The tap water might be the best I’ve ever tasted. The public transportation is on par with Germany’s and that’s saying something. The air is crisp and clean. It was a sunny day and now it’s a clear night and is there any better way to see a city than from a wheel in the sky? The coffee shops offer almond and rice milk in addition to soy milk. I can’t get over how friendly people are. The lady selling donuts who throws in an extra glazed, strangers on the sidewalks pulling up maps on their phones to help me with directions, the waiter putting his hand politely on my back while entertaining my many questions about the sushi menu, the homeless man holding a sign that reads I Need $ For Weed! telling me I have very nice teeth. It’s been a day of people watching and I see diversity and a city full of so many sorts of people. This is my kind of city.
This is a startling city. A man falls off his seat on the bus and rolls around on the floor for a few seconds before getting up. A woman drops what looks to be an expensive fifth of whisky in the middle of the street and it shatters, amber drops airborne before sinking into the stone. In an upscale bar, there are backpacks and crop tops and rain boots. I really can’t get over how nice everyone is. Taking a ride on the Great Wheel, I see the water and the buildings and the lovely, interesting people from the best seat in the house. Snow-capped mountains and sunsets over rolling hills. Like a first date that leaves only good impressions, this first day in a new city leaves me curious and wanting more. The attendant at the wheel and the waiter at dinner both ask me, “Are you flying solo tonight?” I smile. I am. It’s just Seattle and me and I very happily am.
The twenty-something man sitting next to me on the plane tells me that the first girl he had a crush on was named Natalie. “We worked at Sonic together. I was sixteen. I liked the way she wore her skates.” I smile politely and turn to look out the window. When we land, he points out a store in the concourse selling fresh popcorn that he says is his favorite. The caramel and cheese popcorn will my first and last taste of Chicago this week—I’ll buy another big bag before my flight home.
Above the bottles of liquor at this corner neighborhood pub, in big, black letters: C-H-I-C-A-G-O. The Bulls are playing the Spurs on the television, Bruce Springsteen is playing on the speakers, couples are playing around me. Candles burn, the bartender pours, I watch. Will I be moving to this city in five months? Outside, the sky looks like it’s been shut for a long while, but in here, light glows. I was warned about the wind, but—as I tend to do when I don’t really want to believe something—I’m not prepared for it. There is a gentle hardness to the city, a feeling that all can be welcome here but maybe not right away. There is strategy to this city I want to figure out. Walk on the outside of the sidewalk, trudge through slushy, dirty snow. Walk on the inside of the sidewalk, risk getting struck by ice falling off buildings at unpredictable times. Learn the neighborhoods. Learn the pizza. Eat all the pizza. The sky will open when you least expect it and it will pull you in, in, in.
A man is standing outside Boston Children’s Hospital. Or maybe it’s one of Harvard’s medical school buildings. The inscriptions on the granite buildings are so high I have to shield my eyes from the winter sun to figure out what is what. Walking down this street, I am struck by how many sick people are in the buildings all around me. And how there’s nowhere else in the world they have a better chance of being healed.
I’m sitting in a Starbucks. It’s fifteen degrees out and this side of the street is not in the sun. The man is wearing a heavy green coat and holding a sign. Iraq war veteran. Father of 3. Out of work. Anything will help. I watch him from my bar stool, looking out the large picture window. I can’t not watch him, really. If the glass were not between us, I could reach him in two big steps. He has a rugged, handsome face. Kind eyes. A reddish beard, well-trimmed—the kind I’ve been noticing lately. What would it be like to kiss a man with a beard like that? Not this man. Maybe this man. Father of 3. A woman stops to give him a cigarette, passes him her lighter. Anything will help. They both exhale and the smoke is indistinguishable from their cold breath. She walks away and he looks up, sees me watching. He steps to another part of the sidewalk and turns his back. In this town, on this street, he can’t be smoking a cigarette while he’s asking for money.
It’s Halloween and we’re in a dive bar called The Cubbyhole. The streets are crowded with adults in ridiculous, ingenious costumes and kids trick-or-treating their way down cobblestone lanes lined with brownstones. This city is weird and intoxicating and I definitely arrived on the right day.
It’s a weekend of food—my favorite kind of weekend. Friday night jerk chicken and plantains and a bottle of Carmenere at a truly hole-in-the-wall Jamaican restaurant with my best girl. Saturday home-style brunch complete with breakfast tacos, mimosas, and a bunch of Brooklynites. Saturday night is the best Italian restaurant I’ve been to (outside of Italy) thanks to the perfect lighting, perfect pasta, and perfectly delightful waiter who reminds me that delivering specials is an art. Sunday: spicy Thai homemade soup. I consider seconds and go for thirds. Monday, warm up before a long stroll in Central Park with potato pancakes and pierogi and borscht. “Here ya go, sweetheart.” All weekend, the people making and serving the food are as good as the food itself. Every corner, restaurant, and borough is bursting at the seams with personality and taste.
Will I be moving to this city in five months? It’ll take me a long time to learn my way around. I’ll get my groceries at one of the corner mom-and-pop shops and spend my Saturday mornings studying and writing in a coffee shop where I’ll become a regular. I’ll go to school but mostly I will eat. I’ll get lost often. I like the idea of getting lost for a little while. Maybe New York will accept me into its folds like the millions of young, uncertain people who came before me, I read once. Maybe so. I’ll certainly know where to eat.