Just Go — The Story of a Spontaneous Weekend in NYC
I love Carolina — the beautiful campus, the friendly students, the quirky town. But sometimes it takes a short absence to really appreciate the place you call home. This fall, I took a spontaneous three-day trip to NYC with fellow UNC student Taylor Dodge. As I prepare for a much longer absence — a semester abroad in London — I take a look back.
Up, Up and Away
Taylor bought us stun guns less than 24 hours after we booked a flight to New York City. She said it would make our mothers feel better about us going off by ourselves. I said I hadn’t told my mother yet.
Shortly after making the purchase, Taylor discovered that it was a misdemeanor to carry stun guns in the city and a felony to actually use them on our attackers. So we left our Chapel Hill dorm rooms at 3:45 on a brisk October morning, stun gun-less and hyped on Matt Nathanson’s newest folk/rock album.
The idea of dashing off to New York City on a moment’s notice was only about 72 hours old. “I know this might sound crazy, but if you’re half as crazy as me — and I know you are — then how about NYC this weekend!?” I’d held my breath as I hit SEND.
“YESSSSSS!!!!” from Taylor, just moments later. Followed by, “Meet in my room tonight to get tickets?”
To say that we left for the city to escape our rigorous, soul-sucking university schedules — classwork, jobs, applications, repeat cycle — would only be partly true. To say that we left for one last college hurrah together — Taylor would graduate and I planned to study abroad in the spring — would also only be partly true. To say that as only children, we both yearned for the chance to break away and explore on our own is, again, only partly true.
When I met Taylor two years ago in a creative writing class, I was struck by our similar passion for writing. We both loved to turn from the outside world and create our own — on paper. Often I became stuck in this world, operating through fictional characters instead of becoming one myself.
So, for me at least, a part of the appeal of flying away was just that — I wanted to see just where “away” might take me. As a writer, someone who often escapes within an on-going Word document about people and places that only exist on paper, I was tired of living through my imagination. I was jealous of the shadow of myself that did the crazy things I only dreamed of doing, like caroling in the middle of July and FedExing caramel cakes to friends for her own birthday. When I packed my bags, I left my laptop behind. It was time to find my own story.
From the Back of a Napkin
Eventually, we managed to hail a cab from La Guardia airport. Our Moroccan cabbie spoke with a laugh and a thick accent. We were watching Good Morning America in the backseat, unable to believe we were in the very city where it was being filmed, when we realized that we’d come to New York without even a sketch of an itinerary. For two people with college planners filled to overflowing, the realization was liberating, albeit a little disconcerting.
“Breakfast in Times Square?” Taylor asked, naming the first place that popped into her mind.
By this time, our cabbie had determined from our open back-and-forth and a few sly questions of his own that we didn’t have much experience in the city. We were just two wide-eyed girls studying humanities at The University of North Carolina. Taylor had never even been to New York City before. I’d only traveled there for a long, chaperoned weekend with my high school newspaper staff.
“Can you pull over here?” I asked the cabbie, noticing several quaint little cafes with brightly lit signs promising warm pastries.
He shook his head. “I would, but it’s illegal,” he said. “Cop’d pull me.”
I considered my options. I could pretend he’d pulled the wool over my eyes, but I’d never let one of the characters in my stories do that.
I shook my head. “Just pull over,” I said. I was shocked by the newfound authority in my voice.
After he’d driven us several blocks from any quaint cafe, I managed to convince him to drop us off by the Disney Store and a cluster of theater posters.
“We’re gonna see that this weekend,” Taylor smiled, pointing to the nanny with the “cheery disposition, rosy cheeks” and magical umbrella.
Mary Poppins was the only part of the trip we’d scheduled in advance, buying our Broadway tickets moments after booking our flight and hostel. We’d both agreed that Broadway came first, paying more for our tickets than two nights at the International Hostel combined.
We struggled to remove our bags from the trunk. As we rolled our luggage behind us, we wove ourselves in and out of rushed workers headed to their respective jobs. Although Times Square at 8 in the morning isn’t as busy as I’d remembered it the one late Saturday night I’d spent there before, I could feel the sidewalks filling up even as we walked.
We pranced — rickety luggage and all — through Father Duffy Square, passed the CNN building and approached a crowd clustered around the Good Morning America studios. That’s when we ran almost headlong into the Europa Cafe. The promise of hot tea and chocolate croissants lured us inside.
Pulling off long buttery bands of pastry and sipping spiced teas, we made our first attempt at a plan, brainstorming all the places we wanted to go. Taylor served as scribe. On the back of a napkin, stained with a tea ring:
Times Square (night)
Empire State Building
Statue of Liberty
Little Italy/ Chinatown
91st Street Garden
“What about Harlem?” I asked with a grin.
Taylor didn’t take the joke. “I promised my mother we wouldn’t get killed,” she said. “I’d like to keep that promise.”
“Stay alive to tell the tales,” I said, smiling. “Still, what a story.”
Taylor raised her eyebrows.
“I’m just kidding,” I said. “Sort of.”
Taylor looked back at the list. “Well, we need about two weeks to do everything,” she laughed. “And we’ve got three days.”
I dusted the flaky crumbs from my hands. “What’s first?” I asked.
View From the Top
A sea of lights greeted us from the 86th floor observatory deck of the Empire State Building. We arrived shortly before sunset, and the dying sun’s rays cast the cityscape in a shadow of watercolors.
As the sun set and lights twinkled on, the Chrysler Building with its beautifully sculpted roof glittering in ever-ascending tiaras caught my eye. I promptly deemed it my favorite building in the city.
“We haven’t been to every building, silly,” Taylor said.
“Not yet,” I winked.
Our conversation died with the dimming sunlight. The city seemed to sparkle to life as more buildings with blue, green and pink spires flickered on. The glowing city demanded our attention and our silence. We circled the observation deck, lingering until all that remained were brightly lit buildings. Then we slowly descended, taking the stairs down the last 10 or so flights to prolong our return to the lowly streets.
Breakfast in Tiffany’s
“Let’s get our croissants to go,” I said suddenly.
We stood in line at Europa Cafe, which had become our go-to breakfast spot. “Let’s have breakfast in Tiffany’s.”
“You mean at Tiffany’s?” Taylor raised her eyebrows.
I shrugged. “Why stand outside the window?”
I’d never particularly adored Holly Golightly anyway, so if I wanted to break out of my own fictional characters, why adapt her?
A long subway ride to 59th St/5th Ave. later, we found ourselves standing in front of the posh granite exterior of the famed jewelry shop. Just like Audrey Hepburn, except that instead of her little black dress and oversized sunglasses, we had practical tennis shoes and jackets to brace ourselves from the brisk morning winds.
We pushed through the grand revolving doors.
“The necklaces are nice,” Taylor said. “But I wanna see the engagement rings.”
We made our way to the back of the room to ask for directions.
“That’s on the second floor,” said the gold-buttoned elevator man.
“You mean there’s multiple floors?” I asked, wide-eyed.
“Why certainly,” he smiled. “There are eight in all.”
He ushered us inside the elevator, where another lady keyed in our request.
Neither Taylor nor I have boyfriends, so we’re not exactly headed toward engagement. But a girl can always dream.
The elevator doors opened, and I made my way half-dazed to the first diamond-filled display counter.
“Let’s find our favorite ones and try them on,” I grinned.
Moments later, my ring finger was heavy with $77,000 worth of carats. I’d chosen a ring encrusted with diamonds leading to a sparkling globe that resembled the crystal ball dropped in Times Square on New Year’s Eve.
Taylor splayed her fingers and observed her own ring — two square diamonds off-setting an even larger one and worth a whopping $117,000 — from a greater distance.
The sales lady talked numbers of carats and gave us great detail on the design of each ring.
“They’re just so pretty,” Taylor giggled.
In and Out
Central Station proved a beautiful building seemingly appreciated by only two gawking girls standing at its center and surrounded by busy travelers shoving past. I marveled at the intricately carved gold partitions and lamps hanging over each stall of the Ticket Vending Machines. The tall arched windows let in warm sunlight from the outside world as people ducked in and out of terminals, going from one place to the next. Never looking up. Never appreciating the transitions.
After all, people don’t come to New York to stand in line or to wait for public transportation. Sure, that’s part of life in any big city, but not the part we’d go home talking about. We’d come to the city for Broadway, the Met and Times Square at midnight. So we, too, hurried out of the terminal, deciding to ponder the midpoints later.
At the Angel’s Feet
“I need to get away from all the buildings,” said Taylor, who’s spent a good part of her life in the rural mountains of North Carolina. Taylor had already announced that she could never see herself living in the city; she’d miss her mountains too much. But never having had mountains, I found city life intoxicating. I wanted to explore the contents of just about every building we encountered.
“I think today would be a good day for Central Park,” Taylor continued.
As someone with parents who own their own landscape design company, I’ve grown up avoiding dirt mounds and prickly bushes. Still, while I didn’t feel like the buildings were closing in around me, I had to admit that a stretch of greenery and a clump of trees sounded pretty good.
Taylor glanced at my short green, yellow and pink polka dotted dress paired with black leggings and tall leather heels. She, too, was dolled up in a gray dress with black belt and boots. We were dressed for our Mary Poppins musical later that night.
“Photo shoot in Central Park?” Taylor grinned.
Reflecting picturesquely in the water below, Bank Rock Bridge made for an idyllic portrait-taking venue. We perched and draped over the intricate wrought iron work and kicked our heels when we thought the camera wasn’t looking. Then we swung around lampposts and scaled rock mounds for full-body shots.
We bought hotdogs and several bags of honey-roasted almonds and cashews and plopped on a bench by Bethesda Fountain to enjoy our lunch. There, we met our match for a model: standing eight feet tall, the bronze angel towered above a cluster of cherubs.
“Now that girl has legs,” Taylor laughed.
Birds flocked atop the angel’s soaring wings and another nestled in her outstretched hand. The water cascaded in gentle streams below her feet, raining over the lowly cherubs and pooling below.
“What a view she has,” I said. “It’s a shame she can’t come down and enjoy it though.”
“One of the many drawbacks of being made of stone,” Taylor quipped.
Tap Dancing on the Rooftops
Even before the curtain had risen, I felt like I was on 17 Cherry Street Lane. Everything from the playlist humming softly in the background to the hushed voices of little girls in velvet dresses and big bows promised more magic to come.
A live musical can’t exactly bring chalk paintings to life or make animated penguins waddle on command. But Mary Poppins could still fly, and Bert even tap-danced — upside down — on the rooftop.
“Childhood played out on stage,” Taylor smiled.
“I jumped in those chalk drawings as many times as Jane and Michael Banks when I was younger, didn’t you?” I ask.
“I dove inside books instead,” Taylor said.
I nodded, turning back to the show. “But no books tonight,” I said. “Tonight we don’t have to borrow magic. We’re making it!”
An Angel in Harlem
“Just think, we’ve made it through the whole trip without any problems,” I said, skipping back to the subway station.
“We’re not home yet,” Taylor said. “So don’t jinx it.”
We dashed onto the train just as the doors were beginning to close, congratulating ourselves on our good luck.
“Twenty minutes ‘til we’re back at the hostel,” I piped.
Half an hour later, the conductor said in an automaton voice: “This train terminates at Harlem-145th Street. All passengers de-board at the next station.”
Wide-eyed, we got off the train.
“We should have thought about reduced train schedules,” Taylor said in a tight voice. At 1:30 a.m., the next train wouldn’t come for another 30 minutes.
A small group of men, probably in their early 20s, were talking gruffly in a tight circle. A papery, sallow-faced woman with clumped, straw hair and blood-shot eyes sat hunched on a nearby bench.
Taylor took a deep breath. “We’ve got a couple of options,” she said, trying to steady her voice. “We can stay here til the next train comes or we can go outside and look for a taxi. I-don’t-want-to-stay-here.” The last part she said quickly, gluing herself to my side.
As we made our way up the stairs, we heard a quick tapping noise and a woman in stilettos, bright pink mini skirt and open-laced top darted past us.
One look around the dimly lit street told us no cabs would be stopping here. Only a McDonalds sign buzzed and blinked overhead; everything else was shuttered and dark. A cluster of men argued in the street, surrounding a lone car with the driver’s door open. We rushed down the stairs as fast as our tightly linked arms would allow us.
In our absence, the station had filled with more people — mostly resembling the circle of men on the street above. But Taylor spotted two men who stood out from the rest. Dressed in brown suits and silk ties, they carried briefcases and spoke as I imagined Langston Hughes might have talked — with distinction and cadence. They were talking about their literature students at NYU. We felt safer just standing by the professors.
“I’m Clarence Scott,” one of the men said, extending his hand.
It was warm and firm, which surprised me. Except that he didn’t have wings and wasn’t made of stone, I’d have thought he were an angel.
We quickly introduced ourselves as college students from North Carolina.
“And what are you doing here?” Clarence asked with a sparkle in his eye. “In the middle of a Harlem subway station at two in the morning?”
He didn’t wait for our reply. “Let’s get you home,” he said, taking a subway map from his jacket pocket.
We named our stop.
“You know what I’ve always loved about subway stations?” Clarence asked, raising his voice slightly as he surveyed the map. “You’re underground — away from the hustle and bustle above you — at a point in transition. You can go anywhere … until you’re stopped.”
Our train approached.
“Of course, in New York, you’re never stopped for long,” he laughed. “Just enough time to ponder the in-betweens.”
In-betweens we’d tried so consciously to avoid, in hopes of finding ourselves in the midst of a good story. And yet —
I turned around, but Clarence was gone. Then we crossed the threshold.
Emily Palmer, a junior global studies and creative writing student from Durham, is an intern for the Carolina Alumni Review. She is blogging for the Review and wants to hear about your can’t-miss experiences while at Carolina.