Day 4: Harlem and Broadway
The other night Julio and I met up with two fraternity brothers that graduated when I was a freshman (and Julio was still kicking it high school style) and who work in the area. Ryan Smith is currently employed by CBS at 48 Hours and Bogdan Ianev works as an actuary at Prudential across the river in Newark. We went out to the meat packing district to what Smith said was a good Thai place he knew. Though Professor Rosenberg told us that not long ago this was not a particularly attractive area for young people to hang out in, it has recently become quite the trendy areas for older, successful fraternity brothers to take their naive undergraduate visiting brothers. It was interesting to see how both of these men have changed in the last three years. Both have become much more suited for this city than they were when I knew them in our year of overlap in Crawfordsville. Both remained genuinely interested in even the small details pertaining to Wabash, and particularly to Lambda Chi Alpha. Both men acknowledged that they realize that they are now more aggressive and slightly more calloused by the masses than others, and recognize now the ambivalence that can result from being lonely in a city of such masses.
After dinner Julio and I began to walk uptown on 7th Avenue, past Times Square. Eventually we ended up at a two story McDonalds next to the Virgin Records megastore in the midst of humanity's largest shrine to capitalism, built upon the sturdy foundation of impulse purchases and tourists' insatiable desire to purchase any "official" New York City memorabilia. While sitting behind the neon accented golden arches outside the second floor window we were approached by a twenty something homeless person. Normally the proper response to this is simply to ignore the approaching party, but for two reasons I chose not to. First, my final project is going to have to deal with the homeless and street performers of the city, and so meeting some of them is profitable. Second, I am so broke that it wouldn’t matter if he shook me down for money, in fact, my only hope is that if I ever get mugged the thief will stay close enough for me to see the look on his face when he sees the prize for his endeavor. The young man engaged in some arm chair philosophy and did some freestyling, which may or may not have been good, we’ll never know because it was freestyle mumbling with mediocre hand gesticulations. He attempted to sell us a copy of a paper and generally seemed to be a pretty good guy. He ventured back by our table a few times, I gave him the only 15 cents that I had, so he clearly did not want the money, perhaps we were simply the only table that hadn’t taken the prudent approach and ignored him.
I’ll admit, I’ve gotten a lot better things for the combination of a dime and a nickel in my life, but I was still genuinely intrigued by this young man. I at first assumed that if the management found him harassing customers for money they would remove him from the premises, but at one point I saw the manager walk by and give an understated fist pound to our local McRapper. It called into question whether he was quite the loose cannon he pretended to be, or whether he was nothing more than another employee of this McDonalds, working as an independent contractor, playing a particular character, letting tourists feel like they’ve changed a life, and yielding a monetary gain for his service.
Today in the subway I met two interesting people. The first was a woman from Mobile Alabama who is working at a bank in the city. She was nice and helpful in telling us what train to get on, but seemed genuinely surprised and pleased to have someone talk to her. Her lack of annoyance made me ask where she was from, and she said an interesting thing. When asked if she was from New York, she replied simply that “no one is actually from New York City.” Just like my fraternity brothers, she loves her time in the city during her 20’s, but does not believe she will want to stay forever. Likely she will move back to Alabama within a decade.
I met a second woman on the train and made faces at her incredibly cute toddler niece. She smiled and waved back, leading me to believe that New Yorkers are not born, but rather made. I told her aunt that she was probably the friendliest face I had seen in the city, leading her aunt to demonstrate the blushing that would have ensued had she managed to hear my compliment.
New York has been a very new experience for me overall. I have very much enjoyed the city, but ultimately I am surprised to admit that I miss Crawfordsville, at least certain aspects of it. I can find more unbelievably good, painfully spicy Thai food on one block here than I could find in all of Montgomery and Tippecanoe counties. All the same, I miss the simple pleasure of striking up a conversation with a stranger at a basketball game, never knowing where it might go. In this city new friends are not made easily. One will not likely ask for directions on the subway and make a new lifelong friend, in fact, one will probably not get any response at all from others. It begins to make me wonder if having all the wonders of such an enormous city is worth it without someone to share it with. My brothers here confirmed this, particularly Ryan Smith who has come to love living in the city now that he has made friends to share it with, when he previously had hated it. I myself constantly find myself thinking how great so many things are, realizing how much better yet things might be if I could share them with my closest people. Then I realize why Ryan might have meant by feeling lonely in a crowded city.
Now, obviously, New Yorkers have friends, and clearly Crawfordsville is not without any options for cultural experience, but it has made me consider the tension between these two aspects of the human experience and my own preferences on the matter. I have found myself surprised and impressed in new and different ways by the way that New York City has defied my assumptions about it, proving to be bigger and more complex than I had assumed it would be.
We started off our day today by jumping on the subway to Harlem. Before our arrival at Harlem, lunch awaited us at Sylvia's soul food restaurant. After a tasty meal at Sylvia's we had about one hour of free time before our tour began.
We decided to walk around Harlem and quickly realized the rich presence of African-American culture. Unfortunately, while waiting for our tour guide outside the Schaumburg Institute of Black Studies, a†group of middle or high school students walking by said to us "I like to see a group of white people". I quickly realized that some of the Harlem residents were not to happy with us visiting their community, while others were not bothered by our presence. Right after the Harlem tour Travis, Tony, and I decided to go to Spanish Harlem.
Travis, Tony, I got on the subway and headed to Spanish Harlem. On our way we decided to take a short cut through Central Park which ended up being a bad idea because it only resulted in us getting lost. After back tracking a few blocks to get back on the right track we made it to Spanish Harlem. Once there we saw all around us Spanish Markets, restaurants and street vendors . By this time, we were all a little hungry and decided to have dinner at La Fonda Borricua a Puerto Rican restaurant. For the three of us this was the first time eating Puerto Rican food. Once we got our food I realized that Puerto Rican and Mexican food are very similar although the names of the dishes can be different some of the cuisine styles are similar.
Later that night we got to experience our first Broadway show, Avenue Q, in Times Square. Before the show, we had the opportunity to walk around Times Square and experience capitalism at its "best."
The brightness of millions of lights and signs wanting us to buy various things overwhelmed our senses. While searching for our purpose of the night we finally arrived at The John Golden Theatre. Once in the theater, we were packed into our seats like sardines in gum wrapper. Not many of us knew what to expect from this show but once it began, we were taken aback. Once the show began, I thought it was "siesta" time and realized I was wrong because the puppets and the comedic satire that depicts New York kept me laughing the whole show. The overall theme of the show at first seemed to be to find purpose in life but I later realized it was to live "now" and not to worry too much. The end of the show left us with a good first impression of Broadway.