A few long and rambling reflections on my first experience of the Big Apple this past week… I’ve included a few pictures, too, for those who will undoubtedly tire of my wordiness. 🙂
New York City is one of those places that looms large in our collective imagination as Westerners and, more particularly, as consumers of media produced in the USA. Its streets and buildings and cityscapes and rivers and landmarks provide the backdrop for so many of our films and television programs and advertising. New York is where famous people live and work and play and produce moments for the rest of us to observe. And, of course, since September 11, 2001 many people feel an even deeper connection, however conflicted, with the city. We watched as its towers came down, as the already intense media glare was sharpened still further, as its citizens were lionized and held up as emblematic of all that was good and true and virtuous about America. New York is where the action is, where it all happens. New York is where people want to be.
And so, to New York we went, our little family of four, for four days after Mennonite World Conference had concluded in Pennsylvania. We hopped on the train on a quiet Sunday morning in Harrisburg and emerged out of the ground three and a half hours or so later into the sweaty tempest that is midtown Manhattan on a late July day. The first thing that you notice is, of course, the tall buildings that stretch to the sky, as far as the eye can see. The second thing is the people. Upon ascending the stairs from the Penn Station terminal, we were instantly swallowed up and engulfed by this teeming horde of humanity that ebbed and flowed and wound its way through the city streets like a single organism.
I have lived and spent time in relatively large cities before, but I’ve never seen anything like NYC in summer. Every day, the second we stepped out of our hotel we were swallowed up by a crush of people that seemed to carry us along for the ride. We were constantly looking around to make sure that the four of us hadn’t been separated. Everywhere we went, people, people, people. Sidewalks and subways, shops and museums, hot dog stands and open plazas. People. Everywhere.
With so many people constantly occupying the same spaces, its pretty easy and natural to begin to see fellow humans as little more than competitors for scarce resources. If we can just get ahead of those people, we’ll make the next walk signal… If we can get there early, we won’t have to wait 45 minutes in line… Kids, don’t walk just because the signal changes… People are always trying to get through… Maybe if we book our tickets online we won’t have to stand in the longest line… Let’s wait for the next train—we’d hardly be able to breathe in that one… When you’re constantly jostling for physical space, constantly negotiating line ups, constantly waiting for/on the subway, it’s pretty easy for human beings come to seem like little more than obstacles standing in the way of my experiences.
And speaking of experiences, throughout our time in New York I found myself reflecting often on how we attach value to the things that we do. Unsurprisingly, nothing comes cheap in NYC. Especially in summer, and especially for the touristy things that we (mostly) did. Whether it was the 9/11 Museum or the American Museum of Natural History or attending a Mets baseball game or a Red Bulls soccer game or taking a harbour tour or whatever. I would often leave these experiences wondering if we had “gotten our money’s worth.” Was that experience worth $X to me, to us? How would I know? The fact that everyone is competing for the same experiences and products obviously drives the prices up into the stratosphere, but still, I would wonder. Yes, the Statue of Liberty is very impressive, but is it $X impressive to me? Yes, it’s cool to be at this stadium that I’ve always seen on TV, but is it $X cool? Ah well, such questions are crazy-making questions. And my wife tells me I should just stop thinking about them. She usually handled paying for things on this trip because she knows I would probably have an aneurysm if I was the one who had to fork out the cash for things. One night she made the mistake of sending me for snacks at a Broadway show. I came back in a rather annoyed frame of mind. After that, I wasn’t allowed to pay for anything. 🙂
New York City is undoubtedly a beautiful place. The Manhattan skyline is something to behold—it is truly spectacular and incredible to think of the engineering feats that human minds are capable of. And, of course, Central Park is simply beautiful in summer—this Edenic oasis of green space in the middle of all the concrete and noise with well-manicured paths to walk and cycle, and little ponds to sit and reflect beside. And there is human beauty, too. The sheer diversity of the people who live in/visit New York is remarkable. You probably hear ten different languages on a ten-minute Subway ride. There are people from all over the world in NYC, and it’s pretty incredible to be in the middle of it all. On a few occasions, I would just sit on a chair in Times Square and observe the humanity. Fascinating.
New York City is also an ugly place. Garbage lined the sidewalks every day, which led to some interesting smells in the 33-degree heat. And then there is the endless concrete that can be exhausting for both the feet and the brain. At one point, we walked by a condo complex that actually had a small piece of grass in a central area. Naomi took a picture of it simply because we hadn’t seen anything green for so long! And then there is the ugliness of poverty and inhumanity that is evident all over the place, but is magnified in New York. So many people lying on the streets with their cardboard pleas for a few crumbs from the tourists’ table. So many people obviously struggling with addictions and mental illness issues. At one point, Nicholas noticed that on many public building exteriors where a human being could conceivably sit and rest on the street, there were little metal spikes bolted to the concrete to prevent people from sitting down. We noticed something similar at the entrance to the Museum of Natural history—all the statues and ledges on the buildings had tiny barely visible spikes sticking up to deter pigeons. The spikes for pigeons were hard to see—you don’t want to ruin the tourists’ view, after all. There was no attempt to hide the spikes designed for homeless people. Which says a lot.
As I was reflecting on our experience in NYC—one of the biggest and brightest and most famous cities in the world—my thoughts turned to Revelation 21 and the promise of a “Holy City coming down out of heaven from God.” Here, at the end of the Christian story, our hope is framed in the descent of a city. Of all things. Many of us would prefer a garden to a city. Or a mountain or a riverside or something that bespeaks peace and calm and beauty. Many of us probably don’t want hope to look like a city. Cities are clogged and noisy and contrived and artificial and shaped to the tastes of greedy consumers. We’ve seen enough of all that, thank you very much! We’ll take something a bit more earthy for our future destination!
It’s a perilous thing to interpret anything in Revelation overly literally, to be sure, but if something like a city is to be our final home then it will surely be a city like nothing we have seen or experienced. A city with no more scarcity and squalor, no more grinding poverty and frantic clamouring after experiences. A redeemed city.
On our last day in NYC we had an unanticipated adventure. Our flight from Laguardia to Ottawa was canceled half an hour before our shuttle was to depart from the hotel for the airport. We decided to go to the airport anyway as the Air Canada rep indicated that we would be on a later flight to Calgary via Toronto. Upon arriving at Laguardia, we discovered that this was a bit of Air Canada fiction and that there was, in fact, nothing available for the rest of the day and that our only option would be to fly the following morning out of Newark, NJ. Now the Newark airport is around 45-50 km from Laguardia in Queens. But because we had to go back through Manhattan, and because traffic was unusually awful (we were told), the trek took us nearly three hours. Lurching at a snail’s pace through NYC was a pretty miserable way to spend our last afternoon in the city.
I spent the first 20 min or so of our long cab ride brooding in frustration in the passenger seat of the cab, silently rehearsing my litany of frustrations with Air Canada and vowing never to fly with them again. But then I decided that this probably wouldn’t be the greatest (or most Christian) way to spend the next however many hours we would be in the cab. I decided to see if the cab driver was open to conversation. If nothing else, it would pass the time, right?
Turns out, he was. His name was Bawa, he was roughly my age, and he was a native Ghanaian. He had arrived in NYC after spending a few years in Antigua (you can’t just come from Ghana to America, he said… “at least not an ordinary guy like me who doesn’t know a ‘big man’ to get him things like visas”). He had been driving a cab for three years, trying to save money, trying to eventually get back to his home country. He had bought a small piece of land in the north—a piece of land where he one day hoped to open a hardware store. His wife and his three kids had just left three days earlier and would be in Ghana until school started back up in the Bronx in September. He already missed them.
Bawa and I talked for probably an hour. He told me about the farm he grew up on, about how the whole community would come together to seed and harvest corn and yams, about how different life was for him here in NYC, about how impatient the people were here, about how easy it is to feel small and insignificant. I told him about the farm I grew up on. We laughed about how different farms are in Canada and Ghana. We lamented the traffic together. I found myself in the unexpected position of having to help him find the Newark airport (with the aid of Google maps, of course). I don’t think Bawa had made many trips to NJ before. He took this trip at the end of his day because he thought it was a big one that would pay well, but he didn’t really seem to know where he was going. But we eventually found the hotel, and we parted with a smile.
It would be easy to dump this experience in the “awful things about cities” file. Traffic, frustration, wasted time, etc. Bawa and I spoke with longing about the wide open spaces of the places we called home, spaces far from the city. But I wonder if the city could, in this case, also be framed as an opportunity for an unexpected encounter with a fellow human being. The city was, in this case, the context for a guy from the wide-open Canadian prairies to have the rare opportunity to connect with a Ghanaian. Yes, the experience was fraught with the inequalities and imbalances that are part and parcel of the world that we live in. No, it did not take place in ideal circumstances (for either of us—Bawa ended up forfeiting his evening plans because the trip took so much longer than expected). Yes, such encounters could happen outside of the city, too. But even with all the obligatory caveats and qualifications, the city was in this case a place for an unexpected and delightful encounter.
And perhaps this is something of what the hope of the City of God is meant to convey. Whatever else the framing of the Christian hope in this way might mean, it surely points to a place where every tribe and tongue will come together and encounter one another in all of our beautiful difference. Where we will have the opportunity to truly be together, where the wounds we have inflicted upon one another will be healed and forgiven, where we will shed all of our false and protective expectations of sameness. Where abundance will take the place of scarcity. Where sharing will take the place of competing. Where we will come together as one humanity before our one God in one city.