in Bryant Park, and dogs we knew from our old days living in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. We bought a print of the Brooklyn Bridge and a sake set and hanging candle holders from Pearl River Mart. We headed to Park Slope South to greet John, our friends’ adorable new baby; while Shon held him, I cooed from afar since wobbly newborn heads make me nervous.

As tourists, we took the requisite Times Square photos.

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Performers in Union Square.

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Bocce ball at Bryant Park.

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Washington Square.

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At night with friends, there were big bowls of Momofuku ramen, boozy drinks ladled from giant punch bowls into tiny teacups, and bracing bitter-based cocktails. After one late night, I still managed to get up early, put my sneakers on, and head to Central Park to run its six-mile loop.

I’ve clocked hundreds and hundreds of miles on this route and have every twist, hill, and water fountain committed to memory. I’ve run the loop at dawn, at dusk, in the snow, the rain, and the brutal summer heat. It puts its best foot forward in October and November, though, when the leaves change and the park has a soft, honeyed hue.

As I ran, I savored the familiar: the smell of horse manure left behind from tourist-toting carriages near Columbus Circle (wait, that kind of sounds weird, doesn’t it?), the feline sculpture that greets you at the top of Cat Hill, and the long Fifth Avenue stretch that always seems uphill to me, no matter which direction I’m running. I even appreciated Harlem Hill, which I have to walk sometimes. This time, though, I ran straight up, perhaps because my lungs have gotten used to living at a higher altitude. After Harlem Hill, I made my way south, taking in the views of the old buildings on the Upper West Side and the flashing, blinking lights of Midtown.

I never wanted to stop. If I could have suspended time and continued to run, loop after loop, I would have. But I had to be realistic. Even if I could suspend time, I still wasn’t in good enough shape to run even just one more loop, let alone multiple. I could do maybe half a loop, but definitely not a full one. Oh, wait. Sorry. There was a deeper thought in there–

Even if I could suspend time, Shon and I were still tourists, and as tourists, we’d have to leave. Though we had once lived in New York, the city was no longer ours. The happy stories of new marriages, homes, and babies were also not ours. For now, our story would be the one unfolding back in Guatemala.

That night, Shon and I stayed up until near midnight, gorging on cheese, salami, and sourdough (foods not always easy to come by in Panajachel). Our flight back to Guatemala left the next morning at 6:00 and a cab came to pick us up at 3:30 a.m. As we headed to Newark in the dark, I noticed how shimmery and glittery the city seemed, with its flickering signs, changing stop lights, and shiny glass-paned buildings. It reminded me of a beautifully wrapped present just waiting to be opened. And so, I decided to leave it like that, all wrapped up and waiting for our return.

9 responses

  1. What a beautifully written post. And oh how it made me miss nyc! Such nicely captured details, humorous references (I loved the reference to You Got Mail – with the video clip) and poetic ending! Nicely done, Melissa! Looks like you had a great time at home with a lot of quality time with friends and family.

  2. I miss you a lot. I’m glad you were able to make it home, and we were able to enjoy time together.

    Dad never seems to get tired of the game with Beau. Now it entails running around the dining room table. I’m not sure who is winning this game, but Beau’s teeth are getting rather large. : )

    Mom

  3. I still have the warm tortillas on my mind from the first posting I read…but this was a lovely summary of your visit. Thanks for filling our empty room for one night. We miss you!!

  4. Pingback: Firecrackers, Foot Fetishes & A Bit of News (plus a shout-out to Antigua) « Not Quite Roughing It

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