Two weeks since my return from New York City, I managed to make a selection of my favourite photos and accompany them by the travel notes I wrote while there. What a trip!
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October 22nd, NYC
New York – the city of superlatives in the country of superlatives… Expectations were high when I arrived, four days ago. Only New York could put me on a plane for eight hours. I could not get my head around the fact that I was finally here. As I lay in the hotel bed soon after arrival, gazing at skyscrapers through the window, I thought the city was a blank page to me. I had absolutely no history and no memories here. How strange. We went out for a walk in Midtown that evening, and I had the feeling I was on a movie set, where people went up and down along fancy avenues, well dressed and fast-paced, yellow cabs were hailed with a raise of hand, policemen looked intimidating, and fire department cars were like Santa’s truck in Coca-Cola Christmas commercials, cute almost. Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, Lexington Avenue – I had to pinch myself to make sure I was not dreaming. The magic only lasted for a day. The grid of street became repetitive and boring, the traffic was insane, and with the exception of a few monumental skyscrapers, such as Empire State, Chrysler, General Electric, the rest seemed more or less copies of each other.
Perhaps it is no coincidence this change of perception happened once I set foot in the villages – West Village and East Village – and in Chelsea. It’s in those specific parts of the city that I could get in touch with the New York I had imagined and dreamt of. Because it was there where my only emotional connection to the city, the artist, writer and AIDS activist David Wojnarowicz, lived or spent most of his time, before dying of AIDS in 1992, aged 37. David Wojnarowicz is the reason I came to New York. I wanted to be in his city. I wanted to walk the streets he once walked. I wanted to be closer. Ever since I discovered his art and especially since I read his books – memoirs, journals, biography – something has changed for me. There was a connection. There was inspiration. What I feel for David Wojnarowicz could be classified as love, I suppose. I feel for him. His words bring tears to my eyes. I miss him. I never met him.
The piers along the Hudson River is where he used to go cruising when being a gay man in America was a crime. “Love among the ruins.” I wanted to go there and see what was left. Not much. Some of the Chelsea piers became modern (depressing) bars and restaurants. Some others, at the West Village waterfront, were turned into a stadium and sports clubs. Pier 34, where David made art on the derelict walls and he invited other fellow artists to do the same, no longer exists. It was put down to the ground, only part of the metal skeleton still visible in the water. Being there was painful. I walked along the promenade where the pier once stood and tried to imagine David there. He loved that place. I wish his pier were still there. I wish he were still there, looking for love in the arms of strangers, in the darkness, planes flying low over the distant city, over the black river. I wish he knew I was thinking of him.
GREENWICH & WEST VILLAGE
October 23rd, NYC
Days later, in the East Village, I tried to find him again. I went to the house where he once lived (and before him, his mentor and one-time lover, Peter Hujar) on the Second Avenue, East 12th Street. I looked up at the arched windows I knew so well from photographs. I looked down at the street where he once painted a cow, right in the intersection, for Peter to see it from the window. I tried to imagine him happy in there, but all I could see was him being devastated after Peter’s death from AIDS, and full of rage as he was approaching his own. This all happened in that building and I could not believe I was standing there. But that was another year. Ladies with yoga mats under the arm were crossing the street now, on this gloomy Saturday morning. The year was 2018 and he would have been 64 now. I walked around the neighbourhood trying to recreate his walks. Did he walk all the way to the piers or he took the subway? Delancey Street, the Bowery, Canal Street, Christopher Street – I walked them all, just trying to imagine.
Today we’ve been to Brooklyn. We explored Williamsburg, Brooklyn Heights, and Dumbo. The views from the Brooklyn Bridge at sunset were my favourite part. We have two more full days to spend in the city (from a total of seven), and although we haven’t done much of the touristic things (ferry to Staten Island to see the Statue of Liberty en route, top of the Rockefeller building for the panoramic view, Times Square etc.) all I want to do is spend more time in the villages and by the piers. For tomorrow I bought tickets at the cinema and booked a table for dinner at an Italian restaurant, both in the East Village. The movie is at Village East Cinema, on Second Avenue, East 12th Street, the very building where David Wojnarowicz and Peter Hujar once lived, when the offices on the top floor of the former Idish theatre were turned into apartments. Now it is a cinema and I had to go there to see a movie.
October 28th, St. Louis
Wednesday was my favourite day in New York. We got back to the East Village and the Lower East Side and spent the entire day there. We had coffee on a sunny bench at Three Seat Espresso, across from the Tompkins Square Park, watching passers-by. I tried to imagine the life of the guy working at the barbershop, now on break, leaning against a pole, in the sun, smoking a cigarette and staring at the street. What was it like to be him? To work in a barbershop in the East Village, to maybe share an apartment somewhere nearby, to go on scenic road trips across the USA, to maybe dream of faraway places like Rome, Paris, or Berlin. I would have stayed longer on that bench to imagine similar stories, but time was limited. Our walk around the East Village and Alphabet City ended at about 4 PM when we went to see the movie we had booked tickets for. There was hardly anyone in the cinema room. Every now and then, during the movie, I remembered where I was: inside the building where David lived for seven years, the last seven years of his life. It is there where he wrote his most turbulent books, the books that brought me there. The feeling was overwhelming. And the movie was lame.
The following day was not so great. We did some touristic things, such as taking the ferry to Staten Island and back. The only part of the ride that I actually enjoyed was experiencing New York from the water, seeing the cargo ships and the barges on their way to the Atlantic. The other attraction we did was the Top of the Rock, soon after sunset. It was freezing cold up there, on the deck of the 70-story high Rockefeller building, but the view was breathtaking, to say the least. A thousand yellow lights inside buildings defying the laws of physics and some more flickering on the night sky – the planes preparing for landing at, or just departing from, JFK airport. On the right of the Empire State Building, undoubtedly the jewel of the New York City’s skyline, the Hudson River was snaking its way on the western shore of Manhattan. Although I could not see them, I thought of the piers, and I thought of David. (Did he ever go on top of the Rockefeller or the Empire State? Maybe when he had friends visiting from Europe?)
It was our last night in New York and for that, I had only one thing in mind: go back to the East Village. We spotted two seats at the bar at Emmy Squared on Avenue A (no chance for a table, the place was packed) and we celebrated with cocktails and delicious squares of New York style pizza, hence the name of the place. Now that was somewhere Wojnarowicz would have never gone to. 🙂
On the morning of that last day in New York, before the ferry, I wanted to go one more time to Pier 34. On the promenade, I sat down on a bench facing the south of Manhattan. The weather was more pleasant than on the initial visit. It was still cold, but the sun was shining. I saw the movement of light in the water. On my right, across the river, I saw New Jersey. Behind me, the remains of Pier 34, the iron spikes once part of its structure, and the water running through them ceaselessly. I thought of all that had been lost. “Soon all this will be picturesque ruins,” David once wrote. Not sure what he was referring to. Maybe the city. Maybe all creations of men. I sat there and felt so damn sad. His absence was almost tangible, his return impossible. I sat there and thought of his unrepeatable soul. What a loss. What an inspiration. I felt miserable and happy. When it was time to leave the waterfront, I knew I had to return to New York one day, if only to sit by that pier once again.
Ending the day – and the trip to New York – in the East Village, I had a similar feeling, and then some more. At the bar at Emmy Squared, surrounded by the inexhaustible energy of New Yorkers, and later on, walking along animated St. Mark’s Place on our way to Astor Place subway, I felt something I had not felt before while in New York: jealousy. I was suddenly jealous of those people for living in New York City and having access to such interesting places (although we have plenty of them in Europe, as well), and most of all, for living in the city where David had lived, for walking down his streets, eating at his neighbourhood cafes, seeing movies in his home. Do they know his story?
I left New York with a heavy heart. Nothing will bring David Wojnarowicz back.
EAST VILLAGE BY NIGHT
TOP OF THE ROCK