I grab every chance I get to whisk away on an escapade. I tend to plan out big on a tiny budget (and also, unfortunately, to max out my credit card) but nevertheless, I make a lot of mileage out of my trips. This summer, my vacation was short and sweet: a total of nine days. The first part, and the one this story is about, concerns a fabulous four-day trip in New York City, where I was heading to see a queer show performed by a couple of great friends and to stay with a friend of my best friend’s.
The following Friday, my exhausting work week finally came to an end. I went straight from the car of my cool-cat colleague to a gigantic red van packed with luggage and five colourful individuals: three French girls, a French young professional as well as our dedicated driver, a Belarusian piano player undertaking a Ph.D. in music. Given the plethora of my fellow passenger’s visa situations, we were held in the stark little gray room with stinky lavatories known as the American customs. An hour and a half later, we were handed back our passports and our verdict (the French had to pay seven US dollars to cross the border), and we were finally free to go and grab the van’s keys. We rolled through the idyllic hilly Adirondacks with the sun slowly fading and the sunset creating undertones of pink and orange. We made it to the Big Apple at the very classy time of 2: 30 AM in the heat wave on garbage day, which made me smirk: I forgot about New York City’s difficult density. We were dropped off on the Upper West Side at 163rd Street station/Amsterdam Avenue. I had to go all the way down to NoHo (North of Houston) but at least I had company: the three Frenchwomen, who tried elegantly but surely to find their way by pointing on the Subway map (as French tourists tend to do anywhere in the world). The lost tourist effect worked like a charm. The following stop, an ultra-glamorous black woman came into the wagon, wearing a long red dress and a bejeweled turban of the same cloth. She assured us, in a very elegant French (she was from Benin, Africa) that we were in the right direction. She talked to us in that soothing voice of hers for a couple subway stops until disappearing into the night, wishing us a fantastic evening.
A couple minutes later…
I start to feel fabulous despite my exhaustion and I am psyched to be here. I am already in a New York state of mind (talking to everyone and being willing to see and be seen) when I get out of the subway station around 14th street with one French lady. Drunk boys keep bugging me and my new friend, asking obnoxious drunk questions and saying silly sexual sentences like ‘’oh, you are French! Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?’’ . Seriously, dude!
I cross wonderful Washington Square, feeling knackered but insanely free and awestruck by the massive white arch, a very common feature in large European cities (Paris, London, Barcelona, to name a few) but very special nevertheless. I am on my way to Gregory’s apartment, my new host, a man I have yet to meet and greet. The only information I have from him thus far comes in the form of a text-message on my new friend’s cheap phone explaining that he is gone to an after-party in Brooklyn and that I shall find the keys under the rug. Next thing I know, I am in the hall of an apartment building rummaging under the carpet looking for keys. I am worried that some tenants will think that I am a hobo (cue the traveller’s backpack, the bandana and the double denim short-and-shirt combo) trying to break in, but there is no one around. I find a single key, which takes me into the block. I find the apartment’s door and I push it slightly to find it unlocked. The apartment itself is a classic New York City closet apartment. It consists of a small kitchen and a large bedroom filled with amazing drawings, paintings and collages. There is art material all over the place and a library well stocked with a myriad of contemporary art books (from Drawing with Children to Street Art in Berlin). It smells of weed interlaced with Air Conditioning and I have a feeling that I am going to like this guy. I am just falling asleep on the badly inflated mat on the floor when I hear the door opening. I get up to greet my new host and we hug instantly. He tells me about his night
‘’-Oh! It was terrible. We went all the way to Brooklyn to this warehouse party and it was fucking empty and I just spent about sixty dollars on cab and tickets… But whatever, it’s over now. Now, do you smoke weed?’’
The next day, we start the day with a healthy breakfast in Washington Square. We grab coffee and watermelon, food we eat while people-watching and listening to some fellows playing percussions. Our initial activity of the day is to go on the hunt at flea markets. My mission: to find a decent soul record (by a black artist, specifically) for my co-worker. We get lucky right away: there is an outdoor flea market with milk crates full of records. I find one produced by Quincy Jones, so I assume it is mind-blowing: Right on Time by the Johnson Brothers. We are on our way out when Greg runs into somebody he knows: a very stylish black guy around his mid-thirties. The reaction is sudden: ‘’this record’s good!’’ I know I made the right choice right there and then. I am thankful I picked a quality record and I return the compliment when I see that he is wearing dapper black leather boat shoes.
”I love your shoes! Very dapper!”
As we are on our way to the second market of the day, I am walking with Right On Time on top of my head. Two handsome and muscular black men, the packing crew, are chilling in front of the opened garage doors where the market takes place. One of them yells: ‘’now, walk back!’’. I walk backwards and do a 360 degrees turn to everyone’s cheer. Without missing a beat, I ask them: ‘’are you guys able to do this?’’. I show them the panda face, where one’s hand go around their eyes upside down like funny-shaped glasses. They do it instantly, and we all share a belly laugh before entering the market. This moment is so fun and these men make me very happy with their wonderful enthusiasm. This is exactly the kind of moment that underlines the sense of no-frills encounters that permeates New York City life.
Leaving the second market, we stroll along the Highline, a unique perspective of the city where sidewalks and skyscrapers are seen from a different perspective: for once, one is between high and low. At some point, we go down the track to wander around the Chelsea gallery district. We pop into this gallery with a desk dedicated to ‘’create your own mandala’’. Being the super-crafty people that we are, we sit down and start drawing. Both our mandalas showcase our personality: Greg incorporates graffiti art and I leave a love note ”from a Montreal lady”. We wander around a couple more exhibitions, read artist statements and comment on the technique used: it is a pleasure to check out galleries with an amazing art connoisseur.
As the sun is slowly fading out, we stop by Greg’s pad to subsequently go out: we decide to do a bar tour to go drink and dance. First, we go to this cool bar full of young professionals where I try the Blue Moon for the first time, a refreshing white American beer, then to a gallery where we watch art and dance to Get Lucky by Daft Punk (among other joyful hits), and finally to this low-key bar filled with pool tables and young people. We meet two enthusiastic cousins from Queens and we kid around with them, sipping on two dollar beers. We finally get back to the apartment knackered and pleased with our entertaining evening. We talk some more and finally fall asleep at five o’clock in the morning.
The next day, we take over Brooklyn (We Go Hard). Given Greg’s appreciation for markets, we stop in a few where I get great items: a beige blazer for 1$ and red snakeskin sunglasses for 20$. It is time for a pee and an afternoon drink, so Greg makes me discover Sand Bar, an awesome place where sand covers both the indoor and outdoor floors and tiki influence reigns supreme. While drinking our Mexican beers, the waiter accidently spills sauce on the floor and my leg. As a non-fuzzy customer and an ex-waitress, I totally understand. It turns me and Greg’s conversation to past jobs, recalling mishaps and mistakes. The waiter, a funny and sweet fellow in his mid-twenties, comes back with a beer ”on the house, for being so cool about it”. Here’s to having a positive attitude!
That night, Greg goes to his brother’s and I head back to Brooklyn. I get off at Carroll Gardens and walk endlessly. I am strolling, without realizing it, in direction of the Hudson River. I need to pee (story of my life) so I enter this gorgeous vintage-looking bar with sand squares for playing petanque. I change my mind and decide to stop for a beer: the bartender is handsome and they have organic beer. I sit down on a velvet couch to look at my pictures taken during the day when this young and gorgeous Russian lady starts talking to me. She is with her husband, Ivan, and they are both absolutely elegant and soft-spoken. They want portraits of them as a couple, but unfortunately I am leaving soon. We chat for a while and I do manage to take a lovely picture of them before saying goodbye. I stroll down to the Brooklyn Bridge Park, where I get breathtaking panoramic views of Manhattan. I have had dreams of this exact image before, even thought I never walked at the exact same spot. It is a vivid impression of déjà vu. I see a well-known visual artist, kids, lots of families and an early-thirties black father who gives me the widest smile and the cutest hand wave.
Culturally, people in New York have the reputation of being quite jaded since they see it all on a daily basis. I found this to be a false assumption of people who have to navigate a crazy city and all its packed energy every single day. New Yorkers are actually quite enthusiastic and quick-witted. They are intelligent, sharp and funny as well as street-smart and professional. The only time I found people in a bad mood, it was all related to one trait: impatience. In New York, people are not avoiding each other because they simply can’t, it is super packed (especially Manhatttan).
I met many more people in New York City that did not make it into the present story, and each and every one of them inspired me to move there and become their friend. They enlivened me to keep working hard with humour and love while staying true to myself. These couple of days completely refreshed my perspective; they made me feel whole and energetic, ready to fight the fight and live the dream. As I am slowly ascending my career ladder, I know that I need to prepare fully well to prove my uniqueness and necessity in a city packed with young hopefuls but walking those streets, I just knew: this is where my career will blossom. I am fully conscious of the harsh reality of the place, but its electric feeling is undeniable and the universe is calling me in New York City. In a couple years, I will learn all the words to New York, New York as sung by Frank Sinatra and I will carol my way out of Canada and into the cultural centre of America. Start spreading the news…
Lili Monette is a born-and-raised Montrealer and an artist by DNA and by choice. She holds a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Theatre and Development from Concordia University and can be found around the world entertaining people and gathering stories.
Photo: Gregory Moncada