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Continental Drift, part 7

"Albany to New York City"

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I decided to take a bus for the last section of the journey. I knew that traffic in the New York City area would be crazed, and no place to try to hitch a ride. I’d had excellent luck hitching so far, perhaps due to the protection of Mishipeshu the cat/dragon, but I was no longer within his sphere of influence. Maybe it was the time to stop tempting fate.

I’d heard of New Paltz and knew it was fairly close to New York City. I asked my ride into town to drop me off at the bus station.

The bus station in New Paltz was inside what I think was a diner, though it might have been some sort of convenience store too. All I know is that it was large enough and social enough so that there were plenty of answers when I asked, “If I’m taking a bus into New York City, where’s the best place to go?”

The choices inside Manhattan were Port Authority, Penn Station and Grand Central. I’d heard the names before, but I had no idea where they actually were.  A few men offered opinions, but the one I remembered (the one that made me remember the entire exchange) was this: “If you’re going to Port Authority you better bring a gun.”

I was pretty sure they were joking, though my mind immediately went to the chain hidden in my pack. I’d eventually have to make my way to Crown Heights in Brooklyn that day, to my friend Toby’s apartment, but I really wanted to make a memorable entrance into the city, take a bus to the center of the chaotic thrum of crazy New York City energy I’d experienced during my last trip. I’d been out in the wilderness for two weeks and wanted a change of pace. I wanted to experience a New York City moment. Times Square seemed like the best spot to experience it, and Port Authority was the closest destination to that famous landmark.  

I was already knee deep in urbanity.  After weeks surrounded by trees and granite and untamed wilderness, first at Lake Superior and then the Adirondacks, my eye had grown unused to all the telephone wires and electric wires and the poles used to string them along and the transformers and junction boxes they plugged into. I saw the trappings of civilization more clearly. Not just the phone and electric lines, but the roads and the guard rails and the traffic lights, the entrance and exit ramps, the highways and Interstates, the airplanes overhead, the trains rumbling by, the trucks and cars rushing past in blurs of color and noise.

I wasn’t railing against all that humanity; on the contrary, I was actively making my toward it.

R. Crumb, the cartoonist, described the filtering out of the fine details of this visual environment, as well as documented it in his work.


“People don’t draw it, all this crap, people don’t focus attention on it because it’s ugly, it’s bleak, it’s depressing. The stuff is not created to be visually pleasing and you can’t remember exactly what it looks like. But, this is the world we live in; I wanted my work to reflect that, the background reality of urban life.” - R. Crumb



The bus took I-87 down into New York City. The trip took around two hours, the buildings of Manhattan bobbing in and out of sight amid the industrial parks and exit signs and Interstate entrances and exits. My memories of this part of the bus trip are pretty trippy. I was excited about finally entering New York, weeks after I started. I-87 turned into I-287. We dipped briefly into New Jersey, hugging the shore of the Hudson River, the Emerald City beckoning from the far side. As we grew closer, our pace slowed, inhibited by traffic and construction.

As we neared the island the bus went over a tangle of bridges and overpasses, then suddenly dipped underground. I learned later that was the Long Island Expressway, followed by the Lincoln Tunnel. At the time I had no idea what anything was. I just watched, a passive traveler, atingle at approaching my destination.

The bus emerged from the Lincoln Tunnel into daylight and the splendor and bustle of midtown Manhattan, but almost immediately dropped underground again, the city dropping maddeningly away from view.  Most of the route to Port Authority, by bus anyway, takes place underground. Occasionally, a view of street level Manhattan would emerge above me, as I peered up through steel plates and I-beams and all the other nuts and bolts involved in keeping the super-structure of NYC streets from collapsing.

The last several hundred yards of the passage to Port Authority are all darkness and stained concrete and exhaust fumes. It’s like being in a giant underground parking garage, and I suppose that’s because in a way it is. All those buses entering and exiting the Port Authority, 24/7, every day of every year. The City of New York never sleeps, and neither does the Port Authority.

At last, the bus pulled into its stall. We were still well underground. But as I grabbed my pack and worked my way to the front of the bus, single-file, I could see signs of life from the windows beyond the entrance.

I walked off the bus and into the doors of Port Authority, and the great teeming city beyond it. Right off, navigating my way through the hallways of the bus terminal, I was taken aback by the number of homeless. We had homeless people back in Minneapolis, but not in these numbers. Crack and AIDS and Reaganomics were beginning to take their toll.

I marveled briefly at the openness of prostitution and drug deals, happening right in the middle of the crowded hallways of a bus and train terminal. But by then I’d taken a couple of stairways up, I was on the street level, and sunlight was streaming through the giant ceiling-to-floor windows, and I had to get out amongst it all. I found the banks of lockers and stowed away my backpack. I had to be in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, later in the day, as that was where the couch I was going to be sleeping on was, but I was in no hurry.

Eighth Avenue awaited me.      

I wandered. I was at the tumultuous center of New York City. I turned corners randomly. I followed the flow of the foot traffic. I stopped and watched whenever I noticed a pocket of weird behavior. I appreciated the sight of the stylish and impeccably made-up women of midtown, and let myself be intimidated by the hardcore well-dressed stockbroker types. I tried to follow the ball of the three-card Monte masters.  I stood at the base of tall buildings and leaned back like the tourist I was, and let their height amaze me. I watched them sway in the gentle summer breeze, not overly different from the trees I walked among in the wilderness of Canada only a few weeks prior.     

I turned a random corner and saw the yawning canyon of Times Square before me. This was before the days of competing video screens the size of houses. Most of the visual field of Times Square at the time was made up of billboards, with one giant video screen at, appropriately enough, One Times Square (the same tower where the ball always dropped on New Year’s Eve). The flag of the TKTS line (cheap same-day tickets) flapped in the breeze. Traffic crawled and honked. Pedestrians pooled at the base of streetlights and spilled out into crosswalks when the light turned green.   

Times Square has a long and colored history, but it’s safe to say the Times Square I walked out into that day is not the Times Square of today. Prostitution and drug deals took place out in the open. Peep shows and triple X porn theaters operated on seemingly every corner, screaming titles from their marquees like “The Whirly Girly Revue.” In the early 90s, the Walt Disney Corporation moved in, and cleaned things up, for better and for worse. I’ve got no problem with lowering crime and revitalizing urban centers, but the gloriously decadent world of Times Square I walked through four decades earlier is gone.

It was a different time.

I walked into a Broadway theater before heading back to retrieve my pack. Back in Minneapolis, most of the theaters have a policy that, just before showtime, they sold any remaining seats at a greatly reduced price. They called them “rush seats.” So, I walked into Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing, still shaggy and unkempt from over two weeks on the road.   

“Hi,” I said to the well-dressed man behind the ticket counter.

“Hi,” he replied, carefully, wondering, I think, why I was there. This was New York City; scams were rampant.

“Do you have rush seats?” I asked awkwardly.

“What are those?” His tone was a bit chilly.

I played the friendly Midwesterner. “In Minneapolis, five minutes before the show was about to start, they’d sell any unused seats at a discount. Rush seats. Do you guys do that?”

He leaned toward me a little, a trace of a smile beginning to show. He may have exaggerated his accent to speak, because what he said next was classic New York: “This is Broadway, son.”

I think he enjoyed the moment as much as I did.

Ironically, they started selling rush seats on Broadway in 1996, but that was a little over a decade too late to save me any embarrassment.  

I’ve experienced my first New York City moment. With that accomplished, I headed back to Port Authority to retrieve my pack and then ventured down into the subway tunnels to head toward Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where a friend had promised me a couch to sleep on, and a whole new world awaited me.

Written by verbal
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