I Crave New York City

Sara Shah

(Europe, UK, US)

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I crave parts of New York City. I yearn for the penetrative masculine energy of the city that never sleeps. The city that selfishly displays its throbbing cock to the world, with the intensity of a man who always wants to fuck, but rarely wants to love the woman he’s screwing. 

I crave not necessarily the New York City most New Yorkers love. When I am gone, I do not miss the bars, clubs, or crowds. I do not miss the renowned museums, but instead smaller galleries no one knows about. There are no Michelin-star restaurants on my list of places I yearn for when I think of New York. 

Instead, whenever I leave New York, I miss the tiny town I have created for myself in the big city. And to survive New York City doesn’t everyone create their own intimate town? 

I suppose not, because there are those who don’t master this trick. They are the ones who hate New York City, and understandably so—how can anyone be happy being an anonymous ant in a giant colony of ants where you are just a lonely number and nothing more. 

Even ants in large communities have a built-in sense of camaraderie. But those who whither in New York City are the ones who feel alone, despite the fact that millions of souls live above them and below them, they convince themselves that New York City is an awful and lonely place. 

They hate it there, and they begin to hate themselves and their fellow New Yorkers, further isolating themselves in a sort of suicidal attempt to create greater dissatisfaction and tristesse. Because only the French word for sadness can properly saturate the loneliness an individual can feel in New York City without creating their own small town. 

I’ve never felt this way in New York, but I know many have. Instead, my New York City grasps me like a lover, a drug, an addiction I can’t quite knock—I know wherever I go, I’ll always have New York—the lover that forever lets me go and come as I please. 

My personal town of New York consists of a few main spots I circuit day after day—they have become places where people know my name, my order, my story, my hopes, my dreams. 

Whenever I leave, I find myself missing the often empty cafe on Amsterdam Avenue, an Upper West Side gem inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s deep depression. They’re known for their assorted cakes, which I’ve never tried. Instead of the cakes, the ravens, or the souvenirs from Poe’s various travels, I miss the Colombian woman who would take my breakfast order in Spanish. In between writing down my order, she would tell me how much she missed the tropical weather of her home country, and always ask about my mother who she’d only met once. 

On other days, I’d spend time in the hidden white washed ten seat room called Floating Mountain Tea house, a tiny zen tea cafe on West 72nd Street, run by a tall Siberian woman with a shaved blonde head, and asiatic eyes. 

I spent many days writing there, and dreaming of a trip to somewhere in the East, enjoying my few moments of escape from the grime and dirt of 72nd Street only a floor below me. I could see the heartbeat of the city from the windows, but sipping my tea I felt transported somewhere else—far away from the messiness that is New York. This only lasted a few hours, before I walked back down the steps of the unassuming building returning to the bustle to catch the 1 train downtown only steps away. 

On Saturdays, I’d take the 1 down to Union Square to shop at the farmer’s market, knowing exactly which stalls to visit and speaking to each of the farmers like they were old friends. Who knows if they remembered me week after week, month after month, they saw half of New York City after all. But I knew each of them, and that was enough hominess to satisfy the internal town I created. 

Other days, I’d wander to Washington Square Park with a friend, or the second best thing to a friend, a book. Before sitting down to chat or read, I’d say hello to the same first-year NYU students selling their art. I commented on how their pieces improved each time. 

“Thanks Sara,” they’d smile, bright-eyed, young, and still hopeful the world would be everything they dreamed. I didn’t tell them otherwise, the innocence in their demeanour rejuvenated me. They reminded me of who I had been when I first moved to New York at twenty years old. 

Then I’d wander to West 8th Street, to the lobby of the Marlton Hotel. The Marlton is the type of place that feels like a secret discovery, but has slowly become more and more popular as my years living in the town pass. 

The Algerian waiter, who I fell in love with on my first visit there seven years ago, knows my order by heart. Whenever I walk into the lobby in the middle of the winter with my cheeks bright red, complaining about the wind, he tells me of the deathly heat of the Algerian coast contrasted by the sweet cooling air of the Mediterranean Sea. 

When he is not in, a part of me regrets coming all the way in the first place. But those regrets quickly settle as I sit by the fireplace reading or writing in the amber lights. There are two plush red couches right next to the fire, almost always taken by two lovers, who sit with glasses of wine only a few shades darker then the cloth on which they are seated, staring deeply into each other’s eyes. 

I don’t know if it is the romance of the fire, or the entire ambience of the Marlton itself, perhaps haunted by the great New York poets on love and lust, but only halfway through the glasses of wine the lovers’ bodies are always closer, almost intertwined, and there’s something flickering in their eyes. If they could make love right there on those fireside seats they would, but they contain themselves despite sultry love-drunk whispers. 

It happens this way every time, and whenever I was single in New York, I would view these lovers with a slight disgust—secretly wanting to experience the intense aphrodisiac of these magical sofas in the Marlton Hotel. 

I wanted to prove my assumption true, that the lobby of the Marlton Hotel only manufactured momentary intimacy because it allowed one to escape the city. All the while yellow cabs passed outside waiting to take the wine-blushed lovers to a bed whenever they chose to return to the bustling reality of the city. 

At the Marlton, I think I time-travelled to what I imagine to be the roaring twenties in Paris, but I am not sure. All I know is in this small room on West 4th Street, I could transurf time and space and become a woman of another era and continent. 

And on the nights I was not downtown, when I wanted another taste of a knock-off version of the city of lights, like a ghost I sat in the jazz clubs in Harlem. The Paris Blues across from Malcolm X Boulevard remains haunted by the legends and inequities of what it meant to be a talented black artist in the past and still today. 

I sip my drink as the saxophone goes up and down, both in movement and in volume, while the other musicians come in and out with their instruments. The room is small, sweaty, smokey, and damp. The owner, who looks like he must be in his 80s, always walks in with a fedora. His black skin leathery is worn by years of smoke, and what it means to be a black man growing up in the streets of Harlem in the sixties. 

Whoever I’ve brought, a friend or a lover, like me enters a trance in the claustrophobic wooden room that is the Paris Blues. Our eyelids begin to fall, everything and nothing feels real as the notes and rhythms rise and topple, filling the room with ecstatic joy and then a deep sadness. 

This is always my last escape in New York City, my bardo, where I experience the space between living and dying, this spot marks my time between going and coming. This is not purgatory, which the Roman Catholics believe where the soul is purified and receives temporary punishment, but rather it is limbo. In Roman Catholic theology, limbo—the space between heaven and hell—is where the souls wait, not to be condemned to punishment, but also not able to taste the true joy of eternity. 

The Paris Blues, the lobby of The Marlton Hotel, Washington Square Park, Floating Mountain Tea House, Edgar’s Cafe, these are all my limbos. They serve as my most intimate places of personal refuge from the busyness of life in New York City, and capture the truest beauties of life outside New York City—they allow me to temporarily visit my mind’s versions of faraway places, and forgotten times. 

Listening to the saxophone, lullabied between waking and dreaming, I salivate for something intangible. The beauty of jazz is that it captures emotions that can never otherwise be captured in words, melodies, or harmonies, in the spaces in between all of the notes.

Jazz reminds us this life itself is a perpetual limbo, and I decide I will escape the the home and comfort I have come to love on the island of Manhattan. The smoke clouds my eyesight, the instruments stir something in my heart. There I decide to leave my small-town life. I, like a rural farm girl escaping the endless fields, crave something more. To some New Yorkers, to crave something more than New York City itself is blasphemous. 

But in the mesmerizing trance of the Paris Blues, I dream of the tropics, the sea, and the East. The heart of my New York guides me away from New York, and that is the New York City I love.

Sara Shah

is a

Guest Contributor for Panorama.

Sara Shah is a travel memoirist and poet. She writes of her adventures around the world as a woman travelling on her own. Her journeys and writings take place on both internal and external planes.


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