First lights appear in the night. They resemble dots, which are merely hinting at the fireworks that are about to explode before us. And explode they will, but not in the skies – on the ground. They will twinkle and expand into the air and down city streets. If lights could speak, they would be screaming. Hysterically.
The shape of a distant city is slowly and shyly emerging from that initial darkness as it grows closer, and then we are suddenly engulfed by the sight of a bridge. Suddenly, we are at the heart of those fireworks and sparkling garish confetti are popping around us, growing and dwindling until we, ourselves, have become fireworks too.
Blinded by the lights, I lose the sense of space and I no longer know am I’m at a real place, Matrix, some three-dimensional video game or a parallel universe of LSD which is entered through the “doors of perception”. My head is spinning and I feel as if I’m on a Merry-go-round as those glass specks keep bursting into millions of kaleidoscopic mosaics like a bouquet of sparks.
Once you come back to your senses, you’ll find that you’ve already been entangled in the spiderwebs of the Times Square, dangling in the air, hanging by some of its invisible threads. Swirling pictures run by you until you become one of them. Years later you told me: “See that empty billboard with no ads? Well, that’s what this beloved New York of yours would look like without any lights. New York without its lights is empty and pitch dark.”
This gave me some food for thought and took me further towards the theory of colors and my fear of the dark, colorless world. Since they disillusioned us in art classes, telling us that colours didn’t exist at all, or rather that they were mere interactions between our eyes, objects, and sun, I’ve been afraid that I would wake up one day and that something will have changed in my eyes, or the sun and consequently turned the world black. That’s why I was so frightened of the fact that New York is actually black and for a moment I thought it to be a metaphor for the world itself, be it visible or not.
But that came later. First time I saw New York, much like it was the first time I saw the world, I didn’t know Santa Clause, Easter Bunny and colors didn’t exist. I didn’t know that you existed either.
My sensory apparatus was dazed and confused because it couldn’t focus only on one impression out of so many, so it kept wandering wearily from one to another, trying to put them together into a single image. It’s like failing to see the woods for the tree, I failed to see New York for the lights.
I involuntarily let only some images into my heart and they soon spread in my mind and lost themselves in the map of my memories, because whenever I revisited New York, I couldn’t light those paths and find in it what I had seen when I was there for the first time.
Apart from the qualitative, I was met with quantitative shock as well, when I faced humongous numbers of skyscrapers in New York, which gave the notion of space a whole new dimension. And a whole new concept of dimension.
I remembered one wonderful woman and her nostalgic blue eyes as they sparkled while she was fervently recounting the first time she left her village, which hadn’t had electricity then, and went to some city. She had spent her whole life without electricity, reading under candlelight and listening to wolves howling in the surrounding Bosnian woods as she walked under the stars and the light of a single streetlamp.
The streetlamp couldn’t have existed because the street didn’t exist. Even now all over Bosnia and my own country, Serbia, and many other people live in the mountains blissfully unaware of science and technology, dependant on nature only.
The woman went on to tell me about how she had left her village for the first time and visited a town called Krupa on the river Una, where she first saw city lights. She recalled the glimmer of that town with such vivacity, that her eyes started glimmering too as if the whole town had been transferred into her eyelids. And while she was recounting, I could dive into her eyes and reach that town too. I later found out that this place wasn’t a town at all, but rather a small settlement with a small number of citizens. And a small number of lights, now we’re at it.
I too felt like that blue-eyed woman, Dara was her name, who donned me the story and the childish glee upon the very sight of New York. I wished I could have brought her there with me, so that we could both stand at the top of the Empire State Building and so that I could observe her eyes widen even more.
The Empire State Building was yet another instance of opening the gateways in my mind, as I stood there a thousand feet up, while the buildings beneath me resembled a bountiful of stars under my feet.
Then I continued to tread down the maps of my mind, trying to clear the path through the forgotten streets I walked in New York. As we drive around the city with our windows down, it seems as if we’re flying through the night, merely catching glimpses of the atmosphere from its streets covered in autumn leaves. Merely sensing secrets hidden in strangely colored houses, their paint varying from black to auburn to olive green, imagining where those wonderfully decorated doors with Greek looking columns and steps separating them from the pavements could lead.
We could merely wonder what kinds of lives were unraveling behind these secretive entrances and what kinds of dramatic personalities were being created behind these mysterious doors at that very moment. Wе could only imagine them leaning against the stylish headboards of their beds, reading under lamplights in their vintage wallpapered rooms.
I imagined those quaint Newyorkers in ponchos and brown boots with beige knee-socks, kicking the leaves away as they hasten home where tea, books, and vintage wallpapers will be waiting for them, at that very moment while I was passing by for the very first and maybe the last time in my life. Whare had New York been my whole life and where had I been while it was growing and expanding? Where had Dara and Krupa on the river Una been?
Frames from the movies I don’t recognize, but rather create myself keep flashing before my eyes. I use the architecture as the stage and part of scenography. New York seems like a city suspended in the air between the skies and the ground, patterned in imagination like a movie being born in the head of some director, waiting to be filmed before bursting like a soap bubble.
We wake up to take in the breath of New York during the day, the New York somewhat different from the night, this time white. Then we set off to explore the neighborhoods and parts of the city which are so different from one another that they could hardly belong to the same place. The whole city is like a hybrid house with each room decorated in a different style, belonging to a different period of history. We traipse from one part of the city into another as if by mere opening the doors. One simple click on the remote control and we find ourselves in a new episode.
All of a sudden, we find ourselves in the Central Park, lying on the grass, riding bicycles, doing yoga and feeding ducks. Then we are in the East Village, surrounded by street vendors selling souvenirs and handicraft jewelry, while artists, addicts, and gays parade around us and the smell of marijuana overtakes the streets. Then we are in China Town, where exotic fruits and vegetables are on display in the streets filled with the smell of seafood, which had been there for too long and is now mixed with other exhaust vapors.
Driven by the urge to throw up we scuttle towards the Little Italy in order to escape Asia and pop in Europe for a touch of home. What I’ve always found thrilling about New York is the fact that you feel like you’re everywhere at the same time while being nowhere really. It is allowed and desired to be cosmopolitan, but there’s always some encouragement for positive nationalism and nostalgia.
Near China and Italy is also the Little Serbia. Serbian Kafana is its name, and it is located in Manhattan in East Village and we frequent it to quench our desire for national cuisine and, even more, rakija. Bekutan, Kosili and Mer are displayed in the toilet and next to them is even that shaving lotion my dad used to have, the same one I once bought him for his birthday when I was still a little girl.
There is also a pressed leaf of maize, the distant cousin of corns from my dear Srem, which are still sadly swaying there, maybe pining after me, and I’m not there to take a picture of them. There is one beautiful girl playing the contrabass in that kafana while the clientele sings “Adios for now”. Serbian Serbs sing fluently and American Serbs lip-sync, mixing up the cases and the rest are trying to pronounce “pljeskavica”.
Then we transcend into the charming West Village, look at the fountain in the Washington Square, listen to the buskers behind pianos and cellos, eat Nutella and banana filled pancakes on the grass, all while a golden labradoodle keeps skipping around us and I can’t help but wonder what my own dog is doing.
Then we cross the bridges, some on foot, some on bikes as our pedals get to see the Verrazano Bridge, Manhattan Bridge, Williamsburg Bridge, Marine Parkway Bridge and of course, the king of all New York river crossings – the Brooklyn Bridge. We explore Manhattan in all parts, circle around it by the rivers Hudson and East River, before coming to a nostalgic conclusion that Belgrade promenades and riversides are more beautiful, richer and better appointed, as we remember endless coffee-sipping in Savana, Serbian Kafana, The Old Cottage and the Ark – all cafes to be found there.
Finally, we add our own lock to the Brooklyn Bridge and chuck the key into the East River. The locks are removed from the bridge so as not to overtax it, so I have no idea if ours is still there. I will go back for sure and see for myself. It’s not that I really want to go back, it’s just that I feel that there is something binding me to that city and that life itself will often give me a reason to go back there.
Just like when you listen to the same song you like over and over again until you can’t stand to hear a single chord, or eat the same meal until the very thought of it makes you want to throw up, I had a feeling that I had ruminated over New York until I grew sick of it.
When I first visited it, I fell in love with it at first sight, and I have been trying to seduce and make it mine since. As it usually goes with love at first sight, it’s usually full of illusions and blind. As soon as you get to know the object of your admiration a bit better, you get disappointed. As one of my friends once said: “Some people are better off as half-mythic creatures.” Apparently, the same goes for cities.
New York was one big riddle, one big discovery and the place for reverie. I barely scraped its surface and my thoughts started weaving stories about it until I made one of myself in it and saw us united there. I saw that tea and those knee-socks and they were all mine.
When we landed in Belgrade, I was surprised to see how small the grey Western Gate seemed, and as I unfastened my seatbelt I felt as if I had untied myself from something much bigger. I realized that life could never be the same again, not after New York. Belgrade had become too small. I was never the same after my return – if I ever did return at all.
My life before and later was separated by an opaque curtain. I had stayed in one of those beautiful auburn houses in Manhattan, with those high steps. That’s when I knew that I would go back to New York – go back and stay there.
When I finally went back, it wasn’t the same New York anymore. I had a feeling that I had seen the city, which had introduced itself to me on one light, but whenever I took someone there with me, wanting to show it off, it behaved like that frog from a Disney cartoon. For those of you who don’t remember it, the plot of the cartoon is as follows: a man finds a frog that sings and dances, but as soon as he invites someone to see its performance, the frog just shrugs and lets out one “wibbet”. Incidentally, the cartoon plot takes place in New York too.
I also remembered the lie from some book I had read recently: “Don’t ever fall so madly in love with the night that you lose your way”. I fell in love with the New York nights, as seen from the Empire State building, so much that I wandered among those same streets again and they just responded with wibbets.
The cathartic return to my senses came on the top of the Rockefeller tower known as the Top of the Rock, where I had climbed in order to relive the excitement I had felt before on the top of the Empire State. However, I was merely hit by that sense of déjà vu. I felt it all (including myself) fade. I felt I was getting old and that I may have seen too much already and traveled far too wide to have anything else to admire and see through the eyes of a child, of the eyes of Dara in Krupa. I remembered the famous Rolling Stones song “I can get no satisfaction” and recalled the words of some unknown travelers: “After some time, you see that all cities resemble one another, and you grow tired of traveling”.
And then I found myself in the Times Square, staring at the black billboard with no ads and realized what you had meant by: “with no electricity to broadcast ads, New York is black and empty. And with it, it is just another ad”
So we bought the tickets to Florida as Branko Miljković recited in my head:
“This suspenseful journey will end in sun. I can feel the South of my heart moving there.”
Author: Mirjana Vasiljevic