Kolleen Gladden ‘21
Driving into the city felt like a dream. I pressed my face against the passenger window and took it in with a sense of reverence and awe. The midnight skyline glowed, an endless sea of lights. The Statue of Liberty stood proudly in the foreground, a reminder of how, for seemingly countless people over generations, this place meant a fresh start and renewed sense of hope. I took a deep breath. “Wow, isn’t this beau-” before my childlike wonder was quickly interrupted by a cacophony of honking cars screaming from all directions.
I was born and raised in Southwest Missouri. When I turned eighteen, I made the treacherous journey an hour from home to attend a college in rural Kansas. Charlottesville is, by far, the largest city I have ever lived in or near. I am easily wooed by the simple pleasures of life, such as being near an L.L. Bean and a Trader Joe’s. When fall break approached, I felt brave or perhaps simply foolhardy enough to venture to New York City for the week. Thankfully, a 1L friend was also taking the trip and offered me a ride (thank you, Dominique) and another 1L friend set me up with a friend of his to stay with (thank you, Will). When Dominique dropped me off at a subway station, it became quickly evident that navigating was not going to be intuitive. Public transportation in Southwest Missouri is making a public service announcement on Facebook soliciting a ride from whoever happens to be available on that given day. I have heard rumors of a singular bus, an ancient vehicle that haunts the streets of my hometown, with a less reliable schedule than the transit in Rock Bottom from Spongebob. I looked at the signs, attempting to glean meaning from the combinations of letters and numbers. When I finally made it to the doorstep of the apartment, I felt as if I had successfully conquered the labyrinth that is NYC.
I was greeted by Susanna, the new friend that I would be staying with. I realized at first sight that she was much cooler than I could ever dream of being. She had recently shaved her head, and wore an effortlessly chic maxidress. Throughout the week, I became increasingly fascinated by her coolness. She is a professional model who teaches Yoga, and plans to lead a troupe to Costa Rica. She goes to unconventional gyms in chic neighborhoods and attends art gala events––in short, the essence of sophistication. That night, she took me to a refurbished arcade, a hub of nightlife in her neighborhood in Williamsburg, and introduced me to several friends. Two of them were writers with Columbia degrees, and another was also a professional model. They all wore leather jackets and talked about the local scene. Is this what all New Yorkers are like? I felt as if I had wandered into a television show about Brooklyn and was interacting with the main characters. They inspired me, and the next morning I threw on a maxi dress and hit the town running.
Something I love about New Yorkers is their fanatic dedication to the city itself. At school, I casually mentioned I would be traveling there to a few people, and by the end of the week I had no fewer than eight Excel spreadsheets filled with recommendations. My travel plan was a combination of following the spreadsheets and wandering off at random subway stops to see where the roads would take me. At no point in my life had I ever identified with Buddy the Elf more. At one point, I exited the wrong subway stop and ended up in sea of people, sound, and light. After some confusion, I realized that I had somehow wandered into Times Square. The sheer amount of stimuli was unbelievable. I came to realize that New Yorkers truly are unfazed by anything. I passed performers, costumed vigilantes, sights of all kinds that people passed without even a glance. This is especially true on the subway. One evening, while traveling home, I listened to a woman deliver a sermon to a throng of travelers, only to be followed by a troupe of dancers who executed perfect routines on the poles and handlebars. I watched with wide-eyed fascination as everyone else wore headphones and looked off into the distance.
During the trip, I roamed through East Village, finding an excellent thrift store and trying the famous Baohous, a low-key eatery with an excellence that cannot be overstated. I went inside every museum I crossed, taking in everything from classic paintings to sensationalized modern portraiture. For most of my stay, I visited fringe areas of the city recommended by locals––as a result, I saw a more laid-back version of the Big Apple. If I could give anyone advice from my experience, it would be to go with a sense of adventure and at least a spreadsheet or two from a local. I hope to go again soon and see where the roads lead. New York City truly is a one-of-a-kind place, and yes, it did live up to the hype.