Magical Things I’ve Seen in New York
It all started with a grumpy September afternoon. Two weeks after moving to New York, I was walking down Second Avenue in my least favorite kind of weather—overcast but humid, the worst of both worlds. I was carrying a grocery bag that was going to fall apart at any minute and wearing the wrong shoes, and I was sweaty in the long sleeves I’d ambitiously worn that day in hopes that early fall would deliver a nice chill. Silly me.
Mindlessly devouring Twitter for news as I waited to cross the street, I was startled by the sound of two pigeons arguing about something in the road. They were pecking, squawking, generally making a very unnecessary ruckus. When the traffic began moving, a young, hip guy on a bike braked with a screech and pulled over toward the sidewalk. Getting off his bike, he quickly looked both ways and walked right into the street to lightly stomp near the birds. “Hey, guys, knock it off!” he yelled, and the pigeons broke off their fight. It was so absurd it made me laugh, but he earnestly got back on his bike and kept going. Sort of a magical New York moment. I made note of it in my journal.
Since then, I’ve kept a running list of “Magical Things I’ve Seen in New York.” The criteria: they have to take me out of what I’m doing and immerse me in the city’s human landscape. The experience may only last a few seconds, but the effect lingers for hours. Instead of whisking myself away from the city, as I sometimes dream of doing when I’m carrying a heavy grocery bag in grey humidity, these observations wedge me in deeper. After scrolling through a depressing comments section and concluding that “humans are awful,” joining people on the sidewalks of this city changes my stance to “humans are complex” and even “humans are wonderful.”
When I decided to move to New York, I could barely finish my sentence “I’m moving to Ne—” without someone piping up “I like New York but I could never live there.” Outrageous living expenses aside, I wonder why people feel that way, and so strongly. As a highly sensitive introvert who can barely listen to chewing noises, much less a cacophony of sirens and honking, I of all people should be going around announcing the same stance. Instead, I think sensitivity is a strange asset in a big city; you’re more naturally attuned to secret moments and nuances that make it feel cozy and kind.
It’s not easy to be attentive, just as it’s not easy to be optimistic when the world is feeling overheated and overwhelming. While attentiveness might come a bit more easily for the super-sensitive, it still takes a lot of effort for anyone to stop and really look around. But to love New York, you have to train yourself to be attentive and to be on the lookout for the moments that make it feel homey; otherwise, you’ll probably feel like you’re being swallowed up most of the time. It takes energy to observe, not simply just to see.
Of course, it’s way easier to be attentive when you’re new to a city or when you’re on vacation there. That’s the allure of travel for me: it’s amazing what I notice when I have an excuse to be wholly present. Everything is new and darling, even when it’s inconvenient and confusing.
To become as present in your own city as you would be while traveling, you have to make the city feel new: take a different commute home, listen to different music, go into restaurants where you haven’t looked at the menu beforehand and may not be sure what to order. You have to get a little disoriented, even annoyed. That’s what it’s like to be around humans, who are unpredictable and often annoying. Trust me, treasures await among the noise and energy: a sign on a bakery door will melt your heart or you’ll overhear an interaction so sweet that your massive city feels like a fictional town from a Christmas movie.
When I encounter tangible kindness in front of me in my own city—not just cute viral videos but kindness I can see in my own bustling neighborhood—it makes me want to be better. It makes me feel like the momentum of our humanity is not plunging into mayhem but gliding into slow and gentle progress. The sirens become tolerable to me when I imagine them as wild opera singers who have gone rogue. If someone is walking very slowly in front of me, I imagine the possibilities that could be contributing to their leisurely pace; perhaps they are recovering from an incident that could have taken their life but that was gracious enough to take their fast gait instead, or perhaps they are too early for a first date, or perhaps they are trying to align their steps with the rhythm of their heartbeat. I decide to take a detour past the dog park and watch a golden retriever take a bath. The street appears as more of an invitation than an obstacle.
I miss New York when I’m in New York. I either feel this way because I love it so much that being here is not quite enough to satiate my longing, or because I miss the way New York felt when I visited for the first time. Before I had a quotidian experience of the city, I had a wide-eyed tourist’s experience. Every fire-escape staircase, every subway ride, and every front door was magnificent. Once a place becomes home, it rarely remains magnificent. It’s comfortable, and even Manhattan can feel a little boring on a humid Tuesday.
That’s why it’s a discipline and a practice for me to keep it magical. Especially when I feel like the internet is yelling at me, or when I’m so irritated with my commute that I begin cursing the crowd like it’s a singular unit rather than a mass of individuals like me. In those moments, I take a pause and try to pretend I just got here.
I listen, and I watch, and I make lists of magical things. I record the split seconds of magic, humor, kindness, and grace that give me the sense that I have escaped into the kind of world I dream of inhabiting. I’m not away from the chaos—rather, I’m right in the middle of it—but I am away from the despair, the disorientation, and the easy irritation that I’m so desperate to flee when the weather is bad and the news is worse.
Here’s my list so far:
1. A sign on the window of a pet food store said that two senior cats that had lived there for months had been adopted. On the sign, people left Post-it Notes reading “We love you guys!” and “Enjoy your new home!”
2. A seventy-six-year-old woman at a nightclub on a Tuesday
3. I witnessed a secret code between a bartender and a regular who brings her dates to that bar. One ice cube = staff likes him. Two ice cubes = they don’t.
4. A couple danced the tango five stories above the sidewalk
5. I had an ear infection that prevented me from using earbuds for a few days, during which I learned that the man who stretches by the fountain every morning does so while jamming to opera on an emergency radio
6. A bench at the park dedicated to “Writer, gastronome, polymath, bon vivant”—the kind of legacy that provokes you to consider your own
7. A subway door opened and two friends were perfectly lined up facing each other. They squealed!
8. A taxi driver dropped me off and said, “Whoa! I lived here forty years ago! We had a baby and a piano! The neighbors hated us! But they couldn’t hate away our love!”
9. Two doormen did a secret handshake of delight when a resident took a date home
10. I sat next to a group of teenage boys at Hadestown. At first I was skeptical about their desire to be there, but they were so excited and enthusiastic and engaged, it made the experience 10,000x more joyful.
11. A couple holding hands through an entire play squeezed each other so hard at the emotional peaks that it shook the row
12. A secret garden
13. Window cleaners gracefully glided in sync to the Brahms sonata playing via my headphones
14. A museum security guard practiced bachata moves in an empty room
15. A kid made his mom laugh with his observations about his classmates, and she said, “I needed that today.”
16. A gruff-looking, no-?nonsense businessman gave fifty dollars to a street musician playing “Maria” from West Side Story
17. An elegant dame dining solo asked the waiter to take her photo so she could “remember this pleasure”
18. I shared a communal coffee-shop table with a father and his two-year-old son. The dad told his kid, “Be very careful when drinking water around the lady’s laptop—water and computers are not friends.” The child looked up at him and said, “Maybe they should try just talking to each other.”
19. An Arabic speaker and a Korean speaker were trying to remember the English word for something, which turned out to be “muffin”
20. Three people rushed to help a man on crutches who tripped on a can
21. An old lady ran to ask a couple taking a selfie in Central Park, “Don’t you boys need a proper portrait?”
22. A tourist used Google Translate to tell me “I like your purse” on the street
23. An elderly dame pulled over on the sidewalk to let me by and said, “I’m sorry I’m so slow, I just take these walks to feel a little more human. And seeing you in that tiny dress reminds me of my tiny dress days, so now I feel extra human.”
24. A woman who didn’t read English panicked on the subway about where to get off: her friend on speakerphone asked if anyone could help. A little boy drew her a map in a Spider-Man notebook.
25. At a church service in celebration of Pride, a very, very old man wept and clapped the whole time and told strangers afterward, “I just didn’t think I’d feel so loved at a church.”
26. A man at a coffee shop told me I had “calm, grounding energy” and gave me his number on a napkin. Later that day, a man asked me to dance on the sidewalk. Nineties romance lives!
27. A guy asked me to guard his book when he went up to order coffee. Delighted by the concept of a book thief
28. A fire department went apple picking together and left a barrel of free apples outside their station.
29. A man looked at a painting for ninety minutes (I kept checking back) with tears in his eyes
30. A taxi driver and I got to talking. I asked if he had kids, and he told me he had only one beloved child, seven years old and spoiled rotten. He looked a bit old to have a seven-year-old, but no matter. He pulled out a cracked phone and said, “Here, I’ll show you a photo.” It was a big floppy-eared bunny named Brownie he described as “the light of his life.”
31. Taxi drivers managed to hold a conversation from their cars for five blocks down Malcolm X Boulevard
32. A nervous couple kissed for the first time on a busy sidewalk and everyone walked reverently around them
33. A somber subway platform exploded into applause after a soulful rendition of “Guantanamera.”
Offerings of Light
If you live in a city where it rains a lot, you probably also have a dependent relationship with street lamps. Not only do they illuminate the streets at night, but when it’s dark outside, they also show if and how hard it’s raining.
When I was a teenager, it occurred to me that I’d never actually seen the street lamps turn on. When did it happen? All at once? At a certain time? Up until then, I had never stopped to think that there was a time they were off and then on. They were just always there when I needed them.
My last summer in Seattle, before I moved to college, I decided to solve the street-lamp illumination mystery for good. I began watching them every evening, sometimes even staring out the window for ten minutes. But I kept missing the changeover. There was always a time when they weren’t on, then a time when they were. No revelation of the big moment they switched.
The night before my move, after everything was packed and ready to go, I took a drive. In seventeen-year-old carefree wonder, blasting whatever indie rock CD I’d just triumphantly purchased, I drove to a neighborhood I rarely frequented and decided to climb a big hill that overlooked Lake Washington. The sky had just begun to glow bright gold as the sun made its grand finale performance for the day—an appropriate phenomenon to witness on my final evening.
Right then, I could practically feel my future older self looking back at me: seventeen, with short, shaggy hair, wearing dirty sneakers, shuffling up to the top of the hill with my headphones on. How poetic, I thought, to be on the cusp of this hill, looking out at my childhood city, dreaming of somewhere new. I wrapped my knees in my arms and rested the side of my face on my elbow. I felt so young, too young to have lived a full childhood already. I twisted my hair in an attempt to hang on to some comforting childhood habit, and switched the song to something folksy and comforting, and—?
In one instant, the whole city before me lit up like it was covered in a million little fireflies. They wrapped around the lake and stretched up the hills and covered certain neighborhoods with a duvet of orange light. I turned around and saw a street lamp behind me, then looked down and saw several more leading down to the car. I smiled, which turned into a laugh, which turned into a cry, which turned back into a smile as I wiped tears with the sleeve of my hoodie.
There are two ways to tell the story of this moment:
One is that it was a matter of odds. I’d gotten in the habit of watching the city every evening at the time when the sun goes down, and witnessing the automatic flip of the great street-lamp light switch was bound to happen sooner or later.
The other is that it was serendipity, combined with a periwinkle sky, that I would solve this childhood mystery on the symbolic last day of childhood, that Seattle would be gracious enough to reveal something about itself as I left. A magical souvenir and blessing.
The English word “desire” is derived from the French word “desir.” The “sir” part comes from the Latin sidus, which means “star.” The verb desiderade, translated as “to want,” literally means “to gaze at the star.”
I was in high school the first time I heard that the stars we see now are probably dead already. Our brain is not built to fully understand the speed and vastness of astronomy. We can’t begin to fathom the infinity of the sky, that we can’t see the stars’ progress in real time. Nothing about humans is designed for stargazing and star-?comprehending.
And yet, and yet, even though we know by now that the stars are dead, we still wish on them, navigate by them, name them. The activity makes it into hit poems, songs, books, and films. When we look at the stars, we must suspend a bit of belief, and we must acknowledge the embarrassing limitations of our comprehension. All most of us can really do with a star is to wonder at it. That makes for great lyrics and love letters.
The very word “desire” has embedded in it this fully conscious, intellectually sound suspension of belief. Nobody ever says they desire another slice of cheese while at a party, or the passenger seat of the car on a drive. The word seems to be reserved for those wants and wishes that stretch just a tad beyond reason.
Copyright © 2021 by Mari Andrew. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.