I cut it kind of close driving to the station in Hudson to catch a morning train to New York City. “Hope I don’t miss the train…” I remember thinking. I half-wished I would.
I hadn’t taken a dedicated trip to the city since March 2020. I’ve driven through a few times, moving my daughter out of Brooklyn and up to our house for half of last year; dropping off my brother or daughter on a trip back from Pittsburgh. On those occasions I’d come through Manhattan and not even gotten out of the car, back when sitting in a purpose-built outdoor structure was the only option for even drinking a cup of coffee. Then there was that quirky trip through back in December: on my way to my stepmother’s funeral out of state - when a Covid test couldn’t be found in upstate New York, but could be bought for the price of a case of wine from City Winery. I don’t live here anymore” has long been my refrain, but usually said with a wistful air that left the door open.
If I’m honest with myself, I don’t know if I have it in me to even dream of living in the city again. I was going down to to meet up with one of my oldest friends - Adolfo, who lives mostly in Italy now. I thought it would be fun to visit a museum or two. It’d be a real moment, I thought: the first since my daughter moved out west, to Los Angeles, and the last before my dad moves to assisted living in Queens next week.
I felt sure I’d even come up with a meaningful piece of writing, about my soul being in the city even if I wasn’t physically present. The connection over the last several years was thanks largely to my daughter and now, incredibly, my dad, for what’s likely to be his final chapter. Part of me just wanted to stay upstate where summer is peaking. The back porch glider, yoga beside the Hudson River and a stool at our little local coffee shop all have my name on them. I feel kind of fragile these days…doesn’t everyone? Did I really need to test myself in the way only a trip to the city can do?
Chances of missing the train slipped away as I cruised by the station and saw loads of parking spaces. FREE PARKING, literally steps away from the train tracks. Sometimes we moan how the area has become overrun, the population tripling and quadrupling the last year, but it is still a sweet spot, idyllic really - a recently renovated historic train station right next to the river where we’ve made a life for ourselves.
So there I was on the train, masked up as required, thinking it would all be fine and that New York would fold me in her loving embrace as usually seems to happen after it first kicks my ass in the corridors of Penn Station. I enjoyed the ride—the beauty of the Hudson River spinning past and the woman in the seat next to me gently snoring.
After two months of looking into assisted living places for my father in New York, I saw train stations along the route in a new way: Oh, there’s Landing of Poughkeepsie; I think this is where that place outside Ossining was…Random bedroom communities of the city I now had way more knowledge of than I ever expected to. We went underground in Manhattan and I exited the train prepared to battle through the morning throng…
The station was eerily empty. I mean nobody. Where were the workers hurtling through, the travelers trundling rolling suitcases along? I saw cops and a higher ratio of the homeless and unhinged: a woman on all fours grinding into a large piece of cardboard on the sidewalk; a guy shouting about the police and another man dropping his filthy pants with one hand and holding a bottle in the other.
Corner of Seventh and 34th— Macy’s, the one-time center of the universe—deserted. I followed the well-worn path of my office drone days from Penn Station up to Bryant Park, once a scary hellhole, transformed in the 1990s into a verdant space with chairs, tables, and free books on carts.
A few tourists scattered among the tables and chairs. The heat was coming on. I sat and eavesdropped on a woman and man, she dressed impeccably as if for an audition. She asked him in accented English if his friends had returned to their offices yet. By the look of things, no. Empty windows in buildings above, signs for vague business concepts like WeWork and Salesforce Tower.
I walked uptown, feeling like I’d snuck into a hospital room with strangers: somebody else’s family. No, I shouldn’t be here. Museums are mostly closed on Tuesday. I sought shade on Fifth Avenue. With only a trickle of tourists, it was easy to navigate around Rockefeller Center and the Nike store, the windows of Saks blacked out except for a few Chanel logos, as if they couldn’t be bothered to do any displays. The corner around St. Patrick’s Cathedral was empty. It kind of made me feel glad, like watching a shitty restaurant go out of business. I’d looked for solace there a couple of times while I was turning into an adult but the Catholic Church is nothing to me now.
The fancy Uniqlo clothing store near MOMA beckoned, but the air conditioning was busted—huge fans on the floors blasted warm air. I headed west, passed Black Rock—is CBS still in there? - and the Warwick Hotel, charmingly old-fashioned even when my parents stayed there nearly half a century ago, now a slightly bizarre curio. I wanted to embrace the whole building.
Looking north a thin shiny skyscraper bisected the blue sky and made me think there weren’t enough vertebrae in the human spine to look up that high. I remembered when the Citicorp building opened. It had been an event, all the way back in 1977, how its white half a chevron top felt radical and punctuated the New York skyline. Who marks the opening of the dozens of insanely tall structures going up everywhere now? “Oh, there’s another one….”
West across Central Park South. The Essex House remains a comforting emblem of the past, a doorman out front dressed in full regalia. But when you think about the whole idea of a doorman, got up like an officer in some forgotten army, it’s ludicrous. All the pieces that used to fit. This old world needs dismantling but what comes in to take its place? In this part of town…uh, not a lot, if the empty stores are any indication.
I bought a bottle of water from a food cart guy. It had doubled in price to two dollars. I try not to buy water in plastic bottles anymore, so I guess it’s better that they cost too much. Descending into Columbus Circle subway station, I caught an uptown train, nearly empty, marveling that you could pay with a credit card to go through the turnstile now?
The last time I’d been up on the West Side was for Bob Dylan — November 2019. I remember Eric and I walking around the neighborhood near the Beacon before the show: “I’ve never known this part of town,” I said. That night is bathed in a glow the golden color of Bob’s stage lights. I always wished I could have one more New York life where I was an Upper West Sider. What would it be like? I passed Barney Greengrass, an iconic name in bagels and lox, and the font and signage looked ancient. Not a lot remains of that Manhattan I fantasized about.
A graceful street of brownstones led to Adolfo’s sister’s apartment near Central Park West. It was trash day. So much trash. In amongst the bags and discarded shelves and a whole pile of tarot books a dark-green leather Eames-type chair and a beige tufted ottoman. Had some classic old shrink died? It was like a stage set for a psychiatrist’s office —going in the trash? Was there still a bedbug situation in the city or had they all moved upstate too? I wished I had our truck…
Then I saw a moving van, a man and woman wrangling bookshelves into the back. So, even the shrinks are leaving New York? I don’t want to start any rumors. A rat ran across the sidewalk in front of me. The phrase “with impunity” went through my head, as if I was watching an episode of Law & Order. I felt repulsed and comforted at the same time.
Adolfo and I dined in a vegan restaurant that was all cool concrete bar and floors; raw wood booths. “Excuse me, miss, may we have real menus please?” Adolfo asked the waitress.
“You just scan this code with your phone here—"
“REAL menus, please. Thank you.”
I’d picked Adolfo out as the cutest straight boy in the Pyramid bar on Avenue A the first night we met. I’d thought of his confidence as a kind of old world sophistication and I’d aspired to it. Now it felt just slightly reckless. I’d wanted to meet up, I realized, because I no longer take for granted that I'll see anyone I care about again.
After lunch, we walked across Central Park. Adolfo loaned me his Italian straw hat and I suddenly felt chic. I remembered seeing A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy at St. Marks Cinema with him in 1982. We’ve known each other that long. I flashed on us as a couple in a scene from an updated version of Manhattan and I wondered if it was okay to think of Woody Allen films fondly, in retrospect only. I wouldn’t watch anything of his — old or new — anymore, but the images they put in my head of a kind of effortless sophistication I could never get to on my own—is it okay to still feel affection for that? Even if he’s the biggest creep of all time, and I’m more at home behind a lawn mower than at an art opening or literary event?
By the time I got back to Penn Station I’d walked eight miles. Somewhere along the way, I had gotten used to the streets being semi-populated. Working in midtown had never been easy at the best of times and I could understand nobody wanting to do that anymore —not now, anyway—if they didn’t absolutely have to.
Am I getting too soft? I wondered. On my way down to Manhattan, I’d remembered that there was an election that day in our small town; Village Trustee, the closest thing we have to a mayor. Feeling an obligation to vote, I had switched to an earlier return.
Dark clouds were rolling in. As the train headed north, I saw the Hudson churning, boats tilting scarily along the shore. By the time we got past Poughkeepsie, the sky was red, the sun setting over the Catskills. Giddy visitors piled off the train in Hudson, exclaiming at all the lush green, the old buildings, and stunning mountains. I felt happy to be home.
Just yesterday, when the rain let up for a little while, I took a walk. I listened to Paul Simon’s concert in Central Park from 1991. The combination of his artistry, the massive audience— hometown boy in front of hometown crowd at the peak of his career, thirty years ago now, brought me to tears. Maybe I was pasting myself in the audience there. I’d seen him at Madison Square Garden around then, one of the most accomplished concerts I’ve ever seen. I don’t remember it in terms of emotional impact but all the elements of craft: songwriting, performing, ensemble playing, musicianship firing at the highest level.
Through my headphones, he strummed the first chords of Me & Julio, so familiar the audience goes crazy within less than a bar, and sang “Rosie, Queen of Corona” and it finally hit me he meant Corona Queens and not the beer…and, no, of course, not the virus. Not back then.
I thought of my dad moving to Queens, around the corner from one of my brothers and I decided I’m not too soft at all. I’ve carried the city with me and woven it into my family and there I stay, whether I’m walking on sidewalks or just in my dreams and occasional check-ins.
“What I recommend is don’t get the shittiest one of everything—get the second shittiest,” a guy on the train advised his younger brother who was trying to buy furniture online for his first apartment. Best; worst—maybe it’s healthier, if you're able, to choose not to forever fly too close to the sun.
Amy Rigby is a songwriter, musician, and performer. Her memoir, Girl to City, was called “…the best rock memoir I read all year” by NPR’s Ken Tucker. Her most recent album is "The Old Guys." She lives in New York’s Hudson Valley.
The Leaving New York Playlist
In A Station ::: The Band
The Train I’m On ::: Tony Joe White
Leaving This Town ::: The Beach Boys
Get Out Of Town ::: Caetano Veloso
Times Square ::: Barry Reynolds
Me & Julio Down By The Schoolyard (live) ::: Paul Simon
Morning Train ::: Rev Charlie Jackson
Train Leaves Here This Morning ::: Dillard & Clark
Sick Day (Lead Us Not Into Penn Station) ::: Fountains of Wayne
Penn Station ::: The Felice Brothers