A travel story about a family vacation in New York City
by Abigail Lewis
I know New York City by its summertime smells, since the sense of smell is the one most closely linked with memory and the last time I'd been to the city was as a little girl. I remembered the heavy, lush scent of Central Park's buzzing greenery, the distinctive, soothing wafts of carriage-horse manure, and the honeyed perfume of opulent flower arrangements in chilled hotel lobbies.
We used to stay a couple of days in the city as a family every summer on our way to visit my great aunts and uncles in Maryland; and now, after a fifteen year hiatus, my Mom, Dad, older brother and sister and I (plus new brother-in-law) finally made it back thanks to a serendipitous alignment of free time in our busy, adult schedules.
Straying from our usual stomping ground of Central Park South, we stayed in a new part of the city at the Gramercy Park Hotel. Compared to the touristy hustle and bustle of Central Park, Gramercy Park felt quiet and safe; it livened-up only at night with chic crowds sipping twenty-dollar cocktails to live jazz ensembles at the hotel's Rose and Jade bars. The sanctuary-like calm of the tree-lined, brownstone-clad neighborhood can in part be ascribed to its cost of living: ah, the perks of wealth. Coming from a small west coast town, it was a guilty pleasure to get a taste of such overt east coast social hierarchies—a bitter-sweet anachronism. The sense of exclusive charm was heightened by a petite, private park that the neighborhood surrounds and that only residents who pay a $350 'key-fee' have access to. Fortunately for us, we were able to frolic inside accompanied by our hotel doorman who let us in and out through the black, pointed gate.
The hotel's interior was designed in a Renaissance-revival style by artist Julian Schnabel and everything was suffused in a low, obfuscating light. Entering from the street where the hot September sun brilliantly shone, it took a couple of seconds for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. As soon as they did, the bright green of outside was replaced by a palette of rich reds. Instantly eye-catching were the walls, adorned with masterpieces of modern art—i.e. Fernando Botero, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Damien Hirst, etc.—and the velvety Baroque furniture illuminated by intimate candlelight; I felt like a viewer in a museum and an invitee in a lavish, private home all at once. It was easy to imagine David Bowie, The Clash, Mat Dillon, even a young John F. Kennedy—boasted guests and tenants of the hotel—hanging out there, in that plush, crepuscular place, fashioned for self-indulgence and to shut out the rest of the world. It wasn't quite to my mom's taste, but I enjoyed the feeling of getting lost in its well-crafted fantasy.
As per family tradition, we went to see a Broadway production all together. In past years we had seen age-appropriate musicals produced by Disney, like Aida and The Lion King. As a kid my attention was held more by the spectacle of the experience than that of the actual show: I remembered the rustling of play books and humming chatter against the orchestra's sound check, the moment when the bright lights would dim and everything hushed, and the resounding eruptions of laughter and clapping.
This time I had a different experience. We saw The Humans, a play written by Stephen Karam and directed by Joe Mantello about a working-class family coming together for Thanksgiving dinner. I was immediately engrossed, pulled in by its realistic and relatable candor. The entire story unfolded in the younger Daughter's Chinatown apartment filled with unpacked boxes where she just moved in with her boyfriend: a two-story, subterranean flat with a windowless bathroom and an eerie, jarring clamor coming from the upstairs tenant. There was a storm outside; a light bulb burned out, then another; the Grandma was having one of her 'bad days'. The play portrayed, through the family's misfortune and dysfunction, the pain and suffering of social inequality, loneliness, illness, disillusionment and failure.
When the lights came on at the close of the curtain, I looked around to my surprise to see tense and troubled looks in my family members' eyes. For some, the harsh and absurd reality that the show observed had come at the detriment to its enjoyment—in front of such hardship, how could one sit comfortably? Personally, however, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Because apart from the fact that I am not very easily disturbed by dysfunction, I was also moved by what I interpreted as a celebration of the beauty of imperfection and the strength of familial love. After a full three days with my family, these qualities had shone through our own dysfunction as well.
I know New York City as a city of great contrast, a place of hot exteriors and cold interiors, of outrageous privilege and disadvantage, of family conflict and rare harmony. As a little girl these contrasts both upset and fascinated me and they continue to do so today. I love you New York, New York—your roses and your thorns.