“New York isn’t a city—it’s a whole world.”
There are many things in this world that are never the same twice. This week, I discovered that a city I idolized wasn’t the same anymore, no matter how many familiar paths I took in hopes of recapturing its original essence.
New York, you’ve changed, and I can’t say it’s for the better.
Though the buildings did not move, the monuments still stood, the glaring lights of Broadway still shone bright, there was a new, unsettling energy to this frenzied pace that left me reeling. I still saw a spark of life there—decaying beauty, at times—but I also saw a desperation and a gnawing frustration with the state of affairs.
The businessmen looked more haggard. There was a visible increase in the homeless population that broke my heart. Drugs were rampant on the streets and it left us whirling just to pass through the haze. The vendors were more insistent for you to buy their wares, trying to collect what they’d lost when the world stood still and stayed home. The crowds were ruthless and unfeeling—eyes glazed over as they pushed forward from point A to B. Everything cost more, even, and that was an unexpected obstacle for us who were unprepared for it all.
There was a hard edge to the bustle that, four years ago seemed more centered around raw ambition; now, it can be seen through empty eyes of an emaciated lion who hasn’t fed in a while, willing to eat a rotten carcass just to survive. That’s what it felt like we’d witnessed—scratching and scraping by. Sure, the upper crust is thriving, but it felt like it was on the backs of those crawling by.
I suppose I’d hoped to show the idyllic & fanciful parts of Manhattan to my travelers and friends, those places that captured my heart and imagination, making me believe that anything is possible, and inspiring me to pursue my passions. There were glimpses of light among the rainy, frigid moments, though.
I was thankful for the tried and true of our trip—those places that have withstood the peaks and valleys of the decades—monuments and historical buildings whose weary bones still hold them high with a quiet dignity.
The only place I truly found peace was inside the magnificent St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Maybe it was the silence of the visitors or the eerily soothing Gregorian chants being piped in on the intercom, but I could understand how someone might want to seek rest in their wooden pews. It both welcomed us and shut out the commotion of the city streets, like a fortress protecting against the corruption.
The other place that felt like a balm to my frazzled nerves was Central Park—it made me miss our “livable forest” of home, the trees and water, the quiet among the chaos. I was so thrilled to visit my Bethesda fountain, and allow my group to feel those relaxing vibes along with me as I walked down memory lane, reminiscing how the genesis of my married life began there on a snowy February morning 14yrs ago.
We met with many, many challenges along this journey, and I was tested in ways I haven’t been in a good long while. I spent much of my time feeling more child than adult, despite being group leader. I hope I came out on the other side of it more mature, more able to cope with unexpected change, but I also questioned whether or not I was right for it.
The main focus of this vacation was to enrich my students’ understanding of the inner workings of Theatre. We wanted a mix of new and classic Broadway, a juxtaposition. However, after seeing two shows, met with mixed reviews from students and chaperones, I also recognized that we’d selected them without noticing they were both including death. Beetlejuice made it a slapstick comedy routine that poked fun at the assumption that there is finality in it, and Phantom gave us all the heebejeebees, because there was a harshness and hollow, lonely feeling to it. I am glad that we saw them, but I can’t help but wonder: what could we have selected that might have filled us with joy and an uplifting message? Or, was it what we needed? Irony is a harsh mistress, and these two shows are closing up shop in the start of the new year, making way for something new. The modern one’s run was much shorter, and the iconic show, 35yrs long, is being laid to rest so the empresario composer/writer can explore new material, despite the OG’s continued success. I feel like a piece of Theatre legend is dying, and I’m glad I got to witness its swan song.
I also feel like my dreamworld that always surrounded my view of NYC shattered significantly. I’m no longer mystified by it, and it hurts a bit. Kind of like when you find out something negative about a person you always looked up to with rose-tinted glasses—like the fairytale that dissolves to become a starker reality.
My only prayer is that the others came away with even one thing that moved them, excited them, changed them, and thrilled them in ways that our hometown cannot do. When I was in middle school, I longed to explore the big city and see for myself what draws millions to its Burroughs, searching for something meaningful.
I see now what they mean by the moniker of a “concrete jungle.” It’s a survival of the fittest mentality that has been magnified in days of late. I know that we are all in the race to exist, survive, and thrive. New York City has the potential to rise from the ashes of the pandemic era or be consumed in the flames of its own dissolution.
For my optimistic self, I hope it’s the former, because it truly inspired me to write, create, and dream. I crave the stories told in musicals and plays, and soak in the journeys shared by professionals in that cutthroat industry. I hope it does the same for others.
What I know is, I’m glad I’m coming home.
This is just one journey’s end, so, goodbye, for now, Big Apple.