photography, random thought, travel, writing

if this city never sleeps

last weekend in new york was fantastic… and i still have the lump on my head to prove it.

a trip to new york city characterizes my current life: running at a fevered pitch, going all the time.  people that know me well, know that i need an unusually high dose of alone time.  space and time to slow down, be quiet, breathe deep, and reflect.

however, i get the distinct impression that “alone time” is nearly impossible in new york.  i remember the story of a famous photographer in the sixties and seventies that became such a recluse, that he would only shoot people on the street below from his multi-story manhattan window.  i think he later became famous for this very reason.  but rarely leaving his apartment darkroom, he eventually went insane.  this makes sense to me.

from the moment i landed at laguardia, it was go go go.

i caught a taxi, and had him take me straight to my hotel uptown.  the cab driver was a very nice egyptian.

“salam malakim,” we exchanged.

we talked briefly about egypt and lebanon.  he was very busy though, and kept switching over to a conversation with a faceless man on the other end of his bluetooth.  it seemed to be super-glued to his ear.

an hour later, and only 3/4 of the way to my hotel on 53rd and 7th, he got into a shouting match with another taxi driver.  he ended the shouting with a sarcastic and defeated sounding, “salam malakim, brother, salam malakim!”

i asked him if he knew the man.  he said “no.”

once at the hotel, i dropped my bags quickly in my room, and raced out of the lobby.  i’ve never felt so much raw energy.  and the noise…  my goodness, the sounds and smells all around.  it was a case of sensory overload from the first moment.  my hotel was at 7th avenue, just above times square.  this fact was lost somewhere in the shuffle when i booked my hotel days before.

i began walking north.  i could see masses of trees up ahead, so i knew i was headed in the right direction.

central park is the first place my eye found to be intriguing enough to take out my camera.  but i was quickly wisked away by the sirens of the city.  there was too much to see and do.  can’t stay still for too long…


i’ve never been one to enjoy being a tourist.  my idea of sight seeing is to slap on my chacos and hit the streets.  no map, no plan.  just see what i can see.  it’s very freeing.  i’ve done this in many cities across the country, and it hasn’t failed me yet.

i am not opposed, however, to seeing all of the wonderful tourist destinations that people come from across the globe to see and take their picture in front of.  they are popular places for a reason.  i just prefer the method of “stumbling” upon these attractions, as though i’m merriwether lewis seeing the rockies for the first time.  it’s much more exciting that way.

problem is, in a place like new york, there literally is never enough time to see everything.  so i decided not to beat myself up over it.  my friend elaine was coming in on a bus from philly, and at the moment, that’s what had my attention.

elaine lived in the city a few years after college, and she knows it well.  and, as i’m sure any new yorker would tell you, it had a piece of her.  needless to say, it probably was just a good excuse that i was there.

we met at penn station, and headed straight for the village.  her friends andy and kara were waiting for us at joe’s pub.  andy’s girlfriend, sabrina, does the lighting for all of their musical acts, so she got us all in for free.  she’s quite good at what she does.  so good, in fact, that even dustin hoffman has expressed his awe of her work…


the first act was very interesting.  an iraqi lute player, rahim alhaj, had the audience captivated.  the room was so quiet, the clicking of my shutter became annoying to those around me.  beautiful.

elaine and kara had a laugh in between acts.


alhaj was profound and saddening, so it was a strange segue into the next band, the new standards – a jazz trio that covers pop tunes.  hey ya by outkast was the grand finale, and that aptly describes their act as a whole.  they were actually quite good, and very entertaining.  i have never heard better vibraphone solos in my life.

one of the things that i like about elaine is that when you’re with her, dancing through the streets of manhattan seems pretty normal.

after joe’s pub, we weaved past crowds of nyu party kids and hipsters, through the village toward other parts of town where andy thought we might have a good time.  we talked about alan ginsberg and the beat poets.  we talked about dylan, and where the cover for the freewheelin’ bob dylan, my favorite album, was shot.  we never did figure it out.

i have to admit… with this crowd i felt as though we could have been in a turkish prison and still have the time of our lives.

it’s never too late for the dessert truck!  notice elaine’s clasped hands, as though she’s praying to the dessert god(s) to make up her mind for her.  in elaine’s defense, it was a difficult decision.

eventually we had to stop for a slice.  poor elaine had to wait a whole 2 minutes longer than the rest of us… it required documentation.

go read somethings?  i’m still trying to figure out if it was meant to be ironic, or…

the train ride home that night was quiet and reflective.  inspiring.

saturday morning, i woke early, got coffee, and strolled around the city a bit more.  it was overcast, almost monochromatic that day.  i hopped on the e and ventured back down to the village.  elaine met me on a corner and we walked a little more.  we talked about how morning is the only time of day that new yorkers aren’t out and about.  it felt like a ghost town.

we came across cafe angelique on bleecker, and decided to get breakfast.

she was in a bit of a hurry and needed to get home to philly.  we took the e up to 34th at penn station, said our goodbyes in the subway, and parted.

again alone, i stared out the windows of the dingy subway car, and listened to the sharp clack of the train on its tracks.  it never got old watching the car in front of me through the doorway window as it seemed to move independently of the car i was in.  the people in the car ahead, moved in a strange first-person arcade game manner.  never staying steady enough for me to examine the people on the other side of the glass.



i took a walk into brooklyn.  my cousin, rachel, lives there.  it’s also where i thought i might get an interesting view of manhattan.  and i did.  i imagined the shot i wanted before actually seeing it, and it looked much the same in my mind as it did in person.  too bad hurricane hannah had different plans for the sky than i would choose.  she would come just hours later with fury.  but for now, i was hungry form all the walking.

numerous people told me about a place called grimaldi’s.  “the best pizza in brooklyn,” everyone said.  so i thought i’d grab a slice.  it’s just under the brooklyn bridge, and that’s precisely where i was.  what i didn’t know is that grimaldi’s doesn’t sell by the slice.

i was already intrigued and i felt committed.  so i enjoyed every second of the whole pizza that i ate… all by my lonesome.  the pie was amazing, it was reasonably priced, and the service was fantastic.

i caught the r to union street.  rachel was going to meet me at a pub for a drink.  after going the wrong way the first time, and going all the way back to manhattan, i eventually reached my stop.  this time when i emerged form the underworld, hannah’s fury was in full force.  not really sure where i was going, i darted from awning to awning, asking friendly brooklynites where i might find fifth street pub.  everyone looked more confused than i was.  i had the name wrong.

one young man i asked had a warmth about him.  we connected immediately.  he had a mild west african accent, a personable grin, and a deep sorrow in his eyes.  i asked if he wanted to have a beer with my cousin and me.  he said his name was serigne (pronounced serene).

we ran up union to fifth in the rain, where we met rachel at union hall pub.


it was great to see my cousin.  i don’t see her nearly enough.  so we caught up a little, talked to serigne about his life, growing up in senegal, and his preferences in women.  it was a good combo to have a beer with rachel and serigne…  they are both caring, deep-thinking individuals.  i wish our time hadn’t been so short.  that would remain a theme throughout this trip.  got to keep going!

i caught a train back uptown to get my bags.  hannah was relentless, still.

one of my best friends, and former roomie in wyoming when we both worked for the newspaper, anna, lives on long island with her husband emile.  she’s still rocking the newspaper world with her brilliant reporting.

anna and emile braved the storm, and drove in to the city saturday night.  i met back up with andy and sabrina in the village, and we waited for the other couple.

it was so nice to see my friends after such a long time.  anna was the same as always – high, goofy energy, pure joy, huge heart.  just the way i remembered her…

andy knew of a hummus cafe, and we all agreed.

of course the hummus was great.  what blew me away though, was the grape leaves.  they were topped with a green curry cream sauce that was insanely tasty.  we all left satisfied.  now it was time for a drink.


we casually walked and talked.  anna gave me a book, with wonderful inscriptions and drawings inside.  i was so busy looking at the book, head down, that i walked directly into a streetlight.  luckily, i used my thick skull to soften the blow.  it was incredibly painful, and embarrassing.  but we all laughed it off and kept on.

we found a bar eventually… it seemed suitable.  anna told me about emile’s and her recent trip to spain and morocco.  she loves morocco.  she spent some time there during college, and i can tell, like elaine and new york, morocco has a piece of anna.

i think anna and i are a lot alike in that way;  we both are easily attached emotionally to places.  i’m not sure i could even name all of the places that have a piece of me.  perhaps a better way of looking at this is that we carry these places with us.  forever.  i think they represent something that we like about ourselves, or maybe something that we want ourselves to be.  it’s the same with the people we carry in our hearts.  for me, anna is one of those people.

it was hard to leave, but i had to get upstate to tarrytown, so i left the bar, and my four friends.  time was my cruel master.

i took the metro north, winding along the eastern bank of the hudson river.  it was about 1 o’clock in the morning though, so the train seemed to only be piercing a never ending darkness.

i arrived at my new hotel in tarrytown sometime after 2 a.m.  i was staying in tarrytown because i had a shoot the next day, but i was already looking forward to monday.  luke and i would get to tour the city even more.


luke and i finished the shoot on sunday, got up early monday morning and took a taxi into manhattan.  we had no plan, but knew of a few key spots we wanted to see, so we dropped our bags at a hotel and headed out again.


luke tried to look like a true new yorker, hence the rude gesture.  in reality, i didn’t meet one person that was not completely hospitable and downright kind to me the entire time.  new yorkers get a bad wrap for being impatient and discourteous.  couldn’t be further from the truth, in my opinion.




luke and i had a great time being tourists.  staten island ferry, empire state building, ground zero, statue of liberty…  i can see why all are tourist hot-spots.



we made our way into the east village yet again, to see luke’s friend marina.  she’s a sweet macedonian girl that luke met when he lived in san francisco.  we lobbied for her to visit texas, but we’ll see if that happens.

after a quick drink with marina, we traveled back uptown to see another friend of luke’s, lindsey.  lindsey and luke go way back.  she took off work early, so we all headed back to her neck of the woods, brooklyn.

the train was packed.  lindsey and luke got on, i was left behind.  it didn’t help that they were laughing at me as well, through the subway glass.

we had quite a time with lindsey.  we played pool, had a few beers, and luke and lindsey reminisced and told inside jokes that i didn’t understand.

but we had a flight to catch.  so we called a cab, and rush back to laguardia… from whence we came.

my last look at the city from the taxi.  it made me sad to leave.  i’ve never thought of new york city as a place that i’d enjoy and connect with as much as i did.  maybe it’s because at this point in my life, i can relate to it;  fighting for truth and identity furiously, pressing on with reckless abandon.  i think it’s a phase for me.  but it works for new york city.  and i respect, and in some ways admire it.  but i think more than that, it just comes down to the fact that i’m fascinated by it.

i think i’ll be visiting again soon…

author’s note:

it’s really weird how much i just felt like neil patrick harris at the end of an episode of “doogie howser, m.d.” with that last paragraph.  oh well… let’s make a long-time dream come true…

(marginally bad synthisized piano playing in the background)

March 21, 1993… I’ve spent the last nineteen years learning how to be Doogie Howser, M.D.  Now it’s time to learn how to be just (dramatic pause) Doogie.  (cut to neil, with smile and look of accomplishment) (roll credits)

all images © andrew r. slaton | photographer 2008