It’s been a while since I’ve people-watched on Ninth Avenue. I used to do so quite often, spending long nights sitting by the window of our favorite bar, talking with friends and watching strangers as they passed by. This week, with an excuse to remain in midtown until the start of a concert for which I had a ticket, I decided to leave the fluorescent-lit cave I work in to spend a couple hours outside in the city. My feet carried me on autopilot to Ninth, to my used-to-be favorite Mexican restaurant in Hell’s Kitchen, to a table outside in the fall air, where I could watch the traffic move in one direction and the people moving every which way.
It was a date with my city, something I find myself in desperate need of these days but also find increasingly difficult to execute. We’re disconnected at the moment, New York and me, and we need to find each other again. There wasn’t some sort of falling out between us, but life got in the way, as it does. The calm of being at home with my dog and my couch and my shows and my candles put a wedge between us, New York and me. Spending so much time traveling this year did a lot to remind me how much I missed my city yet it also further separated us; the notion of returning to the comforts of home being far more appealing than going and doing.
So, at my used-to-be favorite Mexican place in Hell’s Kitchen, I ordered the piña colada I’d loved for so many years and some nachos. Reading chapters written by Joan Didion while I waited on my food, I left my headphones in though there was no music playing. They provided me a manufactured anonymity, privacy for both me and those near me, a sense of safety. The food came, exactly as I remembered it, and upon paying the bill, I left the empty piña colada glass and the plate of nachos I never quite finished to crisscross my way toward Radio City Music Hall.
I’m fighting off a bit of depression as if it were a cold; reclaiming ownership of my time and my ability to go and do in the same way one takes vitamin C. As I walked and breathed in neighborhood, I passed a gargoyle resembling a Pegasus folding his front paws in his lap as if posing for a school portrait, a large pumpkin resting on a block of store-bought hay, and a row of restaurants coming to life under neon lights next to sleepy cafes with chairs on the tables. Once inside Radio City, I passed a somewhat-known TV actor in the lobby; someone known enough that I was aware of him but not so known that anyone else registered he was there. Near the entrance, a young man donning a fringed black leather jacket strutted toward his seat, ready for the show and putting on one of his own.
I was hesitant to go inside knowing I’d miss seeing so many people worth seeing in the lobby. Or was it I would miss being seen in the lobby? I wasn’t wearing anything remarkable, a T-shirt and jeans with a light hoodie because the crystalline cool October air has made itself known, but what was it about this part of town that made me want to be seen? I never care about that sort of thing anymore. I did when I was younger and spent far too much energy gauging who I was by what was reflected through the eyes of others, but now, years removed from that version of me, why did I feel that familiar gremlin clawing up my pant leg again? Perhaps in the room with the music was safer.
The opening act was still on though. She’s not who we were there to see. I knew she knew this, making her job an unenviable one, but I was far too distracted to try to be interested quite yet. Below me was a girl with crystals lining the part in her hair, an actress who will likely be nominated for a Tony next season, and various cowboy hats being trotted out to see the city for a night before they inevitably end up in the back of a closet again. Not practical in New York, the cowboy hats serve as a sort of costume; an adornment to allow people who gave their lives over to the concrete and glass of the city to feel they’re in a simpler place. A honky-tonk. A field with no end. A place where skyscrapers don’t block the sunset. I’m glad I stayed in the hallway.
I heard the audience applauding the opening act so somewhat reluctantly, I went inside to await the singer who brought us, the conglomerate of people sharing armrests and bathroom lines, together. The concert itself was an iridescent blur, a recharge and a reset, and though it was sold out, I was the only one in the room. At the end of the night, filled to the brim with music and lights and a few tears, I was carried home in a cloud of whimsy and a yellow cab.
The following morning, a boy of maybe eight sat across from me on the train. His hair was disheveled and he tossed around his backpack covered in sharks in his seat. He was an average-looking boy, savvier probably because he’s a New Yorker and kids who live in New York have to be, and there was an animal screen-printed onto his shirt. Yet he wasn’t average in the slightest. He was wearing a jacket covered in sequins, silver at the shoulders and midnight blue at the waist, and he wore it as if there isn’t anything fantastic about it at all. To him, it just is. New York, I’ve missed you.