I♥NY. I hadn't been there in almost a year when she told me she was coming for a visit. That was all the motive I needed. It was time to go back.
Crossing into the city by train is always a bizarre experience. Like going into hyperspace and emerging into another continuum. At T minus 10, you're above miles of marshland somewhere in Jersey, looking at distant freeways and perhaps catching an even more distant glimpse of a skyline. By T minus 5, you're rolling through the blue-collar aura of Secaucus, surrounded by the familiar sights of the Northeast Corridor: auto repair shops, run-down row houses, perhaps a distant smidgen of stickball.
And then, suddenly, the train goes into the tunnel. The world goes black. Your ears pop. The rumbling tells you that you're still moving, but you stop keeping track of how fast. There's a stop, then a go, then a stop. All you see in the window is your own reflection against a dim amber outline of stone walls and traffic signals.
When the train is moving again, you finally catch a glimpse of skyscrapers, a premonition, and then the world is dark again, and then you're surrounded by Penn Station, herded onto a slate platform and up a narrow escalator, surrounded by crowds, signs covered with foreign numbers and letters—blue A, gray S, LIRR—the city's native language. And then you escape the wormhole, and you're in the other dimension.
Around Columbus Circle, Manhattan ceases to feel like a city, but more like a SimCity. You look up at the Twin Towers of AOL Time Warner and imagine a caffeine-addicted 16-year-old modeling the angles in Blender. You look down Broadway to rows of picture-perfect brown stone, streets lined with green, long lines of yellow cabs running up and down like ants, cycling in 256 colors. And Central Park, going on for what seems like forever.
Further down in midtown, the illusion is even greater. Streets are canyons, buildings are cliffs, people are reflections from the flow of endless rivers. The sky seems to be farther away than you could have ever imagined in Florida, where it seems to be within easy grasp.
Then there's Times Square, the sort of vision that even the craziest of artists could not invent on their own; steaming Cup Noodles facing off against falling stacks of chocolate, Brian Williams the arbiter from his perch atop the arena. Every wall wants to sell you something, be it banking or Broadway or booze. Rasta Man sings karaoke to get dollar bills from the tourists lined up to see The Producers and Rent. Someone addresses a cab driver at several thousand decibels, using the word "fuck" twenty-three times in a single sentence.
Slip across the street and you might see Port Authority grit or tuxedos getting into a limousine or a policeman riding a three-wheeled car that seems to be hamster-powered. A Frenchman raises his voice, a Russian woman lowers hers, and someone issues stern criticism in an impossibly gay voice from the line for Chicago.
But then you wander into Grand Central through a hidden entrance, and suddenly you've left SimCity and entered the Sistine Chapel, where it feels like dusk no matter what time of day it is, and all you can hear are the angels singing the praises of capitalism below the dancing constellations.
And you follow the codes—the green 4s and 5s and 6s—down a shallow staircase into the hyperjump. The spaceship looks like a bucket of parts, but it'll make Canal Street in three parsecs, so you get in. The doors close and you are surrounded by a brilliant white substance, maybe bakelite, hard and cool to the touch. HAL 9000 tells you to watch out for suspicious packages, to Know Your Foe.
When you emerge, you're surrounded by signs in Chinese, little shops selling electronics and insects and legal drugs and not really legal drugs. You're on the lookout for Replicants, ready to break out your cyberdeck and punch GO if the Time Police show up to take you back. But then you slip through a glass entryway, and a fat man wearing a bowtie shows you through a cloud of cigar smoke to the best calamari and white wine you've ever eaten.
And then if you go further into the night, the city leaves beacons to show you where to go: the green triangle of the Woolworth Building points you downtown, the embers of the Empire State Building point you back up. You slip around the Greek columns of the Second Circuit and move across the dead of downtown night, passing dark restaurants named with stock exchange puns.
We stopped on a dusty one-lane street in the spotlights of the PATH station, beautiful in the foreground of the chain-link fence separating the city from what used to be the city.
"How tall were they?" she asked me. She's not from around here.
"Over a thousand feet," I said, "a hundred and some stories. And some people thought they were ugly, but anyone with taste would know they were beautiful, and powerful."
That was what I thought the first time I saw them, from the plane circling around to land at JFK years ago. And that's what I felt when I saw the photographs hanging from the fence: the towers from below, the towers from afar, the cloud of smoke. The big, empty square in Lower Manhattan, a glimpse of what lies beneath the SimCity: dust and memories.
And we reached a dark and silent Battery Park, and saw the shining lady in the bay, French copper turned green, glowing under spotlights from below.
Miles from the city yet right in the middle, in another wormhole. That was where I kissed her.
And I know that long after Manhattan crumbles into the sea, there will be our walk up the avenue, her hand in my back and mine in her pocket, following the Imperial lights into tomorrow, up the island that never sleeps, never dies, never catches its breath, and forever turns to face another Monday.