by Taylor Smith
New York City has always sparked the greatest curiosity in my mind. It has always been a city I have seen countless times in movies and could only dream about visiting, a city where you were either born there or made enough money to move into a penthouse in Manhattan. No one in my family really liked the idea of going to a “bigger, dirtier Chicago,” but I have always longed to understand what made the City That Never Sleeps so special, to understand what it was about it that captured so many people. In June of 2018, I stepped foot in what has since become my favorite place on Earth for the first time, and since then, I have promised myself that one day I would be able to call New York City my home, and here’s why.
The City Really Never Sleeps
I traveled to New York City in June of 2018 to see Harry Styles perform for two nights at Madison Square Garden. It was a graduation gift to myself, one that I had saved up for since his tour dates were announced, and it was one of the best trips of my life. Not only did I get to see my favorite musician perform at the “World’s Most Famous Arena,” but after each show ended, I got to experience the nightlife of the heart of Manhattan, a city I had dreamed of visiting since I was little, and it was nothing short of magical.
New York City really never sleeps. The concerts ended just before midnight every night, and after the adrenaline rush they had given me, I knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with catching a taxi back to my hotel and sleeping until the next morning – in my eyes, sleeping while in New York City was a complete waste of precious time. I only had five days in the city of my dreams, and I was determined to make every moment count.
One of the most incredible experiences I had while in New York City – and possibly one of the most touristy things I did – was visiting the Empire State Building’s 86th floor observation deck at midnight. Despite the sky being pitch black, the city was awake and alive, lit by thousands of lights shining out of the windows of apartments and offices, taxi headlights blazing, and neon signs on every other storefront. It was pure magic.
The air was cool on the observation deck, the wind blowing lightly and carrying the sounds of taxi horns up nearly 86 stories. I could hear the city’s heartbeat – people laughing, cameras clicking, taxis racing on the busy streets below. The neon billboards from Times Square illuminated the sky above the area, creating a glow that never seemed to fade no matter how late it became. Something was always shining.
As we walked along 34th Street, bells chimed every so often as people walked in and out of $2-a-slice pizza restaurants and Chinese takeouts. The smell of greasy pepperoni, melted cheese, and french fries drifted between alleyways and made its way over to where I was walking. No matter what time it was, you could always find a cheap slice of New York pizza nearby.
We caught a taxi that same night back to Times Square, where tourists constantly crowd the area between massive, shining billboards, storefronts, and restaurants. Despite it being nearly 2 a.m., there were hundreds of people in the area, taking photos with a man dressed as the Statue of Liberty on stilts and dancing to street performers drumming on upside-down buckets.
I walked into Red Lobster and asked for an order of their cheesy biscuits. That was my dinner for the night. I shared them with my mom as we walked back to our hotel, and as we slept, the neon signs outside of our hotel room window lit the room in a hazy blue glow and music played all night long.
The Subway is Another World
On my second trip to New York City in May of 2019, my friends and I paid $32 for an unlimited subway pass for the week, and despite all of the adventures we had on our five-day trip, the subway shared with us some of the greatest sites I have ever seen.
One night, after watching two rats fight on the tracks over a half-eaten cheeseburger and some stray french fries, I sat across from a man holding a nearly 2-foot iguana across his chest. Both the man and the iguana were asleep, their heads nodding with each jerk of the train, and that sight remains one of the greatest things I have ever seen.
On an early-morning subway trip during the week, men and women in business suits shuffled into each subway car, briefcases in hand as they spoke on the phone to family members and co-workers about their plans for the day and what they would have to do at work later on. I was on my way to the New York Times building for an interview, carrying my best purse in my hands, wearing my new pants I had purchased special for the occasion, and I couldn’t help but think to myself that maybe, one day, this would become my morning routine, too.
Near one of the doors, a man in a sombrero began playing his guitar and singing in Spanish, and even though most people around him paid no attention to what he was singing, he kept the biggest smile on his face and strummed his guitar the entire time I was on that subway. He waved goodbye when I stepped off.
Sometimes there were seats covered in a mysterious, sticky, green liquid. Other times there were half-eaten burritos on the floor. Sometimes there was a man asleep across four seats while others stood around him, rolling their eyes in annoyance. No subway ride was ever boring.
While riding the subway back from Lower Manhattan one day, a father was sitting with his two daughters, one on each knee. They looked between the ages of 5 and 8, one was wearing a dress and the other a skirt, and they stared at their dad intently, listening to the story he was telling them.
They asked such intellectual questions, paid attention to every little detail their father shared, and thanked him with a hug at the end of his story before hopping off his knees and getting off at their subway stop, both of them holding on to one of his hands.
Every subway ride was different, but each one reminded me of how unique every person is, how many stories the world has to offer and how a $32 subway pass is much cheaper than taking taxis.
Central Park is Straight Out of a Fairy Tale
While strolling through the streets of New York City with no particular destination in mind, my mom and I made our way to Central Park, where we were immediately greeted by men with bikes attached to carriages offering to take us on a ride all around the park if we paid them an obscure amount of money. That’s one thing to be aware of while in New York City – there are tourist traps everywhere.
I took a map from a nearby information booth and held it open for my mom and I to see, tracing my finger along the path that seemed to lead us to each destination we wanted to see – Belvedere Castle, Central Park Zoo, The Mall, Shakespeare Garden.
As we walked, I noticed people sunbathing in grassy areas, others having picnics on massive rocks that formed miniature mountains in the park. Flowers were blooming everywhere, dogs barked in the distance, and every so often a horse and carriage would walk past, their hooves clicking against the pavement.
We eventually made our way to The Mall, Central Park’s famous walkway leading to the Bethesda Terrace. It was lined with artists along each side, their artwork displayed on tiny easels and tabletops. Some offered to take your photo with a vintage Polaroid camera while others asked you to take a seat so they could exaggerate your facial features as a caricature.
I thought of all of the movies and television shows I had seen The Mall appear in – Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Maid in Manhattan, Friends – I was walking in the footsteps of some of my favorite actresses from some of my favorite movies, and it was surreal.
And when we finally made our way over to Belvedere Castle after passing Strawberry Fields, named after the Beatles’ song “Strawberry Fields Forever,” I realized that Central Park was a fairy tale, and I never wanted to leave.
Lady Liberty is Lovely and Little
When I was in kindergarten, I dressed up as the Statue of Liberty for Halloween, for no other reason besides the fact that I was simply infatuated with the existence of a massive green statue in what was already my favorite city. I wore a foam crown and painted my face green. I tripped over the gown I was wearing and my rubber torch would fold in on itself sometimes, but it is one of my favorite costumes ever.
I told myself that one day I would be able to see Lady Liberty in person, maybe even climb up to her crown and look out over Lower Manhattan, and in 2018, I was finally able to.
My mom and I boarded a ferry that took us down the Hudson River, past all of New York’s most famous places – the Chrysler Building, the One World Trade Center, where the Miracle on the Hudson took place. I could see the Statue of Liberty in the distance, a little green blob a few miles down the river.
But as we got closer, I was able to make out each of her features – her torch, her crown, the tablet with the date of our independence inscribed in Roman numerals. I was awestruck, proud that I hadn’t let the kindergarten version of myself down.
Lady Liberty was smaller than I anticipated, but she still towered over Liberty Island, standing 305 feet above her visitors, and making my 5-year-old dreams come true.
It has been my dream to visit New York City since I decided to dress like one of its most famous landmarks when I was five years old, and after finally visiting the City That Never Sleeps for the first time, I can’t imagine never being able to call it my home. I am never happier than I am when I am walking the streets of Manhattan. I am never happier than I am when I am strolling through Central Park in the summertime. I am never happier than I am when I am riding the subway overhearing other people talk about their lives in what I consider the greatest city in the world. I am never happier than I am when I am in New York.
Images: Taylor Smith
Featured Image: Taylor Smith