I cross the George Washington Bridge for work twice a day every weekday. In 2002 I went over it for the first time, during my first move to New York. Overwhelmed by all the lanes and the city to my right, I missed my exit and drove around Washington Heights or Queens, I’m still not sure, until I finally emerged in midtown. On that drive I stared at the bridge all the way across it and took in every building as we made our way through Times Square in my 1998 Cavalier. Now I barely notice the bridge or the city as I come over in the morning in a carpool or return in the evening on the bus, my head buried in a book or my attention on conversations with co-workers. One of the great bridges in the country? Great, what’s the traffic like? The Hudson River down below? All right. The great skyline? Yeah, seen it. That occasional indifference is the result of doing the same thing for seven years and living in the city for nine.
I never forget that I live in New York and I always appreciate it — when I’m not occasionally cursing it. Still, it’s nice to occasionally be reminded that I live in the most famous city in the world, a city filled with iconic sights and sounds, a city people dream of visiting. My parents brought my two youngest nephews and niece for a six-day stay and during that time I played host and tour guide. We had a great time and the best thing about it was simply being around my family. But the next best thing? I again had the opportunity to see the city through the eyes of first-time visitors. It gave me the chance to introduce them to the city while I reacquainted myself with everything that makes it great.
We went to the Empire State Building’s observation deck and hit Times Square — once at night, again during the day. We sat on the Great Lawn in Central Park and spent a day on the beach at Coney Island. We visited Ground Zero and rode the Staten Island Ferry past the Statue of Liberty.
I’ve done all of those things several times in the past years, on my own or with other visiting family members. But it’s always a thrill going to those places again, to the neighborhoods and iconic spots that are a part of daily life for New Yorkers but once-in-a-lifetime experiences for so many visitors. It might be cool to long for the good ol’ days of a seedy Times Square or brag about how often you don’t go to 42nd Street, but for me there’s nothing as enjoyable as emerging from the subway and onto the street and watching a first-time visitor’s face when they look up and see where they are. This is what they’ve seen on countless movies and TV programs but now they really are sharing the sidewalk with hundreds of thousands of others, all of them mingling under a million lights.
As we rode the subway for nearly two hours to Coney Island on a perfect Sunday afternoon — the length owing to construction delays but also the fact we traveled from the top of Manhattan to the bottom of Brooklyn — I found myself thinking how amazing it was that we could ride for that long and still be in New York City. Instead of being frustrating, which is usually what happens when a train is delayed by two minutes, much less by 30, it was invigorating. As I told my mom and the kids when we were finally relaxing on the sand and watching two men construct an incredibly detailed sand castle that attracted a crowd for hours, it’s hard to imagine that every area we had visited was part of New York. Our Inwood neighborhood, with the relatively quiet streets and large parks, is New York. The chaos of Times Square is New York. Lower Manhattan is New York. The Bronx neighborhood across the bridge from our apartment is New York. The quiet streets near the Museum of Natural History is New York.
The Staten Island Ferry remains one of my favorite activities in the city, a chance to get on the water, see the Statue of Liberty and the skyline of lower Manhattan. Each time on it — and every time I’m on it is with a family member or other visitors — I wonder why I don’t ride the ferry more often. In addition to the views, there’s something so relaxing about simply standing on the second deck and looking at the water below and the iconic statue above. The wind blows, the sounds of the city disappear. Each time aboard feels like the first time, thanks to the people I’m with who really are experiencing it for the first time.
My family asks questions that I don’t even think about at this point during my day-to-day life, even about things that I pass by all the time. My nephew wondered about the black specks that litter the sidewalk. Tar? Gum? I don’t know because until he asked about them while we stood on the above-ground platform for the 1 train at 215th Street, I hadn’t really noticed.
I often chide myself for not getting out into the city more. There are so many museums we’ve never seen, parks we’ve never explored, restaurants we’ve never tried. After we’ve had visitors I’m always invigorated by the city, the old classic spots inspiring me to enjoy and investigate new parts. It was sad when my family left at 8:30 Monday morning, headed to the airport and back home. But while I’ll always be a Minnesota boy, my family’s visit reminded me of all the great things about my current home — and reminded me there’s no place like this home.