In my teenagerhood, I considered New York City the locus of all things cool, sleek, loud, sophisticated, and beautiful. It was the opposite of the South and the suburbs, where I lived. My senior year I went with three other girls to stay with a friend’s mom, who was then working as an Episcopal priest in Jersey City. She was wonderful with us, taking us to lunch at La Mela in Little Italy; to Canal Jeans and Pearl Paint; to see Gypsy on Broadway. We ate and walked and bought our way through the city, sucking in everything from the vast expanse of sky available at the top of the Empire State building to the deep earth-rumblings of the subway. I remember the taste of tart tomato sauce and lush elastic mozzarella cushioning eggplant fried in more olive oil than I’d ever imagined possible. That trip was an opening into another world, one not mediated by my family’s ideas of what was right, wrong, or in good taste. In important ways, I began to understand that while my family was well-traveled - cosmopolitan, even - there were important tranches of the world that they knew nothing about, and some of those realms held real treasure for me.
When I chose to go to Yale, I entered into another relationship with New York City, one mediated by my friendship with Stephanie (who’d been my best friend in high school and was attending Barnard), and by my love of making and witnessing art. I’d take the Metro-North train down to the city to visit Stephanie maybe twice a year, and then a couple more times to see art shows and frequent the photo- and paint-emporia for studio supplies.
When I moved into an unfurnished off-campus apartment in 1993, I went to Chinatown to buy a futon, which I carried home on my back from New Haven Station – an arduous task that matched my then-allegiance towards frugality and self-sufficiency. The futon never stopped smelling of the weird chemicals it was steeped in, but never mind. By then, I, too, reeked of chemistry from the darkroom, and so it was a match.
I have never been so cold as in New York City, on an ill-considered visit that must've coincided with a spell back in the US from my post-graduate stint with the Yale China Association. Back then, I thought about what to do much more from the perspective of how it would look from the outside, rather than how it would feel from the inside. So whatever jacket I may have had was totally inadequate to the wind blasting down dark canyons between buildings. Back then, Starbucks was a new phenomenon, one that had crept in while I was away in Asia. I remember shivering in one Starbucks after another, taking shelter on my New York-dyslexic journeys through the city. True, my legs probably did look nice in their thin black tights, but, what the fuck? I felt on the verge of death, disoriented and freezing, as I tried to find places that shouldn’t have been hard to locate, like the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This business of my not orienting to the same grid that seems so obvious to New York City dwellers has been ongoing for me, with the only period of respite coming during the year when Timothy was teaching at NYU, and had a studio apartment in faculty housing on Bleecker Street. Then, I gradually did what I think all city-people do: I started to form a network of connections between the above-ground world and the world of subterranean passages. I learned to sight a kind of intimate constellation marked out in embodied experiences: here is the burrito joint with the small courtyard garden out back. Here’s the patisserie with the almond croissants so close to home that they’re still warm when you untie the box’ red-and-white striped string. Here’s the movie theater that shows arid documentaries, and the one with the six-legged rat. Here’s the way to the river. My frozen inability to distinguish directions began to thaw, and I started to know, when I popped my head back above ground like a gopher, which way to go.
Just last week, I returned to New York City for 10 minutes of bureaucratic process at the Swiss Consulate in Midtown. I boarded an early morning bus, after Timothy dropped me off, found out I had bought a ticket for the wrong month, and also that the bus was sold out. I hunkered down in the back seat and waited. Sure enough – someone no-showed, the bus started moving, and I found myself among sleepy others making the long journey south.
When the bus dropped us off outside Grand Central Station, I was immediately aware of feeling basically not-attuned to the energy of this hard, fast, noisy place. I made my way to the marketplace inside, found all the surfaces too slippery, and proceeded into the main hall. Magnificent, yes, but also somehow scuffed and fretful. Down to the food court, sniffing around: What’s good to eat? What does the body want? I circumambulated, aware of how strange it felt to be seeking nourishment deep underground, with so many strangers. The longest line was for a burger joint whose sister I’d tried with a friend years ago, so I went there, savoring the companionship of the wait, and the opportunity to really see people, now that I had a digital food-alarm to justify my observer’s stance. The food, when it came, was coldish. In my haste to find a table refuge-place, I forgot to pick up salt, mustard and ketchup, lacking the city-rat’s instinct for refinements that may cost jostling, but pay off in pleasure.
I found I did not want to cram experience in. I found my NH instincts for open spaces and comfortable roosts stayed with me, and so I sat and read in the dappled sunlight outside the New York Public Library till it was time for my appointment. After ten minutes of fingerprinting and photo-taking, I took the train to Brooklyn, and gravitated toward the exact spot my friend Louise and I, and her then-newborn baby, had enjoyed in Prospect park a few years ago. Shoes off, feet connecting with ground, heart opening to the vast blue sky and this unexpected miracle of a midcity meadow, I moved through my tai chi forms, allowing them to do their work of anchoring body, mind, and space.
Staying with Louise and her family nearby was a continuation of this way of being. By necessity, by homing instinct, my friends’ lives are not lives of outward-seeking and outward-seeming, but rather of nurture and carefully cultivated domestic space. Louise makes pizza, and her now-talkative, alert little daughter negotiates how to eat this her way (no olives!). We make our companionable way through a ritual of dinner that could be happening anywhere from the Hopi Reservation to Brussels.
New York City, once a miracle of becoming and locus of longing, is now for me a series of bodily impressions, a network of friendships, a reminder that the strategies for self-regulation that serve me well in semi-rural New England can serve me well anywhere. I ride the subway to catch the train home from Penn Station. I am aware of the violence that could unfurl right now, in any place where people gather. I am aware, too, of the solidity of my feet on the ground, as a loose dance flows between my hips and the rails’ uneven surfaces; between this body and our swaying, beautiful, shared world.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.