Walking the Streets Over You

Before we left Austin, a friend asked where we were going to leave our cars when we moved to New York.  He was dumbfounded that we weren’t taking them with us.

Like most Texans of our generation, my husband and I have both been driving since we were 14.  (Our friend Brenda, from an even smaller West Texas town, was 13 when she started driving.)  Growing up in Texas, you did everything in cars — and if you think I don’t mean everything, then you haven’t seen or read “The Last Picture Show.”  There’s nothing like the wild, exhilarating freedom of driving fast on empty highways with music blasting your eardrums till they bleed and the wind rushing in through the windows.

But that was then.  At the age we are now, life without a car is pure, intoxicating freedom.  In New York, we can walk.  Walk to nearby Thai, Italian, Chinese-Peruvian, Japanese, French, Middle Eastern restaurants.  Walk to the grocery store, the wine store, the cleaners.  Walk to a yoga class, where a bossy teacher tells her students to, “Face to the right — toward Columbus.  Then to the left, toward Amsterdam.”  Walk along West 84th Street at twilight and almost bump into a rat that’s enormous and quick-moving and bears a marked resemblance to Karl Rove.

I’m amazed to hear that, since it’s August, “nobody” is in New York.  Seems pretty crowded and vibrant to me, no matter what month it is.  Two days ago, I sat in Verdi Park and watched a homeless man root through his plastic bag of belongings.  A couple of feet away, an intense young man shut out the rest of the world as he read Proust.

Nearby, an elderly woman scattered birdseed to an appreciative flock of pigeons.  There’s one of those in every town, so I didn’t pay much heed.  What I did notice was the park maintenance guy who showed up after she and her birdseed disappeared.  He stood, very still, with his right forefinger extended a few inches from his face.  Pigeons gathered around, fluttering close to him.  Finally, one landed on his forefinger, another took up residence on his right elbow, and a third hovered dangerously above his head.  This, clearly, was his moment of triumph.  The pigeons flew away and he returned to stabbing trash with his stick.

My husband says we’ll never be confused as Upper West Siders unless we have a dog to walk.  But I’m inclined to think I need to be pregnant or, at the very least, be pushing a baby carriage full of multiple infants.  (Does anybody bear single babies these days?)

I’ve always been convinced that the world is rich, no matter where you are.  You simply have to observe what’s around you and watch and learn as it unfolds.  Still, it’s striking to be from a place where the horizon is flat and endless and empty — and find yourself in a world that teems with such an immense, loud, concentrated energy of humanity and wildlife.  I know we’re supposed to go to the cultural centers — and, of course, we will.  But to me, the city itself is the endlessly fascinating attraction, the greatest teacher.

(Copyright 2009 by Ruth Pennebaker)

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13 comments… add one
  • Whenever people ask me what I do when I’m in NY, since I’m supposed to be some kind of expert, I tell them “I bop around and hang out.” No need to do anything more.

  • cari Link

    Being a born and bred Texan, I know well the joy of going for a drive. Enjoy all of your NYC walking and watching and the Texas roads will be waiting for your return. I’m glad you’re keeping up your blog in your new home. I enjoy reading it everyday. You’ve made me laugh and cry!

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    We have the same idea, Sophie, but call it walking and gawking.

    Cari, thank you so much.

  • I love you writing but am not crazy about New York.  This may be because I was born there and,  at three, decided to go see the kittens at the fish shop – myself!  I got in the elevator, descended.  No one stopped me as I exited the building and turned right on East 86th Street.  Meanwhile my mother, who had just delivered my brother, and the nanny, realized I was gone at the same moment.  Mom was out the door in a minute.  She grabbed me just as I was stepping onto one of the main avenues.  We moved to DC two years later.  Whenever I am in Manhattan, I become that little girl again, with those enormous buildings all around.

  • I’m just loving these blogs from NY. I close my eyes and I’m there with you. I even went to Zabar’s and got lunch to eat in Central Park. I’ll be here to check on you every day. Thanks!

  • You’re living right in my old neighborhood and bringing back all kinds of memories.  I went to junior high school on W. 77th and my sister and family lived on 84th between Amsterdam and Columbus for over 15 years.  It has changed a lot over the years but yeah…that’s NYC.

  • Donna Meadows Link

    Happy to hear you’ve found yoga classes already, Ruth.    And loved hearing that Zabar’s and all those restaurants  nearby.  Why, I could be kept busy writing poetry about the nibbles around there:-)

  • That is the very reason I want to see New York. While I love the idea of seeing all the “sights” I believe the most interesting sights are those we sit quietly and see.  Hope that makes some kind of sense.

  • Ruth,
    that being able to walk anywhere in cities is good – although you’ve got me thinking about walking anywhere in the [very] small town where I stay while in Ireland, now… there are some of them same aspects, actually.
    and I have to ask — been to Dallas Barbecue yet?  a few too many longhorn skulls on the wall last time I was there several years ago. their onion loaf is my cure for missing Texas in Manhattan though.

  • Cindy A Link

    Can’t wait to go to NYC and relish the people watching extravaganza! LOVE the maintenance man and the birds story…

  • So fun reading about your experiences on the UWS. We live here too and there’s something about other perspectives that make the city new to me. Once you’ve been here a few months, you should rent some fun movies set in Manhattan like, well, Manhattan, You’ve Got Mail, etc. You’ll be newly inspired by they city and the UWS.

    Great post!

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    No, we haven’t discovered Dallas Barbecue yet, even though we’re eating our way through a lot of restaurants at a pretty fast clip.

    “Manhattan” is still one of my favorite movies, even though my membership in the Woody Allen fan club expired about the time Soon-Yi showed up.

  • I love reading anything about NY…about being in NY and the people of NY! Thanks for this.

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