USA: New York City, 2018 | Part IV

you may have wondered why I stop the previous story at the point when I still wasn’t conked out yet. because the day still went on.

I was sorting my photos in the common area while waiting for my laundry when a soft-spoken voice asked from behind me, “do you know any place to get dinner around here?”

I said I was gonna have dinner with my new friend if he cared to join. then, he pulled another chair and asked me to try sitting on it, it’s more comfortable than the one I was sitting on. it’s awkward to do with people around, but I did it anyway. he knew it’s better because he used to sell chairs. and me? I love shooting chairs all over the world. well, what have we got here? we’ll have such a good time talking about Eames. spoiler alert: said Eames discussion never happened.

I settled my laundry and met him downstairs as agreed. Harith was conked out so it’s just me. his French friend ditched him so it’s just him. there’s a chicken place right on top of the subway station. I never wanted to eat there, only saved it as a spare. being an industrial area, there ain’t other choices though.

it’s the usual conversation again:

I’m from Malaysia.
I’m here on a work and travel program.
I worked at a waterpark selling pretzels and churros and sometimes chicken tenders like this one here. (holds up the chicken tender that I’m eating)
I’m gonna travel for about a month.
this is my second stop. heading to Niagara Falls after this.
I’m the “baby” of the family (“oh how lucky you are!” “yes, I know.”).
yes, of course, I’m afraid of travelling alone (“but you don’t look scared at all. you’re so brave.”)
yeah but I am scared to the bones on the inside. (I just cried at Times Square) (this is my first time, can you believe it)  (I’m still gonna do it anyway) (sometimes it’s thrilling though)

he’s 7 years older than me (what’s with meeting people 7 years older than me today???). been in American soil for ten years. (“that explains your accent”) here in New York City for US Open then heading to Vegas to travel with his parents before he goes back to Korea for good. when he took a moment to tell me when’s the finals, I already knew the answer—it’s today, the game he watched was the finals. Ruo Ling, oh, Ruo Ling. you never fail to embarrass yourself.

while digging for the ticket, he retrieved his lunch receipt from a restaurant called Raku NYC. although I’ve never tasted it, from its Instagram profile, which I still followed till this day, I can tell it’s damn good. so if you’re in NYC, I beg you to please go try it on my behalf.

he asked if I’d try any good food in NYC. other than the famed Shake Shack, not really. (c’mon, look at us in this pathetic chicken place… that I picked.) to be frank, a huge part of me not getting nice food in NYC is because I couldn’t be bothered, really. food is food as long as it doesn’t taste weird (like celery or coriander) and it fills your stomach. I’m not one with lots of worldly desires—a lot of time even forgetting to eat (remember McMiserable?)—that sometimes I joke to myself that you know what, if someone were to put me in a monastery, I’ll not only be fine, I’ll even be glad. cut off from the world. ZEN. but it’s New York City, so we made plans for lunch the next day.

the topic came to K-pop culture. like food, I couldn’t be bothered much with it. I was a bit taken aback when asked if I listen to any Korean songs. considering my age, he probably thought I’m a fan. for the record, (hah, punny), on my phone I have

  • two songs by Big Bang

  • two songs by 2NE1

  • three songs by FT Island

  • two songs by Winner

  • several songs by Hyukoh

  • several songs by Primary

  • two songs by Zion T.

and that’s about it. the last drama I’ve watched is Goblin (“oh, tokkaebi?” “yeah.”) and I filed it under the mediocre category.

the conversation flowed smoothly from one topic to the next. it’s a nice vibe.

an unrelated subway photo from that night to give you a break in reading…

we moved to the bus stop outside to wait for our Uber. I hadn’t been driving for three months and I couldn’t believe it too when it slipped out of my mouth, but boy, I actually missed driving even though parking sucks and tolls are expensive. the way I said it, he thought I drive for a job. I even showed him how a Perodua Myvi looks like. I said no, it’s just that to get anywhere interesting from my house takes at least thirty minutes so naturally, I spent a lot of time alone in the car, blasting music and singing at the top of my lungs. I mainly missed this, definitely not the crazy congestion.

I’m a person with very little worldly desires, yeah? a garment is a garment. so while talking about our own plans for tomorrow, he asked if I’m into fashion, I said, “not really.” my eyes fell on his fine Chelsea boots, then onto my dirty pair of Reebok—one that I went into a sports retail and randomly picked, which turned out to be the comfiest shoes I ever bought. a while ago I watched Timberland’s (emotional) ad and couldn’t help feeling a little touched, having myself shared so many moments with my very own pair of footwear, like accidentally but unapologetically spilling turkey grease on them. later, when I changed from one GAP hoodie into another GAP hoodie, he commented, “GAP again?” yeah. really. not into fashion. Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg are my muses when it comes to shopping for clothes.

the conversation wound its way to relationship… again. the “what type?” question leaves me speechless most times unless I’m in the mood to throw people off by stating quirky criteria. like, I don’t know, very specific eye colours. there’s this Humans of New York story where the 70-year-old or so protagonist said that by now he has probably loved 8 different women—all of them his lovely wife throughout their marriage. that’s more like it. people gotta understand that everyone changes so it’s not the “type” makes a relationship endure through time and hardships, it’s two people who can grow together without growing apart.

but this is a new friend. so, instead, I said, “has a brain and a heart.” and the wisdom to know when to use which.

“has a brain and a heart,” his response echoed mine. “but it’s complicated.”

thinking back to this conversation from time to time, I shoulda asked him what went wrong, you know, maybe he was waiting for my cue or to, I don’t know, lighten the mood or something. she a heartless bitch? or a brainless woman? or is he closeted? but all I said that time was “I know”. (I know??? what do you know Ruo Ling???)

by the time we got onto the Uber, it’s already 10:30PM. the night's still young, considering this is the city that doesn’t sleep… it’s gonna be an adventure.

he dozed off during the ride, only jolted awake when another rider got off. he mumbled something in Korean in his sleep, and that’s when it’s proven all the more true that when people cuss or I don’t know, sleeptalk, they do it in their mother tongue. it’s a long day for him: woke up at 3. ran at Central Park at 5. had a Skype meeting. met a friend. lunched. watched the US Open. and now he’s here unfolding the night with this strange, awkward woman. putting these pieces of information together with his realization when I said, “I wanna see the Statue of Liberty” I meant from the ferry itself instead of the terminal (you can’t see Torch Girl from the terminal), guilt overtook my excitement. I frantically texted Johnson. I think I accidentally scammed a person to a midnight trip. what the hell should I do?

I told him I’ll wake him up when we arrive but he said it’s okay, it’s his choice to come so he stayed up and we talked about learning Korean.

now, I’m trilingual like most of my friends are and having learnt Mandarin since five, I thought nothing could be tougher. but boy, was I wrong. Korean is a completely different challenge. it took me about ten days on Duolingo to realize that the characters are constructed much like English—a formation of a few “alphabets.” and what’s the difference between Yo and Yeo again?

another random subway photo…

we missed the 11PM ferry. so that’s another 30 minutes wait. he tried napping but did otherwise. so, on the benches under the brightly lit terminal in the night, we people-watched. remember I said how your identity and background shaped your New York City experience? it’s playing again here. mainly, I just thought what are these people up to until he pointed out a man in his sixties whom we later called “Alaskan-Hawaiian”. you'll see why. Alaska: long sleeve shirts + black sleeveless winter jacket. Hawaii: beach shorts + slippers. as for the fedora, I don’t quite know what to categorize that as. boy, the people in NYC are never cease of cuckoo choices when it comes to clothes.

the ferry was a big one. as we boarded I reminded myself again, go to the right for Torch Girl. we’re seated on the right side at first. however, for some reason, he requested to sit at the middle row. wait… what? but but, I came here for Torch Girl. not good at making requests and too good at bowing to requests, we moved. but after a little while taking in the atmosphere of the ferry, he sensed something and asked if I wanted to check the outdoor deck. “afterall, you’re here to see the Statue of Liberty.” yeah, right.

we checked out all the outdoor decks on every floor and couldn’t help feeling curious when we saw “Hurricane Deck” for the last one. he tried opening the door open for me each time but failed so in the end, I was always the one sliding the door open. dude… even though I didn’t manage to catch the sunset from the ferry as planned, I felt a little relieved that we didn’t need to squeeze with the crowd. there were only the two of us.

view from the Staten Island Ferry

how did I know the Staten Island Ferry runs even in the midnight? courtesy of the young adult novel Where She Went, the sequel to If I Stay. out in the open, the wind messed our hair and made me even colder under my GAP. as we looked beyond the endless waters to the twinkling city lights, I couldn’t believe it—I was living in a fiction.

he said it’s beautiful and breathtaking like his previous day on top of the Empire State building, watching the city beneath from the top of the world. behind him, I shook my head and scoffed in my mind. such a romantic, although I can’t say if he’s a hopeless one. me? well, by now you’d probably know the pattern of this passage: a night view is… (c’mon say it with me) a night view. of course, it looked good, because c’mon, how often do you see views like this? but there’s also the overworked and underappreciated people working late into the night. and the enormous energy needed to supply the electricity in this city. it’s also likely that somewhere in an alley, a crime is happening. oh, I’m such a realist and a party pooper.

I started out to be an optimist, then a pessimist, then a realist and now, an opportunist. nowadays, it’s like I have a panel full of toggles in my head and I can adjust them accordingly. sort of like Lightroom’s interface. deep down I know I’m still an idealist, but you want a little pessimism? I can give you that. oh, you want me to see through the rose-coloured crap and see reality as reality? yeah, that I can do too. how about focusing on the silver lining instead of the cloud? alright, no problem. hey, throw cynicism, scepticism and nihilism onto my panel too.

we spotted Lady Liberty. it’s tiny like I’d imagined it. it never stopped leaving him in a daze even though it’s his second time seeing her. the first time being a handful of years ago, “when I was about your age.” while we’re on the topic of landmarks during dinner, he told me he used to go to Namsan Tower when he’s a kid. but growing up, his last visit to the tower was about ten years ago. I said yeah, funny how we always never visit our own city’s landmark and I told him my embarrassing exchange from the night before.

Torch Girl

me leaning against the handrail while he kept himself a few steps away from the edge, he mentioned that he’s afraid of the water, especially in the dark. what’s in it? I thought of those divers who go into the water in the dark to see sea creatures that come alive at night. then, I thought of my diving licence. my diving licence that I haven’t gotten yet. my diving licence that I’ve been saying I would get since 2016. and then I thought of the peace underneath the water—the kind of peace that is close to non-existent on land. In the water, not even the fish talks to you. spell Z-E-N. maybe I should really consider moving into a monastery, yeah? anyway, I’ve pushed this idea away as I aged ‘cause a diving licence will likely result in a yearly diving trip. otherwise, I’ll be guilty over the money spent on that licence.

we switched between the right and the left side of the ferry, even though there’s nothing much on the left to see. at this point, I didn’t care much about Torch Girl anymore. the idea of discovering New York City in the middle of the night seemed more thrilling to me. not as scary as before now that I have someone along with me.

when we’re done being frozen outside, we settled on a row of seat opposite a man with lots of belonging—including an extension plug—sleeping. he didn’t look like he’d be getting much sleep here though. ‘cause when the ferry arrived, they’re surely gonna kick him and everyone off. keeping to ourselves, “what are these people up to?” we mused. are they going to work or are they heading home? we’ll never know, it’s the city that doesn’t sleep. just look at us. as tourists, why the hell are we even spending thirty minutes on the ferry at such an ungodly hour? we could’ve done it in, say, the evening or at least, 10PM.

we disembarked then embarked on a significantly smaller vessel. no outdoor decks to explore. instead of a single orange colour, the walls are painted milk white and the seats are in yellow and blue. he assumed I liked this one more because I kept taking photos of it. okay, yeah, maybe I like the seats here more.

this time he napped without reluctant, only waking up when I sat next to him again after taking photos of the Lady… never cease to amaze me on my second view too even though the last time I’d seen her was about half an hour ago.

we watched the world go by outside the window. he pointed out these rows of lights and told me it’s moving. it took my eyes a while to see through the illusion. but yeah, it’s moving. I said jokingly, “maybe my Amazon orders are in it,” except that I pronounced the Ama- in ‘Amazon’ like how you would pronounce ‘Amazing’. he corrected me and I tried a few times but I just couldn’t. I give up. I said we’re brought up mostly with British English and it’s been a funny time weaving my way through American conversation with this language. I agree with my father. I mean, it’s ridiculous for can and can’t to sound the same here. so can you or can you? in our place we say can or can’t. then I did a mental “oops”, because yeah, can’t is pronounced like… cunt. it’s a swear word so filthy that even the NYC subway can’t beat it. English language. unbelievable.

the smaller ferry that I like more (?)

in exchange for his agreement to come with me, I’d agreed to go to DUMBO (again) with him after Staten Island. he took a deserted new subway ticket lying on top of the machine to examine it. a couple of people at the subway told us it’s okay to take it, it’s an extra anyway. I left the choice to him since he should be know better than me after living here for ten years. in the end, he took it, albeit a little bit hesitantly. in my mind I went really? really??? my natural defence is to not take it. what if it’s, I don’t know, drugged somehow? what’s the catch? yeah, asked the one who decided to spend the night with a stranger in a foreign city. spoiler alert: it actually worked and there’s no catch. wow, New York City, you surprised me.

as I put my purse bag into my backpack, he stopped me and arranged it properly for me, commenting that “it’s sloppy”. seriously? I’d figured out a way to make it easy for me to find my stuff but nearly impossible for pickpockets to steal. so, hey, if there’s a word starting with ‘s’ to describe Ruo Ling, it’s ‘smart’, not ‘sloppy’.

the many advertisement posters stared back at us while we’re waiting for the train. one of them was a movie poster. he asked if I liked watching movies and if I watched any chick flicks. both Fight Club and Legally Blonde flashed past my mind when I tried to decide what fits into “chick flicks”. I watch pretty much anything as long as it’s not too bad or scary. I mean, from Fight Club to Legally Blonde. the spectrum’s really far and wide here.

on the train, I studied the New York City map on the wall out of boredom. as if upon realisation, he said, “so, Staten Island, Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens and… The Bronx. the five boroughs of New York City.” it’s my first time hearing it. the five boroughs. I never really thought about it. it’s funny that we always look at the same thing but see completely different things. months later when I saw the primary election stickers, hey, New Yorkers, I understood!

we arrived at York Street Station again. oh hello, old friend. I’ve been to this station three times it’s kinda like home in New York City now. I knew how the exit looked like even with my eyes closed. it’s a sloped tunnel with walls covered in square, white tiles. it’s grim even during the day, but that’s what attracts me. I’d imagined someone running across it, camera going from levelled to skewed. maybe Keanu Reeves limping behind with a gun in his hand. the overall tone cold... channelling my action movie fantasy again huh.

the horror movie version would be a bunch of zombies chasing after us. I mentioned that. and how when we insult our friends we say, “it’s okay you’re safe from the zombies.” because you don’t have what they want—brain. it’s really just an elaborated way to say ‘you’re stupid’. of course, he didn’t get it. well, I don’t blame him. it’s like some kinda level 8 insult.

the York Street Station underground.

DUMBO was completely different at 1AM. dead. almost empty save for a grocery store. he treated me a bunch of grapes that I stupidly picked which cost a lot in exchange for the Uber ride earlier. I kinda forgot how much grapes cost ‘cause I’ve been snacking the ones from the park for free. “who would’ve expected a grocery store here late at night like this? New York City, it’s different, huh. no Walmart or Target,” he said. yeah, but all I could think of was Food Lion Food Lion Food Lion and what’s the equivalent of it in Salt Lake City where he used to live.

he wanted a photo with Manhattan bridge so I said okay, but gimme a sec I needa switch lens. he’s amazed—okay everyone’s always amazed—when I flipped my bag the other way to retrieve my gears. “so that’s why your bag is so big?” I get that all the time. also, I don’t understand girls who want nice photos but are unwilling to carry the gears themselves? jeez.

“are you going to be a photographer?” the joke is, anyone with a DSLR can open a Facebook Page and call themselves a photographer. the label is vague. as for me, the benchmark is to be hired as one. so I only shrugged and replied, “trying” when he asked if I wanna be one. fast forward a few months later, hey, Paul, I made it! I was hired as one. real job, real dough.

he’s worried how the photo would turn out in the drizzle. I assured him that it’s okay, plus, “I actually like it when the rain gives reflection.” it’s the truth. except that I shouldn’t’ve said that OUT LOUD because it’s a fucking curse. the next trip I had, it was raining cats and dogs on the first and second day. well thank you very much omnipotent being up there.

his response to this was, “you’re weird.” in a flash I was back at the big, brown, rectangular table in my old office again, Nat giving me a judgmental look, she said, “you’re weird, Rolling.” “well, everyone is weird,” I replied matter-of-factly. looking back to her computer, she said, “you’re right.” probably wanting me to think that she’s brushing me off, but I saw her smile and I knew that she agreed with wise, wise Ruo Ling. everyone is weird, it’s just that we wear it differently.

I strolled after my new friend to a park facing the Manhattan skyline, pushing away the idea that this is a lot like Before Sunrise away—two young travellers walking around the city in the midnight, talking for hours. okay, reality check: it’s not. well, for one, our conversation is way, way less philosophical than those two. I was more Jesse and him, Celine. also, there’s no train waiting for either of us to catch in the morning. instead, we’ll meet again soon. tomorrow. well, I mean 12 hours later.

as we wandered the area, we talked about the places we’ve been to. his list was considerably longer than mine, but he broke off halfway and said, “you know, it’s not the list of places that matter in the end. it’s the experience, like this one now.”

one day I was sorting my receipts (yes, I hoarded them :P), it struck me that you can’t dismiss the importance of dates, yes, but they only play a role in planning, documenting and staying on the same page with people you communicate with. but how you felt and what you did on a particular day, time will either polish it shiny or grind it into nothing. McMiserable, crying at Times Square, the chills after every sunset in San Francisco, lousy ramen in Chicago made slightly better with the presence of an old friend, feeling warm in my heart despite the cold shower from the American Falls, one Target run before our road trip began… they’re the ones that stood out among other memories that are thrown into the abyss of my memories, forgotten. these… these are what beats The List.

the area was run down, I thought. he gave me a face questioning my understanding of the word “run-down”. I insisted. this place could be livelier, you know, even during the day, considering the number of people who come her to #OOTD every day. but instead, a lot of the shop units are left abandoned as if time stood still in the 1980s.

I kinda wished that we’re in the 1920s or somewhere there. I’ve always loved that era. Gershwin’s Rhapsody In Blue in Disney’s Fantasia 2000 captured if perfectly. suspenders and fedoras and pocket watches are still common. there’s an underground jazz bar that we could duck into. heck, there' would plenty of jazz bars that we could hop around. and even though I sucks at dancing, I could hang at the back, boozed all night with the trumpets and saxophones and double basses.

inside one of those red brick buildings stood some pianos, I think… my memories are a bit messed up. it was dark. I wasn’t tall enough. but anyway, the topic came up. I said, yes, I learnt the piano. there’s no “pre-music” period in my life. I learnt it as early as I learnt to speak. it’s the best damn thing in my life. I was surprised when he said he learnt the violin, “tennis and violin? those two don’t sound like they go hand in hand.” I completely forgot the whole ‘Asian genius’ thing, you know, be great in maths, be great in a sport, be great in playing a musical instrument, write a computer program at 15 and sell it, fly to the moon, win a Nobel Prize or some prestigious awards, etc. etc.

both our wishes granted, we hopped onto the train. we transited at a station I’ve never been to before and for the first time, the underground didn’t disgust me. rather, I thought this is something. he thought so too. it reminded me of a photo series of when the subway stations in, I don’t know, Ukraine or something, opened to the public for the first time. (couldn’t find it on Google, will add the link if I do). we got onto the train home and at this point I kinda hoped that just like the city, sleep wasn’t a thing for us.

we took a different route back and on our way, he randomly mentioned that his plan when he gets home is to learn tango. I said it’s good, it’s good. being close to thirty and still keen on learning new stuff is admirable. as the Chinese saying goes, “learn as you live.” the night drew to a close as we shared the aforementioned expensive grapes.