New York City: A Christmas Cliche
You might imagine Christmas in NYC as a cliche of chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Jack Frost nipping at your nose. This is the image that Hollywood and the NYC Tourist Board wants you to see of NYC, but if you scratch the surface a little, you can quickly see that New York City, even on the warmest day of the year, can be such a cold and desolate city, heartless in its disregard for its many lonely, homeless residents and arrogant in its disdain for its numerous transient visitors. Yet still, people come, drawn by some unknown force of nature to perhaps one of the biggest cliches of all…The greatest city on earth? Having visited so many great cities in the world, I am not prepared to weigh into that debate, but what I would like to share with you is our experience of NYC at Christmas and let you decide yourself whether the cliche is true. You see, cliches themselves can be the most warming experiences that fire the hearth and heart of your soul’s imagination because they are familiar, that word itself derived from family.
This cliche, if anything, is ours but it is also the story of our family’s Christmas in New York City, one that I will share with you now and trust that in reading it, you will feel the beckoning of its call to warm yourself by the blaze of its telling.
It began at sunrise with a bang. Or, a lack thereof. The sirens of the city were silent. Its iconic yellow cabs nowhere to be found. The resonance of cars careening wildly through the streets, the very same commotion that had woken us for the past two days without fail, were hushed.
Streams of dawn light filtered down onto the pavements as we stepped outside the glass doors of our hotel. There was not a single soul in sight as we passed underneath the sleek shadow of the Chrysler Building, walking three blocks in Midtown to Grand Central Station.
What was this madness? The City That Never Sleeps… slumbering? The Big Apple… empty? Had the apocalypse that constantly plagued New York City in pop culture actually come to pass?
We stepped onto the subway just a little past 6:20 am, the clunk of metal against the rails eerie in the empty car. For a moment, I was sure that we were the victims of some sort of grand orchestrated prank that seems to be the norm these days on Youtube, but before anyone could jump out and yell “Punk’d!” the subway was pulling into the station and we were climbing out, the intricate spires of the Brooklyn Bridge rising up to greet us, out of the morning mist.
As we made our way over the wooden walkway, it was as if the city was holding its breath, afraid to exhale. I stood for a moment in the silence, bathed in the pinky hues of dawn and the slight salty air. To my right, in the distance, I could see the Statue of Liberty unfurling its shadow from the murky blue waters of the harbour, just as three silhouettes were cast upon my own. It was my family… My mother, father and twin brother pulling me into a hug. I lost track of how long we stood there, the four of us, entangled in the warm light. It took me a few seconds before the reality of the situation set in, the gratitude that immediately enveloped me, peaceful and loving.
It was Christmas Day and we were standing on the Brooklyn Bridge.
The moment had passed. All of a sudden it was silent no longer. Sound rushed through my ears and it was as if I was passing through a vortex of glass and light. I felt a strange rumbling under my feet and the horn of a truck blasted out with vengeance. The city was awakening. We made our way back onto Centre Street, breezing past the Manhattan Borough President’s Office and the New York County Supreme Court, abandoned, devoid of life, not even a pigeon in sight. Then slowly, as we walked on, one by one, New Yorkers woke to greet the Christmas dawn.
By the time we ducked into a Starbucks for a quick hot chocolate break and an excuse to warm up our fingers, the sun glowed with a radiance, a stark contrast to just yesterday when on Christmas Eve, rainwater had overflowed from the gutters. An hour or more passed in cosiness, conversation and chocolate before we wrapped ourselves up in our coats once again and began the walk Uptown, first stop: Christmas Lunch at By Chloe’s.
Even 16,662 km away from Melbourne, Australia, I somehow wanted to grasp the essence of the family Christmas Lunch that our Grandmama so lovingly made. While nothing could ever compare to her incredible cooking, cucumber salad and hugs, we found a pretty good substitute in the form of Vegetarian/Vegan Restaurant: By Chloe.
We ordered Guac Burgers, Pesto Meatball Subs, Quinoa Hash Browns and Fries, both original and Sweet Potato, and thanks to a heated argument in the kitchen that spilled out onto the restaurant floor, between the head cook and her assistant, which just happened to be regarding the unauthorised substitution of an ingredient in one of our orders, we were offered as compensation, indulgence in the best Matcha Blueberry Muffins and Apple Cinnamon teas I have ever had. It was anything but a traditional Christmas lunch, but by the time we had finished, there was no doubt that it had been a feast fit for a king.
With our energy rejuvenated, we began our expedition to Central Park. We locked arms as if we were off to see the Great Wizard of Oz and not just the angel of Bethesda Fountain. We set off. It was a trek of over 70 blocks that took us all the way up 5th Avenue past the Flatiron Building, the Empire State Building, St Patricks Cathedral, The Rockefeller Centre, and along the way, I watched as the city turned out in force for this beautiful, sunny Christmas Day.
The Rockefeller was like a beehive, golden and crawling with people and while the cheer and laughter was contagious, so too was the claustrophobia and so, before we could be engulfed by the swarms of other families wanting photos with New York City’s most famous Christmas Tree, we slipped out from under the tornado of flashing cameras and swinging handbags and walked the final few blocks up to where Central Park beckoned.
American Elm Trees, bereft of their leaves, curved alluringly towards us as we strolled down The Mall and Literary Walk, following the path towards Bethesda Terrace, the gaze of some of the greatest Writers, Poets and Novelists upon us. We weaved our way through the lines of horse-drawn carriages until at last, we could see the amber steps of the terrace and the outline of The Met upon the horizon. Below, I could hear the faint trace of a troupe of street performers and descending down into the mouth of the terrace, we came face to face with Cover Doo Wop, their soulful voices and the serpentine decor of Bethesda, set on fire by the late afternoon sun.
So enticing were their renditions of sixties soul classics that they were the centre of a vortex that had captivated and captured the attention of everyone in a 50-meter radius. My father later had the opportunity to speak to one of their singers, who confided in him that it was a passion of theirs and that they just enjoyed doing what they did for the company, the camaraderie, hamming it up with the crowds and of course, it never hurt to earn a few extra dollars.
Amongst all those people, standing there, I realised, watching families amble down the path, children shouting in delight, grandparents hugging grandchildren, parents chattering away with friends, teenagers linking arms, pets sauntering beside them, that it was these connections that I could visibly see and feel between people and not any specific day, location, well-known icons or cliches that made the day what it was. It is that feeling of being together, the significance of those moments you share and being aware of just how grateful you are. This is no cliche and it is universal, no matter where you are, what day of the year it is or what you believe in. I knew just how much the four of us were all grateful to be alive and to be together. The fact that this realisation hit me so hard standing there in Central Park, was the thing that was somewhat surreal.
The previous four weeks for us represented some of the most uncertain times of our entire journey so far. We had been waiting on a promise of a vehicle from a sponsor that had not as yet eventuated and we were rapidly wearing out our welcome where we were staying. The generous couple hosting us, family friends for many years, were themselves experiencing life-changing challenges and this, coupled with not knowing where or when we would be going, placed more than its healthy level of uncertainty and stress on our journey.
This extended weekend away and all we had experienced was a distinct breath of fresh air. A way in which we could take a deep breath in, hold it for that all important moment, take in the sun on our face and exhale in the knowledge that we had so much to be thankful for.
We settled down onto a park bench as evening set in, on that faded wood, and watched as the skyscrapers swallowed the sun.
For a few moments, the city was plunged into a blaze of gold that began to wane into darkness, almost as if it was within a blink of an eye. But in that split second when my eyes were closed, the lights were ignited and we sat very still as the city roared to a dazzling burst of luminosity and suddenly, New York had new life.
As we were walking home, reflected in the smooth surface of the skyscrapers around us, four in the midst of millions, I realised that this day had been my quintessential New York City Christmas experience, one that I had somehow imagined before. It was so because it wasn’t actually about New York City or even Christmas but, more simply, it was about the four of us and what we felt and experienced together on this day.
I could see Central Park, pale in that sallow winter light and yet so bold and brilliant at sunset, and then the four of us, our footprints scattered across the city like a golden thread we had left behind so as not to get lost. In a flash I was standing on the Brooklyn Bridge again, Manhattan shimmering behind me like a mirage. And then as fleeting as silence will ever be, it was gone.