May 1990. Late Spring.
My very first visit to the Big Apple. We reached the Port Authority Terminal at midnight. It was raining hard and we had no hotel reservations. The men, Baba and Mihir (all of 10 at the time) set out to find us some place for the night, leaving Aai, Aaji and I at the station. It was a scene straight out of a suspense movie. I wasn’t old enough to feel it myself but I sensed the anxiety all around and the women spoke in hushed tones, displeased with Baba’s midnight adventures. They viewed every passerby with suspicion and moved their weight uncomfortably from one foot to the other, in case we’d need to make a dash. But where did they plan on seeking refuge, had a situation arisen? I, on the other hand was thrilled to play the extra in this mysterious movie. My only job was to keep my mouth shut and not express my excitement or else I knew I would be smacked and called a smartass. In hindsight, arriving unannounced at that hour, with no place to go, especially in New York, wasn’t the wisest decision, but it was all too exciting for me then. And isn’t that the purpose of traveling anyway? To create lifelong inane stories, that are only thrilling to the ones experiencing them first hand, and yet to be recollected and told over and over again for generations to come.
Eventually the two guys came back and we checked into a rather shady place called Hotel Carter. It’s only qualification was that it was a few blocks away and had room to take us in. On the way there, we passed through Times Square. The crowds, big billboards, lights, glimpses of sky scrapers…. it was everything America was supposed to be. It truly was the city that never sleeps.
While the women decided to turn in for the night, the guys walked across to a pizza place. Apparently the owner of the pizza shop, a kind gentleman from Pakistan, told them not to loiter around and head straight back to the hotel after their slices. He even made sure the coast was clear before they crossed back. For years to follow we were to hear about how it was “The Most Legendary Slice of Pizza” they had had. I refused to believe what I didn’t try myself, but till date, decades after the incident, I have told and retold this story to my own family several times, when in Time Square (or not), expecting them to believe it.
The next day, we were picked up by a distant cousin of Baba’s in his long car and transported to a ‘safer’ part: The Bronx! This uncle and his wife along with their toddler and his nanny lived in a tiny apartment in a creepy neighborhood in a creepier building. But they had large hearts and we spent some memorable times with them in the week to follow.
Through the week, we hit the touristy ‘must visit’ spots dutifully as a family. I have little to no recollection of that. But what stays etched on my heart forever is the unplanned days Baba and I spent meandering aimlessly, combing the streets and avenues of Manhattan. The air was still brisk in May, something unexpected considering May in Bombay is hot as hell. We were unprepared but that didn’t deter us. I have no memory of the routes we traversed. But between subway rides and walking under the skyscrapers, I fell in love with this city. And probably even with life.
Many years later this love of wandering through streets in pursuit of nothing, I still find everything. It is one of those things: if you know, you know.
Since my first visit, I kept coming back to New York through the years. On one such trip, Aai and I even stayed a night at Hotel Carter for old time sake. It was still shady, just as I remembered. Only this time, I knew my way around. We had pizza at Joe’s Pizza in the Village which was damn good, but it would only have to be content with being the second best slice in the world
April 2022, Early Spring.
I was surprised when the children picked New York for their Spring break this year. Until now, through all our visits, they hadn’t quite been captivated by the city as I was at thirteen. But who was I to raise an objection? Amit couldn’t make it, so I was the designated driver. Traffic and especially parking could be a nightmare, but as the old adage goes, just like cycling and swimming, one can never forget parking in a big, crowded city. I haven’t driven in Bombay since 2001, but I took to the madness in Manhattan just like a fish to water. Maithili who is finally learning to drive, I believe, views me in a different, let’s say reverential, light after this trip.
As always, we didn’t have much of an agenda. Shantanu wanted to visit some big shops in Soho and eat pizza at every street corner. In between pizza, we decided to hit every sushi bar we saw. And when we weren’t walking or eating we were in stationery shops and book stores. M was game for anything.
Like a pro, we found hidden parking spots. We ate at a Michelin star Chef’s restaurant. Sashimi was a crowd favorite. We bought stationery and books and shoes.
We drove past Time Square, one of the forgettable moments of our trip. Hotel Carter still stands tall. The street closing didn’t allow us to try pizza across from it. It just means we’ll have to come back again.