This is an essay partially based off of my experiences in New York City and inspired by Virginia Woolf’s writing style in her essay Street Haunting.
City of Dreams by: Sophia Kat
As I look out my window at the golden hour of 6:00 pm the East Village is littered with people, like ants, crawling their way back to their homes. Some stopping off at bustling restaurants that are serving cheesy pizzas or a new superfood dish that is all the rage. And some are stopping at unknown, hole in the wall bars with coworkers who just want some time out to relax. The hour is perfect, the sun is just beginning to set allowing the scurrying few to bask in the sunlight illuminating the fair city. The beady-eyed pigeons have disappeared, leaving only white, gray and black feathers in their place, and the jazz music, street food, and liveliness of the day are slowly beginning to fade. Walking out of my building, I was dressed in my favorite walking shoes. They were these little white fabric laced up shoes. They hadn’t taken well to the rainy puddles formed in the streets the night before and had turned a muddy water beige. They were given to me when I was in Belgium, I needed walking shoes to explore Brussels and my little boots were killing my heels. An elderly woman, wrinkled, gray and weathered down so that her back was hunched, had been shouting outside her store for passers-by’s to try on her handmade Italian leather shoes. However, when I walked into her store I scurried over instead to the little white canvas shoes in the corner. The woman gave a sigh of resignation, giving up on her Italian shoes as she packed up mine and bid me a sad ‘ Au revoir ’. I suppose she understood that sometimes things do not work out the way that you had hoped.
The muddy and grimy New York Streets made the shoes look far less appealing than when they were amongst the European cobblestones with the smell of freshly made waffles in the air. On the dirty and busy street outside of my tall white apartment building, it looked far different than Europe. The streets were all gray with puddles of water building up on the sides of the road. The smells were always quickly changing, from the smell of the Halal trucks to perfume from a lady passing by to the annoyingly common smell of urine, animal and/or human, no one is really sure. As I followed the street I began to pass a few groceries, a Duane Reade pharmacy, and dozens of people all distracted by their plans. As I jogged across the street, the crossing signal flashing red, I passed by Union Square. The Square houses a main subway stop and a few trees make up a tiny park, a market is usually taking place and protests are common on the steps that lead to the park. A street performer with long greasy hair was contorting his body in a mesmerizing way and bending his body in ways that shouldn’t be possible. He was twisting his arms in a manner that reminded one of dislocation and could bend his back so that his feet were nearing his sweaty face. A brown and patched up fedora was placed in front of him to collect coins, his eyes darting to the hat every time he made a new move, hoping that miraculously money would appear before him as he blinked. His movements beckoned others to see him but his quickly darting eyes and nervous smile implied the opposite. He was shy and hoping to get some money for his next meal and was sat on a thin and withered bamboo mat. The only thing cushioning his body against the harsh New York City street. The pain of the contortions was intense but he had to do something, he had to make a living somehow. This may not have been what he planned to do when he came to the great city of dreams but it would have to do for now.
Now as I pass by the last remaining trees of Union Square the concrete jungle becomes just that, the trees have been left behind and now monstrosities of buildings line the streets. Leaving me wondering about the hundreds of people living inside them. The tall glass skyscrapers and brick apartment buildings of New York City seem mundane and boring, packed full of windows and people, people in close quarters who do not speak or interact with one another. Inside a tight apartment building an elderly lady is sitting on an olive green couch, only a few strands of the raven black hair of her youth remain. Her mostly gray frizzy hair is tied back in a tight low bun and her frail body is clothed in dull and muted colors. You can see from her piercing blue eyes that she was a young beauty, pined for by gentleman of all classes, but she rejected them all in hopes that there was someone better. It took her too long to realize that there wasn’t. In her apartment, cardboard boxes full of all her belongings take up every square inch of her apartment. She had filled them all with random objects such as multiple toothbrushes, old cookie tins, and hundreds of pictures of her when she was young. The memories associated with each object cannot be relinquished. An old photo reminds her of a better time when she was happy and loved, an empty cookie tin reminds her of the delicacies she once offered to guests that visited, and everything else leads her to think that ‘one day this will be of use’. She is living among trash, empty wrappers, dozens of picture frames, empty perfume bottles and five typewriters. Her loneliness being made up for by the multiple objects occupying every space of her building. The apartment on top of hers has a family with two toddlers, a boy, and a girl. She always hears the thumping feet and giggles of the parents and kids as they chase them around the apartment. She thinks what her life could have been if she had said yes to a proposal of marriage if she hadn’t continued to wait for something better. Perhaps she would have been the family in the apartment with the two toddlers. But instead, she sits in her apartment alone, a situation she had never pictured for herself.
As I continued down the New York street I began to pass dozens of Parisian style cafes and bakeries, each filled with all types of baked goods and sweet and warm scents. I peered through the windows only to spot prospective authors and artists enthusiastically typing away on their laptops. A medium roast coffee slowly becoming bitter and cold sitting by their laptops. A small wiry man with glasses sat closest to the door. He was writing a story about a hero who was on a dangerous quest to defeat an evil wizard who had kidnapped his one true love, a princess, and the rightful heir to the throne. Squinting at the screen and pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose he wrote passionately about the battle between the hero and the ferocious beast that was unleashed on him. He pictured the man as very muscular and manly, with a flowing mane of blonde hair, he was the envy of all, and the opposite of the cafe sitting author, who was instead short, wiry and had struggled to carry all of his books to the cafe table. His little cafe life was far different than the heroes, but he lived out those dreams through his stories. Though he would have rather been the hero, this would have to do.
Following the cafes, I passed by a bagel store filled to the brim with customers and dozens of different types of thick New York style bagels. Across the store, on the other side of the sidewalk, was a little homemade jewelry stand. A woman, around 50 years old, sat at a little plastic table with sectioned out jewelry, she had necklaces, earrings, bracelets, all beaded with colors of red and blue and packed in small clear plastic bags. She had earbuds in her ears and was draped in jewelry, a ring on every finger, dangly earrings, and multiple necklaces, none of it was of her own brand. Though the reality of the situation is that she is a woman selling $5 jewelry on a side street, she held her nose high and kept her nails manicured. Her clothes all appeared designer made, with labels such as Gucci and Ralph Lauren but the botched stitching on her bag said otherwise. Sitting in her little plastic chair, her eyes were closed, she was in another world. A world in which she was the star and the classical music playing through her earbuds was her background. She was living the life of her dreams, no noise of the city, no awareness of where she was seated or the job she had, she was a star, dressed in real designer clothes and living a life of luxury and happiness. But the firetruck zooming behind her brought her back to reality, awakening with a start and her dream lost among the loud noises that surrounded her. A customer holding two children at bay and carrying grocery bags was examining the jewelry but the jewelry-maker’s sharp glance of irritation lost the customer’s interest and she scurried off. The now alone jewelry-maker was alert and aware of where she was, leaving her to think that this was not her dream.
As I began to head back to my apartment I remembered that New York City is supposed to be the city of dreams. The city of dreams seems like it would be the place to begin your start-up business, get your first job as a paralegal, make it as a Broadway star, open a restaurant, and allow many other dreams to come true. But in reality, life in the city can also be hard and draining, dreams can’t and do not always come true. The life we end up leading may not always be the life we wanted. Walking into my building and then into my apartment I took off my little white canvas shoes. The small walk in the city had practically destroyed them. Gum was stuck to the sole, they had become a dark sewer water brown and had a fishy scent. I suppose they weren’t really meant for this crazy and tough city. I thought about throwing them away and giving up on them as a cause altogether. But then decided perhaps a good wash and some shoe freshener might do them well, they might not be exactly the same as when I bought them, but they would do.