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New York, New York
by Chikako Atsuta  (5/20/02)

My romance with New York City was inspired, I believe, by some of Woody Allen's movies. "Annie Hall" and "Manhattan" -- these films, which I saw while I was in high school in a suburb of Osaka, represented nothing but sheer sophistication. The opening scene of "Manhattan" with Gershwin's music, the black and white images of skyscrapers and Allen's narration praising the City, all mesmerized me in the dark corner of a movie theater. I recorded all the dialogue of "Annie Hall" on tape so that I could master his style of speaking.

When I was 19 years old, I decided to spend a year at a small woman's college in Macon, Georgia as an exchange student. I had never been outside of Japan. My mother signed me up for a summer English program in Boston so I could hone my language skills before the school year. My destination was Boston, but I had to change flights at JFK Airport in New York City. I was supposed to stay one night there before catching an early flight to Boston.

It was 1984. A dollar was about 250 yen, more than double of what it is now to yen. Handing a flight ticket to me, my father said with a sigh, "Gee, it was pricey." His friend had arranged a hotel reservation for me for that night in New York. He wrote down instructions: 1) Get off plane at JFK airport. 2) Grab your baggage and go to terminal.3) Find a shuttle bus with the name of the hotel on its body. 4) Get in. 5) Don't pay anything. It's free.

The flight was on Northwest Airlines. Soon after I sat in a window seat, a middle-aged chunky flight attendant asked me a question. I didn't understand her at all, but, instead of asking her to repeat a question, I just stared at her. She left me, shaking her head, obviously thinking, "Gosh, another Japanese woman with no communication skill whatsoever visiting New York."

After 13 hours of flight, the plane was about to land at the JFK airport and we were flying over Manhattan. I could see the Pan Am building clearly from the window. The first thing that came to my mind was amazement that this City actually exists. The Manhattan skyscrapers I saw many times in films and photographs were towering over the island just beneath my feet.

I was standing with two suitcases just outside the terminal of JFK. It was an early evening in late June. People of all different colors, features, sizes and outfits were dashing around me in a swirl, screaming in many dialects and languages I could not recognize. I jumped onto a bus that everybody was trying to get in. After half an hour I realized that this bus was just circulating in the airport and stopping at each terminal. Getting off the bus lugging my huge suitcases, I saw the skyline of Manhattan far off in the smog. Or was it a mirage that I saw from the fatigue of my long flight without any sleep.

Finally I found a shuttle bus with the name of the hotel I was supposed to stay at. The hotel was located near the airport along a highway. From the window of my room, I could see a huge traffic jam of evening commuters on the highway and a man dragging two black garbage bags near the ramp. Listing to the sound of the traffic, I fell into a deep sleep. The next morning I used a travelers' check for the first time to pay for the room. A man behind the reception desk returned the check to me without a word, shaking his head. I had signed at a wrong place on the check. "I am sorry," I said. It was the first complete sentence I ever pronounced in America. I went back to the airport and took a flight to Boston. The first encounter with the City I loved had passed quickly.

My next visit to New York came at the end of my year in Boston and Georgia. Before going back to Japan, I booked a room in a cheap hostel in the Chelsea district of New York for two weeks. I had learned to speak English. I did not have to say, "I am sorry, I am sorry" quite so often any more. I was much more confident. I stood straight, and walked around like I was the one who was in charge. I was ready for New York.

With each step I took, I fell in love more and more with the City. Every person I passed on the street seemed to have a bunch of stories to tell as though they knew all the bitterness and honey of life. Any random man or woman in a coffee shop looked to me a character in one of Allen's films. Shamelessly I tried to behave like I was also a New Yorker. One morning I walked to the post office from the hostel wearing a T-shirt but no bra and holding a mug filled with freshly brewed coffee. I exchanged a smile with an old man in an old-fashioned hat who was walking by. New York then was far dirtier than it is now. The wind blew, and trash on the street flew in the air, high enough to reach the top of surrounding buildings. The papers twirled way up there in the early morning light. It looked like a scene from a Scorsese film.

I struck up an acquaintance with an incense vender in the East Village. He let me take care of his stand for a couple of nights. Sitting on the street and looking at the people, I felt the heat rise off the asphalt and I imagined this warmth was the body temperature of the City. When I went to see a film, Terry Gilliam's "Brazil", at a little movie theater in Tribecca, a Japanese couple that was dressed like typical Tokyoites sat in front of me. I yearned, stretched my legs, and made chewing noises with my popcorn, desperately trying to behave like my interpretation of a New Yorker. If you call yourself a New Yorker, even if you are from the Mars, you are the one, I thought to myself. It was a simple matter of self-declaration. In the arms of the city I loved, I sank my body into the tiny seat of the theater, pleased with my new status.

The next day I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge in the late afternoon. The sun was about to sink behind the Statue of Liberty. Moving my head in the direction of uptown, I looked over the skyline of City. World Trade Center, Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center -- behind Harlem and the Bronx, the sky started to change its color from orange to pink and to deep purple. I had to mumble to myself; my goodness, this must be the most beautiful place in the world. Tears came to my eyes.

Even my marriage was influenced by my fascination with the City. My ex-husband was born and raised in New York City. If he were from Indianapolis or Tulsa, I don't know if I would have been as interested in him. I met him during the year I was staying in Georgia. He was temporarily living in southern Florida but bought the New York Times every day saying, "It is hard to get the City out of a man..." Getting tired of overly hospitable Southerners, I was attracted by his dark mood. Much later while we were living in Tokyo, I loved to hear his New York stories-- about Cooper Union, the school in Manhattan he attended, and the studio he had for years on the East 14th street. His habits of obsessive talk and terrible temper were what I took to be his "New York Style." Alas, what a shallow marriage I had.

Now I live in Boston, and my adored City is four hours away. My last trip to New York was this January. I walked around the Lower East Side, eating knishes and looking up at the historical tenement buildings. I went into an old synagogue building and found that the inside had been changed to a Buddhism Temple. Chinese people sat around a table covered with food, chatting and laughing. There were several immense golden statues of Buddha stationed in the room. I stood in the temple, decorated with grotesquely bright-colored plastic flowers, and felt the beat of the City -- an organic body which never stops evolving. Whoever comes to this City is taken in its arms and carried along. Whatever bad things happen to the City, it swallows them up and moves on. The City to me is like a seasoned man with a set of bright eyes and scars on his cheek. It never stops seducing me.

If I love the City this much, then why don't I actually live there? A few times I made the half-hearted attempt to find a job or to apply for a college program in New York, but I know intuitively that as an admirer of the City I can't get too close. I need some distance to keep my romantic ideas strong. At this point of my life I prefer praising New York City and bashing Boston by saying pretentiously, "Most restaurants close here at 11 o'clock? Boston? What kind of city is this?"

The last time I visited the City happened to be the day of the NFL's AFC Conference Championship where the New England Patriots fought against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I watched the game in a downtown bar surrounded only by Steelers fan. Soon after Patriots won, I moved through the booing crowd cheering silently, "Right on, Pats!" I wished I could have been in Boston to share the joy with the locals. For a moment I felt that I had betrayed my ideal city: missing Boston while in the middle of the East Village. But well, it was the Steelers, not the Giants, that had been beaten. I should be forgiven.

Chikako Atsuta was a Japanese freelance writer living in Massachusetts and a regular contributor to Gate 39.  For more information see: her memorial page. More selections from "Ako's East Coast Blues."

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