‘Navigating New York City: Havens and Happenstance’ – Part 1
Emergent Art Space artist and contributor Uji Venkat, who lives in San Francisco, California, shares the excitement of visiting New York and discovering beauty in famous art masterpieces as well as in small details of city life and living nature amisdt the concrete and the skyscrapers.
I first landed in the fifth busiest airport in North America at 6:45 AM on a Thursday morning. Carry-on and backpack in tow, the hustle and bustle of New York City’s JFK airport excited me even after a red-eye and a looming work deadline less than 30 hours away. Passing baggage claim in my heels and tailored blush coat, I whizzed to the subway entrance. I felt so “New York.”
Despite my friend Vino’s insistence that calling a cab would be the most straightforward transport to her place, I was adamant about navigating the subway for the full New York experience. Carrying no cash and after 45 minutes of confusion flipping through Google maps instructions, I asked the man at a ticket counter opposite a horde of people swarming electronic ticket dispensers. He sold me an AirTrain ticket, which would shuttle me to the actual subway. I thought I was home-free when I got to the end of the shuttle. I was not. After running in a few more circles in the New York humidity, I purchased a ticket from a lady at a booth. I successfully got myself on the subway and transferred at the correct stop. One may not imagine a grown woman to be so proud of this fact, but arriving at my destination in one piece an hour and a half later may have my biggest feat of the year.
As I walked to her Upper West Side apartment, I was in awe of the enormous buildings, ornate iron gates, and smartly dressed businessmen and women. But my, was there a lot of black attire! Reaching the bijou building, I was welcomed into a long charming hallway, well-organized compact rooms, and the undeniable charm of Vino’s vibrant style.
From there our friend Salman, a San Francisco Bay Area transplant studying in NYC for the past four years, took me to the cutest cafe two blocks down for my very first New York style bagel, hands down the best bagel I had ever had. We spent the rest of the day in front of our laptops working away when I was graced with the discovery that boba (tapioca balls in a hot tea drink) could be ordered straight to your apartment! Accompanied by some chicken biryani (one of my favorites in Indian cuisine), I was learning that modern technology in a busy city meant never leaving the cozy spot on the couch.
Thursday night blended into Friday morning as I met my deadline. After closing out the work week, Vino and I took the subway to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was in awe of the white lighted stone steps and almost magical water fountain in their picturesque perfection. Arriving with only ninety minutes before closing, we glided through European sculpture, noticing the massive and miniature scales of statues and rich hues of ceramics, glass, and jewelry.
Racing to the second floor, we happened upon the Albrecht Durer’s etching, Saint Eustace. I promptly gave up on seeing the rest of the museum. I could be happy just perusing the modest collection of intaglio prints. Minute and precise detail, deliberate strokes and value concentration, all adding to high contrast of black and white; I was in love. Perhaps it was my one semester printmaking course in college that makes me so appreciative of the laborious process that is required for a single intaglio print. Reproduction, however, is altogether a different experience as you follow a mechanical process, repeating each careful step.
We continued to find a sketch of Raphael’s that I had done a master copy of in my introductory art class in college. I remember the forms looking so deceptively effortless in their unfinished, fluid conte crayon lines. When I had drawn it, it was not effortless in the least. Immersing myself in this 6 by 8 inch sketch, I felt that I was absorbing a sense of his dedication, repetition, and studious practice.
Around the corner from Vino’s, we stopped in at Cafe Lalo. The brick interiors were adorned with framed movie posters and colorful prints. The 28-year-old cafe in all it’s charm played a cameo in the 1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks flick, You’ve Got Mail. I was surprised to find that the wall hangings were not even a top contributor for variety and vibrance when I read that they sell 70 different cakes and 19 different pies. I very much enjoyed my carrot cake and Vino her, chocolate mud cake.
I spent the next morning walking all over NYC with Vino. I stopped at every corner to take a picture of something I knew was very New York but so foreign to me. Flower stand! Neon signs mounted on taxis! We strolled past a fire station with an elaborately carved pumpkin and ornate handles embellishing red double doors. Finally, we stopped into a fantastical bookstore called Book Culture. It had all the same books I was used to seeing in bookstores, but there was something about the ornaments hanging from the ceiling, the pyramidal tower of children’s books, the tiny trinkets, and the benevolent staff. It was this oasis of color and love in the middle of a curt, back-to-business, crowded city.
Luckily, a block away, I continued my journey into a further refuge as I entered the monumental Central Park. I could immediately see why it is a sanctuary for New Yorkers. It beautifully juxtaposed nature and the tallest of buildings across the skyline. Carriage rides decorated with gold and drawn by horses leapt into the streets as if out of a fairytale. Vino navigated us to “The Mall,” architect Calvert Vaux’s pathway to Bethesda Terrace. Lined by symmetrical trees, the walk is unmistakable for scenes in many romantic comedies including Maid in Manhattan, One Fine Day, and Serendipity.
Ornately detailed banisters along a double staircase introduce Bethesda Terrace. We entered through the center stairs leading into the arcade with a view of the fountain. The enchanting ceilings are comprised of 49 handmade English tiles. Two singers took advantage of the acoustics in the space and delivered a beautiful rendition of John Legend’s emotional “All of Me.” All this set the scene as I migrated to the fountain, daunting yet inviting in all its glory.
At the fountain, I noted the vibrant purple lilies and felt the light, calming mist in the cool fall air. Captivated by the peace of the moment and art, the commotion of tourists left me unperturbed. We watched little turtles swimming toward and away from us. A vibrant red-orange stripe across the sides of their faces created a high contrast to the murky green-gray water and similar hue of their bodies. It takes a magical place to create such a distraction from chaos in a busy city.
What contrast! The black suits in slate city streets against the eye-catching greenery and wildlife. I love the commotion but I also love the stillness. Only such a place could have both.