The morning train screeches to a stop. I tumble into a stoic three piece suit, glued to his I-phone and deaf to my clumsy apologies. I used to ride subways like surfboards, but now I feel like a bumbling tourist. “Stand clear of the closing doors, please,” the subway calmly reminds me as I step out onto the platform and get my bearings.
The smell of garbage trampled tile greets me like an old friend. Nothing seems changed; the concrete walls still peel, the rats haven’t found a new place to scavenge, and the approaching train still sounds like a metal dragon barreling through a tunnel. I have one spring afternoon in this old city of mine to walk down the avenues of my memory and to face any feelings of regret or nostalgia. Loaded with apprehension, I adjust my huge backpack and take a deep breath of stale air.
When I finally disentangle myself from the labyrinth of dirty subways, I emerge into the chic cobblestoned west village and promptly lose any shred of style I thought I had. Trends on the mainland seem to change and grow exponentially without making the leap across the pond. Style is but one of the stark contrasts between New York and life in Hawaii. Time seems to stand still on an island, while the costumes and set of the city are always changing.
I gauge the passage of time by the things I don’t recognize. That tacky taco bar is now a zen bistro, and my favorite cheep falafel “hole in the wall” is now a clean, slightly bigger, burger “hole in the wall.” Luckily, New York is a city that never lacks in choice, variety and abundance. Around the corner I find a replacement falafel lunch for under four dollars.
I rest my feet in Washington Square Park and indulge in some casual people watching.
A man ponders on a park bench; pen hovering over a scrap of paper bag as he looks with dull eyes into the sky for inspiration.
“The wisdom of a sage is my lady,” sings the accordion player in a timid yet sincere voice. Dreadlocks drape down his shoulders as he stomps in time on his tambourine. He sings softly in spanish, english and french, and collects crumpled bills at his feet.
The girl with bushy eyebrows tosses a piece of her pretzel to her dog. The fluffy Shiba Inu pup that looks more like a fox than a dog, has his fur shaved into a mohawk that runs down his entire spine. He sniffs the pretzel and promptly snubs it. Even the dogs here are too cool.
I haul my cumbersome bag onto my shoulders and make my way towards my afternoon destination, arriving just in time to watch the sun illuminate the wooden sign swinging gently outside the open door. The atmosphere inside of Mud Coffee is like an eternal sunset held captive in a cabin made of bricks and old wood. I am the only thing that feels different here, and I’m relieved that my favorite village coffee shop is still warm and comforting. I order a drink and settle into my little corner.
A sense of accomplishment, ease and content tingles my fingers as I reach for my glass of sparkling white wine. It bubbles into my veins and makes my jet-lagged senses fuzzy like a familiar dream. Memories flood my mind: the taste of too much lemon in my yerba mate tea, the smell of post-yoga sweat, quickened heart beats, thawing fingertips, honey hookah smoke blown through open windows, highlighted lines on scripts, doubled tights and scarves tangled through long locks of hair. I remember when the bitter cold blew the magic away and drifting, I longed to leave the city in a leap of faith.
With new eyes I look around at the narrow, crowded scene of this small coffee shop. Tattoos, skinny jeans, gaged ears, and retro-shaped glasses accent the characters buying an afternoon beer, latte, or stopping for a deliciously healthy and overpriced meal. I admit, I have missed feeling like a funky little piece of some colorful, eccentric puzzle. This city has a character-driven plot, and I used to be in the ensemble, singing and dancing openly through the streets.
I sip my wine, prop my feet up and let the gratitude wash over me. New York, I feel so lucky to have experienced you, fought with you, danced with you, and loved you. Returning as stranger has been healing, inspiring, and–a siren blares through my sentimental reflections. Remembering all the reasons why I left, I suddenly can’t wait to be on my way.