Solitude and small-town friendliness in Manhattan

March 13, 2013 | Travel

When I visited Manhattan a few weeks ago, I emerged from Penn Station, stepped out onto the street, took a big, deep breath of bus fumes mixed with subway steam mixed with street-cart hot dogs, and immediately texted Dennis this message: “I love New York.” And I do. Whenever I go back, I remember why and just how much, so much that Dennis and I have said more than once that if we had the money — and the ability to retire ever, which isn’t going to happen — Manhattan would be our retirement destination of choice.

As I walked along the streets of midtown, heading toward my book signing location, I considered grabbing coffee at Starbuck’s, but passed it by, hoping for something better than giant chainstore coffee. I found it just a few doors down from Pauline Books & Media on West 38th Street at a little shop called Culture Espresso Bar. With my decaf non-fat latte in front of me, sporting a perfect foamy heart, and a strawberry-zuchinni-chocolate chip muffin as a very late lunch, I sat on a stool in the midst of the crowded cafe and watched the world go by outside the window. I was shoulder to shoulder with strangers on both sides, and at least twice  people sat down directly across from me at the one-foot wide table, and yet I felt like I was on spiritual retreat. The beauty of Manhattan. Solitude in the midst of absolute chaos, if you can allow yourself to detach a bit. No one cares that you’re alone. No one cares that you’re eye-to-eye sipping coffee with someone you’ve never met and will never see again. No one cares that you’re staring blankly out a window. It’s all perfectly normal and perfectly peaceful. I smile just thinking about it.

And at the same time, if you’re willing, you can intersperse your moments of solitude with moments of small-town friendliness right there on the streets of New York. As I sat in the lobby of SiriusXM, waiting for my slot on the Busted Halo Show at 9 p.m., I chatted with the guy at the front desk, talking about Austin,  about SXSW, and about Albany. When I hailed a cab to hightail it over to the East Side at the end of a long day, I chatted with my cabby about New York and where I was visiting from and various general things. As I wandered around the halls of the New York Public Library for the first time despite having worked in New York City for years in my previous life, I asked a guy in the elevator if he knew where the Rose Reading Room was. He didn’t. His first time as well despite working in New York. We joked and briefly banded together and found our way to the right floor, where we parted ways and wished each other well.

And just like that Manhattan seemed no different than my little upstate New York town where everyone seems to know everyone else. Proving, once again, that you can find whatever you want and need in Manhattan, whether it’s a sliver of silence and solitude captured in stolen moments amid busy streets and shops, or a little friendly conversation with a counterperson, a cabby, or a random stranger who happens to be in the right place at the right time. If you need to disappear for a while, but can’t go on retreat, I’d dare say you could find what you’re looking for on a visit to Manhattan. Don’t go to be a tourist. Don’t go to shop or see a show. Just go to walk and sit and soak in your surroundings, and don’t forget to inhale all those crazy smells that shout, “New York, New York!” It’s a helluva town.

What are some of your favorite Manhattan haunts that take you away from the madness even while you’re in the midst of it?


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