“Presione el botón! Si, el botón. No, a la derecha! A la derecha!” I fumbled frantically around the dials on the car door but to no avail, then turned to the driver apologetically. “I don’t speak Spanish.” “Oh, you don’t?” “I’m not from here.” “Where are you from?” “South Africa.” And so began a very colorful story about Uruguay, soccer and too much weed.
Staring out from the passenger seat of a Lyft while listening to the drivers recount stories like Mario’s has become the highlight of my day. There was Carlos, who was a millionaire in Spain before the economy crashed; Chol, who spent his childhood in South Korea; Brian, a right wing gamer who’s starting his own website; and Satinderpal, who claims that only Saffas and Aussies ride up front.
Our candid conversations are a daily reminder that everyone is from somewhere, and that it’s never too late to start over. They don’t know it, but they have made me feel welcome in a place where I don’t altogether feel like I belong.
“It’s snowing!” I yelled excitedly over my shoulder, peeking through the curtains. “Oh yeah?” my sister responded with mild disinterest. You’d swear she never grew up in Johannesburg. The fluffy white stuff still excites me; I’m lucky if I even get to see it once a year.
We packed up the last of our things and headed for the bus, which ambled through the fresh snowfall to Niagara Jet Adventures. A ride on one of the company’s customized jet boats down the Niagara River costs $61 (and 45 minutes of nausea), which we weren’t willing to part with in the cold. We huddled around hot coffee and chocolate muffins in the waiting area instead and made friends with a nice family from Croatia.
The next stop on the tour was a lovely surprise. I had somehow missed on the itinerary that we would be touring Fort Niagara, a French castle with a 300-year history. I just love a good museum.
During the summer of 1928, two cows named Lucky and Floyd wandered from a farm outside of Cobleskill, New York and fell to the bottom of a 26-meter (85-ft) hole. The unfortunate event piqued the interest of a local engineer, Roger Mallery, who was working on a nearby commercial cave.
He recruited a group of teens to descend into the darkness and explore. After crawling through water and mud, they discovered that the chamber was connected to another, and then another. At the end of the last chamber they found a subterranean waterfall. Mallery purchased the land and opened it up to the public the following year.
The Secret Caverns has been competing with the much larger Howe Caverns ever since, and were the first stop on a two-day bus tour to Niagara Falls that my sister and I had embarked on earlier in the morning.
One hour. That’s how long it takes to walk from Manhattan to Brooklyn. Or Brooklyn to Manhattan, depending on which side of the Brooklyn Bridge you stand. We were on the Manhattan side, at City Hall, ready to make the 1,825 meter trek along with hundreds of tourists who were also taking advantage of the sun. It was the first clear day in a week, and also the coldest – perfect for taking pictures.
My sister began doling out instructions on how to walk across the bridge (read: how to not piss off the locals) as we crossed Park Row. There’s always potential for you to fuck something up as a visitor in New York; it’s like you’re constantly showing up to write a test that you didn’t study for.
“Get out of the bike lane!”
And just like that, I was docked 10 points.
Graffiti is dead. Or so we were told by a woman idling outside a Brooklyn art gallery. Yelled at, is more accurate. She was definitely yelling. “You’re wasting your time! It’s not real! They’re all sell outs!”
Our Free Tour By Foot of Bushwick had suddenly turned into a heated trial; the merciless prosecutor across the street passionately trying to convince us, the jury, that the defendant, our tour guide, was taking us for a ride. Real graffiti hasn’t existed since the 80s, she argued.
Our walk around the working class neighborhood on the north side of New York’s most populous borough suggested otherwise; graffiti, now more popularly referred to as street art, is very much alive and well.
“It’s a pity we’re doing this now. It must look so nice when its all green.”
“It’s ok. You know how much I love dead things.”
Danielle and I had just entered the northern end of the High Line, a 2.3 km (1.45 mi) concrete trail built on an abandoned freight railway track that served Manhattan’s industrial center from the 1930s to the 1980s. Today, it is a public park that extends 22 blocks above the West Side, from 34th Street down to Gansevoort in the Meatpacking District.
My sister’s giggle was part delight and part surprise – the way you laugh when you forget and remember someone all at once. It had been a year since we last saw each other, and a year since I had last been in New York.
I’ve never actually been in the city for any other season – marshmallow streets lined with skeleton trees are just how I know it. And even though it was unusually warm for late December with not a snowflake in sight, it was still very much winter. But as I soon came to realise, Manhattan’s most innovative park is a treat in all seasons.
Staten Island is a dump – literally and figuratively. It used to house the world’s largest landfill before it closed in 2001, and although it is the third-largest borough of New York City, it is the least populated. But usually the most forgotten places have the rarest gems, and for Staten Island, it’s the Alice Austen House.
The house-turned-museum, known as Clear Comfort, is the former family home of the photographer Alice Austen. In the Rosebank section of the island, the house sits on a small hill overlooking New York Bay, offering a view that is worth the ferry ride alone.
“Lesson 4,” a voice blasted from the MP3 player of the man sitting across from me. It was the only noise on an otherwise quiet bus, the bumble of which had put my sister to sleep. We had begun our journey in Chinatown, and now, as I stared out the window, hypnotized by the blur of branches that line the road from New York to Philadelphia, it occurred to me: the dark humour in taking a bus to prison.
Eastern State Penitentiary, or ESP, was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, before it was shut down in 1971. It lay abandoned for 10 years, home only to invading vegetation and stray cats. In 1994, The City of Philadelphia reopened its doors to the public.
We were a half hour away from walking through those doors. And then the bus broke down.
After sleeping off a deep-dish dinner from Lou Malnati’s Pizzeria, we met up with Kyle again and walked to Old Town. The clear skies were gone, replaced with clouds and a light drizzle.
Along the way, we popped inside Fourth Presbyterian Church. On the night of it’s dedication in 1871, the church was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire. It was moved to its current location in 1914, where it is now one of the oldest surviving structures on Michigan Avenue north of the river.
If you’re a fan of the TV show Shameless, then you know that scene in the last episode of season 4 where Carl wheels Frank, who has just left hospital with his new liver, down the pier at North Avenue Beach. Against the backdrop of a polar vortex Chicago, Carl stops and asks, “Is this good?” Frank nods and says “Give me the bottle.”
When I saw that, I wanted to go and stand on that pier and look out onto the most beautiful skyline I have ever seen.
Danielle had just been been to The Windy City in the summer, and wasn’t keen on heading back in December because “I hope you know, it’s even colder than New York.” I did know, and I didn’t care. I was going.
After the museum, I took a train downtown to meet Danielle at work. She had booked us tickets to see the Rockettes Christmas Spectacular and wanted to take me to see the window displays on 5th Avenue afterwards. Even after ogling the New York Times building, I was still early, so tucked into Dean & Deluca for tea and people watching. The crowds around Times Square are always a fun bunch to watch.
“Where the hell do you think you’re going?” the security guard yelled after me. It was my third day in New York and I was trying to make my way from bag check to the ticket counter at the American Museum of Natural History. But he had already checked my bag, which I tried to explain. “Then why are you all the way over there?” he yelled back. “Because I’m trying to get out the fucking way!”
The second day of my trip to New York stands out for two reasons. The first is that, because my sister had to work, I was on my own and that meant navigating the subway by myself for the first time ever. Without a GPS, I managed to get myself to the Financial District and then across to Brooklyn without too much hassle. I even got asked for directions – twice! – so I was pretty stoked about that.
The second was a bummer; when I got home, my sister went to browse through the photos on my camera and accidentally formatted the memory card instead. She downloaded some recovery software to try and salvage whatever data might be left, but I knew in my heart of hearts that the images were gone forever.