By: Daniel Otero
From China, while living in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province I still will have dreams. When I have them, I need to write these down. These little ones that get into my deepest of sleep! Travelling through the clouds of Oceans and into the States, I’ve finally reached the North Eastern Coast. I’m taken aback to what I know and miss, long and regret, love and hate. For better of worse, this is my city. The most beautiful one in the world, almost paved [in my imagination] in gold, New York.
Introduction by Stephanie Merkens
New York is its own unique world. It has its own insane vibe. It’s fast paced, exhausting and it’s really true what people say about the city never sleeping. I think it’s the city that many fictionalized cities are based on and I think New Yorkers like to think other cities want it to be. Maybe other cities do suffer an inferiority complex next to it! Indeed, whenever something happens in New York, whether it is 9-11 or a hurricane storm, it makes headlines news and becomes a bigger deal than it would if it were in any other city- by virtue of it being New York! New York and the rest of the world know it’s the center of the universe.
The people of New York seem to have a sophistication that people in other cities don’t have. They are tough, no nonsense and since they live in New York, they could cut it anywhere. For outsiders, it’s easy to feel like a fish out of water and a little insecure among all the beautiful, edgy and hip people of New York. The crème de la crème from all over the world flock to New York and make it their home. Movers and shakers from the art, film, fashion, finance, international diplomacy, law, and literature worlds all make New York the epicenter for all these domains. It’s easy to be intimidated and overwhelmed. But once you get to know New Yorkers-whether in the city or on other corners of the globe, you’ll be pleasantly surprised. In the flesh, most New Yorkers are very friendly, easy going and totally opposite what you may initially expect.
It should have started with my adoration. It was the only place I knew in the world, maybe the center of the world and possibly the Universe! Back then it was my paradise, Brooklyn. Not knowing better, when one is a child and ignorant to his social circumstance; how poverty wasn’t the real suppressor. I was a fairly-go-lucky-child. And in recalling it, I sometimes go back in memory to the New York of the 1970s. “Down These Mean Streets”, as Piri Thomas would say. It was there I discovered cruelty while being bullied in school and pure happiness with certain members of my family.
It was there in my hometown where I nearly saw a ‘hit’ transpire, when a gunman shot crazily at a drug-dealer at the corners of Vanderbilt and Myrtle Avenues. As the peddler ran for his life, I never did find out if the assassin did hit his mark!
By the time I was 10, my parent had had enough of New York and we left for good. Still my memory goes back to those days when 42nd Street was seedier, ruthless and reckless. This was old New York, which was once ruled by five mafia families.
Today I think and like to go back every couple of years. While, it is the place of my birth, I like to romanticize it. So, I sit on a bench in Brooklyn Heights enjoying a gelato. Most of the foods in New York reflect a deep Italian tradition, as does the city. Thinking back, I talk to my aunt about the ‘good old days’—we slowly view and take in the Manhattan Skyline.
The New York of my pride, with baseball teams like the New York Yankees. The New York of my grief, when my cousin was nearly killed during the 2001 terrorist attacks; she missed going into the Towers by minutes, because her son threw a tantrum at the daycare center and Asvid couldn’t make it into work on time.
A brave man from New York, known as Rudolf Giuliani (you may agree or disagree, depending on your politics) transformed and cleaned up New York in the 1980s. Almost making it into what is today, a cheap-yuppie version of “Disneyland”. This is the New York I want to introduce to you, with its positives and negatives.
Coming into Grand Central Station from Newark International Airport, I knew I was home. Damn, I never did like this feeling! As people pressed and shoved, a rushing multitude going in four different directions. They were telling me to get out of the way and calling me the worse insult of all in other vulgar overtones, “Get out of the way, you f_____ tourist!”
I yelled back, “I was born here!”
Purchased quickly a Metro Card (an automatic card for the New York City Transit System), if you’re not fast enough, this City will ‘eat you up and spit you out!’ After being a little disoriented, I was finally in a “New York State of Mind”. Yes, cocky, reassured, overbearing and confident of my destination. Continuing through the miles of tunneling, I walked towards the ‘A’ train to get back to Brooklyn. At first I heard a sound, more like an echo and ‘this’ identified me with home! I listened to a local-young artist do an imitation of another famous New Yorker, Rapper LL Cool J. He sung in deep-rapping notes, “Don’t call it a comeback…” As his hands swung to the rhythm and his gold chain of Africa moved to the tempo up and down. He moved, almost bouncing and it was cool. I have to say, talented! But it sure felt like my comeback. Briefly distracted, I moved on…
I got back into the ‘hood (neighborhood for all you non-locals) with the beeping and honking which was typical of New York. Searching around and saw the ‘popo’ (Slang for Police), doing their daily watch and I needed to calm down. This was a different, an even safer City. My desire was to meet my family. Which quickly turned into an argument with Uncle Joe over career path and funny how family is, after four years of not seeing each other, it turns into an argument; talk about dysfunctional! And there was nothing wrong here, my uncle always had my back and best interest at heart. Soon my aunt Gladys is stuffing me with goodies like bagels, rice and pasta. Everything was all good, as I announced my plans to revisit the City. My uncles in waved of excitement, “We’ll take you!” I was worried and even insecure about interrupting their lives, and for that moment it felt good to be in the safety of home!
*The following day, we had breakfast at Pluto’s dinner. Pluto’s was a neighborhood fixture. Serving for starters some golden-brown pancakes and maple syrup; afterward, it was time to go! New Yorkers do everything in a fast pace, everything is in a rush and on the move with impatience! Even eating…
Knowing what I loved, my uncles drove me across the Brooklyn Bridge. Built in 1886, the crossing is always sentimental to say the least.
We could have easily rolled through Manhattan Bridge into Chinatown. The biggest Chinese community in the world, with over two million and counting! Yeah, baby! Chinese make 20% of our fair City. And it is fourth largest immigrant community and population in the United States.
As there was less traffic, Uncle Joe was doing his best for me… Until we ran into a little traffic and New Yorkers have to worse reputation as drivers. Another driver got rude, as he cut my Uncle off with his car and began making hand gestures, with things like ‘flipping the bird’ with his middle finger! Joe quickly rolled down his window and gave an oblique, “F__ you!” He became quickly grumpy and pissed off. And after all the hand gestures and calming down, we quickly diverted into the FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt Expressway). A, New York aggressiveness, and this one is for the books. The car went on automatic, like it knew where I wanted to go.
Merging into the right and turning left, strolling down to 34th Street. I knew ‘her’ and understood how proud ‘she’ stood! Completed in 1931, the Empire State Building—the most beautiful art-deco building in the world. Well, maybe after the Chrysler Building; and we New Yorkers are proud and arrogant of our city. Thinking we are the center of the world and Universe, and surely we are. Never running low on energy and after all, it’s “The City that never sleeps!” Living in a constant love/hate relationship with the rest of the world! Things are fast, always moving (Wei, 2013). Today it was to reach the 99th floor of the Empire. That day, sadly, it was a bit overcast. Difficult to see beyond the five mile (eight kilometer) view limit; ah, it’s okay, once again seen and done it!
Deciding to call it a day! It was too funky to continue touring and it was back to Brooklyn. I’ve been itching to eat a famed “Junior’s Cheesecake”. Buying one is to sit down and taste creamy heaven! Versions are served in plain or coated with strawberries, the second always a favorite and tasting the best!
For now, a break and I’ll try to go into the City tomorrow. To explain, New York City is divided into five boroughs: Manhattan (the Island where most of the landmarks are located), Brooklyn, Bronx, Staten Island and Queens. Manhattan is ‘the City or downtown’. For us with inner-city mentality, our boroughs are like respective countries and we love to rival each other.
I want to see Broadway again. It was where my uncles took me for my first play when I was 16 years old! It’s more like Broadway and 42nd Street or the theater district to find shows like “Chicago”, “Riverdance” or “Phantom of the Opera”.
Better to visit one place while in New York and take a day for it. Central Park is special and unique in the world. It’s one of the few cities to have a forested area in its center. Usually it’s by the outskirts. This is not the case with New York City. There’s a path to find a dedication to former Beatle John Lennon, “Imagine”. Lennon, a pacifist, lover and dreamer was killed in 1980 by a deranged gunman, Mark Chapman. The world lost a great man and musical voice. I take a deep sigh and view “Imagine” as a young girl is decorating the site with flowers! The man is loved and remembered more than 30 years after his death.
I decided to turn the page to this chapter and after another day decided to do something alone. I took the train to “Ground Zero”, where it all happened! My pain was to remember when nearly 3,000 people perished in the 2001 attacks to the Twin Towers. Even after the fixtures, it’s still hollow ground for millions of New Yorkers. Silly enough, as a New Yorker, I had only visited Twin Towers three times. My personal favorite was always the “Empire State Building”. No New Yorker and especially, no American can be down for long. We are, after all, the eternal optimist! We need to get up and move on. Frank Sinatra would sing, “If I can make it there, I can make it anywhere…” This mentality is true for most New Yorkers.
Moving quickly around, it’s time for shopping and food. Tech and knickers stores are best for this area, known as Pier 17 or South Street Seaport. This Mall has its food stores in the upper level and like New York, with 1,000 different ethnicities—the variety is as many as the food great! New Yorkers are also polyglots, which makes me very proud of my city. I’ll say in a typical Brooklyn expression, “Forget about it!” and I’ll take my chances with street food. Walking around the City it’s better to try a pretzel or hot-dog, best made in the world. These are favorites for most New Yorkers and visitors, have a try!
When I was a little boy, my other favorite place was Greenwich Village. This is the home of retired ‘hippies’. “Flower children of the 1960s” doing their own counterculture revolution, while saying, “Make love, not war!” Hey, I wanted to be a hippie once as I can remember! Greenwich with its nice-trendy brownstones, smaller quaint-restaurants and cultured bookstores was always a good place for eateries and Saturday morning breakfast. Walking and exploring, nearby there’s NYU (New York University) on 2nd Avenue. The City has NYU and Columbia, top universities in the world. But famed is Columbia for having the best Journalism program. New York after all these years still fascinates me with its mixtures and cultures. There’re so many culinary infusions in this City: from kosher, to Arab-Latino, Spanish-Indian, East African or Cuban-Chinese. You want it, we have it! Sleepless nights, you can find any kind of eatery at any time of the day. Active, vibrant, crazy and loud! Everything is left to the delicious and creative imagination of New Yorkers, just gorgeous and lovely—indeed. Washington Square Park is a walk away, not too far and a smaller version of Central Park. The Park announces itself with musicians, artisans and skaters showing their best in tricks and talent! As a teenager or while visiting the City in my youth, it was special to escape to the small theaters and watch foreign movies or do the “Rocky Horror Picture Show”. Learning that it was okay to shout back at the screen and throw toilet paper at it!
The City runs 24 hours and as does the MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority). Best way to get around a city full of innovators and innovations. Yellow taxis in the city are extremely expensive! Better to ride the subway to all your landmarks and destinations, cheaper to say the least. New Yorker further states itself as “The Big Apple”, because [I believe it’s delicious] people desire and want to take a bite out of it! This Town is a leader and as one for the world, it has the United Nations building. It’s represented by 193 countries and six languages: English, Chinese, Arab, French, Spanish and Russian. With its motto, “It’s your world!” the City is a leader not only in world class, United Nations, but also for the money-hungry people in Wall Street. As most Wall Street traders will say, “Time is money!” This is represented in a unique landmark, a powerful bull!
Another one of my greatest loves is the 1964-65 World’s Fair located in the borough of Queens. In the past, before Shanghai and it became the Expo, it was known as the World’s Fair. It is beautifully centered in Queens. Easily noticeable for its majestic silver-globe, greenery turfs, trees, gardens–showing its grounds to relive memories. In the past, a favorite for Sunday morning strolls.
Life is good and New York is cool, as I get back in touch with the smell and sounds of the City. A city of over eight million and going on 400 years of history in the next 11 years; it can never go unnoticed. For this one reason is one of the most visited places on earth and one of the four principal-fashion capitals. Can you say, “I love New York”? Then say it proud and make it loud!
One thing that all locals like visitors must do, is to go down to South Ferry and board a transport to Liberty Island. Here it’s easy to notice in excitement and pleasure, as the vessel approaches the great “Statue of Liberty”, second most visited place on earth only to the Great Wall of China. The Statue of Liberty like the Brooklyn Bridge indicated our once close and deep connection with France back in 1886. Believe it or not, in the past there was a deep admiration for one another. It was also a dedication from Engineer M. Eiffel (creator and builder of the Eiffel Tower in Paris), celebrating America’s Centennial. And although this has changed from admiration to sarcasm in contemporary times, I still like to believe there is hope for both countries in friendship.
In the end I ride back to Brooklyn, listening to a sound beating in my head, “No Sleep till Brooklyn”, by the Beastie Boys. It’s my home and I rather switch to an oldie but goodie, “Midnight Train to Georgia”. Yeah, yeah, I know it sounds strange, even crazy, but we New Yorkers make everything our own. What does a song about Georgia have to do with New York? Well I also thought that Gladys Knight and the Pips wrote that song exactly for me, in my obnoxious and arrogant New York mind that is! The song always inspires me to remember and go home, whether I triumph or fail! Love it or leave it, like or despise it, my dear home is Brooklyn. I sit again with Aunt Gladys over an ice cream to repeat the experience, and it’s already evening again. I’m becoming sentimental as the trip to New York is about to end. And realizing if I would stay longer, I would end up hating this town! Dawn is rapidly coming over Brooklyn Heights. We sit on a park bench and view the Manhattan Skyline, while the Empire State Building seems to be glowing in neon of red, white and blue or is it my imagination? To my right I notice the elegant Brooklyn Bridge coming alive again in full light!
Before my trip is over, I need to do one more thing. Eat the best pizza in the world. It’s made at Grimaldi’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn, of course. Oven styled pizzas loved and enjoyed, like everything popular about New York. I taste the pizza and go back in memories and laugh. Must have been five, I’m with Willie (my cousin) and played ticking my aunt. Yes, I remember the Brooklyn of my childhood and feel proud. I adore New York with all its problems, rudeness and arrogance—New York is New York, no better city in the world. And as I walk daydreaming, I accidently bump into a stranger and apologize for not noticing him! He says in a deep-Brooklyn accent, “Forget about it!”