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The Sojourners

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image New York City is a magical place. Even with more than eight million people, it is easy to find peace and solitude. The city, looking towards Central Park only slightly visible in the distance through the haze of a cloudy evening. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Once known for murders and muggings as much as for Times Square, New York City is arguably one of the world’s greatest success stories.

By MITCH TRAPHAGEN

Until earlier this week, the wildest cab ride I have ever had was in the Dominican Republic, a nation of few actual traffic laws and fewer still that are acknowledged or enforced. That was a place in which our cab driver happily told us that he chooses to not use the brakes on his vehicle because the parts are expensive and difficult to find — he said that while passing another vehicle as we rapidly approached a two-lane tunnel running down the side of a mountain.

Twenty-five minutes before our train was scheduled to depart for the airport, Michelle and I were still standing outside of our rented apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a pile of too-heavy luggage to lug to the subway that would deliver us to the vast and mostly underground expanse that is Penn Station. In the best of circumstances, the chances of making it would have been low, but after a few days of walking around America’s largest city, we opted to forgo the subway and hailed a cab on Amsterdam Avenue.

I don’t know if the driver sensed that we were in a hurry or if he was just a lunatic, but we made the 50 blocks to Penn Station, right where we needed to board our train, in record time and at warp speed. Like the driver in the Dominican Republic passing another vehicle in a tunnel, our driver saw no obstacles, only openings, regardless of how small and fluid those openings were. We squeezed through cars and even the occasional pedestrian that dared to set foot on the street outside of a crosswalk. On the entire drive, he was speaking calmly on his phone using a hands-free device. We made the train, made our flight, and returned home to the Tampa Bay area unscathed with the entire (and flawless) return trip set in motion by an outrageously calm, crazy cab driver. Was it supreme confidence on his part?  Or was it a complete lack of willingness to acknowledge a whole bunch of the laws of physics? 

He smiled and offered his sincere thanks for the large tip we gave him, given partially for getting us to our train on time and partially for getting us there alive. As we exited, a young woman climbed into his cab and he smiled a serene smile to her and exuded an aura of absolute calm. But we knew that within seconds the young woman would be clutching the conveniently-placed handrails for dear life.

When Michelle and I decided we needed a break to find some peace and serenity, we immediately began checking into flights to New York City. For those who have never been, a city of more than eight million people would seem an odd choice, but peace is part of the magic of the city. I can think of few urban places in the world that have the serenity of the Upper West Side. Oh sure, there are lots of people, but, with the exception of the cab drivers, they tend to move at a comfortable pace, primarily because most people can find everything they need by walking in their own neighborhood. And particularly if that neighborhood includes the wonder that is Central Park.

Once known for murders and muggings as much as for Times Square, New York City is arguably one of the world’s greatest success stories. A few decades ago, people were fleeing the city, but today they are streaming in, both to visit and to live. It is a city with everything and that “everything” attracts millions of people. Housing can be difficult to find and even more difficult to afford. In other words, New York City today can be an expensive place to find peace and solitude, but it doesn’t have to be. In New York, there are always ways around expensive, from subways to a $4 lunch in Chinatown to being a guest in someone else’s apartment.

A cab ride into Manhattan from any of the three international airports that serve the city costs around $50 plus tip. A shuttle bus, on the other hand, costs only $15. If you don’t mind patching together a train with a subway ride, it would cost even less.

Good hotels in Midtown can be staggeringly expensive, with nightly rates hovering around $300. The adventurous can bring that number down by utilizing smartphone and iPad apps that might provide steep discounts, but only by waiting until after 12 p.m. on the day of arrival. But if you are going to visit New York, why hang out with a bunch of other tourists in a hotel?  There is a much better and cheaper way to go, although it carries some risks that high-priced hotels do not. If, however, you have a spirit of adventure (and perhaps a back-up plan in mind), then there are the means to visit the city not as a tourist, but as a sojourner. Those means also provide the opportunity to save considerably on lodging costs.

To sojourn is defined as becoming a temporary resident of a place. AirBnB.com is a website that allows people to rent homes and apartments (or to offer their own homes for rent) on a short-term basis. Perusing the website carefully, we found the peace and tranquility we desired at a third the cost of a hotel, and in the process, we became sojourners instead of tourists. Even for our short stay, our rented apartment became our home — and it felt like home. The neighborhood where we temporarily resided became our neighborhood. Our apartment, which included a small kitchen, a flat-screen TV, comfortable furniture and high-speed internet, was just a block away from Central Park.

In the mornings, eggs and French toast were available at the deli just around the corner, and in the evenings a glass of wine or pale ale could be had at the pub with sidewalk seating down the street. To top it off, New York’s sometimes maligned but incredibly impressive subway system put the entire city at our feet.

A seven-day, unlimited subway ride pass costs only $29. From the subway station that was just a block away, we visited the tourist spots at Times Square and the discount shopping extravaganza in genuine counterfeit stuff on Canal Street in Lower Manhattan, along with some great and not so great, inexpensive Chinese restaurants, without requiring car keys or the search for a parking spot. We walked everywhere. Everything we needed was in our neighborhood, everything else we wanted to see was just a short hop away on the subway. That extensive system makes it possible for so many people to live and work in New York.

OK, yes, we did have to hail a cab to make our train to the airport, but only because we dawdled too long in our temporary home. As sojourners, we apparently felt more relaxed than we ever have as tourists. The $10 cab ride was a small price to pay for a few extra moments of peace, and the ride through the city ended the trip with an appropriate sense of adventure. As our cab driver so colorfully illustrated, peace and serenity are in the eye of the beholder. New York can be a fast-paced city that never sleeps, filled with crazy taxi cab drivers and packed with tourists, or it can provide the sheer enjoyment of the moment in a sidewalk cafe seemingly a world away from the hustle and bustle.

With our luggage packed and ready to go, we walked through a farmer’s market filled with incredible-looking produce and baked goods, reveling in how good the summer air of a peaceful Sunday morning felt on our skin. Everywhere around us, people seemed happy, content and enjoying their lives as we were. We crossed the street, picked up our luggage and locked our apartment door for the last time, still steeped in the tranquility we had found on our short trip. Then we walked the half block to Amsterdam Avenue and Michelle raised her hand up for a cab.


July 26, 2012 New York - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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